Monday, November 7, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (Universal-International, 1951)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the latest in the Abbott and Costello box from Universal Home Video: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, made in 1951 and called by Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams “the team’s last really good film” (though later he acknowledged that their final feature for Universal, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, was almost as good). Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man did turn out to be a quite good movie, and though the screenwriters were old A&C hands (Hugh Wedlock, Jr. and Howard Snyder, story; Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant, script) and so was the director (Charles Lamont), it was an appealing combination of three genres: a Damon Runyonesque melodrama about corruption in boxing, an Invisible Man horror flick and a quite funny Abbott and Costello comedy. The plot deals with Bud Alexander (Abbott) and Louis Francis (Costello) — their last names here were their real-life middle names — graduating from the Dugan Detective Training school (note the place’s initials, D.D.T. — the then-common and now-banned insecticide). The opening scene is a mock graduation ceremony, complete with a sappy commencement song for the newly minted detectives to sing, with Lou saying to Bud, “This is the happiest day of my life, how did I ever graduate?” “I slipped the guy twenty bucks,” Bud says. “Now keep quiet.” (Costello did this gag even better in their 1946 film Little Giant, in which he had taken a salesmanship course on records and the last record led him through the “graduation” sequence.)

They end up as new hires at a real detective agency, where they’re assigned to the night shift and are hired by Tommy Rogers (Arthur Franz), a prizefighter who’s been accused of the murder of his manager — but he’s really been framed by gangster Morgan (Sheldon Leonard), who had bet heavily against Rogers in his last bout against Morgan’s property, contender Rocky Hanlon (John Day, t/n John Daheim), and had bribed Rogers’ manager to get Rogers to throw the fight. Only Rogers refused to take the dive and won the bout instead, so Morgan decided to kill the manager and frame Rogers for the crime. Fortunately — or maybe not — Rogers happens to be dating Helen Gray (Nancy Guild), whose father Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir) received the formula for invisibility from its inventor, John Griffin (he points to a picture of Griffin on the wall, and of course it’s Claude Rains, who played Griffin in James Whale’s great 1933 film of H. G. Wells’ original novel The Invisible Man). Rogers wants Dr. Gray to make him invisible so he can hide from the police and solve the crime himself, but Dr. Gray is all too aware that the original formula made its inventor crazy and doesn’t want to give it to Rogers — but while the doc is out of the room Rogers grabs the syringe and injects himself, and the formula works immediately. (In Wells’ novel and the 1933 film it took a long course of treatment before the user became invisible, but in the 1940 film The Invisible Man Returns — of which you could argue that this film is a parody remake, since it also deals with an innocent man, wrongly suspected of a crime, who goes invisible to find the real crooks — and thereafter in Universal’s Invisible Man movies, the formula works immediately. There’s another inconsistency between this film and the 1933 original; when Rogers eats, the food disappears as soon as it enters his mouth, whereas in 1933 Claude Rains carefully explained that anything he ate would be visible inside him until he digested it.) Rogers hires Bud and Lou as detectives to help him, bring him clothes inside a grip and meet him in a park (apparently this is footage recycled from The Invisible Man Returns, as is the earlier scene in which Dr. Gray shows the formula works by turning a guinea pig invisible), only Bud keeps trying to double-cross him and turn him in to the police for the reward.

This is one Abbott and Costello movie in which Costello is at least at times smarter and savvier than Abbott, which is nice for a change, and the main intrigue is that Rogers will try to boost Lou as an unlikely boxing contender, giving him invisible help in the ring, in hopes Morgan will arrange a fixed bout between Lou and Hanlon, Lou will win, Morgan will attempt to kill Bud (Lou’s manager) and he’ll have the evidence to expose Morgan and his hit men as the real killers. There are some nice scenes, including one in which Morgan assigns his girlfriend Boots Marsden (the marvelous Adele Jergens, who played Marilyn Monroe’s mother in the 1948 “B” musical Ladies of the Chorus even though Marilyn was only three years younger) to vamp Lou. Someone on the writing committee must have seen Bob Hope’s great film noir spoof My Favorite Brunette from 1947, because they pull the same gag of having Lou try to get evidence by recording his vamp scene with Boots on a disc recorder, only it goes wrong when he sits on the disc, breaking it. There’s also a good running gag in which police detective Roberts (William Frawley, who actually played quite a few of these cop roles in several “B” mysteries — and, as I wrote about him the first time I saw him in one of them in Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt,though it’s truly weird to see Fred Mertz as a cop, at least [the writers] made him considerably brighter than most of the ‘official’ minions of the law in these productions” — the writing committee of this film also made Frawley’s character, if not brilliant, at least smarter than most of the comic-relief Irish detectives Tom Kennedy and others played in film after film) arrests Lou, hears him say that he’s in contact with an invisible man, decides he’s crazy, and refers him to the police department’s psychiatrist, Dr. Turner (Paul Maxey). Dr. Turner tries to hypnotize Lou by twirling his watch in Lou’s face, but Lou turns the tables and hypnotizes Dr. Turner, along with just about everyone else at the precinct, and the “topper” is when he hypnotizes Detective Roberts as well. Another great gag involves the priceless double-takes given by actor Victor Romito at a fancy restaurant to which Bud and Lou take their invisible “friend” as the two visible members of the party order enough for three and glasses move around the table and fill themselves, while spaghetti and other food items disappear in mid-air. Indeed, the presence of such great and (mostly) unsung character actors as Frawley, Maxey and Romito is one of the elements that makes this film so delightful.

So is the production; George Robinson, who shot Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion as well as quite a few of Universal’s best “straight” horror films, gives the whole thing a unified “look” and for once the gangster, horror and comedy elements look like they’re part of the same movie. The “straight” parts are also surprisingly well done; Nancy Guild (who made surprisingly few films — lists only eight feature-film and seven TV credits for her — though she’d had her brush with greatness in the superb 1949 film Black Magic, supposedly directed by Gregory Ratoff but actually ghost-directed by its star, Orson Welles) plays an intense and businesslike female lead, and Arthur Franz is a surprisingly intense actor, able to give a thrilling and well-rounded performance with his voice even though we don’t see that much of him — a pity he didn’t go on to a major feature-film career and got shunted to TV to make a living instead! I could have done without the rather silly non-naturalistic sight gag (Dr. Gray has found the “reagent” to reverse the effects of the formula and turn Rogers visible again, but in the meantime Rogers has been wounded in a gun battle and lost a lot of blood; since he and Lou have the same blood type, Dr. Gray performs a transfusion, but some backup turns Lou invisible briefly, and when he regains visibility his legs are reversed, with his feet pointing away from his face), but overall Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is a quite good movie, legitimately thrilling and amusing. As Charles noted after we saw it, there’s already a certain comic-gag element in the whole notion of an invisible man — especially the way H. G. Wells imagined him, in which in order to be invisible he also had to be naked (remember the scene in the 1933 film in which Claude Rains strips down to just a shirt, and when the police detective orders his officer to arrest him, the officer pleads, “How am I goin’ to pinch a bleedin’ shirt?”) — so all Abbott and Costello’s comedy writers had to do was ramp it up, just as Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder 23 years later would ramp up the British camp humor of James Whale’s Frankenstein movies and push it towards the Borscht Belt in Young Frankenstein.