1950s, 3/4, Charles Barton, Comedy, Review, Universal Monsters

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

#8 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.

The Universal Monster franchise was dead. Long live the Universal Monster franchise!

After having worn the core three creatures as thin as possible through a series of decreasingly interesting matchup movies that seemed to try to take the monsters seriously while just covering the same ground over and over again, Universal decided that the only way forward was to make them outright comedies. Recruiting the comedian act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, along with their frequent collaborator Charles Barton as director, Universal seems to have accidentally made the best monster mashup movie of the entire franchise. The focus was on the comedy, but just underneath is the threadbare makings of a plot that actually effectively uses the three key monsters throughout.

Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) calls from England a small railroad station in Florida to warn them about a pair of boxes they are receiving containing Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange). At this train station are Wilbur (Costello) and Chick (Abbott) who don’t take the call seriously before agreeing to hand deliver the boxes to the house of horrors owned by McDougal (Frank Ferguson). All of this is punctuated by the comedic stylings of the core pair as Chick angrily tries to wrangle Wilbur to do his job, but Wilbur, though antics and shenanigans messes stuff up. It tickles me pretty consistently, especially the way Costello mugs for the camera. It’s never too much, but just enough to get the comedic point across.

Wilbur has an unexplainable romantic relationship with the pretty Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a relationship that Chick cannot understand (neither could my wife while she watched with me, getting quite irritated at it). It turns out that everything is connected (strange concept, right?), and Sandra organized the passage of Dracula and the monster to Florida where she is going to take out Wilbur’s brain and put it into the monster’s head to create the perfect slave for Dracula. The Wolf Man figured this out and is trying to stop it. Hey! Dracula doesn’t just disappear from the movie after the first act! How cool is that!

The plot turns a bit when Wilbur and Chick unload the boxes and, in an entertainingly funny scene, Dracula and the monster get up and escape, leaving Wilbur and Chick holding the bag, so to speak, and under investigation by the insurance company. In walks Joan (Jane Randolph), an insurance investigator out to prove that the pair lost the valuable displays as well as Talbot, coming to America to help find the monsters. There are comedic bits about the Wolf Man being just behind Wilbur and Wilbur not noticing, about a goof like Wilbur having both Sandra and Joan falling over him while Chick watches flabbergasted and tries to negotiate himself into having one of the two for a date to the big masquerade ball. It’s consistently fun stuff.

The actual plot, again, is the best mashup of these monsters (especially once you add Dracula) that Universal had done. Dracula wants to make the Frankenstein monster a more perfect servant, so he uses our actual stars in his plan. The Wolf Man wants to stop it. It all culminates in a battle of the monsters where all three are involved. It’s like basic monster mashup concerns that the Universal movies hadn’t gotten right since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. That’s not the big appeal of the movie, of course, that’s the comedic stylings of Abbott and Costello up against the evil monsters as comedic foil, and in that regard the movie is consistently entertaining.

So, it’s really a combination of a well-assembled monster mashup with strong comedy from a good comedic pair. It doesn’t treat the monsters all that seriously (Dracula walks really slowly when Wilbur needs to get away while hamming it up), but it takes the story seriously enough to work. It’s also really nice to see Bela Lugosi back in the role that he originated that kicked off the whole thing. He owns that role in a way that neither Chaney nor Carradine were able to match in their outings as the Count Dracula, and he brings the same fun to the role as he did twenty years prior.

Is it great art? No. Is it consistently entertaining in a couple of different ways? Very much so. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein may not be the height of the whole franchise, but it’s an entertaining direction to take a moribund series that had descended into repetition in the hands of lesser talents over the previous decade.

Rating: 3/4

16 thoughts on “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”

  1. I think by this time Abbott and Costello were also pretty much on the downswing before this movie came out. Not a bad bit of rescuing all around.

    By the way, the Invisible Man is here too. He’s in every scene, he just doesn’t say anything until the end.

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      1. I thought I read somewhere that their last few pictures weren’t big at the box office, and I think they’d been dropped by some studio. But you know what they say about memory….

