Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
"It's a grand new idea for fun"
Two hapless freight handlers, Wilbur and Chick, are asked to dispatch two crates to a local wax museum, allegedly containing the bodies of Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. In the midst of their bumbling behaviour, Dracula is freed and he sets about reviving the Frankenstein monster to act as his servant. In order to make the monster more docile, Dracula decides to implant another brain into it and singles out Wilbur for the host.
After Universal Studios had exhausted their iconic horror monsters by pairing them off against each other in less and lesser films like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, they looked for a new hook in which to breathe new life into their flagging fortunes. At the same time, popular comedy duo Abbott and Costello were beginning to run out of ideas and they too needed a new injection of life to keep themselves on the top of their game (the duo being one of the biggest box office draws of their time and the biggest paid entertainers of the world during the Second World War). Someone came up with the madcap idea of pairing both Abbott and Costello and the Universal monsters off against each other and thus a legacy of comedy crossovers was born.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is quite simply fantastic comedy-horror at its most innocent and delightful, though a sure product of the time period. There are no pretences here. No smut. It is not desperate to make you laugh. It’s all natural, light-hearted entertainment. This is mainly down to the leading pair. Like many successful double-acts, their teaming has a simple set-up: Abbott is the straight man, Costello the buffoon. The two react to each other perfectly, retorting with slapstick, physical comedy or some zippy one-liners. One particular routine that they re-use is one in which Costello sees the monster of the piece but it disappears before Abbott comes along. Then Costello desperately tries to convince Abbott that he’s just seen something horrible but Abbott won’t believe him. It’s a good routine and one which they re-used time and time again. Add in a revolving door, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster to this skit and you’ve got one (or two since the routine is worked twice here) of the best examples of comic delivery from this era.
What is great about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that the script treats the monsters with respect. They are not the sources of the comedy and the butt of the jokes but are portrayed as serious characters. Rather it is the actions and reactions of Abbott and Costello which provide the laughs. The monsters follow on from their previous cinematic treatment: Dracula is manipulative and charismatic, the Wolf Man a tragic figure and the Frankenstein monster as a lumbering giant with an infant mentality. The monsters are given reasonably equal screen time so that you get a decent dose of each one. Whilst some have criticised the portrayal of the monsters here, their dignity was already in shreds after countless low budget sequels and at least Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein gave them a new lease of life, and one of the bigger budgets they'd all had for many a year.
Another really solid move by Universal was to cast the legacy actors back in their famous roles. Bela Lugosi is back as Count Dracula and I was shocked to find that this was only the second time he had played the role of the famous vampire, following on from Dracula in 1931. Dracula is the main villain of the piece, getting slightly more to do than the other monsters throughout the film as a whole but suffering a little towards the finale. Horror legend Lon Chaney Jr, reprises the Wolf Man role but gets little more to do than run around growling in the background most of the time when the other monsters are around. The script could quite easily have worked just as well without him (and in fact save the Wolf Man for a less-crowded sequel where he could be the main focus) but he does get his own individual moments to shine with a few transformation scenes. Having Lugosi and Chaney Jr. reprise their roles adds a touch of class to the film, almost a sign of continuity that Universal were pulling out all of the stops to make this work. To a lesser extent, the inclusion of Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster is also a nod to the serious horror films. Though the role was more famously portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein, Strange had donned the make-up a few times in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the final Universal film to feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man for fifty-six years until the release of Van Helsing. Oddly enough, despite the monsters being consistently paired off against each other in previous films, it is only in this one where the Wolf Man and Dracula physically get involved with each other. Vincent Price 'cameos' at the end of the film as the Invisible Man, thus setting up a future sequel with Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (though, disappointingly, Price wasn't to play the role as he had done in The Invisible Man Returns). See, long before Marvel started setting up their MCU, this idea was already being used to generate audience interest.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a fitting finale to this classic period of vintage horror from Universal Studios, and the overall send-off that the monsters receive here is the perfect kind-hearted tribute to a golden era. Easily one of the greatest comedy-horrors of all time.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Director(s): Charles Barton
Writer(s): Robert Lees (original screenplay), Frederic I. Rinaldo (original screenplay), John Grant (original screenplay)
Actor(s): Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenora Aubert, Jane Randolph
Duration: 83 mins