September 7, 2007

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

This post is part of the First Annual 2007 Slapstick Blog-a-thon. Click to see a list of participating bloggers and links to all the Blog-a-thon posts through the weekend.

My contribution, an essay, is a bit of an experiment, a departure from the short post format of this blog. Let me know what you think.

The Brain of Frankenstein

By the mid-40s, Universal’s Monsters were played out. It’s as if the studio was bereft of new ideas for the characters, or perhaps box office projections suggested that Frankenstein, Dracula or The Wolfman couldn’t carry a picture on their own any more. The menacing trio was still being revived, but only as a group. They came bundled together, three for the price of one, in “Monster Rally” films with template titles: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in 1944 and ‘45.

It looked like the days of the great Universal Monsters had passed, and the once proud bogeymen would fade away without so much as a whimper.

Then Robert Arthur had an idea.

In late 1946, Arthur, the producer in charge of Abbott and Costello movies, was kicking ideas around and he came up with something about a mad doctor chasing the Boys, determined to stuff Lou Costello’s addled brains into the Frankenstein Monster’s cranium. Studio bosses suggested he throw Dracula and The Wolfman in, use the whole squad, and maybe it would amount to something.

A couple of script treatments were turned out and quickly discarded. One dreadful version had the Monsters defeated after being shrunk down to doll size. It was only when the project was handed over to Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo that it gelled.

The two writers loved the concept and attacked it with passion. They crafted a script, called The Brain of Frankenstein, that was unlike anything the Boys had done before. The story was solid and it raced to a genuine climax. It had strong supporting parts, including a female villain. The Monsters stayed in character, genuinely menacing, something to play off of, not play with. The script had new and original sight gags in it, good dialog and new jokes.

Lou hated it.

For all their talent, Bud and Lou were not innovators. The routines they mastered had been honed to perfection years earlier, in Vaudeville. The Boys had come to know what worked for them and they felt no need to experiment. Critics of the time complained about Abbott and Costello serving up “the same old corn” in picture after picture, but the public didn’t seem to mind at all.

It’s almost impossible, today, to grasp the magnitude of Abbott & Costello’s popularity. They had a huge constituency of fans, having been on radio continuously for over a decade. They played personal appearance gigs to packed houses. They made two pictures a year, but with older titles constantly re-issued, you could have 6 or 7 Abbott & Costello comedies in circulation every year. The fans just couldn’t get enough of them. The Boys were box-office gold.

Typically, an Abbott and Costello script started with a basic plot outline over which, through several drafts, gags and routines were added. Bud and Lou barely glanced at their scripts, relying on longtime friend and gagman supreme John Grant to look out for them, and fix or rewrite as needed. When the jokes got stale, the routines repetitious, the Boys could still find a way to wring an extra laugh out of them. Chubby, cheerful Lou Costello ad-libbed recklessly, and if all else failed, he’d fall back on hoots, howls and spectacular pratfalls to sell a gag. The lanky and morose Bud Abbott — the best straight man in the business — knew instinctively how much rope to give out and when to yank Lou back into the routine.

The new script was a challenge, and the Boys, at first, were uncomfortable with it. It came with all the jokes written down, all the gags and situations worked out. Only a couple of stock routines made it in, a “moving candle” gag, and a scene where Lou mistakes the real Wolfman for Bud was a variation on a bit the Boys were familiar with. It speaks to the script’s originality and cleverness that even those old stunts work in context and come off as fresh.

The Monster : Glenn Strange

Bud and Lou often complained, not without reason, of being saddled with uninspired supporting casts composed of clock-punching contract players. This time, they had no cause for worry.

Lon Chaney, Jr. reprised his signature role as the terminally anguished Larry Talbot. He’s a good guy, working with Bud and Lou to prevent Dracula from reviving the dangerous Frankenstein Monster, but he’s also a walking time bomb who can morph into The Wolfman and turn on the Boys at any moment. A nice surprise was seeing Bela Lugosi, in great form, don the Dracula cape again. The part had been essayed most recently by John Carradine, in top hat and fake mustache, while Lugosi had languished as a Poverty Row villain. Here, Lugosi was given a good, substantial role, and he handled himself with Continental aplomb, dignity intact, while the comics whirled around him. It was to be Bela’s last major film.

