Thursday, July 21, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal-International, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened the next Abbott and Costello film in sequence in the Universal boxed set: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a 1948 production directed by Charles T. Barton (who also seems to have been the one who thought up the concept even though old A&C hands Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant wrote the script) which, as the title indicates, united Universal’s famous comedy team with their equally famous cast of copyrighted screen monsters: the Frankenstein creation (Glenn Strange), Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, playing Dracula on film for the second and last time — despite Lugosi’s reputation he only made five films in which he played a vampire: Dracula, The Mark of the Vampire, Return of the Vampire, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire — and the last two were comic spoofs) and the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., as usual). That makes this both a “doubles” movie (two Draculas: Lugosi and Chaney) and a “triples” movie (three Frankenstein Monsters: Chaney, Lugosi and Strange). Boris Karloff, the best-known Frankenstein Monster of all, wasn’t in this movie but agreed to help promote it as long as he didn’t have to watch it; he later appeared in two of Universal’s inevitable follow-ups, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) — a red-herring title if there ever was one because Karloff’s character was not the killer — and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). Lou Costello was originally reluctant to do the film — “My little girl could write a funnier script than this!” he said — but Universal-International (as the studio was then called) agreed to sweeten the pot financially, and the result was a solid commercial hit, a major comeback for Abbott and Costello and the studio’s biggest moneymaker of the year. It’s an oddly schizoid film in that the horror elements are presented almost completely “straight” — there’s no effort to make fun of the Frankenstein mythos itself the way Mel Brooks did in Young Frankenstein (though quite a few elements in this one anticipated Young Frankenstein and Charles and I were quoting a lot of Young Frankenstein dialogue as they came up: when Costello, stumbling around after hours in a “House of Horrors” wax museum, chops off the head of a dummy representing a guillotine victim I said, “Freshly Dead,” when A&C stumbled around the secret entrance to the basement of the old castle — actually the old set of the Paris sewers from Lon Chaney, Sr.’s legendary horror vehicle The Phantom of the Opera from 1925 — Charles said, “Put the candle back,” and when we saw the original journal of Frankenstein’s experiments, here called “The Secrets of Life and Death,” we both chanted in unison, “How I Did It!”) — and one can see the gears in Barton’s and cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s styles switched from heavy-duty Gothic in the prologue scene in London to the plain style Universal used in its comedies when the action switches to Florida, where the bulk of the film takes place.

The movie opens with Lawrence Talbot calling Chick Young[1] (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Smith (Lou Costello) long-distance from London to Florida to warn them not to deliver two crates to McDougal (Frank Ferguson), proprietor of a House of Horrors wax museum. The crates contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, and Talbot wants to warn Chick, Wilbur and anyone else he can get hold of that the creatures are still alive and Dracula is part of an elaborate scheme with Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert, who despite her French-sounding name was actually part-Austrian and part-Slovenian, though she’d been living in Paris for some years before coming to the U.S. and making her film debut, except for a bit in the 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, as a glacial European femme fatale in Bob Hope’s 1943 film They Got Me Covered) to revive the Monster and bring him back to full power. To do this, they have somehow secured access to a large old-style castle built on an island in the middle of the Everglades, and Dracula — posing as a Hungarian scientist named “Dr. Lejos” — decides he wants to give the Monster a perfectly innocent, childlike brain so he won’t resist and will be totally subservient to Dracula’s commands. He starts by breaking out of his coffin in McDougal’s museum and attaching a cigarette-lighter style device to each of the Monster’s neck electrodes to give him a semblance of movement. (The Monster says, “Master,” as soon as Dracula does this — marking this as the third time in the Universal Frankenstein cycle the Monster has spoken: the first time was in The Bride of Frankenstein, the second at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein in which Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Monster starts speaking with the voice of Bela Lugosi as Ygor because the Monster has just received Ygor’s brain — which was why Lugosi was cast as the Monster in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man: originally the plan was for the Monster to speak throughout that film but when preview audiences started laughing at Lugosi’s lines as the Monster, they were erased from the soundtrack along with any reference to the Monster being blind, which he became at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein because of an imbalance between the Monster’s and Ygor’s blood types.)

