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Monday, 27 November 2017

ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1953)

For their fourth jaunt into horror-comedy mash-ups involving infamous monsters, Bud and Lou’s producers still kept The Mummy on the back incense-burner while they took on another unholy double-act in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953). Although versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s lurid 1886 tale had unleashed man’s inner primitive self on screen since 1908, surprisingly this was only the second time it had been exploited for humour – the first being Stan Laurel’s excellent pre-Hardy solo short from 1925, Dr Pickle and Mr Pryde (see my earlier review). The other more pleasant surprise is the degree of integrity that the Abbott and Costello brand applies to their remake. Theirs is less of a comedy (mainly bereft of laughs, which is a weakness) and more like a straight horror homage with added comedy support – in some ways to its benefit – in a script by Sid Fields partnered with Lee Loeb and the usually dependable John Grant. Fans may be disappointed that one-liner gags are unusually sparse in the resulting script, sacrificed for kinetic physical energy.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the second time the boys were pitted against Universal’s master of velvety menace, Boris Karloff. Intriguingly, the studio’s original choice was Basil Rathbone. Due to his unavailability, house director Charles Lamont suggested Karloff again for a role that would be his first return to full-on monstrosity since working with Rathbone on Son of Frankenstein (1939).  

Such is the film’s keenness to respect Stevenson’s story that Bud and Lou are only in one scene in the first twenty minutes. Instead we are given time to be gradually absorbed into the Hollywood idea of Victorian London with its pea-souper fog, ever-present police ‘bobbies’ and a commendably serious bid to establish the key relationships. The opening in fact goes straight for horror frissons by showing Mr Hyde beating to death eminent surgeon Dr Poole (named after Jekyll’s butler in the novel) with his cane in Hyde Park.

We are then introduced to the romantic lead, reporter Bruce Adams played by an assured Craig Stevens four years before becoming TV’s equally dogged private eye Peter Gunn. He becomes enamoured of suffragette music-hall chanteuse Vicky Edwards (Helen Westcott) which is more than modern feminists will after seeing how they are portrayed here. How are they shown drumming up support for their cause to be taken seriously? Why, by a Folies Bergère cabaret song and dance complete with high-kicking leg show of course!

The meeting soon descends into lowbrow rough-and-tumble when Abbott and Costello arrive as two American cops, Tubby and Slim, learning on the job about British policing. They soon learn they are not cut out to handle excitable public disorder in a riotous set-piece of Keystone Kops-style acrobatic stunt-work matching the unsubtlety of their character names. (This vibe carried over into their next film where they indeed meet Mack Sennett’s force of farce). Meanwhile, Karloff’s highbrow Dr Jekyll, very distinguĂ© in grey hair and moustache, whisks away Bruce and Vicky (his ward) in a carriage ride that allows him time to set out his experimental agenda in a speech delivered in a single close-up: “It is the less fortunate that I want to help. If I can find some way to tame that instinct so that it is always under control -then perhaps we can eliminate bloodshed, violence…” This allowance for detailed exposition is rare in this type of comedy and the substance must have been heartening for Karloff even though it is rather plainly written - and there are clunkier dialogue points to come.

Jekyll’s depth of pondering on man’s duality is a dead giveaway that he is more than just idly theorising. His home features a huge underground laboratory complete with John Dierkes’s hulking mute assistant Batley. Privately Jekyll wrestles with his conscience, tipping off the audience as to his alter-ego - “the embodiment of all that’s evil” - but one whose raw power wins out as being the only way to eliminate the snooping Bruce. The first of Karloff’s two transformations uses conventional dissolve photography by David S. Horsley to morph his face into one of the new technology fitted rubber masks rather than the time-consuming facial prosthetics painstakingly built up when Jack Pierce was in charge. This would have suited the aging Karloff who had endured more than his fair share of make-up chair hardships in the past. Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan augment the bestial element with a porcine snout and fangs to make Hyde resemble a primitive hog. The heavy disguising by the mask-work also pays off during the demanding physicality of Hyde’s rampages, replacing both Karloff (and later Costello) undetectably with stuntmen.

Where the lack of good comic byplay for the boys becomes glaringly evident is in the scenes following this where they pursue Karloff’s Hyde into the music-hall backstage area in a vain attempt to regain their jobs. What was once a frantic trading of Lou’s ‘fraidy-cat badinage with Bud’s frustrated naysaying in their heyday is now reduced to underpowered and thin reactions. Both men seem tired and a little disengaged now after all these years. Even a wax museum sequence only reminds us of their better days: we see effigies of Dracula and an electrically-animated Frankenstein Monster coming to life as briefly as comic interest in the film.

Having said that, as I’ve already intimated, what is comedy’s loss is arguably horror’s gain as the plot is streamlined by the narrative drive of pursuing Hyde and poor Lou’s status as a two-time victim of transformational serums. While the boys investigate Jekyll’s ongoing animal experimentation, including a savagely barking rabbit-dog hybrid, he drinks a potion that turns his head and hands into those of a mouse. To save time (and regrettably laughter potential) he simply sports a costume fur head reminiscent of the Mouse King from The Nutcracker Suite whilst nibbling at lame cheese-related wisecracks.

It’s a good thing the action scenes are well-handled as the verbal connective tissue sometimes hits the floor with a resounding thud. A classic example is Vicky’s confrontation with her shape-changing guardian (who secretly covets her for himself): “Henry, is it true you’ve been experimenting with weird drugs that turn humans into animals?”

Beleaguered Costello barely has time for pest control before his sits on a hypodermic and turns himself into a marauding Hyde doppelganger, thus causing confusion to the cops and, as they say, frightening the horses. At least the fast and furious climax shows off elaborate set designs from Bernard Herzbrun and Eric Orbom on the ground and above the rooftops. All is rendered more or less right with the world once Karloff plunges to his death and a restored Lou reverts back to his innocent self – though like Meet the Invisible Man it is capped with a perplexing gag as for some reason the apprehending officers now chase him off as multiple Hydes!

Overall, Abbott and Costello meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde struggles as schizophrenically as its eponymous horror villain between being a cultivated horror picture and an unsavoury beast of base comedy.

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