Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (Universal-International, 1949)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the next Abbott and Costello film in sequence in the boxed set of all 28 of their feature films for Universal (which is all but eight of their total), a 1949 production rather awkwardly titled Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Though they had made two other films between their big comeback, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and this — Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams (the latter not for Universal but for a short-lived company called Nassour Films) — this was the obvious follow-up, dragging the comedy team into contact with another icon of horror. It was also largely an accidental teaming; according to various “trivia” posters on imdb.com, the script (by Hugh Wedlock, Jr. — the last time I saw his name on the writing credits of a film I inevitably joked that its script was “out of Wedlock” — and Howard Snyder, with additional dialogue by John Grant, A&C’s go-to guy for “Who’s on First”-style wordplay) was originally called Easy Does It and written as a vehicle for Bob Hope. (This makes us wonder whether Easy Does It was originally owned by Paramount, Hope’s home studio, and then sold to Universal when Hope turned it down; or whether it was written at Universal in hopes they could get Hope on a loan-out and then given to A&C when they couldn’t. Sometimes movie-industry politics got as Byzantine as real-world politics.) The original version contained a female character, a phony mystic named “Madame Switzer,” and the character was retained when the script was rewritten for Abbott and Costello — until five days before shooting, when Universal-International signed Karloff for the film and changed “Madame Switzer” to “Swami Talpur.” What they didn’t do is give Karloff much to do: he gets two scenes with Lou Costello — a brief one at the beginning in which Costello’s character sees him through a window and Karloff hypnotizes him and tells him, “You never saw me. I’m not here” (whereupon Costello says to Abbott, “I never saw him.” “Who?” “The guy that wasn’t there”) and a longer one in which he’s trying, as part of a murder plot, to hypnotize Costello into committing suicide. It’s a genuinely funny scene, particularly when an exasperated Karloff tells Costello, “You’re going to kill yourself if it’s the last thing you ever do!,” but as rangy as Karloff was as an actor he doesn’t really pull off “master hypnotist” as well as his rival as Hollywood’s top horror actor of the time, Bela Lugosi. Universal also included Lenore Aubert, whose great bad-woman performance had done so much to liven up Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and once again cast her as a woman trying to seduce Costello to exploit him for a sinister plot, but they didn’t give her much screen time, either!

What remains of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (the ultimate red-herring gimmick because, as just about everyone who’s written about this film never fails to reveal, Karloff’s character is not the mystery killer), is an O.K. comedy-mystery centered around an isolated resort hotel — not in Florida, as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but in California, the Lost Caverns Hotel, in an area where the key tourist attraction is a set of caves full of stalactites and stalagmites as well as a big pit of boiling sulfur well below the rest of it. (Caves like that are more associated with Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada than California, and it’s highly unusual for one to contain a pit of burning sulfur, but Universal was obviously recycling the set from the end of Son of Frankenstein, made a decade earlier.) Casey Edwards (Bud Abbott) is the hotel’s house detective and Freddie Phillips (Lou Costello) is the bellboy, and in the opening scene Freddie gets into trouble when, assigned to carry the bags of attorney Amos Strickland (Nicholas Joy) — including heavy bags as well as a set of golf clubs Freddie spills all over the hotel lobby floor — and screws it up, Strickland demands that the hotel manager fire him. The manager does so, and for the rest of the movie Freddie hangs around the hotel and gets himself into more and more trouble, exasperating Casey, who naturally thinks that his job will be the next to go. Needless to say, the next thing that happens is Strickland gets murdered, and Freddie is the one who discovers the body — and makes himself the prime suspect by handling the gun with which Strickland was shot. The gun’s owner, Mike Relia (Vincent Renno, who’s at the bottom of the on-screen credits list even though we get to see quite a lot of him, mostly after he’s supposed to be dead), is also quickly murdered, as is Strickland’s private secretary, Gregory Milford (Morgan Farley). Figuring they’ll be suspected of these two new murders as well as Strickland’s, Casey and Freddie hide Relia’s body in a laundry cart and Freddie dresses in drag to pose as a hotel maid so it will look normal that (s)he should be pushing a laundry cart. While in maid-drag Freddie is accosted by a queeny middle-aged man named Abernathy (Percy Helton), and Freddie’s growing horror as he realizes that Abernathy is interested in him (her) makes this one of the most screamingly funny scenes in a film that, while it’s generally amusing throughout, really doesn’t have that many laugh-out-loud sequences.

It seems that Strickland’s visit to the Lost Cavern Hotel attracted the attention of a lot of people with various grievances against him, including Swami Talpur and Angela Carter (who are in cahoots on a scheme to frame Freddie for Strickland’s murder), including some of his former clients, like Relia and T. Hanley Brooks (Roland Winters, the last Charlie Chan in the long-running series that continued at two studios from 1930 to 1949), who fear that Strickland is going to expose them in his forthcoming memoirs. (Apparently none of the writers had heard of attorney-client privilege; in the real world it would be illegal for an attorney to write the sort of book his ex-clients are afraid of.) The film’s gimmick is that both Relia and Milford move around a lot more once they’re dead than they seemed to when they were alive — in that regard this film anticipates Alfred Hitchcock’s oddball movie The Trouble with Harry from 1955, six years later, though an otherwise useless and awful World War II espionage movie called Spy Train, made by Monogram in 1943, did the mobile-corpse bit even six years before Universal pulled it with Abbott and Costello in this film! Casey and Phillips go to all the trouble of pushing the laundry cart around with Relia’s body in it to Relia’s room, where they intend to put it on a shelf in Relia’s closet, only it rolls off the shelf and back into the cart, unbeknownst to Our Heroes (though one would think they’d notice that the cart had suddenly got a lot heavier than it would be if it just had dirty sheets and towels in it), and by the end of their travels the cart has both Relia’s and Milford’s bodies in it. Casey and Phillips get the idea of hiding them out in the card room, setting Relia and Milford up as if they were two members of a bridge foursome, and when someone invades the card room and starts kibitzing they explain their total lack of movement by saying, “They’re in dummy.” (This would make sense, I suppose, if you were a bridge player.) According to one of the imdb.com “trivia” posters, this scene got the film banned in Denmark for a time.

I remember when I was first watching the Abbott and Costello movies on Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate in San Francisco that ran a comedy series every Sunday morning that alternated between A&C, the Marx Brothers (mostly their later films, alas) and Laurel and Hardy — and originally ran them relatively complete in a 90-minute time slot but later shredded them to keep them down to a one-hour slot — this one threw me because it had pretensions to being a horror-comedy but was really just a pretty uninteresting murder mystery with Abbott, Costello and Karloff grafted onto it. This time it seemed a lot better, and as odd as that final scene’s setting is, at least it’s genuinely exciting, with Strickland’s business manager, Melton (Alan Mowbray — well, that should have made it obvious!), turning out to be the killer, though he spends most of the sequence covered by one of those white hoods that would seem to be effective only in cutting down his field of vision. While hardly at the level of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or the early-1940’s films that made Abbott and Costello’s reputation in the first place, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is an engaging little movie and a pleasant time-filler for its 94-minute running time (two minutes longer than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and quite a bit longer than most of their films, which were kept to the standard 75-minute length for a feature comedy from a relatively cheap studio like Universal, even in its post-1947 “-International” incarnation: it had absorbed Bill Goetz’s International Pictures to get beyond its “B” image and crack Hollywood’s first tier of movie companies, though it didn’t actually make it to the studio “A” list until Lew Wasserman’s MCA took it over in the early 1960’s and started shelling out to attract “A”-list stars like Gregory Peck and serious prestige projects like To Kill a Mockingbird).