Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbot And Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1948, 1951)
Directed by: Charles Barton, Charles Lamont
Written by: Frederic I. Rinaldo, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock Jr, John Grant, Robert Lees
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Bud Abbott, Dennis Franz, Lon Chaney Jnr, Lou Costello, Nancy Guild
I expect many of you were hoping I wasn’t going to do this, but I’m afraid I am. It’s…….hello to Abbott and Costello, the guys who finally put an end to Universal’s classic monsters.
Chick Young and Wilbur Grey, two baggage clerks in a Florida train station, unwittingly deliver the actual bodies of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster to the “McDougal House Of Horrors”, a local wax museum, despite an attempt to Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man to stop them which is ruined when he turns into his werewolf other self and Wilbur thinks it is Talbot’s dog on the other end of the line. When Chick leaves Wilbur alone, Dracula rises and, after hypnotising Wilbur, re-animates the Frankenstein Monster and they leave for the island castle of Dr. Sandra Mornay, a gifted surgeon with a history of questionable experiments. She has been studying Dr. Frankenstein’s notebook and has been posing as Wilbur’s girlfriend as part of Dracula’s scheme to replace the Monster’s brutish brain with a more pliable one — Wilbur’s……..
For a while, I wondered whether to include the four films where the Universal monsters suffered the indignity of meeting the comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. After all, they are more comedy than horror, and make no attempt to fit in with the admittedly very loose continuity of the horror series. Boris Karloff, who was asked to play the role of the Frankenstein Monster in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, not only turned the part down but refused to see the film, publicly calling it “an insult to horror movies”. That is a bit harsh. Horror and humour are constantly bedfellows [and of course some misguided souls may say most horror movies are funny anyway], though it’s rarely done really well. Well, there’s Bride Of Frankenstein, Re-animator, Ghostbusters, An American Werewolf In London, Braindead, Evil Dead 2, Gremlins. There aren’t many other examples though, to be honest; most horror comedies are fun but don’t totally hit the mark. I suppose one problem is that most films end up emphasising one aspect at the expense of the other. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, for most of its length, does have more laughs than chills, but does sometimes combine the two together very adroitly and is overall a really fun romp.
Abbott and Costello, of course, were a comedy duo whose work on stage, film, radio and later TV made them amongst the most popular of comedy teams during the 40’s and 50’s. The duo built an act by refining and reworking numerous burlesque sketches into the long-familiar presence of Abbott as the devious straight man and Costello as the stumbling, dim-witted laugh-getter. Their “who’s on first” is considered by many to be one of the greatest comedy routines ever. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was originally to be called The Brain Of Frankenstein and have an appearance by the Mummy, was their 22nd film. Directed by as usual by Charles Barton, its script was hated by Costello who said his five-year old daughter could have done better, but that didn’t stop him by constantly laughing during takes especially during a scene where he sits on the Monster’s lap, where even in the final cut it’s obvious he’s cracking up. Bela Lugosi returned as Dracula [actually the only other time he played him], while Lon Chaney, who as usual played The Wolf Man, actually doubled for Glenn Strange as the Monster in one scene when Strange threw someone against fake glass, who then bounced off it and smashed into him. The film was Universal’s biggest hit of 1948, though in Australia it was shorn of half its running time because the censors wanted all the monster footage removed.
Actually by now Universal was called Universal-International, something I always forget when watching Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where I miss the Superman-style music over the opening logo. We are treated to an appearance by the Wolf Man straight away and a reasonably funny scene where Costello is trying to speak to Talbot on the phone and thinks he’s hearing his dog. The couple of reels are mostly devoted to the patter of the two comedic stars and very funny it often is too. This particular outing is given added laughs by Costello having not one but two attractive dames supposedly after him, something that baffles Abbott. Of course Costello is the only one who sees the monsters or evidence of them for quite a long time and Abbott just doesn’t believe him. There is a brilliant scene which is both hilarious and slightly chillsome in a “fun for the kids” way where Abbott keeps leaving Costello alone in a room full of wax dummies where Dracula’s coffin keeps opening [though the moving candle gag is from their earlier Hold That Ghost]. The scene builds and builds and is superbly sustained for ages, climaxing when Costello poses as a dummy and the Monster is scared of him and has to be ushered away by Dracula.
