REVIEW: A desperate man, seeing the moon rise from his London window, pleads with the telephone operator to connect him to the express office in Islamorada, Florida. He has an urgent message for the receiver of two large crates being delivered to the McDougal House of Horrors. When he’s put through, he reaches Wilbur (Lou Costello) in baggages and explains that the crates are not to be delivered until –
He doesn’t finish. Instead, he begins a transformation that turns him from Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), mild-mannered businessman to really hairy dude, The Wolf Man. Unfortunately, all Wilber hears is growling, and frustrated at the rude caller, hangs up. Just then, McDougal himself comes to collect, so Wilber and his boss Chick (Bud Abbott), oblige, loading up the massive boxes and hauling them to the museum.
There, as Chick keeps busy outside, Wilbur–already frightened by the fantastical collections of terrifying oddities–goes about opening the crates. Bad news for him as the real Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) are inside and give him a jolt as they sneak out the back, leaving Wilbur in a Dracula-induced trance just as Chick and McDougal arrive. Angered by the incompetence and loss of his bodies, McDougal calls the police. Accused of theft, it’s off to jail for Chick and Wilbur, though not for long as Wilbur’s high society girlfriend, with some monster-related ambitions of her own, posts bail and sets them free. Just in time too as Talbot arrives and convinces Wilbur that what he saw was real and terrible things are about to happen unless they stop them.
A grand mix of humor and horror, Abbott and Costello bring their trademark comedy stylings to the then very popular trio of monster movie stars in a classic of both of genres. Funny and scary, a great Halloween addition for some old time laughs.
That Moment In: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein
Setup: Chick and Wilbur are in the house of Dracula, though Chick is still skeptical and constantly belittles Wilbur about thinking monsters exist. They’ve come to the manor to pick up Wilbur’s date, Sandra, who is working with Dracula to secretly take Wilbur’s brain and put it in the Frankenstein monster, thereby making the creature docile and, well, Wilbur-like. They are heading to a fancy ball, and as they await Sandra as she prepares, Lawrence Talbot phones and warned them that they are in danger. They decide to search the house and end up in a dank basement.
Why it matters: Abbott and Costello have always relied on the broad wit of the portly and animated Costello, who is the target of most of the ribbing in the duo’s many capers. Here is no different as Costello is on high alert throughout most of the film, constantly seeing and being involved in monster mayhem just out of sight of Abbott. His expressive face, quick feet and and high-pitched squeals are perfect complements to the slow moving and mostly blank stares of the creatures he faces. In this scene, he is especially funny and spends most of the time speaking gibberish as he tries to communicate his fear to the ever flustered Chick. There is no doubt that the primary goal is comedy and all players are in on the joke, but it is fun to watch as superstars from two very different genres come together and create a very memorable cinema moment.
More: Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and The Wolfman were big theater draws in the 30s and 40s, and actors like Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange were the top names playing them. Their films were all groundbreaking efforts in cinema and were enjoyed by millions around the world (though Boris Karloff was the original Frankenstein monster and refused to watch this film). Lugosi had so immortalized the role of Dracula that to this day, it is the standard for which any Dracula is measured. Amazingly, it was not until 17 years after that performance would he play the role again, though this time in a comedy. It would also be his last time. His career had faded so steadily by 1948 that producers of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein were not even sure if he was still alive. Audiences were thrilled with the mash-up of stars and the film kickstarted the Abbott and Costello “meet” series, which would have them meet a whole host of Universal Studios monsters.
Admittedly, the film is not the laugh-out-loud comedy modern audiences might expect considering the cast and story. Sensibilities change and comedy has evolved, though maybe not in all the right directions. Simple farces were the thing back then, and with the country still reeling from WWII, easy, safe comedies were a big commodity. The plot of this film is paper thin, there can be no argument, and even Costello ridiculed the script, famously saying his little girl could do better, though eventually came to its favor while in production (and a $50,000 advance). There really is no motivation for anything and frustratingly, the monsters reach spectacular levels of ineptitude in trying to catch their victims. While it might be commendable to think putting Wilbur’s brain into the hulking frame of the Frankenstein monster, why would Dracula be behind the cause, and if so, why is he seemingly acting as if it will serve his nefarious ambitions? The Wolf Man, played by the wonderful Lon Chaney Jr, seems wholly incapable of simply reaching out and mauling Wilbur despite so many chances, it becomes less comical and more infuriating.
But any questions miss the point. This movie isn’t about reality or even respecting the very stories from which the characters are drawn from. The Wolf Man, played by Chaney Jr. had actually been cured of lycanthropy in The House of Dracula (1945). How he came to be a werewolf again is never explained, though there in a throw-away line where he says to Wilbur and Chick that years ago, he was bitten by a werewolf, so hmmm, maybe the guy just has bad luck. Furthermore, the Frankenstein monster speaks, though only briefly and we are not told how he got his voice. These, and other oddities make most aficionados believe that this story is a stand alone work and should not be considered part of the of the series in which any of the famous actors and monsters had previously appeared. Either way, it represented the end of these big three in the horror genre for Universal and none of the monsters would ever fully make a cinema comeback of similar popularity, though there have been many fine to mediocre attempts.
Horror and comedy have always been bedfellows. The two have been a part of many remarkable films, including Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (1974), which borrows the revolving wall bit to hilarious results, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), which combines horror, gore and humor in a very funny and frightening film. While we could quibble about the misnomer title (they actually never met Frankenstein, only his monster), the fun is with Wilbur and Chick as they bumble and stumble around in this cherished comedy.
Charles Barton (as Charles T. Barton)