It was recess in St. Mary’s schoolyard. A handful of us boys, all eleven-ish, were discussing the merits of an old film recently re-broadcast on TV. The discussion soon took on the form of a confession, a mutual one, albeit different than the kind we were expected to make in the confines of the church confession booth. The film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The confession: the fact that, despite the movie being a comedy, it still scared the shenanigans out of us (or words to that effect.) One after another of us came clean; each admission delivered in a semi-hushed tone like you might expect to hear in the confessional. Maybe we were afraid that one of our girl classmates would wander by and learn of our collective unmanliness.
Well, I’m now many years—many years—beyond my schoolboy days. I can finally raise my voice without shame to declare that, yes, numerous shenanigans were scared out of me when I first saw that movie. And that’s the beauty of it. Having recently re-watched the 1948 classic, I can testify that it still offers a lovely blend of chills and chortles. (Forgive me, Father, for I have alliterated.)
Here’s the premise: A pair of baggage clerks—childlike Wilbur (Lou Costello) and cranky Chick (Bud Abbot)— find themselves handling crates reportedly stuffed with the bodies of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. In typical fashion, Costello is the one who initially sees the two horrors come to life, while Abbot (the consummate straight man) does not…and so accuses his partner of an overactive imagination. Also in the mix is Lawrence Talbot—a fellow suffering from a bad case of werewolfism—who’s trying to do the right thing by tracking down the other two monsters. The plot is further thickened by the fact that the villains want to harvest Wilbur’s brain to implant it in Frankenstein’s body. (Yep, I know that the name Frankenstein refers to the creator, not the creature; but for the sake of brevity, allow me this.) The lively storyline plays itself out in various locations: a house of horrors, a castle dungeon, a foggy Florida bayou, and the laboratory of a mad scientist (unusually, a female one.)
The physical humor is vaudevillian, broad and unabashed, often focused on Costello: Wilbur teeter-tottering atop a pile of crates, stumbling into revolving walls, being pursued unaware by a clumsy, lunging Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Maybe my mind has softened with the onslaught of adulthood, but I now find myself laughing out loud at these dumb, delightful bits. Apparently, the laughs existed on set as well. In the scene where Wilbur has mistakenly sat on Frankenstein’s lap, a borderline grin can be seen on the lips of Glen Strange (the Franken-actor.) Costello was ad-libbing and goofing around so much that Strange was struggling not to crack up. Also, throughout the production, to keep things loose between scenes, Lou and Bud would initiate lively bouts of pie throwing (though, it should be noted, no one ever dared fling a pie at Bela Lugosi).
Then there’s all the verbal foolery, cringe-worthy and clever at the same time. Like this:
Wilbur: That's gonna cost you overtime because I'm a union man and I work only sixteen hours a day.
Museum Owner: A union man only works eight hours a day.
Wilbur: I belong to two unions.
Chick: I don't get it. Out of all the guys around here that classy dish has to pick out a guy like you.
Wilbur: What's wrong with that?
Chick: Go look at yourself in the mirror sometime.
Wilbur: Why should I hurt my own feelings?
And these oft quoted lines:
Talbot: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in a half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.
Wilbur: You and twenty million other guys!
In defense of my eleven-year-old self, the movie actually is frequently scary. Much of the credit for this goes to the great score by prolific film composer Frank Skinner. The evocative swirl of strings, xylophone and brass is foreboding and dramatic. For me, one scene particularly stands out—when Wilbur is caught between Dracula and Frankenstein on the dungeon steps as the music swells and menaces. Yikes!
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein offers the horror fan a number of film firsts:
First time in any Universal Studios movie that Dracula and the Wolf Man appeared together in a scene (and what an acrimonious encounter it is). The characters had shared billing in two previous films, but never overlapped.
First (and only) time on the large screen that Lugosi reprised his iconic Dracula role, since the titular 1931 film that made him a star. True, he’d appeared as similar Count-like vampires in a couple others features, but he wasn’t called Dracula.
First of a string of A&C comedies teaming the guys with various monstrosities—The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.
And, believe it or not, the first film in which Costello was part of a hot ménage a trois. (Yeah, I exaggerate, but heis the object-of-desire, sorta, of two lovely ladies.)
There’s a lot more I could wax poetic about: the candle on the coffin lid bit; Wilbur’s imitations of the monsters; the cheesy but kinda cool Dracula-to-bat animation sequences (by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz); Vincent Price’s (unseen?) cameo… I could wax, but I won’t. The word count of this essay requires me to curb my enthusiasm.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has a special place in our family lore. When our kids were small I showed them the movie. Or, in one case, tried to. My son, maybe four at the time, refused to watch beyond the opening scene where a cloaked policeman discovers a dead man in the London fog. My lad assumed that the bobby was the dreaded Dracula and quit the room pronto. His older sister was very helpful over the years in reminding him of that episode. To his credit, my son, now a young adult, eventually pushed through his apprehension and watched the whole creepy, comedic film.
Hey, you could do that too.
Michael Nethercott is a playwright and writer of traditional mysteries whose O’Nelligan and Plunkett tales appear periodically in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His debut novel featuring this 1950s detective duo was The Séance Society and his newest, The Haunting Ballad, finds his sleuths tracking a killer in the Greenwich Village music scene.
Read all of Michael Nethercott's posts for Criminal Element.