Thursday, November 26, 2009
ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1953)
The 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon is underway!
During this week, over 100 blogs around the world are posting about the life and art of one of filmdom's most famous fiends, Boris Karloff. Click here to see a complete list of participating blogs at the Frankensteinia site.
Here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we're taking a look at some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…
RATING: ** out of ****
PLOT: A monster has been terrorizing London committing hideous murders. Simultaneously, American policemen Bud and Lou are in England participating in a special exchange program to see how our neighbors across the pond handle law enforcement. By day Vicky Edwards leads a very vocal women’s suffrage movement, confronting men for equal rights. By night, she dances for those very same men in a music hall! An American newspaperman covering the movement falls for Vicky, which angers her guardian, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll has been conducting experiments on what he considers the animalistic rage that resides inside every man. Bud and Lou discover that Dr. Jekyll is really the monster, and after a series of mishaps and misunderstandings work with London’s finest to put Jekyll/Hyde’s rampage to an end.
REVIEW: After recently revisiting “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” for the first time since his childhood, a friend remarked that it was one of the few films from his youth that still holds up.
Bud and Lou’s 1953 horror-comedy entry, “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” was one of my favorites as a child. Watching it again for this Scared Silly project, I’m disappointed to report that it doesn’t hold up. I suppose the best that can be said for this film is that it runs a swift 76 minutes – but that is less attributed to solid pacing than to the fact that there’s not much to the script.
After a quick introduction of the twin terrors that have been visited upon England – namely the murders of Jekyll/Hyde and the bumbling police work of Bud and Lou – the film introduces its very odd suffrage subplot. Of course, there is some real historical backdrop to the movement in both England and America – you can read about the British movement here. What’s odd about its inclusion in this movie is that it actually sets women’s rights back in a completely sexist way. For example, a rally where Vicky makes a rousing speech that ends in a brawl – with her female followers physically fighting the men that have shown up to heckle them! As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we learn soon enough that Vicky is a can-can dancer, entertaining some of the same boorish men in a music hall. It’s hard not to think of the scenario as mirroring a demeaning burlesque show or strip club. Is the handling of this storyline meant to be grand satire of a Swiftian nature or merely a sign of the times in which it was written? Is it merely the result of some ill-conceived scripting by writers who aren’t considering the big picture? No matter what the answer, it just comes off as crass.
In addition to the suffrage unpleasantness, this one also pulls out that old creepy standby of vintage movies, and I don’t mean creepy in a horror movie kind of way: I mean creepy as in an older man, often a family friend or boss or as in this case, a guardian who is infatuated with a much, much younger woman. Karloff brings a lot of slime to his character when he reveals his objections to Vicky marrying the newspaperman. There are three types of Karloff antagonists. There is the misguided but somehow still lovable soul, the nefarious villain who is bad but not totally corrupt, and the completely reprehensible monster. Karloff’s Poelzig from “The Black Cat” fits the rephrensible monster mold as a Satan-worshipping fiend who murders his rival’s wife, kidnaps his child and marries her when she grows up! His Dr. Jekyll also fits this category – his romantic designs on Vicky when he’s supposed to be her surrogate father are just unnerving and repulsive.
So this is supposed to be a horror-COMEDY, right? There isn’t too much good news on that front, either. There are more pratfalls, slapstick and physical gags on display here than usual in an Abbott & Costello picture. It is almost completely devoid of the verbal humor at which they excelled. There are a few comic set-pieces that are pleasant and good for some chuckles, but no laugh-out-loud scenes as in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
In fact, the script is so unsure of itself that it attempts to mine the good will that “Meet Frankenstein” generated, starting with its liberal use of musical passages from Frank Skinner’s score to that classic. When Costello finds himself in a wax museum he encounters life-size, life-like (mechanically animated) figures of his old friends Frankenstein and Dracula. When a decapitated wax head from a guillotine scene ends up in Costello’s hand, he throws it and it lands on a cat, who promptly scoots across the room, making it look like the head is moving of its own accord. When Costello grabs the arm of a wax bobbie hoping he’ll help catch the monster, the arm comes off in Costello’s hand, leading to more frightened screams from Costello. Alas, these are hollow echoes of past horror-comedy triumphs at best. And it’s probably the film’s highlight!
Much of the humor in the film is derived from the old chestnut of nobody believing that Costello “saw what said he saw when he saw it.” The constant transformations of Jekyll into Hyde and back to Jekyll again provide the impetus in this film for nobody believing Costello. He manages to lock Mr. Hyde in a cell but when Abbott and the other authorities arrive, Hyde has transformed back into Mr. Jekyll so no one believes him!
