Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Saying goodbye to old friends is one of the hardest things in life to do. Remembering old times and laughing is often the best way to do it. In 1948, Universal Studios (more precisely, Universal International) did just that with old friends Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
As early as 1943, the legendary comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had kicked around the idea of a Broadway show co-starring the famous monsters. However, their busy film schedule did not allow the stage-trained burlesque comedians the time required to mount a live production. A & C were under contract to Universal, who had seen a decline in the box-office popularity of its “Monster Mashes.” The horror-comedy idea was the perfect way for the studio to squeeze the last bit of life out of its famous monsters. Plans for the live show were shelved once and for all, and work began on the film.
Back in the big black cape as the Count was the one and only Bela Lugosi. In addition to the original Dracula seventeen years earlier in 1931, this was the only other time Lugosi played the Count on film. As crazy as it sounds today, Lugosi was not the first choice to play Dracula in A. & C. Meet F, nor in the original Dracula. In fact, he was never the first choice for the role all the way back to his days in a purple lined cape on Broadway. Thankfully, fate intervened and Lugosi was able to close out the character he helped create for Universal.
Unfortunately for moviegoers, Boris Karloff had long since retired from playing the Monster. His concern that the Monster would devolve into a mindless lumbering brute was justified. As played by all but Karloff, the Monster was little more than a gargantuan caricature of the empathetic beast Karloff created. Working actor and western veteran Glenn Strange had been in the bolts since House of Frankenstein and, aside from one scene in which the Monster was played by Chaney, he finished out the creature’s Universal career here. (Reportedly, Strange had broken his foot or ankle and Lon Jr., who’d been the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, donned the green greasepaint one more time.)
Rounding out the titanic trio of terribles was the son of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney Jr. Unlike the other monsters, there was no casting question as to whether Chaney would play the Wolf Man. He and he alone played Larry Talbot in every screen appearance of the Wolf Man and would most likely have beaten up anyone who even mentioned wanting the role.
One familiar Universal name not associated to this film was makeup magician Jack Pierce. Pierce was notoriously cantankerous and difficult to work with. For years, Universal put up with his antics simply because he was the absolute best in the business. Pierce’s technique was methodical and incredibly time consuming. It would take several hours to apply only one monster makeup using his kit materials of cotton and collodion. With films that had multiple monsters, the shooting delay must have been enormous. Enter his protégé, Bud Westmore. Westmore was a pioneer of time-saving (and more comfortable) foam latex appliances. If Pierce had been under contract things might have been different, but after nearly two decades of monster magic for the studio, he was still a salaried employee and was summarily and unceremoniously fired.
The story of our film is cute, even if it’s not terribly clever. Bud and Lou play Chick and Wilbur (Oh Chick! CHIIIIIIIIICK!!), two package handlers in a Florida coastal town. They receive delivery of two crates marked for McDougal’s House of Horrors, a local wax museum dedicated to scaring the pants off its patrons. A phone call from a harried (and soon to be hairy) Larry Talbot in London informs Wilbur the crates contain Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula and “they must be destroyed!” (I think that is the only thing on Lar’s mind the whole movie because that’s just about all he says.)
Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates to the spooky wax museum after hours only to have the “contents” disappear/escape. The particulars of the plot at this point become unimportant as they merely serve as a canvas for Bud and Lou to paint a hilarious portrait of sight gags and fright takes.
There are plenty of unanswered questions in A & C Meet F. Why has Larry Talbot relapsed back into lycanthropy after being cured in House of Dracula? Why is there a gothic castle with a fully stocked mad-science lab in Florida?? What kind of batteries does Dracula put in the electric ring he revives Frankenstein with??? Just be happy in wondering, because looking for too many answers will ruin the film. Remember, it’s Abbott and Costello not Orson Welles. Bud and Lou receive top billing and their names in the title of this film and that’s an important fact to remember. This is a comedy, not a thriller. Longtime A & C director Charles Barton handled the monsters well, but the scares are in place as joke setups, not to send shivers up your spine. Even though you can’t sneeze without moistening a monster, this is not a monster movie, it’s an Abbott and Costello movie with monsters.
In some ways, it’s a sad swan song for the monsters. While they are not made fun of, as Boris Karloff worried they might in this film (another reason he didn’t take part), they certainly don’t have the kind of presentation they did in their original films. They had become two dimensional representations of themselves, more akin to Lou Costello’s impressions of them than the frightening spectacles they once were. The monsters weren’t the only ones slighted in this format. The rapid-fire, quick-witted banter of Bud and Lou’s best bits was largely absent. While the sight-gags are very funny and no one does a fright take better than Lou, the real joy of watching A & C was the verbal sparring. There was simply no room in this crowded script for a bit as wordy as "Who’s On First" and that’s a shame.
Universal had hit gold with A & C Meet F. The film was the second cheapest made by the studio in 1948 but the second highest grossing! A great many learned minds have said that there is but a thin line between horror and humor and the two are inexorably joined. This film’s success certainly gives credence to that idea. Eventually going on to meet a slew of other monsters including the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and “The Killer” Boris Karloff, Bud and Lou delighted audiences throughout the fifties with their Universal horror comedies. The next movie in the series was even hinted at in the final moments of A & C Meet F. A floating cigarette and the disembodied voice of Vincent Price is a hint of what monster comes next!
All things considered, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a triumph of genre-melding and one of the most-loved of A & C’s films and the Universal Monster movies. The biggest problem I have with this movie is that Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em like this anymore. Shoot, until this movie, Hollywood didn’t make ‘em like this at all. Considering that the best horror comedy Hollywood can come up with today is Scary Movie, they might never make ‘em like this again. Thank Glenn Strange’s ghost for DVD!
Lou Costello hated this film, and considered it the worst picture he'd ever made. His mother, however, adored it.