Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Universal-International, 1955)

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

Our “feature” last night was the final movie Abbott and Costello made for Universal, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, made in 1955 and originally shot in the 1.85-1 wide-screen ratio but presented here (in the boxed set of the complete Abbott and Costello at Universal) in the 1.33-1 version released to television. (I remember having seen this movie in wide-screen at least once and I’m disappointed that Universal Home Video didn’t present it and its immediate predecessor, Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops, in letterboxed format.) What’s amazing about Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is it’s a genuinely good film —after the doldrums A&C had fallen into in the early 1950’s with O.K. but lame productions like Lost in Alaska, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and after they’d been off the screen for two years due to one of Costello’s recurring bouts with rheumatic fever, they recovered both physically and artistically and closed out their association with Universal with two high-quality films. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is a surprisingly well-balanced entertainment, with some good horror scenes and a wide range of laughs, some of them slapstick, some involving comic dialogue (as with Keystone Kops, John Grant — the author of “Who’s on First?” and A&C’s other famous wordplay routines that had made them radio stars even before they ever made a movie — wrote this script solo from a story by Lee Loeb) and some of them reflecting a camp sensibility that seems a decade ahead of its time.

It seems as if Grant realized just how silly was a plot involving a 4,000-year-old living mummy, two humans who disguise themselves as the mummy, a secret cult that does elaborate dance numbers to express their worship of the mummy, a dotty archaeologist (Kurt Katch, who played the historical Hulagu Khan, conqueror of Iraq and relative of Genghis and Kublai, in the 1944 Universal film Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, from which they clearly recycled a lot of sets for this one) whose murder sparks the plot, a sinister femme fatale (Marie Windsor in a performance rivaling that of Lenore Aubert in a similar role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) and at least two sets of villains — the cult of the mummy (improbably led by Richard Deacon, who’s best known as the unseen Alan Brady’s assistant Mel on The Dick Van Dyke Show and seems miscast in the part played by George Zucco and John Carradine in the Universal Mummy films this one was parodying) and modern-day baddies after the mummy for its financial value as an artifact. That’s about the size of it: Professor Zoomer (Kurt Katch) is looking for two trustworthy people to ship the sarcophagus containing Klaris the Mummy (Edwin Parker, a stunt person who had doubled for Lon Chaney, Jr. in Universal’s earlier Mummy movies and now got to play the part under his own name), and of course Bud Abbott and Lou Costello show up and interview for the job even though Zoomer has already been murdered — though a tape recording of his voice and his corpse sitting at his desk make Costello think he’s still alive. (Though the closing credits say Abbott plays “Pete Patterson” and Costello plays “Freddie Franklin,” in fact they use their own names throughout the movie, and Costello gets to emit the famous cry, “Hey, Abb-bott!,” that was one of their trademarks on radio.)

There are downsides to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, and one of the big ones is the appearance of the mummy; by 1955 make-up genius Jack P. Pierce had been forced to retire from Universal and his replacement, Bud Westmore (whose brothers Perc and Wally had similar jobs at other studios), wasn’t patient enough painstakingly to wrap the actor playing the mummy in bandages — instead he devised a tunic and a pair of pants that had bandage patterns stenciled on them, and while in one way that makes the film more credible (at least two other characters, Bud Abbott and Charlie — one of the thugs of villainess Madame Rontru [Marie Windsor], played by Michael Ansara, the only genuine Egyptian in the film’s cast — disguise themselves as the mummy, and one of the film’s comic high points comes when all three “mummies” meet on screen), it also hurts in the verisimilitude department. The film also suffers from a lack of any explanation as to how the mummy stayed alive for 4,000 years. In Universal’s first exercise in mummification — 1932’s The Mummy, basically a rehash of Dracula but a superior film thanks to John L. Balderston’s literate script, Karl Freund’s understated direction and first-rate performances by Boris Karloff and the woefully underrated Zita Johann in the leads — the mummy was Imhotep, whose forbidden love for the Princess Ankhsenamon led him to be buried alive, only he was revived by a British archaeologist who did it inadvertently by reading the Scroll of Thoth to him (and while it no doubt doesn’t have the power to revive the dead, the Scroll of Thoth is actually a real surviving work of ancient Egyptian literature); in the later cycle (The Mummy’s Hand with Western star Tom Tyler and The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse with Lon Chaney, Jr.) the mummy was called Kharis, his forbidden love was the princess Ananka, and he was kept alive with the surviving leaves of a now-extinct plant called tana: a tea brewed from four tana leaves would keep the mummy alive in suspended animation, while a stronger version from nine leaves would enable him to move.

In this version the mummy is called Klaris, and though there’s a scene in which Richard Deacon is shown giving the comatose mummy a drink of something-or-other to get him up and running again, there’s no clue what’s in the stuff and you’d have to read back into the earlier movies to think, “Oh, yeah, tana leaves.” The film also runs into the ground the old gag in which Costello sees some horrific sight and calls Abbott, only when Abbott arrives the action has reverted to normal and he thinks Costello is hallucinating. But what’s wrong with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy pales by comparison to what’s right with it: the gags may be rather old but they’re still screamingly funny, and the film is full of movable corpses (Dr. Zoomer is one of those movie characters whose body is handled by so many of the other characters he seems to move around more after his death than he did when he was alive), secret passages, trap doors and quite a lot of loony-tunes A&C dialogue, including one sequence in which Abbott tries to explain to Costello that a mummy can be of either gender. “Some mummies are men, some mummies are women,” Abbott says. “Such a strange country,” Costello replies. “Your mummy, your mummy. Wasn’t she a woman?” “I never had a mummy!,” Abbott indignantly insists, to which Costello answers, “Then what did your father do? Win you in a crap game?” There’s also the attraction of singer Peggy King, who turns up in the middle of the floor show at the Café Baghdad in Cairo and sings “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” for no better reason than she was a star on George Gobel’s TV show and the song was popular at the time (and was hilariously parodied by Allan Sherman, who turned it into a piece about the French Revolution called “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis”).