Comedy and horror have forever gone hand in hand; the whole adage of laughing/screaming and the physical response paralleled and shared between being terribly frightened and in absolute hysterics is something that filmmakers throughout the years have been attracted to and sometimes tackled. One of the earliest films to consciously introduce horror, monsters, genuine menace, Gothic romance, heavy subject matter regarding life, sex, death and birth as well as mesmerizing high drama married to black comedy was James Whale’s spectacular Bride of Frankenstein, where most, if not all, of the comic elements came from the googly eyed Una O’Connor and Ernest Thesinger as the fey fop Dr. Pretorious. However, it was 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein where comedy took the reins and movie monsters got a chance to play for laughs. All except for Lon Chaney Jr. however, as the forever doomed (and recently resurrected, just for this outing) Larry Talbot – Hollywood’s go-to wolf man – who plays the film straight and embodies most of the dramatic tint on this otherwise hilarious crossbreed of two of Universal’s most successful exports – their monsters and their number one comedy duo.
Next to Francis the talking mule and the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, Universal’s comic partners Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were the studio’s biggest drawcards, and teaming them up with the three most popular movie monsters from their canon was both a critical and financial success. It also marked the very last time Lugosi’s Dracula (interestingly enough the actor only ever played the specific role twice in film), Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster (after Boris Karloff refused to take on the film feeling that the character being in a full blown comedy might undermine the misunderstood menace) and finally Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man would appear in a movie – as well as being the last of the great monster mash-ups that sent fans flocking to the box office and critics eager to see how this film would carefully balance each movie monster as far as screen time went and also on top of that, how the horror would play out within the confides of a big, bawdy and broad comedy.
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a charming and thoroughly entertaining blend of spook show and side-splitter; it is the most successful marriage of horror and comedy ever put to screen and arguably one of the greatest franchise partnerships. The efforts from director Charles Barton and the performances from it’s imitable and legendary cast make up for one of the most cleverly plotted and pieced together light romps. Also, one of the most crucial aspects of this film is that while it is a comedy, it never compromises the dignity of these iconic movie monsters who mean a lot to not only horror aficionados, but to cinephiles everywhere.
Opening with an entertaining animated title sequence where our goofy heavy set comic Lou Costello and his straight man Bud Abbott are presented as jittery skeletons crashing into one another to spell out the title card, then followed by an impressive cartoon take on a Universal soundstage decked out with all the gothic trimmings these motion pictures excelled in, we are soon greeted by the ‘toon cavalcade of our movie monsters: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man strolling on by (complete with an additional “monster” in Dr. Sandra Mornay). The film opens with Lon Chaney Jr. looking weary and worried as the forever put upon Larry Talbot. In an interesting departure from the comic cartoon title sequence, director Barton decides to follow this with a dramatic scenario, made all the more intense and fraught with anxiety by Chaney’s troubled and tortured lycanthrope – which ultimately summarises the film in a condensed nutshell; that this motion picture is a light hearted comic venture, but this does not mean that there are heavy elements of horror and drama which for the most part, come through the always delicately handled performance of Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney plays the torment and torture of Larry Talbot with such finesse, that it is a blessing that he never neglected or refused to play the role, unlike his horror movie counterparts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Even in this frenzied comedy with its hilarious set pieces and set ups, Chaney delivers something truly measured, nuanced and anchored by the character’s deep depression, isolation, loneliness and desperation. Also, it is interesting to note that Jack Pierce, the “father of the Universal monsters” who designed the original Wolf Man look, had been more or less been fired from the studio (mainly because of time constraints and because the artist was far too cantankerous to deal with for executives) making way for Bud Westmore (a member of the Westmroe family who would become one of the biggest names in the history of cinematic make-up) to step in and take over the look for not only the Wolf Man, but for Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein monster. This would alter the Wolf Man in design with his darker more dense fur, the snout far more pig-like and riddled with creases and his claws sharper and pointier – more like a mole. This new look for the Wolf Man (which is not entirely dramatically different to the original look) would somehow lend itself more fathomable to the comic set ups that he would have to endure. As heavy and as dark in tone the scenes with Larry Talbot are, the Wolf Man counterpart is allowed to participate in buffoonery and clowning with scenes involving the gifted and multi-talented Lou Costello.