Monday, November 18, 2013

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ( 1948 )

The Bob Hope classic, The Cat and the Canary ( 1939 ), was one of the first films to successfully combine comedy with mystery and horror. It was such a hit that Paramount quickly plopped the dynamic duo of Hope and Goddard into yet another comedy horror film, The Ghost Breakers ( 1940 ). These films launched an entire genre of pairing comedy stars in horror films, and of all the movies that emerged from this genre,  none was more popular than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein ( 1948 ).

Universal studios had made their mark in cinema history with their horror classics such as Dracula ( 1931 ), Frankenstein ( 1931 ), The Mummy ( 1932 ), The Invisible Man ( 1933 ), , and The Wolf Man ( 1941 ). These monster movies were so successful that a string of sequels were made for each film. Unfortunately, some of these were not up to par with the originals and by 1946 the producers at Universal sensed that the monster era was coming to a close. Sigh....parting with old ( and prosperous ) friends is such sweet sorrow. 

As early as 1943, Abbott and Costello was toying around with an idea of doing a Broadway show co-starring the famous monsters. Their busy filming schedule at Universal did not allow enough time for the team to mount a live production, but by the late 1940s the ideal opportunity presented itself. Universal embraced the idea of the comedy using the monsters and after several story outlines were developed and discarded ( one by Bertram Milhauser, the screenwriter on numerous Sherlock Holmes films ), an idea by Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees hit home. Everyone was pleased with the new story except for Lou Costello. As producer Robert Arthur recalled, "Lou hated the script. 'My [ five-year old ] daughter could write a better script than this. You're not serious about making it, are you?' he said" 

Yep, they were. Arthur promised Costello his favorite director, Charles Barton, a tidy sum ( Abbott and Costello were paid $105,000 ), and by the time shooting began in early February 1948, Costello had warmed up to the film. 

What was this sure-fire plot? Abbott and Costello play baggage clerks at a Florida railway station. Mr. McDougal ( Frank Ferguson ), who operates the local House of Horrors, is expecting a shipment of large crates from Europe which he wants delivered in person to his wax museum. Before leaving the warehouse, the duo receive a phone call from Laurence Talbot warning them not to deliver those crates. "They must be destroyed!". This is about the only dialogue poor Larry gets to utter throughout the film. Of course, Larry knows best. The crates contain the coffin - and body - of Dracula, as well as Dr. Frankenstein's Monster. 

When Chick and Wilbur unpack the crates at the wax museum that night, Wilbur sees both the Dracula and the Monster come alive. But before he can convince Chick of what is going on, the fiends escape to Dracula's castle ( yes, he had a castle in Florida too evidently! ) where Sandra Mornay ( Lenore Aubrey ) is waiting. Dracula and Miss Mornay, a surgeon, have teamed up to create the ultimate mind-controlled Monster, but...unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who used the brain of an intelligent man in his experimentations with the original Monster, Miss Mornay intends on using the brain of a man much more innocent and ignorant, someone "with no will of his own, no fiendish intellect". Hmm...who's brain could they have in mind for that? 

With the aid of Laurence Talbot, Chick and Wilbur attempt to destroy Dracula and the Monster before they can steal Wilbur's brain. Little do they know that Talbot transforms into a hairy lycanthrope when the moon is full and bright....and there's an awful lot of full moons in this film!

"Chick! Oh Chick, oooh Chick!!" 

Some of the plot gets a bit muddled up during the film but as most A&C fans know, the story always takes a backseat to the dynamic duo's gags. And this flick is chock full of 'em....memorable one-liners, the famous moving candle routine ( recycled from Hold that Ghost ), Bud's customary slaps, and Costello's inimitable fright-takes. Alas, the script left little room for the team to do any of their famous rapid-fire repartee.

Reprising the classic roles that made them famous in earlier Universal Studio outings were Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster.

No one could play the tormented Laurence Talbot as well as Lon Chaney Jr. and there was no doubt that he would accept the part, an opportunity to return to one of his favorite screen roles. Unlike the previous Wolf Man films, Chaney's makeup was applied by Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan. Make-up maestro Jack P. Pierce, who had done work on all the previous Universal classic monster films, was notoriously cantankerous and difficult to work with. His makeup applying techniques were extremely time-consuming, often taking several hours every morning to prepare just one monster. Since this film including several monsters in one scene, the production would have been held up for weeks. Bud Westmore, Pierce's protege, was a pioneer at the more comfortable ( and time-saving ) foam latex technique and Old Wolfie and Dracula never looked as good as they did in this classic comedy. 

As for the Monster....Boris Karloff, who had long since retired from playing the part, refused to reprise his role because he feared the film would be a parody of the empathetic beast he had helped to create. He agreed to cooperate and help promote the final picture but refused to watch it, "I'm too fond of the monster. I'm grateful to him for all he did for me, and I wouldn't like to watch anybody make sport of him". Instead, Glenn Strange took over as the Monster. Strange was the fourth actor to play the man-made human pastiche and had played the role in The House of Frankenstein ( 1944 ) and The House of Dracula ( 1945 ). 

Bela Lugosi, who was slated to revive his immortal portrayal of the sanguinary count after a 17 year absence, harbored the same doubts as Karloff but was relieved upon reading the script, "There is no burlesque for me. All I have to do is frighten the boys, a perfectly appropriate activity. My trademark will be unblemished."

Perhaps it was Lugosi who frightened the comedy duo on screen, but off screen it was quite another story. As director Charles Barton recalled, "There were time when I thought Bela was going to have a stroke on the set. You have to understand that working with two zanies like Abbott and Costello was not the normal Hollywood set. They never went by the script and at least once a day there would be a pie fight. Bela of course would have nothing to do with any of this. He would just glare at those involved with his famous deadly stare and the only emotion he would show physically was one of utter disgust."

Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. enjoyed circulating around the studio in full costume. At the time, Peabody and the Mermaid and One Touch of Venus were in production and it was not unusual for tourists on the Universal backlot tours to spy a few stray monsters meandering around outside the sound stages. 

Production wrapped in just under two months and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein was released on June 15, 1948 to packed theatre houses across America. The film received rave reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter setting the tone when they proclaimed it "a crazy, giddy show that combines chills and laughs in one zany sequence after another". 

Today the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has grown in popularity and transformed into a cult status. The film is sub par to some of Abbott and Costello's earlier hits, but the overall monster theme is such a delight that it has consistently risen to the top of fan's favorites. In 2001, The National Film Registry added the title to their list of films selected for future preservation, deeming it "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant". Even Dracula would have been pleased with this. 

This post is our contribution to the fabulous Chaney Blogathon, a celebration of the legendary Lon Chaney senior and junior who made their mark in horror films of the 1920s-1960s. Check out the complete schedule at The Last Drive-In or Movies Silently to read more great posts on the Chaneys. 


  1. Hey there! Loved the review of this little horror-comedy classic. Interesting to read the contrasting views of Karloff and Lugosi regarding reprising their signature roles. So lovely having you aboard for the blogathon!

    1. Thanks Fritzi, we were glad you were able to squeeze our review in ( last minute as it was ). I can see why Karloff and Lugosi were rather hesitant about making the film, they probably had no idea on how it would turn out and didn't want to find out that they mocked themselves! I'm glad Lugosi took the chance and appeared in the film. It wouldn't have been the same without him and those wonderful hypnotic staring gestures he does so well.