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‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’: Bruce Markusen Looks Back at Universal’s Beloved Monster Mash-Up



'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein': Bruce Markusen Looks Back at Universal's Beloved Monster Mash-Up

As you may (or may not) have heard, my first book on horror films (Hosted Horror on TV) was recently published; it’s a book that I wanted to write because of the films of WPIX’s “Chiller Theater,” which prompted my interest in horror back in the early 1970s. It was on Chiller Theater where I first started watching many of the Universal Studios classics, some of the movies from Hammer Films, and a number of inexpensively made “giant insect” films from the 1950s.

Yet, there was one especially influential movie that that I did not see on late-night Chiller Theater. It was a movie that aired somewhat repeatedly on Sunday mornings in the New York City market. Also a part of the WPIX/Channel 11 schedule, the late-morning series featured a rotation of films and TV episodes from the archive of the legendary comedians, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. And of the films that WPIX aired regularly, the most popular by far was their 1948 classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It’s become beloved among monster fans of a certain age and is generally regarded as the best of the Abbott and Costello movies, which also included such entries as Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Meet The Mummy, and Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff. But at one time, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was treated with a large degree of contempt by critics and was viewed as nearly an act of desperation on the part of Universal Studios.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Movie Still 1

By the late 1940s, Universal had become resistant to the idea of old-fashioned monster films, with their last such film (House of Dracula) coming out in 1945. Bela Lugosi, at one time the studio’s top horror star (along with Boris Karloff), had seen his career fall into disarray. And comedians Abbott and Costello were also on the decline. Their peak of 1940s popularity had given way to declining box office returns in the 1950s. Bud and Lou had also come into conflict for personal reasons, causing them to appear in a few films as separate and distinct characters, rather than as the unified comedic team.

All three entities – the studio, Lugosi, and the duo of Abbott and Costello – needed a spark to their careers. The opportunity came when Universal, by now known as Universal International Pictures, decided to dip into its pool of monsters once again. The studio resurrected three of its most reliable monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man) while placing them against a humorous backdrop headlined by the two comedians. Initially, the studio called the project The Brain of Frankenstein, but executives felt that sounded too much like a straight horror film while concealing the humor being provided by their two comic headliners. Eventually, the studio changed the name of the movie to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Of course, Universal needed full approval from the two comedians themselves. Abbott was interested in taking part, but his partner balked. When Costello first saw the script, he hated it. He referred to the screenplay as “that crap,” deriding it as something that his daughter could have whipped up in short order. Hoping to appease Costello, Universal upped the ante, promising an advance of $50,000 and telling Lou that he could have a new director, Charles Barton, to lead the project. Costello regarded Barton as a close and trusted friend, and had worked comfortably with him on earlier films. With Barton now in the picture, the veteran comedian agreed to the revised deal.

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Universal still needed to procure actors to play the roles of the monsters. Lon Chaney, Jr. was the natural choice to play The Wolf Man; he was the only actor that Universal had called on to play the role in four previous films. The studio also wanted Boris Karloff to reprise his role as the Frankenstein Monster, but he steadfastly refused, having already given up the character earlier, largely because he felt The Monster had run its course and that such monster-laden films had become silly and overplayed. As a backup plan, Universal turned to Glenn Strange, a veteran of Westerns, who had had played The Monster capably in two prior efforts, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

That left one question: Who would play Dracula? At the top of Universal’s list was a veteran actor named Ian Keith, who had actually been considered to play the famed vampire in the original 1931 version of Dracula, only to lose out to Lugosi. Keith was an experienced American actor whose career dated back to the silent era of the 1920s. He had played villainous roles in a few horror films, like Valley of the Zombies, and had also portrayed the infamous John Wilkes Booth in a film about Abraham Lincoln.

But what about Lugosi? He seemed like the logical choice, after his groundbreaking performance of 1931. Somewhat curiously, studio executives wanted no part of Bela, whose career had fallen on hard times and whose personal life had been plagued by use of painkillers. It was also 17 years since Lugosi had played Dracula on the big screen; he was now 63 years of age, seemingly too old to play the part of a villainous vampire that was supposed to embody youth and strength.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Bela

To Lugosi’s credit, he did not give up. He lobbied hard for the role, which he had not only perfected in his 1931 portrayal, but had previously refined during hundreds of performances on stage during the 1920s. Lugosi’s manager, Don Marlowe, also pushed for him to get the role. During an intense meeting with the head of Universal, the manager reportedly said about Lugosi, “He is Dracula. You owe this role to Lugosi!”

