By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
January 11, 2015
This was once the sort of low-brow comedy that didn’t get much play in my house while I was growing up. My parents had little tolerance for Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, the original late ‘70s cast of Saturday Night Live, any of that. What I saw of those things, I saw mostly on the sly. Consequently, I thought for years that the series of Abbott and Costello comedies where the duo meet up with a succession of Universal Studios’ classic monsters were just cheap throw-away slapstick pictures designed to cash in on Universal’s 1930’s heyday. Thankfully, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (the acknowledged best of these films) has in recent years undergone a complete reassessment. For instance, it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2001 as a film worthy of preservation in the Library of Congress.
Actually, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is more of a nickname for the film. The movie poster titles it Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein. The on-screen title actually reads Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein. Nor does the title, whichever title you use, actually sum up the action. The film is a full-scale monster fest with the comic heroes meeting not only Frankenstein, but also Dracula and the Wolf-man. For all of Lou Costello’s silly reaction shots and the comic tream’s mugging for the camera, they are balanced by the monsters playing the straight men, and quite convincingly. The Wolf-man’s desperation at his impending full moon transformation has Lon Chaney Jr. really sweating it as he begs to be locked up in his room night after night lest he hurt someone after he turns wolf. There are some great special effects with Dracula morphing into a bat and back again. And, for all that he is so totally identified with this role, this is actually the only film where Bela Lugosi played Dracula in a sustained role outside of the original Tod Browning-directed Dracula from 1931.
The plot has Abbott and Costello playing bumbling freight handlers who receive a shipment for a local house of horrors that turns out to be crates carrying the real Frankenstein’s monster and the real Dracula in his coffin. Costello figures it out early, and is paralyzed with horror by the fact that the monsters are real, but the running gag is that Abbott never sees the evidence and thinks Costello is crazy. In the meantime, the Wolf-Man arrives from London to warn everybody of the danger, but nobody believes him either. The story culminates in Dracula’s attempt to revive Frankenstein’s monster by giving it Costello’s brain. The film is a great showcase for a revival of Universal’s movie creatures that were so popular 10-15 years prior. It is a template for many of the horror-comedies that came after. In fact, as I re-watched this film it struck me that the animated Scooby-Doo series owes a lot to this movie.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made 36 films together between 1940 and 1956 as well as doing lots of radio and television. They were one of the three greatest comedy duos of the 20th Century, in my estimation. Those duos were Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. It is fascinating how the careers of those three duos fit so neatly end to end, as if a crown of royalty were being handed down. MGM dropped Hal Roach studios and the long-running Laurel and Hardy comedies the very year (1940) that Abbott and Costello premiered on the big screen. Likewise, Martin & Lewis eclipsed Abbott & Costello fairly rapidly in the early 1950’s. I like to think of Abbott & Costello as a kind of opposite to Laurel & Hardy. With Abbott and Costello, the straight man was Bud Abbott, the thin guy. The short, plump guy (Lou Costello) was the dim-witted comic one. With Laurel and Hardy, Oliver Hardy (the plump guy) was the straight man (more or less), and Stan Laurel was the dim-witted, funny one. Like Stan Laurel, Lou Costello had to stand up to a fairly abusive partner. In fact, some of the verbal abuse, and the tendency to haul off and slug each other, seems almost harsh and detracts a bit from the comedy these days, but allowing for a little outdated crudeness, the films of both duos remain surprisingly funny, even as they have aged. The Abbott and Costello comedies benefit from rapid-fire repartee as well as physical slapstick, so they seem almost a hybrid between the world of Laurel & Hardy and that of the Marx Brothers. I would venture that the Martin & Lewis comedies have not aged as well, although they are still funny if you are in the right mood (of if you are 8 years old.) Jerry Lewis’s solo films are not nearly as good, because he is so zany (some would say retarded) that he needs that straight man to anchor him.
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein stands in film history as a semi-official last chapter (in 1948) to the Universal Studios arc of horror films which began with Frankenstein in 1931 and continued on in the Frankenstein sequels, The Invisible Man, The Wolf-Man, Dracula, and others. Only Mel Brooks, with his Young Frankenstein (1974), has topped the Abbott and Costello film for sheer hilarity in a horror-comedy, as he too paid homage to specific Universal films, most notably Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In fact, the Abbott & Costello film and the Mel Brooks film are so much a part of the Universal Studios monster tradition that they do not just parody the genre, but they are an indispensable part of the Universal monster movie arc that began in 1931.