‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948) – Doing the Universal Monster Mash

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Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)
Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)

Back in 1948, when horror films had just about reached their peak of popularity after so many low-budget vehicles starring the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy, Universal Pictures decided on a revival strategy of reuniting their patented movie monsters with their most successful comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Thus, the engaging romp known as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came into being, and how thankful we are, too. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price, this hilarious “creature feature” became Bud and Lou’s most financially lucrative venture.

The plot involves two scatter-brained railway porters, Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Costello), finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is intent on reviving the weakened Monster for his own fiendish purposes. Toward that end, he enlists the aid of sexy scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s pliable brain into the Monster’s body (yikes!).

Before this nightmare can take place, however, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-fidgety Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that inopportune moment to transform into (you guessed it) the hirsute Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end.

Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolfman (ebay.com)
Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man (ebay.com)

Riotous farce with great special effects for the period (thanks to makeup artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan) amid the studio-bound sets, the film’s zany script underwent multiple changes to story line and plot, until finally arriving at a fairly pleasing balance between slapstick comedy and out-and-out horror. It may have sounded funny to their fans, but Costello himself remained dubious of its worth — until an added enticement of a $50,000 studio bonus made Louie see the “light,” so to speak.

As a matter of fact, the opening animated sequence, where skeletal versions of Bud and Lou appear alongside cartoon silhouettes of the movie’s monsters and Dr. Mornay, as well as the scenes of Dracula’s amazing transformations into a bat (and vice versa), were all done by Walter Lantz, who was best known as the animator of Woody Woodpecker.

The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black caped career. It’s hard to tell if his pasty-faced countenance was due to makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy “biopic,” Ed Wood).

The so-called rapport, unfortunately, was plainly one-sided. According to Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays and was, by all accounts, Lou’s preferred director of mayhem, Lugosi was not at all amused by their on-set antics, which included all-night poker games, pie throwing, exploding cigars, practical jokes, improvised line readings, and general misbehavior and mischief.

Bud & Lou in Dracula's cellar
Bud & Lou exploring Dracula’s cellar (“Broom closet?”

The appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, a hands-down favorite of movie fans, was reused innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk (who was Costello’s brother-in-law, by the way) also appear in small bits. Film buffs should keep their ears cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you, Abbott,” instead of “Chick”) as they search for Dracula in the cellar.

Be sure to catch this one on Turner Classic Movies when it’s shown during Halloween. Our favorite scene from among so many comedic delights: a worried Chaney confesses to the boys that, when the full moon rises, he turns into a wolf. To which Costello innocently remarks, “You and twenty million other guys.” Chuckle, chuckle. (Laugh it up, fuzzball!)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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