Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein [retro review]

“I must say, my dear, I approve very highly of your choice. What we need today is young blood, and brains.”

The Scoop: 1948 G, directed by Charles Barton and starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Bela Lugosi

Tagline: Jeepers! The creepers are after Bud & Lou!

Summary Capsule: Slapstick vaudeville performers meet classic movie monsters… you know, same old same old.

Drew’s Rating: Gosh, I never meet hot insurance inspectors…

Drew’s Review: By the mid to late 1940s, monster movies were on their way out. The horror icons that shocked audiences a decade earlier had lost their power to frighten in the wake of the real-life terror of World War II. What was the subtle menace of Dracula when compared with Hitler’s lunatic machinations? Who could be frightened of the Mummy when any day might bring a telegram heralding the death of a husband, or father, or son? No, horror was dead, not to be seen again until the ’50s brought us bug-eyed aliens, radioactive giants, and Elvis Presley movies.

And yet… while looking for a vehicle for comedians Bud Abbott (the thin one) and Lou Costello (the fat one), someone at Universal hit on a crazy idea: trot out the “Big 3” monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman) for one last hurrah, this time paired with the comedy duo. One can imagine the rationale was something to the effect of, “Well, why the hell not?” Naturally there was skepticism. Putting serious horror characters in a comedy? Costello almost walked, famously claiming his little girl could write a better script, while Boris Karloff refused to do a film he felt would rob Frankenstein’s Monster of his dignity. But in spite of all the obstacles in its way, not only did the movie get made… it was actually good. Who would have thought?

Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello) are baggage clerks tasked with delivering two crates to MacDougal’s wax museum… crates which so happen to contain Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the inanimate Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange). Despite the best efforts of Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) to intercept and destroy them, the crates are delivered and promptly disappear. Jailed for suspected theft, Chick and Wilbur are freed by insurance investigator Joan, who hopes wooing Wilbur will reveal where they’ve stashed the crates so her company won’t have to reimburse MacDougal. But Wilbur’s other girl, Sandra, is secretly in league with Dracula and plans to revive the Monster with a more pliable, docile brain… which is to say, Wilbur’s. As the players come together, Talbot does his best to help; but with a full moon on the horizon, his furry alter ego may wind up doing more harm than good.

What makes the movie work is that the filmmakers achieve that elusive balance between comedy and horror. Yes, Bud and Lou clown around as always, but Lugosi and Strange and Chaney play the monsters completely straight, which heightens rather than diffuses the humor; it’s a tactic used to great effect in later movies like Airplane!, tossing comedic situations at strictly serious characters. That’s a risky gambit with a high likelihood of failure, but clever writers and talented actors can really sell it, and A&CMF has both. Despite occasional cheesy moments (the Wolfman continually leaping at — and missing — Wilbur, who remains oblivious to his presence), the horror/comedy formula succeeds admirably. I doubt any modern audiences will really be scared, but the emphasis back then was on atmosphere and subtle dread, not abject terror. As for the humor, it’s a different style than we’re used to, more vaudevillian pratfalls and one-liners, but no less amusing for it.

A&CMF is a spoof, so naturally it doesn’t carry the gravity or pathos of some of its predecessors. Thus, it will always have detractors who don’t consider it part of the “official” Universal monster canon. But surprisingly few, as most people seem to view it the same way I do: as a fun tribute by filmmakers and actors who loved the characters and wanted to give them a proper sendoff while still meeting the changing tastes of audiences. It’s easy to look back now and wish for a darker finale to the monster franchise, but not only would it not have worked in the post-war era, that’s the line of thinking that gave us Van Helsing. Instead the filmmakers opted to go in a lighter direction without robbing the monsters of their dignity, a choice much more reminiscent of The Monster Squad. And given the option between Van Helsing and The Monster Squad… well, which would you rather watch?

Yeah, me too. Give A&CMF a shot this Halloween season; you won’t be disappointed.

Lou, man, I'm serious- just kick him in the nards. Trust me.

Intermission!

