#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Nature of Shame:
It’s been a loooooong time since I last revisited the Abbott and Costello Meet… movies. I’ll try to remove my nostalgia goggles.
Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
The second Universal horror wave had pretty much run its course by the end of the 1940’s — which made finding a horror film from 1948 a little trickier than I anticipated. Oddly enough I had the same problem with 1938 (because it fell between Universal horror cycles, but we’ll get back to that when I discuss The Black Doll.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Elevator Pitch
Bumbling freight handlers deliver boxes containing priceless artifacts to a wax museum only to discover the boxes contained Dracula and Frankenstein. Then the “cargo” goes missing and they’re going to need the Wolf Man to help them sort it all out. Obviously.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? Just Frankenstein?
At the end of the 1940’s Frankenstein remained Universal’s most bankable movie monster. After 1939’s Son of Frankenstein (the last with Karloff as the Monster), the series devolved into B-movie oblivion. Universal ultimately turned to monster crossovers to breathe new life into the sagging franchise with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), followed closely by House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).
Meanwhile, over at MGM, the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been experiencing their own professional difficulties. In 1943, Costello came down with rheumatic fever after a tour of U.S. army bases and six months later his infant son died when he accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool. Shortly after Costello returned from his sabbatical, a rift developed between the two when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. The duo only spoke when performing and only appeared in films as separate characters rather than as a team.
It wasn’t until 1947 when Abbott and Costello reunited properly for Buck Privates Come Home (1947). In 1948, they signed a new contract with Universal. With their careers lagging and Universal’s monster cycle running out of box office mojo, the studio crossovered their crossover and put Abbott and Costello in a monster movie.
House of Abbott & Costello
Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man — the big three monsters from the “House of” menagerie all feature prominently. Bela Lugosi reprises his role as Dracula for the first time since Browning’s 1931 film and Lon Chaney, Jr. again plays the Wolf Man. Glenn Strange lumbers around as the monster in his third feature.
Most believe that Karloff wasn’t approached about being the monster. (Or that he was and just believed the material to be rubbish — famously he agreed to promote the film for Universal as long as he didn’t have to watch it.)
Though the film boasts an ambling structure more reflective of the Abbott and Costello vignette-style of filmmaking, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also contains a healthy stable of Universal’s well-established horror tropes. The spooky castle, mad scientist shenanigans, full-moon transformations. No monster legacies were harmed in the making of this movie.
Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein has become such a formative early horror-comedy, essential in equal measure to the Universal horror canon and Abbott and Costello’s lasting legacy. It’s therefore easy to overlook the film’s remarkable, rambling narrative. Most remember the classic scenes that open the film as Costello attempts to convey his monster sightings to a skeptical Abbott in the wax museum. Unless you’d just watched the film, however, I’m willing to bet you couldn’t say how they wind up at the “House of Dracula” during the final act.
I just watched it and I’m hazy on the details. The answer is, of course, it doesn’t really matter. The joy of the Abbott and Costello Meet… movies derive from the absurdist vignettes that somehow shoehorn the comedy duo into situations with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man and eventually Boris Karloff, the Invisible Man and the Mummy.
The Nostalgic Things that Go Bump
I watched most every Universal horror movie over the course of about two Halloweens, circa age 8 or 9. AMC; back when it was a no-commercial, all movie channel like TCM; showed all of these movies. I diligently recorded each and every one onto SLP VHS tapes. And despite my sincere love for some and nostalgic devotion to others, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has always held the greatest power to immediately revive the sense of discovery associated with those horror movie marathons.
Of course, you’ll always have those naysayers who’ll complain that Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein is just another Abbott and Costello vehicle and that it has no place in the legitimate Universal horror cycle and blah blah blahbity blah.
Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein is, if nothing else, reverent to the monsters themselves. The stories that had come before boasted very loose or nonexistent logical continuity and Abbot and Costello’s outing does nothing to tarnish the previously established universe where Dracula/Frankenstein/The Wolf Man all occupy the same time and space. In many ways, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein provides a *more* satisfying conclusion to that story.
Final Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Thoughts
During this viewing I started to pay more attention to the connective tissue. How Abbott and Costello “fit” into Universal horror. Narratively, Bud Abbott wasn’t wrong about his daughter being capable of writing a better script, but a script could never truly reflect what works about the film. Personality and novelty. You can script the relationship between Abbott and Costello any more than you can dictate the emotional attachment to Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney, Jr. in their monster makeup. These things just are, and neither time nor tide can erode their unlikely place in cinema history.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Rating:
Universal has given you dozens of opportunities to own Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on Blu-ray and DVD. There’s the standalone release — which also included an HD code (bonus). It’s also included on The Frankenstein Complete Legacy Collection, The Dracula Complete Legacy Collection and The Wolf Man Complete Legacy Collection.
If you’d like a complete collection of the Abbott and Costello Meet… movies, that’s more difficult. There’s the brilliant (but OOP) 28-film Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection steamer trunk. The Meet the Monsters DVD set contains Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (which is currently not available on Blu-ray), but is missing Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff because… I have no idea. In order to get that one, you’d need to purchase The Best of Abbott & Costello, Vol. 3 DVD. Got that?
James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add Deep Rising to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.