[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' Was a Precursor to the Werewolf Comedy
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) stars the titular comedy duo as railway baggage clerks who are given custody of two very unusual packages. These hefty boxes house the bodies of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), due to be transported to a wax museum. Bud Abbott dismisses all of this as mere bunk, but Lou Costello is chilled to the bone at the thought of transporting such formidable monsters.
Costello’s not alone in taking the job seriously: Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) gets wind of the shipment and, being a werewolf himself, knows only too well how much damage can be done by monsters. He gets in touch with the two clerks to intervene – but between Abbott’s scepticism, Costello’s clumsiness and Talbot’s lycanthropic affliction, can this unlikely team pull themselves together long enough to prevent Dracula and Frankenstein from terrorising the world anew?
This is the single most controversial film in the entire Universal horror canon. Across generations of fans, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has been alternately derided as an insult to the genre’s legacy and fondly remembered as a light-hearted farewell to an era of horror films. Any discussion about the film’s place in horror cinema inevitably starts to look something like a trial.
The statement for the prosecution scarcely needs to be spelled out. Universal had the opportunity to wrap up the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man cycles – three series which, in their prime, each helped to define horror cinema for generations – and decided that the best way to do so was by using the central characters as foils to a pair of comedians renowned for being slightly more subtle than the Three Stooges.
But the statement for the defence has a few good counterarguments. One is that broad comedy of this sort was an entirely logical path of Universal horror to take: the spark that brought forth the early-thirties classics had long since faded, and attempts to keep the monsters alive had resorted either to re-treads of past glories (House of Frankenstein) or clumsy attempts at science fiction (House of Dracula). Things had been getting silly for years, so a natural end-point was a film that embraced silliness by drafting in a popular comedy duo and a creative team who could play to their strengths – namely director Charles Barton and writers Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant, all of whom had worked with Abbott and Costello before.
The result will inevitably live or die depending on your willingness to watch Lou Costello stumble around yelling for eighty-three minutes but it’s impossible to deny that this is at least an energetic film, one that’s able to keep Lou Costello stumbling around yelling at a cracking pace. It also has a fairly complex plot, considering the silliness of its premise. The main cast are joined by two female leads, one good (an insurance agent played by Jane Randolph) the other bad (Dracula’s assistant, played by Lenore Aubert) and each woman pretending, for her own reasons, to be in love with Costello. All of this provides more than enough fuel for the leads’ knockabout antics.
Another point in the film’s favour – and perhaps the single biggest point for fans of classic horror – is that it treats the monsters themselves with respect. It brings together most of the original monster stars, with Chaney as the Wolf Man and Lugosi back as Dracula after a long absence; only Karloff is missing, with Glenn Strange playing the monster in his place. Indeed, there’s even a voice cameo from Vincent Price as the Invisible Man as a final treat.
That said, it’s hard to miss that Frankenstein is again reduced to the role of stomping automaton while Dracula is presented as a strange hybrid of vampire, mad scientist, and mob boss (“I must warn you, my dear Sandra, I am accustomed to having my orders obeyed – especially by women with a price on their heads”). That leaves the Wolf Man with the most substantial role in the narrative. The filmmakers clearly have fun with him, cooking up such scenes as Talbot transforming into a werewolf while on the telephone with Costello or getting into a mistaken-identity mix-up when Abbott wears a wolf mask at a fancy dress party.
Today it’s easy to write gags like this off as obvious fare but bear in mind that werewolves were not particularly popular subjects for humour at the time. They had turned up occasionally in comedies – the Three Stooges had been chased around by Lupo the Wolf Man in Idle Roomers (1944) while another Wolf Man briefly menaced Daffy Duck in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) – but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the first film to really sink its teeth into the comic potential of lycanthropic transformations. All subsequent werewolf comedies, from Teen Wolf to WolfCop to Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Wererabbit, are occupying territory first explored by Bud and Lou back in 1948. For that alone, the film forms a slice of horror history.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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