The cast of principals was rounded out with Jane Randolph as Lou’s sweetheart, Lenore Aubert as the evil and fatale Dr. Mornay, and the part of the Monster was assured, again, by Glenn Strange.

Strange had played the Monster in two previous outings but his screen time had been limited to being strapped on a slab until the final reel when, spurred by some mad scientist and his obligatory hunchbacked assistant, he rose, growled at the torch-carrying mob, and promptly walked into some quicksand, or a wall of fire. The End.

This time, the Monster was used throughout the picture, and he had the best, most fun scenes interacting with Bud and Lou.

Strange played the character as a stoic hulk, moving slowly and deliberately, hands out, like a blind automaton on remote control. His performance is rarely given the credit it deserves, but watch him closely in this film. This isn’t just a stuntman clomping around, it’s a real performance in pantomime. In a couple of scenes, incrementally sitting up at Dracula's command, or mechanically climbing the stairs in the gorgeous island dock set, Strange moves with such clockwork precision that it almost feels like the film has slowed down. His timing, always half a second late in reacting, is robot perfect.

Glenn Strange made a career as a character actor in Westerns. As The Monster, he was eclipsed by Karloff, Chaney and Lugosi who had all played the part in “serious” pictures. Strange was thought of as the fill-in Frankenstein, the one who got the part only after the part was discounted. But it was Glenn Strange who would give the Monster its pop culture profile. When the classic, flat-top makeup was applied to his wide, craggy face, it gave him a big, square, boxlike head, and this look became the Frankenstein trademark, better suited for toys and Halloween masks than Boris Karloff’s sensitive features.

Shooting on The Brain of Frankenstein began on February 5, 1948.

Cult Status

The Boys pulled their usual on-set antics, playing a marathon game of poker in their dressing room and refusing to come out for rehearsals. When they did made it to the stage, shooting would be regularly interrupted by the frenetic Bobby Barber, Lou's personal stooge, hired to create pandemonium and keep the company in good spirits. Universal crewmen reportedly loved working on Abbott and Costello pictures. Veteran director Charles Barton calmly steered the picture through all the chaos.

The only incident of note came when a stunt went wrong and Glenn Strange snapped his ankle. Lon Chaney, a good sport, offered to stand in as The Monster and that’s him throwing Lenore Aubert’s double through the window. Strange returned to the set a few days later, wearing a leg brace. Another incident, much happier, involved a scene where Lou backs into a chair and inadvertently sits in the Monster’s lap. His predicament dawns on him when he realizes that he has too many hands. Take after take, Glenn Strange, who was called upon to keep a straight, stone face, couldn’t help but break up. No amount of editing could salvage the scene and the two men had to be called back later on for retakes.

The film’s shooting title, The Brain of Frankenstein, sounded too much like a straight horror film. When it was released, in August ’48, it was called, simply, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein. To Universal’s delight, preview audiences whooped as soon as the title appeared onscreen.

In retrospect, it was an early case of product branding. Comedians and monsters had mixed it up before, but these were not your humdrum haunted house ghosts or the escaped cheapsuit gorillas that had stalked everyone from the Ritz Brothers to the Bowery Boys. Abbott and Costello — household names to begin with — were tangling with Frankenstein! The Wolf Man! And Dracula! These were characters established over almost two decades worth of films. Their names had weight and significance.

The film was a runaway hit, the 3rd biggest box office attraction of 1948, and it gave Bud and Lou a whole new formula to exploit. Over the next few years, they would go on to “Meet” all the monsters they could scare up, from The Invisible Man to The Mummy.

Critics of the time were kind to the film, but it would take a few more years for it to be recognized as the comedy classic that it is. When horror films finally came under scholarly scrutiny, A&C Meet Frankenstein was generally regarded as an insult, the final ignominy for monsters whose potency had been slowly eroded through increasingly cheap sequels.

In an article for Sight and Sound (April-June 1952), Curtis Harrington — who had been a friend of James Whale — wrote that Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein was “the final death agony of James Whale’s originally marvelous creation”. Carlos Clarens, in his seminal Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967), lumped the film along with the portmanteau House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, stating that “unconscious parody finally gave way to deliberate spoof” and adding, “By then, Universal was flogging a dead horse”.