I guess if you’re a real purist you may take offence at the way the monsters are mostly used for cheap laughs, but I just think the film is so enjoyable I don’t really care. It even gets away with a scene where, in a wood, the Wolf Man is chasing Costello and keeps getting caught up in and tripping over branches. Dracula’s female aide Dr Sandra Mornay has a terrific scene where she is trying to hypnotise Costello, who says “I’ll bite” and she replies “no, I will”. Interestingly, one scene where Dracula bites a female victim is more sexual than any other vampire biting scene in the whole of Universal’s series; though shown from a distance, the victim is clearly loving it. This little detail seems to be missed by people who say Hammer and Christopher Lee introduced sex into Dracula films. There is also one brutal death scene, a throw through a window, which actually jars somewhat with the jokey tone of the piece.
It all climaxes with much chasing around and Dracula battling the Wolf Man, albeit a fight only seen in brief shots and usually as background to the Monster chasing Costello. The actual plot is indeed almost as childish as Costello said though it’s nice to see the Monster feature not just in the climax but in a few earlier scenes for a change too, and Strange even briefly speaks. For this movie the studio stopped using the effective but lengthy application time of make-up artist Jack P. Pierce for the monster make-up, using more cost-effective rubber appliances by Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan. To be honest, it’s hard to tell the difference, though Lugosi is caked in so much make-up to hide his age  and evidence of alcoholism and drug addiction, that it’s hard not to laugh at times when he appears. Nor are his animated transformations from a bat into Dracula much good [the cartoon Lugosi looks nothing like Lugosi] though they’re interesting visually. Perhaps the biggest loss in this film in relation to the earlier pictures is the almost total lack of moody atmosphere which even the weaker episodes managed to maintain.
Even if he looks silly, Lugosi rises to the occasion in this movie, which would be the last major studio film he ever made. When he’s hypnotising people, he retains much of the odd power he had in the 1931 Dracula; I’m not sure if it’s good acting [many will say it’s just prime ham] but it’s certainly fascinating to watch, and he’s clearly in on the joke too. Chaney takes his Talbot role extremely seriously and despite the silly hi-jinks going on around him maintains a dignity about the character. It’s also nice to see Strange do a little more as the Monster. The lovely Lenore Aubert, quite riveting as the evil Sandra, and Jane Randolph make for a fetching pair of leading ladies. Frank Skinner’s score, which is entirely new material, is recorded rather too loud but interestingly backs up the horror more than the comedy, except for a couple of scenes. With fine motifs for the three monsters [actually four if you count Sandra] which often meld together, and some exciting action passages, it’s a good effort. With a final guest appearance [if that is the right word] by a certain other ‘monster’ with the voice of Vincent Price, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein never tries to be more than it is, a juvenile bit of fun aimed as much at kids as adults, and on that level most certainly succeeds.
Lou Francis and Bud Alexander have just graduated from a private detective school. Tommy Nelson, a middleweight boxer, comes to them with their first case. Tommy has recently escaped from jail, after being accused of murdering his manager, and asks the duo to accompany him on a visit to his fiancée, Helen Gray. He wants her uncle, Dr. Philip Gray, to inject him with a special serum he has developed which will render Tommy invisible. Once he is unable to be seen, he aims to investigate his manager’s murder, find the real killer and proved his innocence. Dr. Gray adamantly refuses, arguing that the serum is still unstable, but as the police arrive Tommy injects himself with it and disappears…….
After the ‘appearance’ by the Invisible Man at the end of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, it’s unsurprising that following not long afterwards would be a whole film in which the two comedians encounter the character, though, much like some of the earlier Invisible series, Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man, which seems in part to partially remake The Invisible Man Returns, is not at all a horror film. Nor does it even have many horror touches like Meet Frankenstein, but it’s still a solid comedy with invisibility effects that at times are even better than in the other ‘Invisible’ films. It’s not really up to the standards of Abbott and Costello’s best work, but the duo are still great. Working my way through an Abbott and Costello box set which includes some films not involving Universal’s monsters, I have come to the conclusion that even their lesser efforts are better than most of the crappy comedy films we have today, and are exactly the kinds of pictures that should be shown to ignorant fools who say old black and white films are boring.
