Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some mild scares from classic horror characters.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are an amazing pair of comedians, if only for the significance of the time during which they were popular. This is a duo that started and mastered their craft, like so many others, on the stage. When radio became the popular medium, they dove in, and eventually they did the same with cinema and television. All with undoubted success, and their most famous routine, Who’s On First?, was immortalized through a combination of all of them.

But the portion of their career we’re most concerned with started the moment Universal Studios signed them to a contract in 1940 and made an incredible 36 movies with them in the 16 years that followed. They had immediate success by stealing the Marx Brothers formula (standup skits infused with music and romance) in pics like Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, and Who Done It?, but it was the horror comedies that made them screen immortals.

The current days of the Scary Movie franchise, and all the awful genre parodies that followed – relying on obvious formulas and topical humor – owe a great deal to Abbott & Costello. (Before you condemn them for opening a terrible can of worms, remember Mel Brooks and The Zucker Brothers; not all parodies are bad.) Abbott & Costello discovered what Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) would eventually master – the perfect fusion of horror and comedy, leaning heavily on formulaic elements like a purposely bad premise, an equally bad love story, a few “jump scares,” and lots of self-reflexive pokes.

Though they would make seven such filmsAbbott2 (A & C Meet the Invisible Man being the only other decent one) the first (A & C Meet Frankenstein) is the absolute cream of the crop. The billing alone is worth it. You’ve got the day’s most popular comedians teamed against the studio’s biggest horror stars of all time (Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster).

The ironic part is that Lou Costello immediately turned down the film. “No way I’ll do that crap. My little girl could write something better than this,” he said. Boris Karloff, who famously played Frankenstein’s monster, likewise turned it down, fearing it would shame the character. Glenn Strange would take his place, alongside original actors Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Lon Chaney Jr. (Wolf Man). But, of course, Costello would eventually do the role alongside his comic counterpart. And we’re forever glad he did.

The beauty of their act is that they interact very much like an elderly married couple, taking crap and giving crap like verbal abuse ping-pong. One is roley-poley and clumsy, the other a string bean smart alec. At their best, the quickness of Abbott & Costello’s verbal witticisms is exceeded only by Groucho Marx, and their slapstick physical stuff rivals that of another “big three” (Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd).

The film’s premise is that they’re delivery men hired to take the molded bodies of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to a wax museum. Simple enough, except they unknowingly deliver living versions. Costello sees the monsters in action, but no one believes him – except us, of course, and The Wolf Man, who before transforming tries to stop Dracula. It seems the famed vampire is planning to control the Frankenstein monster by stealing Costello’s brain.

Just as the plot is predictable, so are the scares, with monsters lurking in the background as the comedians bumble about in the foreground. And the charade is pure genius for kids – especially really little ones. The “secret door” schtick is a perfect example. Costello discovers a secret passage where the monsters await. Then he flees, finds Abbott, and tries to show Abbott they exist. But in doing so the two duos perfectly avoid each other on opposite sides of the rotating door. Classic stuff. The involvement of The Wolf Man is a welcomed wild card, as he’s a good guy two-thirds of the time and hunts down Costello the rest of the time. Also classic. All of this builds to a climactic chase at the end, and a cliffhanger ending that introduces a new monster villain. Which, all in all, should tell you one thing: if you never want this act to end, you’re in luck. It turns out they did enough movies, radio, and TV to make one epic marathon.

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