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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Retro Review: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

“You don’t understand—in a half hour the moon will rise, and I’ll turn into a wolf…”
“You and 20 million other guys.”

There are the great horror films, and there are the great comedies. But great horror comedies? Films that work equally well as both, and can scare you and make you laugh in equal measure? Few and far between. Possibly the first really great one, and for many still the best, would be the 1948 timeless classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. All these decades later, and it can still leave us in stitches, while delivering a healthy dose of authentic Universal monster madness. The fact that this movie even happened both was and is a gift to movie fans of all ages.

By 1948, both Abbott & Costello and the Universal monsters, two cash cow franchises for the legendary studio, were sort of on the ropes. Bud and Lou had made their name at the studio during the war years, but the act was starting to wear thin with audiences. As for Dracula, Frankenstein and the gang, they were far removed from their halcyon days of the 1930s and early ‘40s, having been reduced to flimsy team-up flicks for kids.

So what did the powers-that-be at Universal decide to do, but cross the two franchises, in one of the most inspired movie mashups ever conceived. Lon Chaney Jr. may have later condemned the film as the death knell of the classic monsters, but the hindsight of film history has revealed it as a beloved gem that, rather than tarnish the reputation of the monsters, has kept their legacy alive for generations.

In short, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is the perfect “gateway movie” for getting children into horror. I should know; I used it in exactly that way for my own kids. It’s hilariously funny on a level that can be appreciated by people of all ages, and the creep factor is there in copious amounts, especially for young children not too familiar with horror in general. It causes chills and laughter in equal measure, as we watch Bud and Lou mix it up with some very scary individuals.

In the end, that’s what makes the movie work so well. Neither franchise is compromising its integrity. Abbott & Costello are doing what they do best, getting into ridiculous situations and doing the whole straight man/childish fat guy routine. In fact, this film is probably their funniest moment, in a movie career that spanned nearly two decades. As for the Universal monsters, they are playing themselves here. There’s no campy hamming-it-up going on. Although Bela Lugosi’s Dracula may feel a bit different than his 1931 interpretation, he is playing Dracula to the hilt—just as Glenn Strange is playing the Monster, and most impeccably, Lon Chaney Jr. is playing Larry Talbot. I defy you to find any difference between the Talbot here and in any of his previous appearances. There is no “winking at the camera” on the part of him, Lugosi or Strange.

The perfect blend of horror and comedy make this, for my money, one of the most downright fun movies ever made. There are so many unforgettable set pieces here—particularly the predicaments the hapless Lou constantly finds himself in; from accidentally sitting in the Monster’s lap, to the scene in Talbot’s hotel room with the fruit bowl. And of course, the scene most people remember from this movie, in which Lou first encounters Dracula at the House of Horrors, all the while trying breathlessly to explain it to an incredulous Bud. This is effortless, timeless comedy from two masters, and best of all, is so true to the material that you can honestly imagine that this is what would happen if Abbott & Costello were to encounter Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man.

Costello cracked up Strange so much during this
scene that it had to be shot numerous times.

We get Lugosi in his only other film appearance as Dracula after his first iconic turn in 1931. That alone is enough to recommend the film! We get an excellent score from Frank Skinner—so good, in fact, that it would be lifted outright for future A&C movie installments. We get a rip-roaring monster-laden finale that is the perfect payoff for all the insanity that has come before. And, at the risk of “spoiling” a 65-year-old movie, we get an unforgettable final-shot cameo by Vincent Price as the voice of the Invisible Man! What more can you possibly ask for?

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein succeeded in redefining both franchises. Going forward, the A&C series continued trying to recapture the new formula. The series took on a decidedly fantastical slant that was very different from the releases of the early ‘40s, pairing the comedy duo up with other monsters and villains like the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and even “The Killer, Boris Karloff”. It may have been a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that kept the act going for nearly another decade. As for the Universal monsters themselves, this film became their last appearance for the studio. But it needs to be said that it also reinvented them for a whole new generation of young moviegoers, and helped give rise to the kitschy “Monster Kid” culture of the ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond, raising the studio’s creations to the level of pop culture gods.

Personally, the film brings me back to those lazy Sunday afternoons of my youth, spent with family, food and syndicated New York television. If you’re a fan of classic horror, I encourage you to check it out. Particularly, this movie is a joy to watch with young children. If you don’t have your own, go and steal someone else’s—it’s worth it. I screened it at one of my kids’ Halloween parties, and few sights in my memory will ever match the sight of a room full of initially skeptical 7-10 year olds, falling out of their seats with laughter and yelling at the screen in comic frustration. 

I’m so glad the world of Abbott & Costello and the Universal monsters crossed paths, and I enjoy revisiting it whenever I can. Give it a try, and I think you’ll be hooked as well.

And if you ever wanted to catch this gem on the big screen, then you’re in luck! I’ll be screening it on Thursday, December 27, as part of my BEDLAM AT THE BIJOU series at Bridgeport’s Bijou Theatre. I hope you’ll join me for BEDLAM AT THE BIJOU: Scared Silly, in which I’ll be pairing this movie up with another classic Universal-themed comedy, Young Frankenstein. Check out the Facebook page for more info, or the official Bijou website!


Keir said...

Terrific review! It helped that Lugosi was on top form. And there was terror, as well- think of the monster throwing that woman out the window, or end up being burnt alive...
The only A&C film I can stand, and I think it's a cinematic treasure.

Jose Cruz said...

Man, I have great memories of my grandparents getting this from Blockbuster for us to watch for a sleepover there. I actually think this was the first time I saw any of the Universal monsters in film and it was so much fun. I never considered the point you brought up about the monsters "playing it straight" before... how refreshing that would be to integrate into contemporary horror comedies.

Also, when I saw this link come up, the very first thing that came to my mind was the quote you started the review with. Cracks me up every single time.

B-Sol said...

Keir, while I happen to be a big A&C, I do agree (as would most) that this was their best. Good scares too, as you pointed out.

Jose, your comment brought back a lot of nostalgic memories for me. Where would any of us be without wise old family members who introduced us to the good stuff? As for playing it straight, those really are the best of the horror comedies--this is why I also think ROTLD works so well.

Anonymous said...

Had the same experiences - growing up in New York and watching on Channel 13. Truly a classic.

B-Sol said...

I'll never forget it! And you're going back even before my time--Channel 13 was already turned to PBS when I was a kid.

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