The principals go out to the island in the middle of the Everglades — though a portion of the film’s action plays at a masquerade party, during which Abbott and Costello (remember them?) freak out Lon Chaney, Jr. by dressing up in wolf-man costumes. Costello’s character is also being romanced by two women — by Dr. Mornay, who wants to lure him to the island so she can take out his brain and transplant it into the Monster, thereby giving it the perfectly innocent, guileless, stupid, pliable brain Dracula wants it to have; and also by insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who’s been assigned by the company to process McDougal’s insurance claim and see if the bodies of Dracula and the Monster can be recovered so the company won’t have to pay the claim. Randolph is described on her page as “briefly in the limelight in the 1940’s,” and by the time she made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein she’d already been in two of the finest horror films ever made in the U.S.: Val Lewton’s Cat People and (repeating her role) its sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. (She’d make only one feature film after Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, as an extra in a 1955 production called That Lady; she retired to marry producer Jaime del Amo and live with him as a socialite in Switzerland, where she died in 2009.) Raymond romances Costello to get a line on the whereabouts of the exhibits, but she also falls for Dr. Mornay’s assistant, Professor Stevens (Charles Bradstreet), who like the male ingénues in Mystery of the Wax Museum and its remake, House of Wax, is a decent young guy who’s totally unaware of the sinister doings of his employer. Abbott, predictably, can’t understand why two delectably pretty young women are falling for Costello, of all people; when he asks her why, Dr. Mornay says, “Blood … and brains.”

The film has some great lines — of which the best is, when Lawrence Talbot explains to him that when the full moon comes out he turns into a wolf, Costello answers, “Yeah — you and 20 million other guys!” — and is also surprisingly well staged as a horror movie, even though it suffers from the departure of Universal’s makeup genius, Jack P. Pierce. The new owners at Universal-International decided they could dispense with his services and brought in Bud Westmore, whose brothers Perc and Wally headed makeup departments at other studios; and Westmore decided that instead of using the laborious practices Pierce had employed to create the Frankenstein monster — wrapping the actor’s head in cheesecloth, applying facial putty and a special collodion and literally sculpting the face (and achieving the uncanny look of the Monster’s skin having pores, like real skin) — he would create the Monster’s face out of rubber appliances and glue it onto Glenn Strange. The result is a look that’s a lot less convincing and more visibly “fake,” especially in the close-ups. Also, in order to make Lugosi look the same age he was in Dracula even though it was 17 years later, Westmore plastered white makeup on his face, seemingly with a trowel, which made it virtually impossible for Lugosi to do any real facial expressions under all the white goo — and Universal cartoon department head Walter Lantz (best known as the creator of Woody Woodpecker) not only did a great animated credits sequence in which Abbott and Costello appear in skeletal form and their bones later fly apart and rearrange themselves into the name of the film, he also worked out a cool but not all that convincing effect of turning Dracula into an animated cartoon every time he turns from a bat into a human, or vice versa. (This was much the same technique Columbia was using the same year in the Superman serial with Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel — Alyn turned into a cartoon every time the script called on Superman to fly— though that was probably better than the way they did it on the 1950’s TV show, which was to hang George Reeves horizontally on a harness and pose him against a process shot of sky.)

Still, this is a nice film to be Lugosi’s (arguable) swan song for a major studio (his last completed film, The Black Sleep, was produced independently but released by the reputable United Artists company), and though this was a low-budget production at least they had a long enough rehearsal schedule for Lugosi to learn a substantial amount of dialogue phonetically — remember that Lugosi never learned more than rudimentary English and memorized his scripts phonetically, and the sleazy fly-by-night producers with which Lugosi did most of his work didn’t give him long parts because they either wouldn’t or couldn’t wait around to let him memorize a lot of lines that way. A number of commentators think Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is their best film; I don’t — I don’t even think it’s their best horror-comedy (that would be Hold That Ghost, made seven years earlier for their best director, Arthur Lubin, and funnier than this film precisely because it doesn’t have the mythic weight of all Universal’s monster legends hanging over it) — but last night I liked it better than I ever have before even though they really ran into the ground the gag of Costello seeing some horrific sight, summoning Abbott, and then when Abbott comes the scene has reverted to normal reality and he thinks Costello was hallucinating. They had already reached a point of diminishing returns with this gag in Hold That Ghost and really ran it into the ground in later “Abbott and Costello Meet _____” movies!

[1] — By coincidence, Chic Young was the name of the creator of the comic strip Blondie.