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During the 1930's and early forties, Universal Studios rode the crest of a horror film craze that made them rich and famously established them as the home of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and other screen monsters. But the fear factor was lost over time as their signature creatures were paraded through a series of inferior B-movie sequels. And in the minds of some horror film fans, the genre hit rock bottom with the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. Once capable of terrifying their audiences, the Universal monsters were now reduced to playing "straight men" to Abbott and Costello's slapstick antics. Who could ever take them seriously again? Yet, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is both a first-rate horror-comedy that ranks as one of the comedy team's finest efforts (and most profitable) and an affectionate homage to the screen horrors who gave us nightmares as kids. It not only marked Bela Lugosi's return to his original role of Dracula after 17 years (the 1931 film had made him a star) but it featured Lon Chaney, Jr. once again playing the Wolf Man, the voice of Vincent Price in a closing gag as the Invisible Man, and Boris Karloff in an off-screen stunt - he agreed to help promote the film and was seen in publicity photos, admiring the poster art and standing in a long movie line waiting to buy a ticket.
The tongue-in-cheek plot of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein features Bud and Lou as Chick and Wilbur, respectively, two railway porters who end up transporting a pair of mysterious crates to a wax museum. Inside the crates are the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who is in league with evil female scientist Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). Together Dracula and Mornay plan to use the monster for their own nefarious purposes but he proves to be uncontrollable so they decide to give him a smaller brain. And guess who the perfect donor is? Wilbur soon finds himself being alternately stalked by Dracula and seduced by Mornay with Chick oblivious to any danger until the duo is trapped in Dracula's castle. Luckily they have an ally in Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who has just arrived from London where he had previously tracked the crates. The only problem is that Talbot is as much a threat as Dracula or the Frankenstein monster during a full moon.
The idea of Abbott and Costello parodying horror films certainly wasn't a highly original concept at the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was made. After all, the comedy team had already appeared in Hold That Ghost (1941) and other comedians had made similar forays into this territory with Wally Brown and Alan Carney in Zombies on Broadway (1945) and The Bowery Boys (starring opposite Bela Lugosi) in Ghosts on the Loose (1943). The actual script for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein went through as many transformations as Lawrence Talbot. First, screenwriter Oscar Brodney (The Glenn Miller Story, 1953) came up with a story outline and then Bertram Milhauser, who penned numerous Sherlock Holmes's films for Universal, delivered a more detailed treatment which recycled plot elements such as a search for some secret microfilm from his Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) screenplay. That was abandoned in favor of a new scenario from writers Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees, who later stated in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, "You know it was a very complicated plot for an Abbott and Costello picture. We had two women - one was a heroine and one was a villain. And nobody could figure out why these two beautiful girls were after Costello." But Lees and Rinaldo eventually delivered a screenplay (the working title was "The Brain of Frankenstein") that pleased everyone - except Costello. "Lou hated the script," [producer] Robert Arthur recalled. "In fact, he came charging in the office one day and said, "My [five-year-old] daughter could write a better script than this. You're not serious about making it, are you?" Arthur managed to convince him by appealing to his financial interests and promising him his favorite director, Charles Barton.
The making of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was highlighted by card games, exploding cigars, and daily practical jokes on the set. It was just Bud and Lou's way of battling boredom and having fun with the cast and crew. Not everyone enjoyed the horseplay, however, according to Barton (from Bela Lugosi: Master of the Macabre by Larry Edwards): "To be honest, there were times when I thought Bela was going to have a stroke on the set. You have to understand that working with two zanies like Abbott and Costello was not the normal Hollywood set. They never went by the script and at least once a day there would be a pie fight. Bela of course would have nothing to do with any of this. He would just glare at those involved with his famous deadly stare and the only emotion he would show physically was one of utter disgust." Lugosi, for his part, took the role very seriously and told The New York Times, "There is no burlesque for me. All I have to do is frighten the boys, a perfectly appropriate activity. My trademark will be unblemished."
Unlike the comedy team's previous films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a big-budget production, costing almost $800,000, a hefty sum for a Universal B-movie. Part of the expense went toward the atmospheric sets such as Dracula's castle, a cartoon title sequence, special effects (the scene where Dracula changes into a bat was created by animator Walter Lantz of "Woody Woodpecker" fame), and makeup. Instead of going with Jack Pierce's original monster makeups for Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, which were too time-consuming and uncomfortable for the actors, makeup artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan used rubber sponge masks that could be applied in an hour and still retained the monsters' famous look. "One day, Lenore Aubert, wrapped in a mink, put a leash on Strange and, accompanied by Bud, Lou, and Lon in full make-up, took the Monster out for a stroll on the lot just in time for the studio tour tram." Bud and Lou also allowed their children to visit the set and meet the "monsters" which made quite an impression on the kids. Paddy Costello recalled, "Glenn Strange was so sweet - 'Frankenstein' was always walking around with a smile. I always got a big kick out of that...seeing the monsters between scenes, sitting in a chair reading a newspaper or chewing gum, or laughing and smoking like regular people" (from Abbott and Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo).
When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, it received possibly the best reviews of any of their films. The Variety review set the tone when it said "The comedy team battles it out with the studio's roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious farce that is funny and, at the same time, spine-tingling." The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed it "a crazy, giddy show that combines chills and laughs in one zany sequence after the other" and the New York Star commented that "Nobody excels Costello at strangulated, speechless terror. Nobody can top Abbott at failing to see the cause for it. Nobody can beat Frankenstein, Dracula, The Monster, and Dr. Moray at engendering it separately and together behind Abbott's back, but always in Costello's full view." Not everyone was a fan though, and the New York Sun complained that "it was a grand idea, but it was too bad that it could not have been attended to by persons capable of satire rather than pie-throwing comedy." While Bud and Lou and director Charles Barton never made any claims about the film's status as a masterpiece, it was nevertheless selected in 2001 for future preservation by the National Film Registry. And the film's cult status continues to grow over the years; Quentin Tarantino is a big fan and at one time both Elvis Presley and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia counted it as one of their favorite movies.
Naysayers who blamed Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for killing off the horror film are simply misinformed. The much maligned genre became the rage again in the late 1950s with the arrival of Hammer Studios' The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), films which once again put the horror back in horror films and transformed Hammer into a cottage industry for a time.
Producer: Robert Arthur
Director: Charles Barton
Screenplay: Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo, John Grant
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Film Editing: Frank Gross
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Bud Abbott (Chick Young), Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Lawrence Talbot), Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Glenn Strange (The Frankenstein Monster), Lenore Aubert (Dr. Sandra Mornay).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford