Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal 1948)
Director Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the first of that famous comedy duo’s encounters with monsters, was released on the 15th of June, 1948.
The film has tended to divide classic horror fans over the years, with some loving and some loathing it, but whatever one’s individual viewpoint may be, there is no doubting it was the final undoing of the traditional Universal monsters. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man had all had their last outing together in 1945’s House of Dracula, but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein brought something even more impressive to the coffin; it was the return of Bela Lugosi to the role which had propelled him to fame seventeen years earlier, and yet only his second portrayal of that vampire. Glenn Strange reprised the Monster, barring a few scenes where Lon Chaney stepped in after the former broke his foot on set, and Chaney himself took the role of Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man. Even Vincent Price gets a look-in in the final scene, when his uncredited voice reprises his role as the Invisible Man from 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns.
Sleeping beauty: Wilbur (Lou Costello) and Chick (Bud Abbott) are suitably shocked when they discover their cargo includes the Monster (Glenn Strange) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal 1948)
It is an open secret that the junior Chaney hated the comedy monster mashes: “Abbott and Costello ruined the horror field,” he would later say. “They made buffoons out of the monsters. Then the cheap producers came along and made worse buffoons of them, because they killed for the sake of killing, there was blood for the sake of blood. There was no thought, no true expression of acting, no true expression of feeling. We used to make up our minds before we started that this is a little fantastic, but let’s take it seriously. And they were sold seriously. But all this foolishness today, it isn’t sold seriously. It’s made as a joke, a laugh, for the kids to go in and have a ball.” The only reason Chaney became involved was because no-one else was allowed to play his ‘baby’.
Unholy trinity: Dracula (Bela Lugosi), with the assistance of Dr Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) plan to put Wilbur’s brain into the Monster (Glenn Strange) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal 1948)
Not as devout about his involvement with the old monsters, Strange just took the work; Lugosi just took the money.
While some ardent fans have never forgiven Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’s entry into the annals of Universal horror history, other, less fastidious ones have warmed to its gentler charms over the years. There are those, too, whose love of the film is so great that they will hear not one word against it.
Monster mayhem: Confusion takes hold with Wilbur (Lou Costello), Chick (Bud Abbott) the Monster (Glenn Strange) and Dracula (Bela Lugosi), leading to some spooky hi jinx in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal 1948)
Taken as a vehicle in its own right, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is actually quite a good film. That purists denounce it so is a little harsh; its mere existence does nothing to diminish the glorious series that went before it and, well if you don’t like the idea, I guess the answer is just don’t watch it. The notion, as quoted by Chaney, that the two comic masters ‘ruined the horror field’ is surely like saying that French fries ruined the potato; anyone who dislikes French fries can still enjoy potatoes in whatever other form they choose.
The ‘straight’ performances by Lugosi, Chaney and Strange are a delight, and it is a wonderful opportunity to see the former finally reprise the role for which he is most famous. Chaney, for all his misgivings, makes an excellent foil for Lou Costello, and Strange probably has more screen time as the Monster here than in either of his previous two movies portraying him. And what an excellent Monster he made; it only seems a pity that he was not given a more meaty role in House of Frankenstein (1944) or House of Dracula (1945), allowing the actor the chance to prove he was always the best contender to follow Karloff.
Brainbox: Dracula (Bela Lugosi) schemes to bring about a spot of brain surgery on Wilbur (Lou Costello) and the Monster (Glenn Strange) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal 1948)
Most importantly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is still a genuinely funny film; the comic timing is exquisite and the dialogue fresh and lively. All the classic monsters look great, and the whole adds up to a spooky, haunted house movie that, as a set piece, is thoroughly enjoyable. One worries that the haters do so simply on principle, thus missing out on a thundering good lark.
In 2001, the US Library of Congress saw fit to describe the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”, selecting it for preservation in the National Film Registry, and thus adding testimony to the argument that, saint or sinner, the film was undoubtedly important as an event in the changing fortunes of the classic horror film.