Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Abbott & Costello Meet the Frankenstein Monster...and Dracula...and the Wolf Man*

Lou sits on the Frankenstein Monster.
Ask a classic movie fan to name their favorite comedians and I suspect only a few would list Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. More likely answers might be Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. And yet, the legacy of A&C is significant. They are often credited with singlehandedly saving Universal from bankruptcy in the 1940s. The duo was a Top 10 box office attraction for almost a decade and their comic routines influenced countless other comedians. Heck, the “Who’s on First” sketch from The Naughty Nineties has played in a continuous loop in the Baseball Hall of Fame for years.

Lou writes a note...not realizing who's
in the background.
The Library of Congress added one of their pictures, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, to the National Film Registry in 2001. That’s appropriate since it’s one of the team’s finest efforts, casting them as shipping clerks Chick (Bud) and Wilbur (Lou), who receive two mysterious crates en route to McDougal’s House of Horrors. It turns out that one crate contains Dracula’s coffin and the other the Frankenstein Monster. It’s not long before Count Dracula and the Monster relocate to a nearby castle with Larry Talbot—aka the Wolf Man—and a female insurance investigator in hot pursuit.

This was Lugosi's second--and final--
appearance as Count Dracula.
The film’s premise is wonderfully wacky: Dracula has recently experienced difficulty with controlling the Frankenstein Monster, so he wants to replace the Monster’s brain. Dr. Sandra Mornay (a female mad scientist—a nice touch) has chosen Wilbur’s brain because of its simplicity. When Wilbur discovers Dracula’s plot, he quips: “I've had this brain for thirty years. It hasn't done me any good!”

Loosely structured, A&C Meet Frankenstein allows Bud and Lou to recreate some of their most famous comic routines, specifically the moving candle and the revolving door. The former goes on too long, but the latter is a stellar example of perfect comic timing. Lou accidentally discovers a secret revolving door that leads from a passageway to a room containing Dracula and the Monster. Lou returns to the passage to fetch Bud, but as they pass through the revolving door, Drac and the Monster go into the passage—so Bud never sees them. And that’s just the start of the routine. Silly? No doubt. Funny? Most definitely.

One of the film’s strengths is that Bela Lugosi (as Dracula) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (Larry Talbot) play their roles straight. Honestly, it must have been a challenge to keep a straight face in some of the scenes with Costello, such as these two exchanges:

LARRY TALBOT: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.

WILBUR: You and twenty million other guys.

Later in the film, Larry approaches Lou, who has agreed to go to a masquerade ball with both Dr. Mornay and the insurance investigator.

WILBUR: I've got a date. In fact I've got two dates.

LARRY TALBOT: But you and I have a date with destiny.

WILBUR: Let Chick go with Destiny.

Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.
A&C Meet Frankenstein was a big hit for Universal and led to several spooky follow-ups: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (1949); Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951); Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953); and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). The first two “sequels” were well-done comedies, but the formula started to wear thin by the time the boys encountered Dr. Jekyll (though even Meet the Mummy has its moments).  After that, they only made one more film (1956’s Dance With Me, Henry) and then dissolved the team for good. Costello died three years later.

There are classic horror fans who grouse that A&C Meet Frankenstein sounded the death toll for Universal’s classic monsters. That’s simply not true. The monster movie extravaganzas House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) already proved that Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster had lost much of their appeal. They could not be relied upon to draw audiences individually—only when combined together. The studio needed a different kind of creature and eventually found just that in the early 1950s with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

By the way, it’s worth noting that the Frankenstein Monster speaks in A&C Meet Frankenstein. I believe his dialogue consists of one word…when he responds to Dracula with: “Master.” If memory serves, the Monster only speaks in two other Universal movies, the acclaimed Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1940). Glenn Strange played the Monster in the A&C movie, his third appearance after donning the make-up earlier in both House pictures. The 6' 6" Strange went on to play Sam the bartender, who worked at Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon in TV’s Gunsmoke.

Abbott and Costello Meet Franenstein is certainly one of the duo’s best comedies, along with Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), and The Time of Their Lives (1946). It sometimes pops up on television around Halloween, but it makes for an amusing evening’s entertainment any time of year.

* The Invisible Man makes an "appearance," voiced by Vincent Price, in the final scene.

6 comments:

  1. There's speculation that Karloff was asked to recreate the Monster here, thereby uniting all three actors in their signature roles. Seems unlikely, considering his salary and physical condition. Plus his refusal to parody the character. He did paid publicity for the film, since many moviegoers thought he was "Frankenstein" here anyway. Not only is the film funny, it's also scarier than most straight Universal's, and Lugosi's biting of the female doctor surprisingly erotic.

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  2. I am a huge fan of this movie! The revolving door is hysterical, and the famous quip about being a wolf never loses its laugh. If I were asked for favorite classic comedians, my vote would have to be for Abbot and Costello, along with Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope and Sophie Tucker ... great review, Rick...

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  3. In the version I read, Universal didn't want Bela Lugosi in this picture; they had another actor signed for Dracula (Ian Keith, according to some). The feeling was that Lugosi was too deeply stuck in Poverty Row, and that his drug problems (well-known in Hollywood) might affect production.
    Stories vary as to who exactly shoved Lugosi down Universal's throat (several people who claim to have been Bela's "manager/agent" at the time have claimed credit), but the fact remains that this was Lugosi's last film at a major studio, before his re-exile to Poverty Row.

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  4. Research has shown Lugosi was always first choice here, despite any self-serving claims otherwise. He was considered for The Count instead of John Carridine in an earlier film, but had stage commitments. Ironically, he's so much better here than his first time at the role.

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  5. I'm tempted to say that this is the greatest movie ever made (OK, I DID say it). I'd also recommend it to anyone to take along when going to be shipwrecked on a desert isle. It's that good.

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  6. Love the castle setting, the great revolving door scenes, and the wonderful banter of Lou and Bud!

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