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play Chick and Wilbur, two luggage clerks at a Florida railway station. They are instrumental in the delivery of a shipment which includes the creepy artefacts of what will be a House of Horrors. Into the story comes the aforementioned Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), a breathy and almost animalistic European beauty who is dark and mysterious and instantly draws a connective tissue to the old world and old world monsters. She will eventually become a vampire and shares a great scene with Costello’s Wilbur with “I’ll bite” and then “No. I will” closing the funny but also eerie and sensuous sequence. However, one doesn’t have to wait too long for such inspired and loaded dialogue, the film brims with it from top to bottom. For example, the cranky Bud Abbott as Chick is confused as to why Sandra is romantically interested in the rotund, festively plump Wilbur, he remarks “Frankly I don’t get it!” to which Sandra replies “Frankly you never will.” These sizzling tiny slices into innuendo share some common grounds with John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless’s script for The Howling – when T.C. Quist tells Bill Neill that his sister Marsha “just loves to cook”, we the audience are left well aware that rabbit stew will not be on the nymphette lycanthrope’s mind when Bill enters her den. And here in the tight and taught screenplay for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this is the same thing. Some nice gags and punchy witticism is made all the more captivating by the endless sharp and driving dialogue that fuels the fundamental story – never does the film stammer or trip over itself to catch up with the jokes, it runs a smooth ride carefully balancing the core story (which involves the underhanded betrayal of Sandra who works in cahoots with Count Dracula) with the generous helping of hilarity and silliness (epitomised by Lou Costello’s mugging and gasping, and his own personal take on the comic scare).
The lengthy but perpetually entertaining sequence where Wilbur tries to explain that Dracula is in fact in his tomb and reawakening is classic Abbott and Costello. This was not their first venture into comedy/horror, they had starred in the successful Hold That Ghost (1941) which lead to this even better and far more layered motion picture. Originally, the film was called The Brain of Frankenstein, however the studio believed it to sound too much like a straight horror picture, so a new title was introduced and a marketing campaign headed by the reluctant Boris Karloff took off, sending audiences into a joyous frenzy. Finally, their beloved movie monsters would share the silver screen with their favourite bumbling comic duo – what on earth would this play out like? What it does prove is the incredible multi-faceted talents of it’s cast. Bela Lugosi for example, relishes in the humorous moments of the film, while still honouring his trusted elegance and sophistication as the bloodthirsty Count. There is a touch of self-parody as well here, and much like Mae West, Bob Hope and countless other stars, Lugosi is his own invention – a self-made commodity painted up with his own personal flair – therefore there is much room to have fun with his own invention. Glenn Strange as the monster gets some great moments most notably at the end and with Dracula as his master the film plays with the concept of the conniving intellectual using “basically good” hulks to do their evil bidding which will in fact become a narrative trope in genre fare.
The film’s perfect marriage of horror, mystery, intrigue and pulsating humour makes it an incredibly well structured, mounted and plotted artistic experiment and it truly does belong to Costello’s mugging, whimpering, stammering and endless fear-induced gasping which are never a nuisance, never overstay their welcome and are never groan-inducing which is an incredible feat. Thankfully, the film does leave the comic elements on the side where the sequences shared between Dracula and Dr. Mornay are played straight. It is a perfect union and an interesting ploy as she wishes to use Wilbur’s simple and non-threatening brain for the Frankenstein monster. Sandra makes a superb counterpart to Lugosi’s opportunistic vampire, and her mastering Frankenstein’s notebook is another straight subplot. Dracula insists that “this time the monster must have no will of his own”, hence Sandra’s keen interest in Wilbur which in turn becomes a perfect representation of the dimwit being used as a pawn in the true evils of the picture (the true evils being represented by Dracula and Sandra). Here, once again, the Wolf Man is a victim of circumstance and ultimately a “good man” which is something that Wilbur even declares.
