When I saw that Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film was hosting the Universal BackLot blogathon to coincide with the centennial celebration of Universal Studios not only did I have to take part, but could make no other choice than to dedicate a post to Charles Barton’s 1948 classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
I love Universal and the impressive array of unforgettable characters the famed studio has brought to the screen. These include such iconic portrayals as Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera, William Powell as My Man Godfrey, W. C. Fields as The Bank Dick, Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Harvey as an invisible rabbit and Gregory Peck as the greatest screen hero of all time, Atticus Finch. The list goes on and Universal’s legacy is strong and deeply entrenched in popular culture. But perhaps where the Universal standard of quality has made the deepest and most lasting impact is in the genre of horror.
It’s no wonder I found the following short video so entertaining – a really nice overview of the history of Universal’s monster legacy.
On a personal note, I can attest to the fact that while growing up there were two classic film constants in my house – the only two my older brother and I agreed on – the Universal monster and Abbott and Costello. If either of those was on it was must see TV! Well before the phrase was coined, I might add.
Those two constants also happened to be Universal Studios’ most popular entities during the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps an unlikely combination, but the two joined forces for the first time in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.
Reprising the classic roles that made them famous in earlier Universal Studio outings were Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster (he’d become the fourth actor to play The Monster in 1944′s House of Frankenstein).
By the way, there are so many great versions of the theatrical posters for this film it’s difficult to choose one or two to display here. You may have already noticed my indecision by the fact I post a few versions throughout this write-up. Universal went all-out in marketing this film and the gorgeous artwork used in all marketing material shows just how popular these characters and stories had become. I also happen to be a sucker for poster art.
Anyway – production on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein began on February 5, 1948. The film was originally titled, The Brain of Frankenstein but it was changed to convey the message that the film contained comedy as well as horror – a combination many, including critics, fans and even the actors were a bit leery of.
Filmed entirely on the Universal Studio backlot, four of the studios’ sound stages were used in this production – Stage 15 was set up as the hotel room set and Stage 19 was the house of horrors set used in the film. I’ve never been to the Universal Studios tour but you can be sure these are permanently noted in my book (actually cell phone) as “must-sees” if they are available for public perusal.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein opens and we’re in London, where Larry Talbot paces nervously about a hotel room. He paces over to the telephone and asks the operator if his call to the States has been completed yet. Clearly, this is an urgent call. He’s passed through. On the other end, in Florida, an employee of an express package delivery station answers the call, Wilbur (Costello). Talbot asks him if two crates to be delivered to the McDougal’s House of Horrors have been received. Wilbur’s clueless so Talbot urgently explains that the two crates are not to be delivered to the House of Horrors under any circumstance until he arrives. While explaining, however, the full moon rises and Talbot turns into the wolf man. Call ends. We learn in a bit that Larry Talbot is in London because he’s been following Count Dracula around in hopes of stopping the Count’s reign of terror.
As Wilbur hangs up, thinking Talbot called long distance to have his dog make growling noises into the phone, McDougal, the House of Horrors owner is waiting to see if his two crates have arrived. McDougal’s eager to display “the greatest attraction the House of Horrors ever had,” remains of both Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster.
Later that day Wilbur and his partner and friend, Chick (Abbott) deliver Dracula’s coffin and the Frankenstein Monster to the House of Horrors. Classic Costello meets monster fare ensues. Hilarity and thrills.
Of course, both The Monster and Dracula come “alive” only in front of Wilbur as he attempts to unpack the content of the crates and no one believes him when he tries to tell them. But the creatures do awake and soon escape to Dracula’s castle where Sandra Mornay is waiting. Sandra is this film’s version of Frankenstein, the Doctor. She’s a surgeon who’s ready to assist Dracula in putting a new brain into the Monster using the notes left behind by Doctor Frankenstein as a guide. Whose brain do they intend to use? Wilbur’s. Sandra has been “amorous” toward him in preparation of the grand event. Wilbur’s brain is perfect because they don’t want to end up with a “vicious, unmanageable brute,” which was Doctor Frankenstein’s mistake. This time they want the brain of someone with “no will of his own, no fiendish intellect.”