Another highlight finds Costello being transformed into a mouse. It takes quite some time before Abbott notices… and when he does its while the duo are in a pub. Of course, when they tell the head constable about the transformation the constable has a hard time believing them since they just came out of a pub. Undeterred, Bud and Lou sneak back into Jekyll’s lab (a revolving bookcase leads to its entrance, of course), determined to prove their theory, with Abbott grabbing a bottle of wine marked “mousey,” thinking that’s what transformed Lou. In a scene reminiscent of the one in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” where Bud force-feeds Lou alcohol to dilute the poison he (mistakenly) thinks Lou has drunk, Bud has Lou drink the “mousey,” but all that does is make Costello drunk – he doesn’t turn back into a mouse. In fact, before too long his alcohol-impaired mind is imagining Abbott as a mouse!
Like the wax museum scene, there are some laughs here but nothing as grand as seen in “Hold That Ghost” or “Meet Frankenstein” or even “Meet the Killer.” Following this scene, the film just clangs and clatters along, with Lou getting accidentally transformed into a Hyde monster after sitting on a hypodermic needle. The third act’s rooftop scene where characters dodge each other around the outside of a staircase as well as tangling with chimney sweeps has some energy, but leads to an anticlimactic scene of Jekyll falling to his death. Somehow the film manages to end on a high-note with Abbott bringing the transformed Costello into the Inspector. Costello promptly bites four bobbies and the inspector, who all turn into Mr. Hydes.
Karloff is intense as Jekyll, but it’s obvious that a stunt man in makeup is doing his scenes as Mr. Hyde (as is the case when Costello is transformed). This Hyde also is less the calculating fiend of other interpretations of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. Indeed, he is more like a marauding werewolf! Interestingly, unlike most adaptations of the Jekyll/Hyde mythos, it is the Jekyll persona that shows pure malevolence, while Hyde is more a mindless beast.
As for the supporting cast, the newspaperman might as well put on zombie makeup (pre-Romero of course), because bland Craig Stevens is dull as dirt here, sleepwalking through his part. Helen Westcott as female lead Vicky gives an uneven performance as well – sometimes lively, sometimes overly sedate. Reginald Denny, veteran of many movies including a recurring role in the Bulldog Drummond series (and later several appearances on TV’s “Batman” and the film derived from it) is solid as usual as the inspector.
My two star rating is probably a half star too much, and is only granted due to the presence of the title leads. Bottom line: with two bona-fide horror-comedy classics (“Hold that Ghost” and “Meet Frankenstein”), and additional above-average entries in the genre (“Meet the Killer,” “Meet the Invisible Man,” “Meet the Mummy”), you’d do best to skip this one unless you’re an Abbott & Costello completest.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
COSTELLO: “There’s someone in this house who shouldn’t be here… and it’s me!”
COSTELLO: “How do you like that Dr. Jekyll – he turned me into a mouse, that rat!”
BEST GAGS: The aforementioned wax monsters coming to life scene, Costello turning into a mouse, a scene where Costello ends up hanging on a laundry line and the closing gag with the transformed Costello's bite turning the inspector and some bobbies into Hyde monsters.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two folks of note: Clyde Cook, a veteran of several silent comedy shorts and features, and a mainstay of the Bulldog Drummond detective series plays a drunk in the bar here.
Henry Cordon also has a bit here, as he did in "Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion." In that one, he was one of Khalid's henchmen, chasing Bud and Lou thru the marketplace. In addition to onscreen acting, he had a formidible voice-over career. He went on to narrate “Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy,” a TV series which repackaged Lloyd’s comedy shorts and he also handled many of the singing scenes in episodes of "The Flintstones" and ultimately took over the role of Fred Flinstone altogether (particularly in cereal commercials) after Alan Reed passed away. Here he plays an actor.
BUY THE FILM: “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” has been released twice on DVD - once in a 2-disc collection with 7 other A&C movies, and once in a massive collection containing every film A&C made for Universal Studios. The massive collection includes a commentary track about the film. You can order either collection here:
John McElwee on his always delightful Greenbriar Picture Shows blog ponders whether Bud & Lou, having been invigorated and enlivened by performing to live audiences on TV’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” and their own show could really muster much enthusiasm for the warmed-over leftovers the “Hyde” script supplied (especially in light of much more savory twists and turns when they met Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and even Karloff as a phony mystic). I'd have to say I agree with that theory.
Also, as previously mentioned, you’ll want to hunt down a copy of the indispensable book, Abbott & Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo.
You can see the trailer for “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” here:
BE SURE TO JOIN US TOMORROW AS BORIS ONCE AGAIN CO-STARS WITH PETER LORRE AND VINCENT PRICE JOINS THE FRAY IN “THE RAVEN!”