Tuesday, 21 November 2017
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
In June 1948 Bud and Lou made a comedy horror film that managed to single-handedly revive not just their fortunes, but those of their studio’s languishing monster icons. Although Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the brain-child of producer Robert Arthur, the boys themselves had considered a horror team-up with Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman as far back as around 1943 which would have pre-dated Universal’s two botched serious attempts to combine them in what became a kind of ‘King of the Ring’ tawdriness. The format would have been a Broadway show playing to their preferred live audience, but at that point they didn’t have the time to develop it.
By 1948, their studio Universal had already shelved its creature features and Abbott and Costello were similarly finding their usual comedy vehicles were running out of steam. Arthur pondered how to refresh their brand with his writers when it struck him that they could have the duo tangle with Frankenstein’s Monster. Gradually the team of John Grant, Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees all chipped in ideas: a plot motive could be that the huge behemoth had now grown too dangerously intelligent to serve an evil master - and who better to provide a more suitably backward brain than Lou’s dim-bulb comedic character? Perhaps the leathery-winged Dracula could be flown in as owner of the body and the Wolfman, with his soulful, tortured alter-ego could warn them of impending danger. It all fitted, and the beauty of it was that Universal still owned the copyright on all these former cash cows.
Initially the script was not to Abbott and Costello’s liking; Lou in particular didn’t find it funny enough. After this was fine-tuned, next came the all-important casting. Lon Chaney (Jr) was the assured choice for Lawrence Talbot/The Wolfman, continuing his proud sole ownership of the character on screen for the fifth time. Dracula however proved a case of history repeating itself agonisingly for Bela Lugosi. Once again he had to suffer the indignity of Universal weighing up a replacement – in fact the same actor. Back in 1931, despite originating the role on Broadway Lugosi had to wait while the studio pondered Ian Keith for the movie version. Such was Lugosi’s evident desperation that this sadly established a weak bargaining position from which his career choices never recovered. To be fair to Universal, by 1948 the Hungarian horror star was a long-in-the-fang 66 years old, but his association with the role was firm in audience’s minds even after just the 1931 Dracula film due to regular money-spinning theatrical tours of it over the years.
For the part of the Monster, there was no way Karloff would agree to return to the part. He had already retired from the role after three physically tortuous incarnations – although he did agree to help publicise the new movie. Instead, the safe option was to re-use Glenn Strange who had already played the part in the last two sequels House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), albeit crowbarred into brief, rushed cameos bringing the house down. As a former prolific Western actor, Strange had in fact worked with Bud and Lou the previous year in their oater The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap.
It was make-up supremo Jack Pierce who had spotted Strange’s physical potential for the Monster whilst applying scarring to him for a Western. More than his 6ft 6-inch height, he possessed a facial bone structure that Pierce thought ideal for the Creature. Sadly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein would not benefit from Pierce’s pioneering talent. He was unceremoniously dropped from Universal after twenty years to make way for Bud Westmore of the famed Westmore make-up family dynasty. The studio felt that Pierce’s painstaking prosthetics, ground-breaking in the Thirties, were now deemed too costly and time-consuming for their future productions. Westmore would in turn be a pioneer in their use of foam rubber which, in the case of the Monster’s head construction, reduced the application time from four hours or more to roughly one and a half. Whilst this obviously suited actors like Strange needing detailed work, one disadvantage was the discomfort caused by rubber’s inability to absorb collected sweat under the strong lights, something that Pierce’s cotton and collodion materials could achieve.
Off-screen conflicts aside, the actual filming of Meet Frankenstein was a merry affair by all accounts. Abbott and Costello had established a good relationship by now with director Charles Barton and pranks aplenty were encouraged to keep the required energy levels up amongst cast and crew. The set even had its own resident professional clown Bobby Barber on hand to cause mayhem with pies, squirted soda syphons etc. The documentary Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters features him in some priceless outtakes including one where Lugosi makes one of his grand entrances down a staircase, not realising that a black-shrouded Barber follows mischievously behind him, waiting to blow the take.
Moving on to the execution of the film, it soon becomes clear how much it departs from previous entries and learning from past mistakes. There’s a knowing shift in style catering toward the younger audience that Abbott and Costello brought with them - the opening credits depict cartoon versions of the monsters pursuing frightened skeletons of our heroes. The morphing of Dracula between bat and vampire is rendered as confident and deliberate animation instead of looking like the lazy spot effect fill-in of before. The pace is bright and the gags played fast and loose with plenty of great one-liners. Tonally, there’s a pleasing balance between the boys’ familiar shtick and performances by the horror stars gauged for a surprisingly serious edge to bounce the gags off.