In the meantime, Larry Talbot has arrived from London with the sole purpose of stopping Dracula. He knows where Dracula resides and what the Count’s plans are, to revive The Monster. In order to put a stop to all the terrible plans, Talbot needs the help of Wilbur and Chick, all the while fighting his own demons and an ever-full moon. I must say poor Talbot, as far as monsters go, is quite the downer. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays the long-suffering beast to a hilt in this outing and to the poor man’s chagrin, the moon has never filled as often as it does here.
Anyway, I think you get the picture. There’s lots of fun along the way as the “good guys” try to thwart the efforts of the evil-doers with Wilbur, in particular, getting into one mess after another. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein takes full advantage of Costello’s talent for portraying fear in a hilarious way. His is always a character that is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are plenty of scares and opportunities for the wonderful, classic repartee that made Abbott and Costello such a hit during the golden ages of three mediums of mass communications – radio, movies and television. The film also has some great chase scenes that start in the requisite, Frankenstein laboratory where the exchange of brains is to take place. But having all these monsters around who not only want to get at Wilbur but also hate each other – the Wolf Man and Dracula in particular – lends itself to grand mayhem and several frights as well whereby Wilbur and Chick run into a classic monster in every room of the castle. Fantastic. Fiendish. Fun.
One has to love the apparent demise of Dracula as well – trying to escape the pursuing Wolf Man, the Count starts to turn into a bat then out comes the Wolf Man, grabs a hold of the animal before it flies away and they both fall into the rocks and crashing waves below. Meanwhile, The Monster continues his relentless pursuit of Wilbur and Chip who do all they can, in hilarious fashion, to evade being killed by the creature. He chases them out of castle where he meets his demise in an ending that rivals the best climax in any of the classic Universal horrors. Then just before the film ends, as the boys are trying to escape in a little boat, another monster appears. Voiced by the great, Vincent Price, it’s the Invisible Man.
A must mention – the gorgeous, classic horror film score by Frank Skinner in this film. From the moment the Universal logo appears and that first, loud, distinctive note plays I want to run for cover – it evokes such wonderful thrills. Also worth mentioning is the great animation used in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. From the opening sequence, one of the best, that always impresses me, which perfectly combines Skinner’s doom-filled score with the more light-hearted fare of animation. This is a perfect introduction to the horror/comedy combination the film features so effectively.
I might add that animation is also used beautifully in the scenes where Dracula turns into a bat. Really well done.
There’s so much interesting trivia about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein that I’d be remiss not to make note of some of it. Particularly interesting are the stories concerning the actors who play the famous monsters but, in truth, everything about the making of this film fascinates me. Again, the convergence of these creatures and Abbott and Costello is like a family reunion much more entertaining than if my own family were to meet up at Universal, that’s for sure.
Besides the familiar fun and mayhem that Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein offers, I am always quite impressed with The Wolf Man transformation in this film in comparison to the original, George Waggner’s, The Wolf Man from 1941. Universal used new methods of applying make-up for both The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster, which drastically reduced time and saved the studio money. But the improvements, from an artistic perspective, really show a much more “realistic” look of a wolf man (er…well, what I think a wolf man should look like). The transition scenes where Talbot (Chaney) turn into the monster are really great in this film too – the editing is less clumsy, for lack of a better word, than in the 1941 version. Although, I have to mention I love the campiness of Waggner’s The Wolf Man and absolutely adore the first transformation scene when you can see the end of the hairy boot as Talbot, as the monster, starts to sneak away from the chair in which he sat. It’s a hoot!
As for The Monster, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein marks the first time Universal-International stopped using the effective but lengthy application time of make-up artist (and genius) Jack P. Pierce for the monster make-up, who’d done the work on (I believe all) classic monsters for Universal to that time. (Mr. Pierce continued to work as a make-up artist in films and television through the early 1960s.) For this film and forward the studio switched to Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan‘s more cost-effective rubber appliances.