Costello’s impressions of the Frankenstein monster and Dracula are a perfect condensation of how much of a cultural impact these movie monsters have left on the impressionable minds of monster kids and future monster kids. Universal monster movie fan and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein expert Steve McCredie writes:
Many ‘Monster Kids’ lovingly attest to 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein being their chill-friendly introduction to the series’ earlier classics. They could have done worse. Everyone involved in the film is at the top of their game. Lou Costello’s early reservations notwithstanding, I agree with his mother: it’s one of the comedy duo’s best, flawlessly integrating many of their classic burlesque-born routines without compromising monster action and thrills (a little necessary panto-peril notwithstanding). Bela Lugosi is back for his second and final screen performance as “the original Count Dracula”, and he’s less of a continental goofball than in the original, as he suavely manipulates these mere mortals. Glenn Strange, little more than an ailing prop in the two previous, ‘serious’ entries, shows his chops as an unleashed force here. Director Charles Barton uses his familiarity with Abbott and Costello to great effect. Frank Skinner’s score gives each monster a memorable motif. Which brings us to Larry Talbot. After several deaths and resurrections through previous films, poor Talbot has finally, understandably lost the plot. On an unheralded mission to destroy the other two monsters, he spends his human time in deep and earnest melancholy, muttering about imminent moon-rises he then as often as not ignores, and trying to have newly-met strangers (Bud and Lou) instantly buy into his thankless crusade. Lon Chaney only plays Talbot as a cheerful (metaphorical) ‘wolf’ at the start of 1941’s The Wolf Man. Once accursed in that film (and all that follow), he’s consistently the anguished pursuer of peaceful death that only eludes him through bludgeoning, deluges and silver bullets, apparently only as final as the next cold moon-rise. If that isn’t bad enough, any continuity from the last straight instalment, 1945’s House of Dracula, now sees him cruelly deprived of its happy ending, as his hard-earned cure and the promise of romance (rather than carnage) evaporate beneath the full moon. No werewolf suffers like Talbot.
Larry Talbot remains stone faced throughout the film (“I followed Dracula all the way from Europe”) and Chaney’s performance is once again measured and nuanced – he is the epitome of torment and depressive anguish. However, as previously stated, his Wolf man gets some light comic moments such as the charming scene where Wilbur delivers Larry’s luggage and is completely unaware of Talbot in werewolf form is a great example of perfectly staged and blocked comedy/ However, for the most part, Larry spends the entire movie warning Wilbur and Chick about Dracula and Dracula’s intentions. When he confesses his lycanthropy to the duo, Wilbur coyly replies “I’m sort of a wolf myself” which infuriates Larry, “I thought you would be the one who would believe me” lending a strange connection made between a spiritually tortured werewolf and the film’s primary buffoon. When Larry explains that when the moon is full he will turn into a wolf, Wilbur once again associates it with lascivious and sex-crazed men lusting after the ladies with “You and twenty million other guys”. Here is another joke that enrages Larry; and suggests the notion that Larry is indeed the only genuine wolf man, while mere-men who chase after women are simply horny cretins not worthy of such turmoil and suffrage. In this comedy and horror hybrid, Larry Talbot and Eddie Quist from The Howling may have more in common than before. This association with rogue man transforming into wolf and sexual drive and desire is depicted in similar terms – Eddie tells Karen that “they could never be like me”, indicating a sinister figurative parallel with lycanthropy and rape culture, whereas the normally calm Larry in this comic outing turns aggressive when jokes about men chasing women are made.
The melting pot of horror and comedy is what bears some semblance between Joe Dante’s socially aware film and this offering from Universal which some have come to see as the swan song for the classic movie monsters with later aberrations of nature popping up replacing the old stalwarts such as the gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the giant arachnid in Tarantula (1955). However, the comedy is very different in The Howling which uses inside jokes and satire while Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is drawn up with broad humor, obvious set ups and gags, slapstick, vaudevillian-style shtick and loaded with puns. The Howling never distracts itself or it’s audience with the self-referential nods and winks, in fact it keeps them cagey and thoroughly embedded within the mechanics of a horror movie. Of course, for cinephiles and “monster kids”, the inside gags such as many of the characters being named after directors of werewolf movies (such as Charlie Barton as played by Noble Willingham is the director of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) is obvious and fun for such devotees to horror cinema and film history.
Despite some inconsistencies with former Universal horror movies such as Dracula’s reflection not being apparent in mirrors, however here, when Dracula bites Dr. Mornay his reflection is clearly seen, the film is a loving tribute to the classic monster movies from the studio of the thirties and forties. The build up to the climax is fun – Larry transforms in the dead of night, Sandra attempts to seduce Wilbur and turn him over to the dark side and Wilbur and Chick being chased by an angry mob ala most monster movies from the golden age. While the climax is a remarkable piece of dramatic and comic unity – the Wolf Man and Dracula pushing the slab that holds Wilbur upon it back and forth, the Frankenstein monster disposing of Sandra and then terrorizing our hapless heroes and the sweet coda with the Invisible Man. All in all, this full blown comedy monster movie is a masterpiece and an important work and does give Lon Chaney Jr. yet another great opportunity to play one of cinema’s most deeply scarred literal werewolves.
Written by Lee Gambin with Steve McCredie.