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      2. A&C had hit a rough patch by the time of “Meet Frankenstein.” The duo were quarreling badly, and in two pictures they had acted separately instead of as a team. Their box office was dwindling. But “Meet Frankenstein” was a huge hit that revived their popularity, and it and the rest of the “Meet” movies carried them into the mid-50s.

        IIRC, they were finally dropped by Universal not because they burned out but because a new studio management flushed away all the old projects and franchises. But A&C parted ways after only one more picture, and Costello died before he could make a real go of a solo career.

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  2. This is a must watch for us during every Halloween season. As a kid in the 1970s, I was terrified of anything slightly spooky (like even the witch from Wizard of Oz). However, I was drawn to it at the same time. I had a bunch of the old Aurora models of the Universal monsters but would be too scared to watch the movies when they would occasionally appear on Saturday afternoon TV. This movie was like a comfortable gateway to let me dip my toe in the water.

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    1. My first viewing of this was about a year ago, and I watched it with my eldest son (7 at the time). He got such a wonderful kick out of it, more than I did back then.

      My second viewing was better than the first, and I’m not sure why. It just grew on me. Maybe it was the dozen lesser Universal Monster movies I’d just watched, or maybe I was just less concerned with waiting for my son’s interest to wane in a 70 year old movie.

      It’s just plain fun, though.

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      1. Seven is probably the best age to be introduced to Abbott and Costello. Their patter is just complex enough to be an entertaining challenge, and their zaniness speaks to that age as well.

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  3. I got to see this on Monday in theaters as part of their spooky season celebration. It looked great, surprisingly.

    It was pure joy. I grew up on Abbott and Costello on WGN and it was one of those rare series that I could watch with my mom and dad with everyone enjoying themselves.

    This one is actually kind of surprising, some of the dialog is full of zingers and even some entendres that I didn’t expect. Bela Lugosi is really charming in this, he must have been getting good go juice, because he seems to be enjoying himself. More, Dracula has real power in this. He is able to effortlessly deal with the heroes, turning both female leads into his slaves. Frank is just a flesh robot but fully ‘powered up’ he’s an almost unstoppable force. Even the wolf man attacks and nearly kills a man (if offscreen). Sandra is literally thrown through a window to her death, Frankenstein is burned alive (?) horrifically.

    The movie even tinkers with the Abbott and Costello formula. For once, Costello is getting all the girls (they want his brain more than his body though), and Abbott – who is usually aloof from consequences and comedic penalties – gets thrown in jail, chased through a swamp, is made to suffer and worry and admit he’s wrong….which doesn’t really happen in most Abbott and Costello movies.

    There are flaws, of course. This was another cheap movie and the huge swamp castle in Florida seems…unlikely (not impossible…we are talking about Florida after all), Dracula casts a reflection in one scene, one of Frank’s neck bolts comes away from his skin in one scene. The wolfman seems to be unable to open doors and unable to actually attack Costello from behind.

    But I don’t care. It’s a comedy and it works by comedic rules and not logical ones.

    This is maybe my favorite movie of the year.

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    1. These monster mashups are the only Abbott and Costello movies I’ve seen, so the messing with the formula is something I didn’t get to some level. Yes, it’s inherently funny that Costello is getting the girl while Abbott can’t figure it out, but I guess it gains an added dimension when it’s a subversion of what had come before.

      I’m not sure I feel any real danger from the monsters, though. The Wolf Man being unable to get to Costello in the hotel room is silly, not threatening. Dracula needing to hide from Abbott after Costello sees him is another source of silliness.

      I see it more as an outright comedy with horror icons than a comedic horror film.

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      1. Oh yeah, it’s totally a comedy. I just didn’t expect a comedy with a body count or where the bad guys CAN be a threat….even if they aren’t mostly.

        But when the squared-jaw Scientist type gets wanged on the head and then dumped like a pile of garbage…that surprised me. So did how easily Dracula deals with the women who ‘threaten’ him.

        It was just full of mostly-good surprises. I thought it would be even sillier, like Scooby Doo levels of silly, and there’s some seriousness in the bedrock of the film.

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      2. That’s true. Enough seriousness so that it’s not just pure pratfalls.

        I think that balance goes out of whack in the next Abbott and Costello monster adventure, though.

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