Having Chaney’s lugubrious lycanthrope on board immediately grounds the plot. Never an actor hired to radiate unconfined joy, he opens the film already with a grim agenda. From London, Lawrence Talbot calls a railway office in Florida to impress on them that on no account must two huge crates be delivered to their destination, a wax museum called The McDougal House of Horrors. He knows they contain the bodies of Lugosi’s Dracula and Strange’s Frankenstein Monster. Unfortunately the call is taken by the world’s most incompetent baggage-handler double-act of Chick Young and Wilbur Grey (Abbott and Costello) who have enough trouble negotiating their daily work, what with Chick’s characteristic severe bullying and Wilbur alternating between the wheezing, cowardly man-boy and harmless insolence toward authority figures like Frank Ferguson’s weaselly McDougal. Inevitably time is against Talbot and before he can make Wilbur understand the urgency, that pesky full moon turns him into an excellent Werewolf incarnation.
Lou’s lovable persona is so ingrained by now that it doesn’t seem totally inconceivable that he becomes quite the unwitting ladies’ man. On the one hand, there is the darkly sexy Dr Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert, who would also apply her Slovenian charm to the team’s next outing with Boris Karloff). She secretly covets his low-wattage brain for her transplant work with Lugosi upon Strange. Later, he will be easily be suckered by another self-serving professional, Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) an undercover insurance investigator. Val Lewton fans will recognise Randolph from tangling with aggressive female felines twice in the Cat People films.
McDougal insists on the bungling Wilbur and Chick personally delivering the precious cargo to his museum’s basement, which sets up the fraidy-cat Wilbur exasperating Chick in one of the duo’s most famous recycled routines – ‘the Moving Candle’ – from 1941’s Hold that Ghost. Here, instead of a phantom-powered candle-stick, what moves it is Lugosi’s silent uprising from the wooden crate as Wilbur quakingly reads from the Dracula legendry. “Oh Chii-iiick!” splutters Wilbur, constantly calling back his partner in a variation on the ‘He’s behind you’ ghost sketch familiar as well to British pantomime audiences.
Lugosi’s appearance this early on, along with his reactivation of Strange’s Monster when alone, marks another improvement over the House Of sequels. Part of their failure was in not integrating their Horror Hall of Famers properly into the story; both movies side-lined Dracula (House of Frankenstein even killing him off at the end of the first act, leaving what was left as effectively a separate film) and kept the Monster strapped to a gurney for solely a literal, last-minute rampaging climax before the end. Here, all three icons are seen in the first twenty minutes in a more satisfying bid to involve each as actively as possible.
Masquerading as Dr Lejos, Lugosi’s Dracula is positioned with much more to do as the instigator of a Costello-minded Monster with “No fiendish intellect to oppose his master”. His return to subtler playing is assisted by the support of better material, careful direction and the backing of a somewhat more credible budget than he’d had to endure in Poverty Row flicks – around $800,000, still low enough for the $3.2m box–office result to make it the second-highest hit for the studio that year.
Though the white foundation make-up and dark lips given to him are a touch too strong, reminiscent of Twenties silent movie actors, Lugosi imbues the Prince of Darkness with imperious power amidst the laughs. What campery there is surrounding him is more down to circumstance than his performance – (the sight of him in full Dracula evening-dress working laboratory equipment is an incongruity that no actor could really sell). He also gets to have fun by applying sly nuances to lines, such as when coveting Wilbur: “What we need today are young blood – and brains”.
Sandra too practically salivates over his potential: “So full-blooded, so round, so firm…”
Lou especially benefits from the contrast between his explosive antics and the lower-key acting of his co-stars. Chaney’s desperate gravity is a perfect foil for his irreverence, as in the oft-quoted exchange where Talbot tries in vain to tell him of the immense danger he poses when transformed:
“In a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf!
“You and 20 million other guys!”
The climactic revitalisation of the marauding Monster is probably the film’s most stunning change of mood when Strange picks up Sandra and hurls her body brutally through the laboratory window. Rarely has a comedy film switched gears to horror beats so powerfully. As in the far superior Young Frankenstein (1974), when horror or quiet poignancy are reached for and succeed, those serious elements are amplified all the more than if embedded in a straight genre picture.
That’s not to say Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ever forgets that it’s ultimately a knowing crowd-pleaser. A lovely verbal in-joke is saved for the end, introducing a fourth Universal chiller into the mix: the distinctive, disembodied tones of Vincent Price briefly reprising his voice as anti-hero Geoffrey Radcliffe from The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Though he was not seen (or unseen) in 1951’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man, fans of all ages can enjoy his brief cameo closing a first chapter in the new adventures of a comedy team about to face even more very familiar foes…