Saturday, 25 November 2017
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951)
Almost two years after all-too-briefly meeting Boris Karloff on screen in 1949, Bud and Lou’s creative team opted to do another comedy film plundering Universal’s horror back catalogue for inspiration. The Mummy was yet to be excavated, but instead a story was developed by Hugh Wedlock Jr and Howard Snyder centred around The Invisible Man whom you’ll recall made a cheeky, hat-tipping audio cameo via Vincent Price’s voice at the end of Meet Frankenstein (1948). The resulting script welcomed back the team of Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and invaluable house gag-smith John Grant; their first film with the boys since that classic horror-comedy melange three years before, and the more assured tone given to this new one is as transparent as H.G. Wells’ anti-hero. Russian-born veteran comedy director Charles Lamont cut his teeth in churning out silent comedy shorts for the likes of Mack Sennett before later graduating to Universal features. This would be his second for Bud and Lou, going on to helm all their last three horror-tinged ones we will explore.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) benefits from using the most compelling aspect of the sublime 1933 Claude Rains original: his eroding humanity into serum-inspired megalomania. Fans will recall its sly black humour even so, courtesy of masterful director James Whale. As a vehicle for this loud comedy duo though, a less subtle approach was needed to play to their strengths. The clever stroke was splicing the plot to a vigorous genre whose literally knockabout energy suited Bud and Lou’s style: the sports movie. To be specific, the writers used the popular sub-genre of corruption in the boxing world, one they would have seen notably exploited in the recent Body and Soul (1947), The Set-up and Champion (both 1949).
Abbott and Costello – actually named Bud and Lou here - make the acquaintance of a boxer when he is their first client as new graduates of the Dugan Detective School - The acronym D.D.T. a deliberate reference to the controversial pesticide on sale in the U.S. from 1945. Tommy Nelson has broken out of jail and is on the run from the cops as chief suspect in his manager’s murder following a middleweight bout. Arthur Franz is fittingly raw as Nelson, combining the decency of the lead’s pal he played in Invaders From Mars (1953) with the gritty edge of his most famous role, the unhinged homicidal ex-soldier in The Sniper (1952).
Tommy is desperate to prove his innocence, so the boys agree to take him to see his fiancée Helen Gray, the lovely Nancy Guild, and her uncle Dr Philip Gray, a scientist who just happens to be experimenting with a revolutionary invisibility serum. (Though American-born, Gavin Muir’s English education equipped him with a handy British accent for a career of upmarket Hollywood villains.) He supplies a nice name-check and a wall photo harking back to Claude Rains’ John Griffin from The Invisible Man (rather than the gradually weaker sequels) to warn Tommy of the mental instability the serum still causes until a reagent can be created. The frantic Nelson cannot wait that long, and as the police arrive he sends the Grays out to run interference while he self-injects the drug. A further nod to the superior originating film is the sight of Tommy resembling Rains’ iconic bandaged head complete with goggles.
From here on, this spin-off of two worlds is well mined for the visual gag potential of invisibility and the co-opting of boxing physicality for laughs. Verbal gags are thinner on the ground, despite an occasional pleasing turn of phrase such as Lou’s eye-witness account to the cops that Tommy disappeared “in instalments”.
There are some boisterous burlesque-style routines, such as Lou’s subsequent visit to a city psychiatrist (Paul Maxey, better suited to portraying a burly butcher perhaps) who, along with an office full of others, falls under Lou’s reverse hypnosis. There’s a slick sleight of hand sequence where Lou continually pockets their new client’s retainer despite Bud’s best efforts to keep hold of it.
We also see the advancement of special optical effects since the early Thirties by David S. Horsley. He had worked on the last three sequels: The Invisible Man Returns and its jokier follow-up The Invisible Woman (both 1940) plus the espionage war iteration The Invisible Agent (1942). He creates marvellous moments of floating objects, especially some seamless card manipulation by the unseen Tommy during a game.
The transparent fugitive is a great lynchpin for drawing together the funny and the serious elements on offer. On the one hand, Tommy partners Lou in a show-off exhibition at the gym to convince murder-guilty gangster Morgan (Sheldon Leonard, continuing his crime-wave after Zombies on Broadway’s Ace Miller) to pit him in a bout against John Daheim’s Rocky Hanlon. This then sets up Lou’s unlikely porky pugilist in the extended end fight for maximum sight-gags. To the movie’s credit, it meanwhile honours the horror franchise in never forgetting the vital escalating monstrosity building inside Tommy. “I don’t want friends. I want followers” he drunkenly declaims in a club.
The fight clock is ticking. Can Bud and Lou expose Morgan as the one who framed Tommy before their client is KO’d by his inner megalomania? It’s hard to believe that Morgan as written is trusted with anything more demanding than the mob’s laundry, such is his stupidity. Not only does he send ‘Louie the Looper’ a note spelling out a death threat if he doesn’t take a dive (handy evidence for the cops), he even accompanies it with the boys’ $15,000 bribe in advance. His moll Boots Marsden (Adele Jergens), unable to win over Lou either with her siren seductiveness, is understandably deadpan when he tells her he has the syndicate’s entire holdings riding on the match.
We are then given a ring-side seat for an extended climactic bout between the two totally mismatched opponents - sight-gags aplenty capitalising on a comedy scenario dating as far back as silent maestros Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Plot-wise, the hapless Lou simultaneously aims for authenticity, avoids a beating by Hanlon and gets a two-fisted unseen assist by Tommy to actually win, much to Morgan’s eventual self-incriminating rage.
It only remains for Tommy to receive the re-agent in a blood transfusion with Costello that somehow backs up into bestowing invisibility upon the donor. Lou blithely rolls with the punch as gifting him future detective stealth, albeit with an inexplicable back-to-front torso!
Like Brando’s doomed ex-boxer Terry “I coulda been a contender” Molloy in On the Waterfront (1954), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man ultimately had no chance of an awards title-shot - but it comes out swinging, and sometimes with this pair that bruiser spirit goes the distance...