30 October 2006

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

An entry for the Vampire Blog-a-Thon

abbott

starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi
written by: Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant, based on characters by Mary Shelley & Bram Stoker
directed by: Charles T. Barton
NR, 83 min, 1948, USA


There's a truism in film that given the opportunity, a Hollywood studio will revisit a franchise until they've wrung every ounce of blood from it, until the franchise itself has become such a parody of itself that people forget why it was so successful in the first place. In television, they call it "jumping the shark"[1]. Rocky V (1990) is a good example[2], but the film that is perhaps cited the most is the epic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where not only does Universal insert two comedians into the Frankenstein legacy, but combines it with Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. A Monster Mash, if you will. Of course, this was not the first time the studio had tweaked the Frankenstein storyline, as we'd previously been given Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where...uh...Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein (1944), where the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are all revived for the purpose of revenge, and House of Dracula, a reciprocal home game for Dracula. Later, they gave us Van Helsing (2004), where I spent 132 minutes wondering if being un-dead might make things somewhat enjoyable. But, in 1948, seeing as Universal had run out of monsters, they opted to turn the proceedings into a comedy. It sounds like a terrible idea because, well, it is a terrible idea, the sort of thing that only a Hollywood studio could come up with after a heavy round of drinking.[3]

But here's the part that makes you question the existence of karma: it worked. Instead of being a complete trainwreck, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a hit. And not a medium-sized, go figure hit, but Universal's second-highest grossing film of the year. Not only that, but Universal then did the unthinkable--they ended the series on a high note. So it goes.

Enough history. What about the film? How exactly do Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein?

Here's the thing...they don't. As any astute fan will tell you, the green guy with the bolts in his neck is not Frankenstein, but Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein himself--that mad doctor with the hunchbacked assistant--is long dead. We have his writings that conveniently detail his experiments, but the man is no longer with us, and therefore unable to meet that most famous of comedy teams.

Anyway, here's the plot: our heroes work as some type of baggage handlers. While on the job, Costello receives a call from London where Larry Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), asks him not, under any circumstances, to deliver any packages to a local house of horrors. But the owner (Frank Ferguson) insists, so with nary a thought to the warning, they deliver the packages. Lo and behold, they contain Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), a fact that Abbott refuses to believe, despite Costello's insistence. Later, the Wolf Man arrives to stop Dracula from his dastardly plan of reviving the Monster by using Costello's brain. And, well, that's pretty much it. Throw in some subplots about Costello's girlfriend being a doctor in cahoots with Dracula and Abbott being accused to trying to hurt the owner of the house of horrors, and you've got enough of a plot to justify the rest of the proceedings.

Because those proceedings--the scenes where Abbott and Costello flex their comedic muscles--are easily the best parts of the film. And, some might argue, are among the best in their hallowed career. Take the scene where Costello discovers that Dracula is alive. With Abbott out of the room, he begins to read the legend of Dracula. This triggers Dracula's slow, creaking emergence from his coffin. Costello gets scared and calls for Abbott, and Dracula ducks back into the coffin. Naturally, Abbott doesn't believe him.

Abbott: I know there's no such person as Dracula. You know there's no such person as Dracula!
Costello: But does Dracula know it?
**************
Costello: You know that person you said there's no such person? I think he's in there... in person. I was reading this sign, Dracula's Legend. All of a sudden I heard...
Costello imitates a creaking noise
Abbott: That's the wind.
Costello: It should get oiled.

The film's grand irony is that Dracula and his accomplice, Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lénore Aubert) have hand-picked Lou Costello as the brain for their planned transplant. It's not as if they choose the one conveniently at hand. No, she has befriended Costello well in advance of Dracula's arrival for the sole purpose of using his brain. Of all the men she could have used, for some reason she opts for Costello. The audience realizes that his is not exactly the the sort of intellect that changes the world or, as he puts it, "I've had this brain for thirty years. It hasn't done me any good!" Of course, as well all know, a thinking Monster is a potentially dangerous one, so a superior intellect may not be the best fit. Come to think of it, Dr. Mornay is probably counting on it.

Effectively, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is two films jammed into one. There's the plot-heavy film that's an extension of the previous Frankenstein films and the parallel Abbott and Costello comedy that just happens to be occurring on the same sound stage. In reality, they have little to do with each other, save for some forced machinations added to justify the mash-up, but the strange thing is they work together. Most of the Frankenstein films, save for Bride of Frankenstein (1935)[4], tend to be stretched rather thin, as do some of the Abbott and Costello films. So, to combine them into one film is to ensure neither half of the equation is forced to carry more of the film than it can handle. Who cares that there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to be in the same film? They compliment each other well, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.

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[1] A reference to the Happy Days episode where the Fonz--leather jacket and all--does, in fact, jump over a shark.

[2] It's probably safe to assume the upcoming Rocky Balboa (2006) will fit in this category as well.

[3] Like Kazaam (1996).

[4] Which just happens to be in the 100 films series. Here's my less-than-stellar entry.

5 comments:

Edward Copeland said...

I still find myself watching A&C Meet Frankenstein if I stumble upon it. Their later efforts with the Mummy and whatnot just didn't work as well as this one did -- mainly because all the monsters played it straight which made it all the funnier when Larry Talbot insists they lock him in his room or when Dracula schemes to get Lou's brain.

NATHANIEL R said...

when i was trying to decide what to right about i was walking through the library's video collection and saw this title and had no idea dracula figured so prominently. otherwise i woulda rented and from the sounds of this... i must!

Thom said...

Thanks for writing about this film. They used to run A & C flicks every sunday when I was a kid and I remember those movies fondly...except for the horror-related titles. They're appropriately silly, given the comedy team stars, but I prefer horror to be genuinely creepy.

I think your comments about the plan to use Costello's brain for the monster being a horrible mistake is insightful. In Shelley's book the monster is evil because he has no soul, in Dawley's 1910 version of Frankenstein the monster is evil because he's the "creation of an evil mind," and in the Universal film he's evil because Dr. Frankenstein transplants the wrong brain! In that light I guess Costello's noodle makes a logical substitute, lol. Happy Halloween (sorry for such a long comment).

lucas said...

ed,

my first thought when Talbot showed up was "why's this guy so grave? doesn't he know he's in an Abbott and Costello routine?" but like you said, it works perfectly as a counter-point.

nathaniel,

hell of a blog-a-thon you've got going...i had no idea either. i just thought it'd be a fun thing to write about for Halloween...then, i ran across your page and voila!

thom,

it's also such a great way to pay off all the jokes early on about Costello getting all the girls. if it wasn't for his brain, they wouldn't care for him one iota.

and, hey, a long comment is better than no comment

goatdog said...

Great review! I was dreading this film, which I had to watch for my blog-a-thon entry, but I ended up really enjoying it, even though it drove a bit of a stake through my thesis.

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