Abbott and Costello had actually made another comedy in 1949 with vague horror connections, the rather dark Abbott And Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff, with many macabre laughs involving dead bodies and a superb scene where Karloff tries to hypnotise Abbott into killing himself in various different ways and the idiot’s brain is too small to respond, though it’s title is actually misleading. Now it has been claimed that the script that was turned into Meet The Invisible Man was actually that of a ‘straight’ film and that the huge success of Meet Frankenstein caused it to be rewritten as a comedy, but I don’t entirely believe this; Universal gave up on their monsters as serious characters after House Of Dracula, and why would Universal originally plan something that, in its serious form, was even more of a remake of The Invisible Man Returns, a film made under a decade before, than the comedy that it supposedly eventually became? Anyway, the film was made quickly and cheaply as usual with the Abbott and Costello flicks, even using some footage from Returns involving an invisible guinea pig and a suitcase being unpacked by invisible hands. The director was Charles Lamont, who virtually took over from Charles Barton as Abbot and Costello’s main director. It was another big hit, as were most of the films featuring these two, which averaged two or three a year.
Bud and Lou amazingly have just become detectives in this film, with a great early scene where Abbott walks around sporting a deerstalker and a pipe, though there are slightly less laughs than normal in the first third at least, with more emphasis on the plot, something I’m not sure works in an Abbott and Costello film, where you actually want the story to stop still so that they can do their very clever and funny routines. The plot actually works quite well though, better actually than in Returns, and does attempt to tie in with the 1933 The Invisible Man with Dr Gray not only having been given Griffins’ drug before he went mad and was shot dead but having a photograph of Claude Rains in his laboratory. As usual we have some tension from the idea that the invisibility drug will cause megalomania though the invisible man of this film, Nelson, doesn’t seem that nice right from the offset and threatens to break every bone in Abbott and Costello’s bodies almost right after he has become invisible. Because we don’t care about him very much, the film is seriously weakened.
The film soon becomes a series of scenes exploiting the humorous possibilities of invisibility, with a sequence in a restaurant where Nelson is drunk and Abbott and Costello [who use their own middle names for the last names of their characters] try to hide the fact that a third guy is eating at their table being especially funny, though many of the scenes involve the invisible Nelson making people believe Abbott is a great boxer and some of it doesn’t feel very fresh because some of the previous films exploited invisibility for laughs especially The Invisible Woman. Some gags are repeated too. Still, the climactic boxing match, with Abbott supposedly throwing punches but obviously not the one hitting his opponent, is terrific, and there’s much else to enjoy, such as Sheldon Leonard and Nancy Jurgens as convincingly cheap and trashy gangsters; of course, Jurgens attempts to seduce Abbott at one point and it’s very funny to see. The milieu the story takes place in is quite convincing, and eagle-eyed viewers will recognise a familiar fog-shrouded set in one scene [probably the only time the film approaches horror].
The special effects in Meet The Invisible Man were done not by John P. Fulton but by David S. Horsley. The odd stock footage shot [probably due to the quick production] notwithstanding, he does a great job, with a card-playing sequence and a bit near the end where Nelson is partially revealed in steam being real showstoppers. This second gag was also done in Hollow Man 49 years later and it looks just as good despite the earlier film making no use of computers [because of course they weren’t around]. Sadly the final scene, where Abbott unintentionally becomes invisible but with some add results, looks a little rushed though all in all it’s good for the time. Meet The Invisible Man finishes oddly with a rather rude joke for Abbott and Costello that may make you wonder why a really raunchy comedy has not been made based on the idea of an invisible person; the possibilities are endless!
Abbott and Costello are good value as always though Abbott rather overdoes the squeaking to a point where you may start looking for a mouse. Dennis Franz is okay as Nelson but just comes across as too sinister for the role and Nancy Guild as his girlfriend may as well not be in the film, so little does she do. Meet The Invisible Man credits Joseph Gershenson as ‘musical director’, though the work of nine other composers was also used, including even Miklos Rozsa, though to my ears it seemed to be mostly bits and pieces from Meet Frankenstein. It’s rather odd hearing the theme previously given to the Frankenstein Monster used as a theme for an invisible man, and the occasional comedic ‘mickey-mousing” music heard occasional in the previous film is used a little too much in this one. Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man has a reputation as one of the best of Bud and Lou’s later films which I don’t think it really deserves, and actually The Invisible Woman is probably a better invisibility comedy, but it’s very likeable, and I wish they made more films like this, comedies that adults and children can enjoy instead of mainly teenage boys, today.