Tuesday, 28 November 2017
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)
The last of Bud and Lou’s riotous collisions with Universal’s vault of horror icons was in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). This seems to have been long overdue in that detours were made after tangling with the big three of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man by way of half-hearted tangling with Boris Karloff, a belated crossing of paths with the Invisible Man and then falling foul of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before seemingly realising they still had one more of the studio’s Hall of Fame to encounter. Admittedly The Mummy as a franchise had dragged its weary soul through enough diminishing quality sequels to understandably seal its own sarcophagus from the inside. However, one last bid was made to create laughs in the midst of fear around Lou’s panicky coward persona and Bud’s overbearing know-it-all.
As we saw in Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there were definite signs of weariness in the duo after almost two decades together and 36 films. (This was to be their penultimate one together before finally calling it a day with Dance with Me, Henry the next year). Lou was still dogged by recurring rheumatic fever which caused him to noticeably lose weight, and Bud now looked heavier than he. Meet the Mummy appears to be the only one of their films where John Grant received sole screenplay credit after all his years of service. Sadly it is a poor showcase for him.
Bud and Lou ,under their stage names, are two pith-helmeted numbskull explorers seeking their fortune in Cairo who get wind of the need for a couple of guys to chaperone the body of Klaris, a mummy who in life guarded the tomb of Princess Ara. His corpse bears a sacred medallion said to point to the location of her fabled treasure. Inevitably the boys become a target for a cult led by a dark, satanic femme fatale (aren’t they all when it comes to our heroes?) Madame Rontru, played betwitchingly by Marie Windsor. In real life she was a protégé of Maria Ouspenskaya, famous for her Gypsy Maleva in The Wolf Man movies. Perhaps a little of the Polish grand dame’s occult flavour was handed down to her almond-eyed student, a character ruthlessly pursuing the medallion for her own gain.
The sinister group will stop at nothing, firstly killing Klaris’s finder Dr Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch). There is a smile-worthy moment when Lou listens to a tape Zoomer made before he death in which he decrees that deaths awaits the acquisitive. “Ohhh” Lou tails off, mournfully in response. Bud and Lou soon realise the deadly import of the trinket after they have the bright idea of trying to sell it in the marketplace to find out its true value. “It’s death to whoever find it!” shrieks one trader. On hearing this, the dunderhead duo feud between themselves in a restaurant set-piece in which they repeatedly conceal it in each other’s hamburgers until Lou eats it with the kind of lingering, to-camera resigned reactions reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.
Madame Rontru’s single-mindedness is so extreme that, when seduction fails, she forces Lou to undertake an x-ray so she can prove the medallion is inside him and then forcibly remove it – to expectedly fatal results. An amusingly surreal gag is the crew’s shaking-up of him that results in the dislodged parts forming ‘HELP’ on the next scan.
The evil lady boss teams up with the balding, sinister Semu (Richard Deacon) who she will blithely double-cross on her way to the treasure. Genre fans may recognise Deacon from the original 1956 Invasion of the body Snatchers and The Birds (1963), but here he subtracts any lustre from his scenes by delivering his lines as though embalmed like his quarry. Also along for the wicked ride is Michael Ansara in one of the early roles that made use of his Syrian colouring to simulate different ethnicities – sometimes playing First Nation parts in Westerns. Later he would find sci-fi fantasy stature as Klingon commander Kang across Star Trek TV franchises: Star Trek (1966), Deep Space Nine (1993) and Voyager in 1995.
With banal villain lines like Semu’s “Two more mice come to nibble at the golden cheese” we can be grateful that the last act at least has some enlivenment and one or two chills in store within the tomb itself that Lou accidentally stumbles into via a secret passage. The set design with its central sarcophagus and wall hieroglyphics is impressively spacious, if uncannily clean and spartan like a modern ballroom.
Lou is terrorised by a flying bat, a mischievous skeleton and a giant process-shot lizard. Eddie Parker, an in-demand stuntman who doubled for Lon Chaney in his earlier Mummy sequels, embodies Klaris and adds more substance to the threat level after he is awakened from slumber. On the rampage he’s fairly convincing - which is more than can be said for his bandaging which is evidently a one-piece suit instead of bound wrapping. Following a lame three-way farce set-up involving a trio of mummies (Klaris, one of the henchman and Bud), Parker may well raise a goosebump or two in the faint-of-heart as he goes after the treacherous Rontru. Bullets are no match for him; ultimately it takes a sizeable wedge of dynamite to blow him up in a death more excitingly rendered than some of the genuine horror endings of the original film series.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is a weak ending to their experiments in horror-comedy hybrids. All too often the movies were cut-and-shut vehicles fused together from disparate elements without due care for roadworthiness. Only Meet the Invisible Man found an artful way to mix genres. There is a sense as well with this last one of the boys’ ongoing struggle with the watering-down of their plots. They had often complained about the preponderance of song and dance ‘interruptions’ insisted upon by Universal; Meet the Mummy shoe-horns in a song by Peggy King and no less than three sneaked-in choreographed dance numbers.
Despite tax problems that later bedevilled them, Abbott and Costello could look back on a monumental run of over twenty years together that conquered every medium they worked in – from theatre to radio, film to television – and at one point made them the most popular and highest paid entertainers in the world...