ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

  • Director: Charles Barton
  • Writers: Screenplay by John Grant, Story by Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, based on characters by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Curt Siodmak, and H.G. Wells
  • Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, and Vincent Price
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I like a lot of dumb movies. I have watched and enjoyed Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I am a big fan of movies so extremely terrible they verge on outsider art, too, like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate. So I want to say that when I say that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the dumber big studio movies I’ve seen, I don’t want you to think it’s an insult. I added it to my list of movies to watch because I heard Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton and Blindspotting fame, mention on a podcast that it was his favorite movie. At first I thought it was going to be hard to sit through, but as time went on and the dumbness compounded, I actually did laugh a bunch of times. Though in some ways, the biggest joke in this movie is that it actually exists.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were, through World War II and at the time this movie was released in 1948, the highest earning entertainers in the country. They had first come to prominence via radio, before expanding first to movies and then, eventually, to TV. Their “patter routine” called “Who’s on First?” is justly famous even today. Costello was the weirdo, with a high voice (one of the main reasons I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to sit through this movie) that he developed for radio because otherwise audiences couldn’t tell the voices of the two comedians apart. Abbott plays the straight man, eternally driven nuts by his partner. Groucho Marx called him “the greatest straight man in the history of comedy.” Later in the 1950s their stars would decline, which Wikipedia hypothesizes was partly caused by “overexposure,” but in 1948 they remained among the biggest stars around.

The other half of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is, obviously, the monsters. It is today sometimes mentioned as sort of a swansong for the original crop of Universal monsters. Boris Karloff chose not to appear as Frankenstein (he is replaced by Glenn Strange), but then weirdly agreed to promote the movie for Universal. Bela Lugosi makes his final appearance as Count Dracula, and Lon Chaney, Jr., plays his most famous role as the Wolf Man. Even Vincent Price makes an uncredited cameo as voice of the Invisible Man. In some ways, this feels like the 1940s version of Space Jam: A New Legacy, in that Universal Pictures is basically throwing all their best intellectual property at a wall in a movie and doesn’t particularly care what sticks. Except here the characters themselves that aren’t Abbott and Costello for the most part take themselves seriously, whereas I’ve been told that in the new Space Jam movie Foghorn Leghorn rides around on a dragon in a blond wig and announces that “winter is coming.”

The plot, such as it is, casts Abbott and Costello as deliverymen assigned by the proprietor of a “House of Horrors” (Frank Ferguson) to deliver his two newest acquisitions, Dracula’s coffin and “the remains of Frankenstein’s Monster.” This turns out to be some sort of plot by Dracula, who wants to revive the Monster under his control. He reasons that if he can replace the Monster’s original brain with that of the very stupid Costello, he will be able to easily control it and make it do his bidding. Then Lon Chaney, Jr. shows up as Talbot, who says he knows what Dracula’s up to but also insists that he be locked in his hotel room because “I turn into a wolf when the moon comes out.” “Don’t we all, am I right guys?”

The title is interesting to me, because Dracula is in this movie way more than Frankenstein, and they actually got Bela Lugosi (who I think may already been deep into drug addiction at this point, and may have needed the money) to show up and hold his cape over his face mysteriously. This would be the last time he played his most famous role. Unlike Chaney, he never quite seems in on the joke, but I mean, that seems like asking a lot.

The very weird idea that resulted in this movie proved a success, with the movie both making a bunch of money and having over 80% on Rotten Tomatoes even today. This resulted in a long string of follow-ups, the next of which would star Boris Karloff, after all, in the weirdly-named Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff. Later in the series the duo would “meet” the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy, and also “Go to Mars,” among other adventures. To some degree, these can all be considered the same movie. But at least it is the sort of movie for which the word “zany” was invented.

At first I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to be able to sit through a full movie of Abbott and Costello, but by the end, I might have been up for a few more. Much of their appeal is at least based on verbal gymnastics, instead of Three Stooges pratfalls. There are multiple vampire jokes in this movie based on the phrase “OK, I’ll bite.” I have a high tolerance for this. And then you stick that in the middle of the closest 1948 would get to the Avengers teaming up, and you’ve got a winning formula as far as I’m concerned.

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