News Column

Monster mash

October 25, 2013


Oct. 25--Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, monster-movie farce, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles

Abbott and Costello weren't even around when Mary Shelley introduced the world to Frankenstein's monster. But they met up with her literary creation when Universal Studios paired the former burlesque comics with Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman in a 1948 film that critics consider one of the best horror comedies of all time.

The Jean Cocteau Cinema screens Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (the title card actually reads Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein) starting Friday, Oct. 25, to ring in the Halloween season. Author George R.R. Martin, who bought and reopened the Jean Cocteau this summer, said by phone that he first saw this movie on television sometime in the 1950s. "It's not going to terrify anyone who has watched the Freddy [Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street series] or Jason [Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise] movies. There's no gore in it. It's a perfectly good comedy with a slight scare for the kids."

Most Abbott and Costello historians acknowledge that the film briefly revived the fading career of the comedy team. Yet many biographers tend to dismiss this, their most famous picture, in a paragraph or two. Even Chris Costello, in her affectionate portrait of her father, Lou's on First, devotes little ink to the movie.

The best account of the production can be found in Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo's book Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, published in 1991. The authors relate how the film's producer, Robert Arthur, came up with the movie's basic idea while brainstorming with fellow producer Ed Muhl over what to do next with Abbott and Costello. After all, the team had already been in the Army, the Navy, the Army Air Corps, a haunted house, a tropical island, college, a harem, the racetrack, and way out West. "Suppose they met Frankenstein?" Arthur wondered aloud.

After some false starts, screenwriters Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant fashioned the script. In it, Dracula (B la Lugosi) wants to revive the Frankenstein monster for his own nefarious purposes, though they are never explained. Dracula realizes he needs to transplant the stupidest brain possible into the monster's head so Frankenstein will obey all his commands. Enter dopey baggage clerk Wilbur Grey (Costello) -- the perfect candidate for the experiment -- and his buddy, Chick Young (Abbott).

The screenwriters decided to make the Wolfman, aka Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), an ally for our comic heroes as he tries to foil Dracula's plans; the reasons for this are not explained, either. But Talbot turns into a wolf whenever the full moon approaches, so he's frequently turning on the boys. Eventually the three monsters and the two clumsy comics find themselves engaged in a madcap foot chase through Dracula's castle, battling over who gets Wilbur's brain.

The picture was shot in six weeks at a cost of about $800,000. By all accounts Costello hated the concept and told the studio that his young daughter could write a better script if given the chance. But he and Abbott soon got into the spirit of the project and even staged pie fights, seltzer-bottle duels, and other antics on the set to keep everyone happy.

According to Furmanek and Palumbo, Arthur asked the studio's head of production, Bill Goetz, to read the script and offer advice. Goetz reportedly replied, "These guys are not funny to me. I never willingly went to one of their pictures. So any suggestion that I make would only hurt you. So I leave it in your hands. God bless you and God help you."

The film was released in August 1948 and earned about $3.2 million worldwide, making it one of the duo's biggest hits. Critics were divided, but movie exhibitors loved the movie, though one complained, "While we did excellent business, the broken seats, crying kids and screams from the women hardly made this one worth it." A Dayton Journal film critic wrote, "All the monsters aren't on the screen. Pint-sized ones surrounded us at yesterday's matinee, and their blood-curdling screams, their maniacal guffaws, their shouted instructions and their frenzied, weird bodily contortions as the hapless heroes stumbled from horror to horror will haunt us long after the final film fades from our nightmares."

Martin is hoping that today's kids get a similar kick out of the film. "I do think Abbott and Costello hold up very well. Once you meet them, it's hard not to like them."

But Martin never did like the Wolfman, a character he encountered in many a 1940s horror film. "The Wolfman scared the hell out of me," he recalled. "And near where I lived [as a child], there was a lawyer ... whose name was Talbot, the name of the Wolfman character. So whenever I passed his office, I got a little tingle -- my God, it's Talbot! I wonder if he's going to turn into a wolf when the moon turns full!"

Which is, of course, what the Talbot of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein does. Early in the film, Talbot tries to explain his lycanthropic illness to Wilbur and Chick: "In a half an hour, the moon will rise, and I will turn into a wolf." To which the clueless Wilbur responds, "You and 20 million other guys."


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