Universal Monsters: Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters

The role that Abbott & Costello played during the last hurrah of the Universal Monsters is indisputable. If the movies offend you because of their silly tone, remember that your lasting memory of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man could have been from House of Dracula (1945).  You don’t get much sillier than that.

I’m reminded of something I read when Tim Burton’s version of Dark Shadows was released in theaters. Amid general complaints about the movie, someone (sorry, I don’t remember who) said that we should simply be happy that the original characters and stories even remain in the pop culture consciousness almost 50 years after the TV soap opera first aired.

It was only three years after House of Dracula that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was made, but 17 years since the original Dracula and Frankenstein were monsters at the box office. Think of the legacy.  Almost 20 years after their first movies, the characters survived.  Someone still wanted to make a movie with them, even though they were the “straight men” to a couple of buffoons.  I’ll take that.

By the time of Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy, it was the mid-fifties and “horror” had shifted more to “sci-fi.” Otherworldly, scientific terrors like It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and This Island Earth replaced the more grounded and familiar monsters of the previous two decades.  Perhaps the Abbott & Costello movies serve their place in history as the transition between two eras.

Whether or not you like the movies depends on what makes you laugh. I generally don’t like the slapstick humor in an Abbott & Costello movie, but I do enjoy the witty wordplay.  Remember, this is the comedy team that gave us “Who’s On First?”  There are some clever moments that don’t totally offend my intelligence, and more than a few that still make me laugh out loud.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant
Directed by Charles T. Barton
Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange
US Release June 15, 1948
RT 83 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite. Abbot plays Chick Young and Costello plays Wilbur Grey.  They’re baggage clerks at a train station and receive crates for McDougal’s House of Horrors.  One of them contains the remains of Dracula and the other contains Frankenstein’s monster.  Larry Talbot calls from London telling them that under no circumstances should they deliver them.

Of course, they do deliver them and chaos ensues. Other than the Wolf Man making a huge pratfall, the story is a relatively serious retread of an old formula.  That’s true of all three of these movies: Abbott & Costello are merely the zany characters of a larger story that’s mostly serious.  Not everyone is running around like crazy; it’s only the two men in the situation that are supposed to be funny.

This movie is significant in that it’s the only time Bela Lugosi reprised his role as Dracula. In the finale, he battles the Wolf Man while Frankenstein’s monster chases Abbott & Costello.  In a scene that’s pretty cool for any movie, Dracula changes into a bat and flies into the air while the Wolf Man takes a dive off the balcony to grab him and they both fall into the ocean below.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant
Directed by Charles Lamont
Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nancy Guild, Arthur Franz
US Release Mar. 17, 1951
RT 82 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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Although we hear Vincent Price’s voice at the end of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, the next movie is not a continuation of that story. In fact, as erratic as Universal’s invisibility movies were in relation to the original movie, Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man is firmly tied to it.  In this movie, the original invisible man, John Griffin, willed his formula to Dr. Phillip Gray (Gavin Muir).

Gray’s niece, Helen (Nancy Guild), wants him to use the formula on Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer who was framed for the murder of his manager. Bud Alexander (Abbott) and Lou Francis (Costello) have just graduated from Dugan Detective Training and are employed to help find the real killer.  Finally, one of these movies demonstrates the pure fun of being invisible!

Nelson helps Lou get into a fight that will expose a conspiracy. With him throwing the punches, Lou’s opponent will literally not see what hits him.  I got a kick out of a scene where Lou is pretending to be working out with a punching bag.  As it swings rapidly back and forth due to Nelson’s unseen jabs, he takes impossible stances and makes hilarious poses that exaggerate the fact that it’s not really him doing it.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Written by John Grant
Directed by Charles Lamont
Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marie Windsor, Michael Ansara
US Release June 23, 1955
RT 79 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 4 (out of 10)

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Just as the mummy movies were my least favorite of the Universal horrors, Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy is my least favorite of the comedies. The comedians play two “bold adventurers” in Egypt who get involved in shenanigans over a missing medallion.  By the time the characters start disguising themselves as Klaris, it becomes a silly case of mistaken mummy identities.

Speaking of the old “Who’s on First?” routine, there’s a play on it when Abbott & Costello try to select tools. Let’s call it “take a pick, that’s a shovel.”  I’m not familiar with their other movies, but while I found this very funny, I have to wonder if it’s just a retread of old material.  It kind of feels like these movies were at the end of their cycles and were becoming more desperate for laughs.

It’s important to reiterate the nature of these movies. They are not spoofs of the original Universal Monsters movies.  If you removed Abbott & Costello, the stories would resemble other sequels in their respective series.  As hard a pill as it may be to swallow, they are part of the legacy.

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