Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – 1948 Universal Pictures. What happens when you mix to comedic legends with three classic monsters? You get a film that introduced many to the Universal Monsters.
As you well know, Universal Pictures has long been synonymous with classic horror. But in 1948 they did something peculiar, they took some of their most famous monsters; The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Dracula, and they placed them in, a comedy…
As of 1945 they had appeared in no less than 14 horror films and had truly become the quintessential embodiment of the characters. But then for three years, from ’45 to ’48, they were absent from film, the closest audiences got to seeing them was 1946’s The She-Wolf of London.
Was Universal finished with its most famous characters? Had they decided to relegate them to the annuls of movie history? Nope, they had a better idea.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had long been fan favorites. Bud’s acerbic overbearing straight man routine balanced against sad sack Lou as the foil combined to make their signature slapstick mixed with pathos legendary. Most of their comedy routines have gone down in history, even if you are unfamiliar with them by name (how? how is that possible?) I bet you’ve heard some of “Who’s on First”, which has the distinction of being one of their most popular and earliest routines. They were stars not only of film but enjoyed stardom in radio and television as well. They were the comic superstars of their day. Universal Pictures recognized that they had a goldmine with the duo (they made 36 films between 1940 and 1956 and were among the biggest stars of WWII) so of course pairing them up with the greatest, though waning, stars of Universal’s monster universe was a no brainer.
Two superstar comedians, three über famous monster movie characters being played by the men who personified the roles, do you begin to see why Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein got the green light?
But maybe you’re still wondering why? Why pair a comedy duo with these monster movie legends. Surely the public didn’t want their most beloved monsters doing shtick? That’s the beauty of the idea. They played the movie totally straight, the laughs come from Bud and Lou’s amazing interaction with each other and the rest of the cast. They kept all the same effects and make-up, done in exactly the same way as in the films that made them the icons we know today. Lon Chaney’s transition into The Wolf Man is classic and just as creepy as it was then. Bela’s piercing gaze over the edge of his cape is the stuff of legend, and Glenn Strange’s innocent but somehow menacing Monster is a sight to behold. And it wasn’t just the visual effects that made this film work. The sheer talent of Abbott and Costello gave the studio the ability to write a film where all the characters could be presented in the way we already knew and loved them. This isn’t Leslie Nielsen’s Dracula from Dead and Loving It, this is Bela Lugosi totally
The plot is fairly simple Bud Abbott, Chick, and Lou Costello, Wilbur, are baggage handlers at a Florida railroad depot and are tasked with delivering two “exhibits” to a local wax museum (“McDougal House Of Horrors”), of course unbeknownst to them these crates contain the real Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. Lawrence Talbot arrives from London and attempts to enlist the two in battling the monsters, between boughts of turning into the Wolf Man, and there’s the subplot (or is it the main plot?) of Dracula and his associate, Dr. Sandra Mornay, scheming to put Costello’s brain in The Monster. But none of that really matters. What does matter is that this film is a collection of some really funny scenes starring two great comedians and a bunch of our favorite Universal Monsters, and it works brilliantly. There are so many great bits all the way to the very last scene which includes a cameo that must be “seen” to be believed.
Obviously Universal knew what it was doing the film grossed 2.25 million in 1948, placing it firmly in the center of the pack of that years films, a year in which movie-goers were treated to Key Largo, Call Northside 777, Bab
Universal would go on making great monster movies well into the 1950’s. And though most would be relegated to B-Movie status every couple of years they would return to this formula, giving Bud and Lou another monster to react to, the Invisible Man, Jekyll and Hyde, and The Mummy all received the treatment and though “Meet Frankenstein” was definitely the best of the bunch this habit of pairing comedy and horror definitely inspired studios throughout the years to loosen up a bit and let the two genres play off each other.
A side note. Many of us who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s have this film to thank for something pretty amazing. Unless you lived in a home that housed horror movie fans, which I did not, this was probably your introduction to what we now think of as “Dracula”. I know it was for me. And it stuck with me. I can honestly say that my very first monster movie nightmare was Bela Lugosi’s Dracula stalking down the hall toward my bedroom. I was so scared that I actually jumped out of bed, ran through the very hall I thought he was in, and dove into my parent’s bed. Well done, Universal. From that moment on you had a fan for life.
Have you watched Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think…