Universal Pictures had such success with its horror movies that the logical assumption was the more monsters, the merrier. Starting in 1943, with the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal embarked on a series of creature-crossovers, in which monsters from previous films encounter one another. House of Frankenstein upped the ante in 1944, by adding Dracula to the mix. 1945’s House of Dracula employed a similar motif, re-utilizing actor John Carradine as Dracula from the preceding movie. Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. reprised their roles as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man, respectively, from House of Frankenstein. Mad scientists, played by a variety of actors, also factored into the established formula. The permutations got a needed shot of cinematic adrenaline in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The infusion of comedy brought a freshness to the franchise.
The narrative begins with Larry Talbot AKA, The Wolf Man, in an impassioned telephone call from London to a freight delivery service located in La Mirada, Florida. Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is begging freight handler Wilbur (Lou Costello) not to deliver two crates. The warning goes unheeded. Wilbur and his co-worker Chick (Bud Abbott) proceed with the crates, that reputedly contain Count Dracula’s remains and the body of Frankenstein’s Monster, to their assigned destination: McDougal’s House of Horrors. The spooky atmosphere of the museum frightens Wilbur, who nonetheless feels compelled to read the creepy descriptions that accompany the crates. As he reads in the foreground, the monsters awaken behind him, and what ensues amounts to a sadistic game of hide-and-seek. Whenever Wilbur calls out in distress to Chick, Dracula hides among the museum’s wax figures or back in his coffin; constantly fooling Wilbur as to his whereabouts.
Although the befuddled protagonist, Wilbur has some consolation. Two beautiful women vie for his affection: Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) and undercover insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph, who appeared in Cat People (1942) and 1944’s Curse of the Cat People.) Dr. Mornay wants him for nefarious reasons, while Joan thinks he’s instrumental to her investigation. The ladies’ competition for Wilbur baffles Chick, who jealously asks Dr. Mornay what Wilbur has that he doesn’t. She cryptically replies, “A brain.”
Many of the hilarious sight gags in the film take place in the background, with actions unbeknownst to Wilbur. There’s a sequence in Larry Talbot’s hotel room, after Talbot has transformed into The Wolf Man, in which an oblivious Wilbur inadvertently escapes the wrath of the beast. An equally funny scene has Wilbur backing into a chair and sitting, unaware he’s sat down on the lap of Frankenstein’s Monster. After noticing an extra hand on the armrest, the uneasy proximity dawns on Wilbur. This is Costello at his comedic best; milking the slow comprehension that precedes the subsequent unadulterated panic.
The screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant was originally titled The Brain of Frankenstein. Because it sounded too much like a straight horror movie, the release title was changed to emphasize the focus on comedy. Abbott and Costello would go on to meet other Universal Monsters in later films. There’s a sort of teaser for the eventual Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, with the voice of Vincent Price (uncredited) scaring the wits out of Wilbur and Chick.
Billing the actors who played the monsters would initially seem to have been a daunting task. Considering that Lon Chaney Jr. is the sole actor to have portrayed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, it is fitting that his name is first in the “monster” credits. Bela Lugosi as Dracula comes in second since, remarkably, he played Dracula only three times in films. In addition to the Abbott and Costello movie and, of course, the 1931 Dracula, he also acted the role of the count in the ten-minute short Hollywood on Parade. Despite essaying other vampire roles in quite a few movies, Lugosi’s big screen appearances as the character named Dracula consist of two full-length feature films.
Charles T. Barton directed the financially lucrative movie; Universal’s second biggest money-maker of 1948. With its intentionally cheesy special effects, and the copious laughs supplied by a consummate comic duo, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein delightfully fuses humor and horror.