Universal Studios gave in to the pleas of Marlowe and Lugosi, agreeing to give the aging actor a payday that may have earned him as much as $15,000. That turned out to be the best move the studio could have made. With Lugosi aboard, all of the ingredients were now in place for a memorable film.

Costello and Abbott portray Wilbur Gray and Chick Young, respectively, a pair of stumbling freight handlers who are asked to handle a shipment of large crates to a house of horrors. Two of the crates supposedly contain wax figures of Dracula and Frankenstein, but they are the actual monsters themselves. Dracula awakens and then revives Frankenstein through the use of electrical charges. Realizing that Frankenstein is dying, Dracula needs a human brain to transplant into The Monster’s body, so that he can become his servant and henchman. Dracula targets Wilbur’s brain, but is now opposed by Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, who tries to enlist Wilbur and Chick in his effort to bring down the vampire.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Bela Movie Cast

As the story progresses, Wilbur humorously attempts to deal with the deceptive affection being shown him by two love interests, played by Lenore Aubert and Joan Randolph. Little does Wilbur know that Aubert’s Sandra Mornay is secretly working as Dracula’s assistant. In the meantime, tension grows between Dracula and Chaney’s Talbot, culminating in a late-night battle at Dracula’s castle. That’s where The Count’s effort to transplant Wilbur’s brain into The Monster is interrupted by Talbot. It all leads up to a memorable final scene at the dock of Dracula’s castle, where The Monster chases down Wilbur and Chick while trying to fend off a fatal trap set by their newly found friend, Professor Stevens.

At the time of the film’s release, many critics were not sold on the melding of two bumbling comics and three seemingly over-the-hill monsters. Lon Chaney himself criticized the film, claiming that Universal was trying to undermine the seriousness of its monsters.

In spite of the negative appraisals, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein became a huge hit at the box office, delivering big numbers for Universal. Fans loved it. Over time, such fan reactions have won out over the consensus of the critics; there is now full acknowledgement of the film’s lasting value. The dichotomy between comedy and horror, often a tricky balance, could have failed, but thanks to Barton’s direction, the decision to have the various monsters play their roles straight and serious, and the sincere but still comedic efforts of Costello and partner Abbott, the film works beautifully.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Wolfman

Not only do the comedians handle their roles with their usual perfect timing, but the actors playing the monsters all deliver as Universal had hoped, too. Chaney, as always, is very good as both Talbot and the Wolf Man. After four earlier film performances, he delivered the dual roles flawlessly: the tormented Talbot and the enraged werewolf. And Strange did well, too, in what turned out be expanded screen time over his earlier appearances in the House films. Strange’s anguished face, his hulking frame, and his lumbering mannerisms all capture the essence of The Monster. He might not have been Karloff, but he was still very good in capturing both the raw power and the pathetic nature of The Monster.

And then there was Lugosi, whose performance really makes the film. Even at an older age, he looks the part, playing Dracula to dead solid perfection. In some ways, Lugosi is better here than in the original Dracula. By now far more comfortable in speaking English, he delivers his words more naturally and smoothly, and far less deliberately than he did in 1931. At the same time, he remains just as fear-inducing, especially in the way that he speaks in foreboding double entendres, while also delivering his intimidating trademark stare, full of intensity and hypnotic power. As author and historian Frank Dello Stritto writes in his wonderful book, Vampire Over London, “Lugosi in the pivotal role is magnificent.”

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also shows off clear evidence of the improved filmmaking techniques of the late 1940s. Gone is the stodginess of the camerawork seen in the early 1930s films. The musical score and the improved sound effects also serve to underscore the drama while eliminating the awkward moments of dead silence often encountered in films from the 1930s.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Cast 2


More importantly, the choreography of the final, climactic fight sequences is beautifully done; as the Frankenstein Monster tosses Dracula’s assistant (Aubert) through a large window and pursues the terrified Wilbur and Chick, Dracula and the Wolf Man simultaneously carry out a wonderfully staged piece of hand-to-hand combat. As Dello Stritto rightly points out in Vampire Over London, that sequence is a “masterpiece of editing.” And then comes the final scene, with Chick and Wilbur frantically attempting to untie the boat from the dock while Frankenstein is distracted by a raging fire intentionally set by Professor Stevens (Charles Bradstreet).

The tension, the terror, and the comedy all work in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It may have been billed as a comedy first and foremost, but it has become a favorite of horror buffs, thanks to its classic Gothic imagery, its frenzied, fast-paced storyline, and its intermittent moments of fright. It also gave us one last look at three of our favorite monsters from Universal, and for that, this fan of vintage horror is most grateful.

Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.