Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Universal-International, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the next film in sequence from the Abbott and Costello boxed set, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a 1953 production that was the second and last film the comedy team made with Boris Karloff, who plays the other two title characters — well, one of them anyway; as per the usual casting tradition of the role, Karloff is credited on-screen as both Jekyll and Hyde but he really only played Jekyll. Hyde was played exclusively by Karloff’s stunt double, Edwin Parker; by the time he made this film Karloff was 65 and hardly the sort of person who should be clambering up the sides of buildings and racing around rooftop sets. The film begins with the hideous Mr. Hyde clubbing to death Dr. Jekyll’s esteemed colleague, Dr. Stephen Poole (Herbert Deans), in a scene pretty closely adapted from Hyde’s murder of Sir Danvers Carew in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel — and then it cuts to by far its best and funniest scene, in which a rally of suffragists in Hyde Park is led by heroine Vicky Edwards (Helen Westcott), who leads her fellow feminists in a high-kicking chorus number to a song called “Till We Women Get the Vote,” which is basically a threat by the women to withhold their affections from men, Lysistrata-style, until women get the vote. The sexist men in Hyde Park confront the women and start a big fight which the women are actually winning when two bumbling, inept bobbies, Slim (Bud Abbott) and Tubby (Lou Costello), try to break up the riot and make arrests. They end up at the bottom of a large pothole, trying to make their way out of it through the women’s bass drum, and when they return to headquarters at Scotland Yard they’re fired. (Instead of attempting to affect British accent, the script by Lee Loeb and John Grant explains that Slim and Tubby are American police officers working in London to learn British crime-fighting methods. Also, it’s ironic that Costello is called “Tubby” in this film when he’s visibly lighter than usual; it’s likely those bouts with rheumatic fever that had made Costello’s filmmaking schedule so erratic — he would fall ill again the next year and so after this one there wouldn’t be another Abbott and Costello film for two years — had also led to Costello’s noticeable weight loss.)

They determine that the only way they can win back the good graces of their bosses is to capture the hideous monster that killed Dr. Poole, and the rest of the film is their attempt to do just that as they encounter Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), who’s the guardian of Vicky, and also the reporter, Bruce Adams (Craig Stevens), who met Vicky at the feminist rally and was smitten by her. She eventually returns his affections — thereby pissing off Dr. Jekyll, who like quite a lot of movie mad scientists (though not Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll!) has the hots for his young ward and has no intention of letting anyone else have her. The bulk of the film is a series of chase scenes and situations, in one of which Dr. Jekyll invites Slim and Tubby to spend the night in his home, offering them five pounds but instead intending to use Tubby as the subject of one of his sinister experiments. At one point Tubby actually corners the monster in a wax museum (where there are statues of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, the latter of which is animated briefly when a broken electrical cable contacts it and makes it move) and locks it in a mock jail, only by the time Slim comes the monster has metamorphosed back into Jekyll and Slim, of course, refuses to believe that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. (This is one Abbott and Costello movie in which Costello is portrayed as smarter than Abbott. It’s nice when that happens.) Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t much of a movie overall, but it’s got some great scenes, including the one in which Tubby drinks from Jekyll’s water cooler and metamorphoses into a giant mouse (after which Slim and Tubby retire to a pub, where there are enough lovable English eccentric characters to fill a James Whale movie and of course everyone who sees Tubby in mouse I.D. assumes he’s just their drunken hallucination; the high point of the sequence is when a real mouse emerges from inside a wall, looks at Tubby and recoils in horror), and a gimmicky finale that for once is actually funny: through an accidental injection of Jekyll’s serum Tubby has also metamorphosed into Hyde, and the cops — already run ragged by the reports of the monster being sighted all over London (with it never occurring to them that there could be two of the creatures) — capture Tubby, whereupon Tubby-in-Hyde-drag bites them and turns them all into Hydes.  

Abbott and Costello Meet. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an O.K. film, with plenty of evidence that the formula was wearing thin — at one point Costello even recycles a joke from one of their previous films, and when he said, “I forgot something at home,” and Abbott asked him what that was, I chanted along with him, “I forgot to stay home” — but it helps that, as Charles pointed out, most of the laughs came from slapstick rather than comic dialogue (despite the presence of A&C’s ace dialogue writer, John Grant, as one of the screenwriters) and the horror aspects of the tale, such as they are, are ably staged by director Charles Lamont and cinematographer George Robinson, who’d shot many of Universal’s best serious horror films. Alas, Boris Karloff’s presence doesn’t help that much; he’s gentle and courtly in his Jekyll guise, but he’d played this whole business of the gentle mask hiding the fiend beneath so often that he’s visibly bored and all too aware that he was just giving out with what audiences expected of him by then. The more one watches the mostly sorry films Karloff made in the last two decades of his life — he was too good a professional to walk through them or drown his silly horror roles in camp the way Vincent Price did — the more one wishes he, not Walter Pidgeon, had played Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet; not only could Karloff have out-acted Pidgeon in the role by several parsecs, it would have been the artistic boost he needed at that point his career, the kind James Whale had given him with Frankenstein in 1931 and Val Lewton with The Body Snatcher (also a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation!) in 1945.