Boris Karloff was known to glower whenever the film was mentioned, though he had gamely accepted to pose for publicity pictures, standing in line to see the film in New York, and he had gone on to play in two pictures with the Boys, Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lon Chaney, Jr., who’d had a ball making the film, came to believe its pernicious influence had killed off the old monsters.

But, of course, the monsters not only survived, their reputations grew. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is an intelligent and vastly entertaining film. It was beautifully done. It has wonderful sets and a magnificent score by Frank Skinner. And it is still funny today. In the end, it was as generous, respectful and deeply-felt an homage to the classic Monsters as, say, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein was.

Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman did not fade away, they went out with a bang in a fabulous film, a true and glorious Last Hurrah. More importantly, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, with its reverent use of Universal’s classic monsters, forever cemented their reputation as dominant icons of popular culture.


Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein on DVD.

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo (Perigee Books, 1991). Out of print. You can still find a copy through Amazon Sellers or AbeBooks.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: Universal Filmscripts Series, by Philip J. Riley (Magicimage Books, 1990).


Anonymous said...

Wonderfully in-depth article on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Pierre. Thank you. If this longer format is indeed a departure for you I, for one, support it.

Incidentially, my father-in-law sheepishly admits to seeing this film in the theater as a child and was so terrified by the Universal monsters that he left the cinema and ran all the way home :D

Thanks for contributing to the blog-a-thon.

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks for the comments, Thom. Hey, I saw A&C Meet Frankenstein in a movie house when I was a kid. No, I’m not that old, it was a revival, but I was flabbergasted, and I fell in love with the Monsters.

Thanks go to you for running this Blog-a-Thon!

Edward Copeland said...

I love this movie. It brought out the best in everyone involved. It's a shame that Lugosi didn't get to take part in more comedies, because he did have a flair for it not only here but in the 1930s all-star comedy International House.

Joe Thompson said...

Pierre: Thanks for going into the history of this wonderful movie. I remember watching it on uhf tv in the 1970s and getting very frustrated by the commercial breaks. Thank heaven for dvds and TCM. I remember reading some of the unflattering comments that you mention, but I agree with you that this is a really good comedy and a really good Universal monster movie.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Monster-Maniac said...

I'll have to read this later on. ;) I forgot to mention to you, I have some good pics of Boris as the monster and one of Glenn. I also have scans which I'm more than happy to shar with you.

Anonymous said...

Most certainly go for the longer in-depth post more often. Wonderful.

Pierre Fournier said...

Comments and encouragement much appreciated. I just might spring for a longer post now and then. Thanks, everyone.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this film in ages, but I remember it being the most enjoyable Abbott & Costello film I watched as a kid. It's so nice to learn more about the history of surrounding it. Good post!

rob! said...

one of my all-time favorite movies. its more true to the spirit of the characters than, say, Van Helsing.

Maltydog said...

Excellent, detailed history of a movie that was one of my favorites as a kid. The local NYC channel would run it 10 times in one week, so it's one of the first movies I memorized line by line, but they also cut the opening scene out of the movie (their version began with Lou & Bud delivering the boxes to the House of Horrors). So I was quite surprised the first time I saw the complete version, years later!

VW said...

Good post - a favorite old film of mine. Love the candle on the coffin routine. Always make me laugh.

riff said...

After reading this article, I find myself wanting to re-watch the movie - even though I didn't particularly liked it the first time. Thank you!

Singlem said...

Great post about my all time favourite horror comedy movie. I now have this movie on dvd, and revisit it quite often. It strikes the fine balance between comedy and horror superbly.

The Webmaster

Anonymous said...

I saw this classic film when it originally came out. It has remained a favorite. I got to know Glenn Strange while he was Sam on "Gunsmoke." Caught up with him at several western reunions, and we corresponded. He truly was a gentleman. He repaired old tv's as a hobby away from show business. I would occasionally send him resistors, diodes, etc. for his repair work. Glenn was one of a kind, and he would be happily surprised to know he is more popular than ever with today's generation.

Kid said...

It's strange (pun intended) that, in the two photos you show of Glenn, he actually looks very much like Karloff - more so than usual. No doubt that was one of the reasons he was chosen for the part - when he was lit right, the resemblance to Boris's monster was enhanced.

There's just two things the producers got wrong with this movie, great as it is: Dracula having a reflection, and running away looking fearful from the Wolfman near the end of the film. I wonder how Lugosi felt about that?