I adore Boris Karloff as The Monster. He was the original and the image that evokes in my mind whenever I think of this character. However, I really like Glenn Strange playing this creature as well. I think he (somehow) adds a softness that Karloff doesn’t – the monster somehow takes on a different personality so if you’re a fan of the iconic figure it’s fun to compare the two. Interestingly, three actors in A and C Meet Frankenstein had previously played The Monster. Aside from Strange who’d played him in Erle C. Kenton’s, House of Frankenstein in 1944, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. had also played him in previous films. Also, and I love this tidbit but it is a SPOILER if you care for such things so be warned – during shooting one day on the A and C Meet Frankenstein set, Glenn Strange tripped over a camera cable and broke his ankle. Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t working that day, so he put on the Frankenstein makeup/outfit and filled in for Strange in what is perhaps the scariest scene in the film when Dr. Mornay gets thrown through the window in the laboratory. So Chaney ended up playing two monsters in this movie.
Bela Lugosi – Although he would play similar vampires in other films since the original Dracula in 1931, this Abbott and Costello release would be only the second, and last, time that he would play the Count in a feature film. Imagine that! Yet he remains THE definitive figure and image of Dracula, one of the most revered, feared, cheered and jeered of all fictional characters that appeared in media in the 20th Century. For more on the impact of Dracula in film, check out another post I wrote in his honor a while back, here. Plus, honestly, I can’t describe how fun it is to just listen to Lugosi and his distinct accent mention blood. C’mon.
Reviews and reception:
Lou Costello did not want to film the movie, declaring, “No way I’ll do that crap. My little girl could write something better than this.” A $50,000 advance in salary and the signing of director Charles Barton, the team’s good friend and the man whom some call their best director, convinced him otherwise.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released on August 20, 1948, and became an immediate success. This film was such a hit that it was reportedly
Universal-International’s second highest grossing film of the year and Abbott and Costello’s biggest hit since their first starring role in Buck Privates in 1941. The film appealed not only to Abbott and Costello fans but to classic monster fans as well, much as it continues to do today. Variety praised the pairing of the two genres noting, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a happy combination both for chills and laughs. The comedy team battles it out with the studio’s roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious fraeas that is funny and, at the same time, spine-tingling.” The Los Angeles Times noted that, “its comic inventiveness seldom falters, yet it never seriously violated the tradition of the three celebrated creatures who are its antogonists.” I love the notation of “violating the tradition.” Fans of these classic monsters have high expectations in regards to maintaining a certain recognizability for what they each stand for. Even in outings where campiness takes control of the stories, the characters must remain true.
No scene proves that to be truer than the spectacular final scene, which combines the best of both worlds. The film’s success and the final meeting of Abbott and Costello with The Invisible Man, as noted above, paved the way for an entire series of films that would pair the boys with other classic monsters: Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) – incidentally, they’d also met The Killer, Boris Karloff in another entry in 1949.
It was surprising to discover that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has been somewhat maligned, credited by some horror fans for killing off the horror film genre. That is, until Hammer Studios took the horror mantle, for a while, and gave a few of the classic monsters a new life in glorious, bloody color. I disagree with that opinion. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein actually supplied a lifeline to that next era in horror, in my opinion by featuring the monsters in as true a depiction of who they were in their glory days as had been portrayed in years, a reminder of who and what these icons ought to be. As such A & C Meet Frankenstein should not be discounted as unimportant in the horror film time line. It’s no fluke. It’s a significant film in both the history of American film comedy and the legacy of horror.
In 2000, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was recognized by the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs at #56. The film was preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This post is my thank you to Universal Studios for ensuring such fond remembrances are etched in our collective minds. Congratulations on 100 years of spectacular film entertainment.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein publicity stills:
To read other entries in the Universal BackLot blogathon, please go to Journeys in Classic Film. I’ve seen the topics and they cover many aspects of the historic studio – from behind the scenes to commentaries on some of the greatest stories ever told on the silver screen. Also, thanks to Kristen for hosting this great event.