  • Despite playing many roles in Universal horror pictures, including Ygor the hunchback in two Frankenstein films, Bela Lugosi is best known for his portrayal of Dracula. Ironically, he played the character only twice on screen — after the original Dracula in 1931, he was replaced by John Carradine in subsequent sequels. When the part of Dracula was being cast in A&CMF, reportedly the studio actually thought he was dead. His agent found out about the film, called the studio head, and said “He IS Dracula! You owe this role to Lugosi.” Guess they agreed. Upon his actual death in 1956, Lugosi was buried in a cape from one of his many stage performances as the Count.
  • This became the first in a long line of “Abbott and Costello Meet…” films where the duo interacted with popular Universal characters, including the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Though Boris Karloff disliked the concept of A&CMF (and in his 60s, was getting too old to portray Frankenstein’s Monster anyway), he donned the makeup one last time to appear in publicity shots for the film at a theater in New York, despite not actually being in the movie.
  • The scene where Wilbur unknowingly sits on the Monster’s lap had to be reshot multiple times because the director encouraged Costello to improvise and he did… to the point where Glenn Strange couldn’t stop laughing.
  • Was it common practice in the ’40s to just, uh… swap girlfriends? You’d think they were talking about baseball cards.
  • Glenn Strange tripped over a cable and broke his ankle during filming, so Lon Chaney Jr. fills in as Frankenstein’s Monster in one scene.
  • Though it’s popularly known as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” the film’s official title as it appears on screen is “Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
  • During one scene, Dracula’s reflection can clearly be seen in a mirror.
  • Wilbur actually gets hit in the face when the Monster punches through a door, because Costello was standing too close to his mark.
  • Aside from the “Big 3,” one other Universal monster makes a cameo in the final scene, played by Vincent Price.

Groovy Quotes

    Chick: I can’t understand that dame. All the guys around here, and that classy dish has to pick out a guy like you.
    Wilbur: Well what’s wrong with that?
    Chick: Go look at yourself in the mirror sometime.
    Wilbur: Why should I hurt my own feelings? 

    Chick: Listen, you’re makin’ enough noise to wake up the dead.
    Wilbur: I don’t have to wake him up, he’s up!

    Dracula: I don’t want to repeat Frankenstein’s mistake and revive a vicious, unmanageable brute. This time the Monster must have no will of his own, no fiendish intellect to oppose his master.
    Sandra: Well, my dear Count, I believe I have exceeded your fondest wishes. The new brain I have chosen for the Monster is so simple, so pliable, he will obey you like a trained dog.

    Wilbur: I’ve always shared with you.
    Chick: That you have!
    Wilbur: If I had two cigarettes, I’d give you one.
    Chick: That’s right!
    Wilbur: And if I had two pair of shoes, I’d give you a pair.
    Chick: Don’t I know that?
    Wilbur: And if I have two girls…
    Chick: Well?
    Wilbur: Why don’t you light that cigarette, put on those shoes and take a walk for yourself?

    Chick: You know the old saying, everything comes in threes? Now suppose a third girl should fall in love with you.
    Wilbur: What’s her name?
    Chick: We’ll say her name is Mary.
    Wilbur: Is she pretty?
    Chick: Beautiful.
    Wilbur: Naturally, she’d have to be.
    Chick: Now you have Mary, you have Joan, and you have Sandra. So to prove to you that I’m your pal, your bosom friend, I’ll take one of the girls off your hands.
    Wilbur: Chick, you’re what I call a real pal… you take Mary.

    Dracula: I must say, my dear, I approve very highly of your choice. What we need today is young blood, and brains.

    Talbot: I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but… in a half an hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.
    Wilbur: You and 20 million other guys.

    Sandra: Don’t you know what’s going to happen now?
    Wilbur: I’ll bite.
    Sandra: Oh no… I will.

    Wilbur: Frankie, I’m tellin’ ya it’s a bad deal… I’ve had this brain for thirty years and it hasn’t worked right yet. Ask me how much 1 and 1 is, Frankie… go ahead, ask me! I don’t know.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Frankenstein
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
  • The Monster Squad
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Monster Squad « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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