#481) Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
OR “Monster Mashup”
Directed by Charles T. Barton
Written by Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant
Class of 2001
The Plot: Baggage clerks Chick Young and Wilbur Grey (Bud Abbott & Lou Costello) are assigned to deliver two large crates to “McDougal’s House of Horrors”. They soon discover that the crates include the bodies of Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi & Glenn Strange), with the Count planning to revive the monster by putting Wilbur’s brain into its body. The boys are aided by Wilbur’s girlfriend Sandra (Lenore Aubert), insurance investigator Joan (Jane Randolph), and Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who turns into the Wolf Man whenever there’s a full moon. But all this is just a backdrop to watch a legendary comedy duo mug their way through some of Universal’s most iconic franchises.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a plot recap, and states that Lugosi, Chaney and Strange “all play their roles perfectly straight” as foils for Abbott and Costello. There’s a more appreciative essay by Abbott & Costello expert Ron Palumbo.
But Does It Really?: While not in the same league as movie comedy teams The Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello’s iconic filmography and pitch-perfect timing are more than deserving of NFR recognition. I suspect the appearance of the Universal monsters gives this A&C outing the edge over their other well-known films “Buck Privates” and “The Naughty Nineties”. “Nineties” has their “Who’s on First” routine, but “Meet Frankenstein” is the overall better film, and is a welcome addition to the NFR.
Shout Outs: Well, obviously “Frankenstein” and “Dracula“, though it should be noted that this film takes its depiction of these monsters from 1944’s “The House of Frankenstein”, not the original classics.
Everybody Gets One: In 1935, vaudeville performer Lou Costello needed a last minute replacement when his comedy partner fell ill. William “Bud” Abbott filled in, and the two officially became a comedy duo the next year. In 1938, Abbott & Costello made their radio debut on “The Kate Smith Hour”, and their successful appearance led to more radio, stage, and eventually film work. Under contract with Universal, the pair became two of the most successful movie stars of the 1940s. By the time “Meet Frankenstein” came about, the duo’s star power was fading, and the team had endured a few personal rifts between them. Pairing the boys with the declining Universal Monsters characters was a last ditch cash grab for Universal, and was one of their cheapest productions that year.
Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the massive cultural appropriation happening at the masquerade ball, we get the lost attraction of wax museums, and a shoutout to the Lucky Strike slogan.
Title Track: The film was originally titled “The Brain of Frankenstein”, but Abbott and Costello’s names were added to prevent people from expecting another horror film. It should also be noted that this film always refers to the creature as “Frankenstein’s Monster“, meaning the Frankenstein of the title is presumably the doctor, who does not appear at any point in this film.
- If this is your first viewing of Abbott & Costello, their dynamic might seem a little off-putting; Abbott’s exasperated straight man constantly berating Costello’s energetic man-child. The team had made 21 movies together prior to this, their stage personas firmly established over the previous decade. Like “Road to Morocco“, this NFR entry assumes you know who these two are and what their deal is.
- Although he played many vampires throughout his career, this was Bela Lugosi’s only official film appearance as Count Dracula following the 1931 original. This was also Lugosi’s last major studio film before resorting to television and the films of Ed Wood.
- Here’s a weird one: Boris Karloff refused to reprise his role of Frankenstein’s Monster for this movie, but agreed to do publicity for it as long as he didn’t have to see the final film. The role ultimately went to Universal’s other Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange, and publicity photos of Karloff promoting the film still exist.
- Lon Chaney Jr. had played Lawrence Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, in four previous Universal films. He is…not much of an actor without that makeup.
- [Insert Mandatory “Werewolves of London” Reference Here]
- Shoutout to the Universal effects team for their impressive work transforming Dracula into a bat. Bela Lugosi fades into animation of Dracula turning into a bat, which fades to a live-action model bat on strings. A relic by modern standards, but still cool to watch.
- Chick and Wilbur live together? Chick is Wilbur’s boss, how does that make any sense?
- Costello gets to chew the scenery (and excels at it), but Abbott also scores with the handful of punch lines he gets throughout the film.
- Ah yes, the exhilarating life of an insurance investigator. Romance! Intrigue! Danger!
- Everyone in this movie follows the Comedy Rule of Peripheral Vision: You can only see things when it’s funny.
- I am willing to forgive this movie’s “Full Moon” rule about werewolves if they would acknowledge it also works during the moon’s Gibbous phases. Speaking of, The Wolf Man kinda looks like Tim Allen, complete with grunting noises!
- Why does everyone keep calling Wilbur a “kid”: He’s 42!
- While pleading with Frankenstein’s Monster, Wilbur repeatedly calls him “Frankie”. That’s what we should be calling the monster!
- Frankie throws one of the leading ladies through a glass window? You wouldn’t see Karloff do that.
- The finale ramps up the funny, and I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit. No spoilers, but the movie ends with a big laugh from a surprise cameo. Take that, Nick Fury!
- “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was a surprise smash for Universal, and rejuvenated the comedy team’s sagging career. Universal had the duo “Meet” several of their other properties, including “The Mummy”, “The Invisible Man”, and at last, “The Killer, Boris Karloff”.
- In addition to their films, Abbott & Costello found continued success in radio, as well as the new medium of television. The duo ended their partnership in 1957, with several factors contributing (overexposure, Lou’s ongoing health issues, the rise of Lewis & Martin). After Costello’s death in 1959, Abbott attempted to revive the act with Candy Candido, but as Abbott later put it, “No one could ever live up to Lou.”
Listen to This: Abbott & Costello had been honing their “Who’s on First?” routine since their vaudeville days, and the bit became their most famous sketch. The earliest surviving recording of “Who’s on First?” comes from a 1938 radio appearance, which made the National Recording Registry’s inaugural class of 2002. A&C expert Ron Palumbo is back with a detailed essay on the history of the routine.