March 20, 2008

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It:
The Legacy Of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
by Frank Dietz

Along with his wonderful award-winning art, Frank Dietz shares his love for a classic film and discusses its abiding influence with a number of genre luminaries.

In May 1948, Universal Studios released a film that would change the direction of two of their most celebrated franchises. The movie was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and it put Bud and Lou back at the top of their game. And while it rang the death knoll for the classic monsters, it would also secure their longevity in the hearts and minds of audiences for decades to come.

At the age of six, I was introduced to this film by way of a local network airing, broadcast in all its glory across a black-and-white television screen. To my memory, it was the first time I had ever heard of Count Dracula, The Wolf Man or The Frankenstein Monster. My young mind was already craving anything that stimulated the imagination. Like Lou Costello’s Wilbur, I became caught in the hypnotic draw of Bela Lugosi’s beckoning. Here were situations so compelling, alternately frightening and amusing, that each new sequence would draw me closer to that screen. That is until a concerned adult would order me to back away, citing the time-honored admonition of ruining one’s eyesight. By the time The Wolf Man and Dracula plunged to their doom, and the Monster crumpled into the blazing pier, I had a calling in life. I didn’t know how or where this magical thing was made, all I knew was that I wanted to be a part of it.

What followed my enlightenment that morning was a surge of invention, arching like the manic machinery in Dr. Mornay’s laboratory. The Crayola-rendered drawings gushed from my memory and were ceremoniously pinned to the walls of my rickety backyard clubhouse. I would spend what seemed like hours in front of the bathroom mirror, “transforming” into The Wolf Man. My neighborhood chums were cajoled into performing living room reenactments of key scenes from the film, with me as director and star (either as Wilbur or Talbot…or both).

Memory was all I had to go on, for I would not see my creative muse again for several years. Unlike the privileged, instant-access youth of today, airings of movies like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein were events to be wished for from month to month. When I was finally “gifted” by the gods of programming, Glenn Strange’s Monster himself could not have deterred me from taking my place in front of that old Zenith.

Somehow I missed the wonderful animated opening credits the first time around, but that second viewing immediately galvanized my already feverish brain. Watching that cartoon Frankenstein lumber into frame brought a whole new element into play. As the silhouetted Wolf Man and Dracula skulked over the hill, a tiny switch clicked “ON” inside my noggin. It was the first time any kind of animation had triggered such a specific response in me. Woody Woodpecker had been taken for granted, but the Frankenstein Monster brought the respect that the art form deserved. Cartoons suddenly had the potential to be really cool.

So my drawings began to improve, reloaded by this fresh clip of Frankensteinia. Shortly after, I happened upon my first issue of Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and with it the revelation that there were other Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies out there. When the Shock Theater syndication packages began to play on the Saturday night “Creature Feature” movie, I was ready for them. They didn’t always look exactly the same, but they were definitely my monsters.

Through subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate the film for its actual merits. The genuinely funny script, that wisely sidesteps the potholes of Bud and Lou’s vaudeville routines. The atmospheric production design and lighting. Lugosi’s improvement over his own 1931 Dracula performance. Lon Chaney’s Talbot fighting for a noble cause between his moonlight metamorphoses. Glenn Strange’s proof that he could do more than be a prop that sits up from the slab in the final five minutes. The rousing Frank Skinner score, with memorable motifs for each monster. All of these ingredients make for a thoroughly entertaining stew. Sadly, the film was the swan song for the three great movie monsters, and its tremendous success would make Abbott & Costello films the “elephants graveyard” for all the remaining cinema spookies. But perhaps killing off their erstwhile cash cows by way of a multi-demographic comedy was the shrewdest monster move the Universal suits ever made.

Very often I have found Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein to be a common denominator on the inspirational rap sheets of my professional colleagues. Like my experiences, many of my fellow writers, actors, directors and artists can cite the movie as a pivotal step in their own evolutions. We who marveled at these creations in our youth, have grown to become the creators. I asked a few of them about their own A&CMF memories.

When I was a little youngster (radio carbon dating figures on request) I was packed away to" day "camp in the summertime,” recalls Emmy-winning makeup fx artist John Goodwin, “and I remember the younger kids had to listen to the camp counselor tell stories about trees (!?) while the older kids got to see a movie, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" in 16mm, whatever that was. Well, I knew liked Abbott and Costello, but I wasn't too sure about monsters yet. I snuck away into the darkened cabin where they were showing the movie - just when Lon Chaney Jr. was changing into The Wolf Man!! Scared me to death! I was back out in tree story land faster than you can crush an acorn. But the seed had been sown…

Director Tom Holland, who created a formidable horror-comedy of his own with 1985’s Fright Night, explains how A&CMF inspired a key moment in his film. “A & C meet Frankenstein gave me the inspiration for the moment in Fright Night where Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) has killed the vampire's helper, and he and Charley Brewster start up the stairs again...while the monster sits up behind them, rises and starts up the stairs. The moment where Roddy hears the creak of the footsteps behind him and turns to see the monster he just killed coming toward right out of A&CMF, and gets much the same kind of giggle.

Creator of some of the most recognizable movie posters of all time (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, et al.), award-winning artist Drew Struzan had this to say: “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein? I remember it being the stupidest, tackiest and most disrespectful take on Frankenstein I ever saw. And I enjoyed every moment of it!

I became an actor, a screenwriter and an animator, all of which can be almost directly traced back to my early exposure to A&CMF. But the real test of the movie’s magic became apparent to me after my older daughter Caitlin watched it, at about the same age I was when I first saw it. She enjoyed it so much, she insisted on watching it again…and again…and again. This was now possible in the instant techno-gratification nineties. Before long she was quoting Wilbur (“SANDRA! Junior? SANDRA! Junior?) and had perfected the Dracula hand gestures to the point that she could bend the will of any second-grader in class. Shortly after, she would begin to inquire about other vintage horror movies. She knew who these characters were now, and was curious to find out more. I took her to a screening of the 1931 Frankenstein at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. She faced the film without fear, and by its fiery climax, expressed pity for Karloff’s monster. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein had vaccinated her against fear of the original films, and the bias against “old” movies that were not in color. It occurred to me at that point that the film has become a kind of “portal,” allowing young people to be introduced to the classic monsters in a gentler, acceptable manner.

Noted horror author David J. Schow suggests one explanation to the appeal. “I don’t have research to bear me out on this, so it’s a suspicion rather than a confirmed fact, but I daresay A&C Meet Frank was a convenient conduit for “first contact” between a lot of kids and a lot of monsters because by the time TV syndication rolled around, A&C were deemed “kid-friendly” matinee fare – no sharp edges, etc. – and therefore the film was broadcast often during the daytime on Saturdays, as opposed to later-night “melodrama” slots containing programming that might scare somebody, as wrongly or rightly determined by affiliate broadcast standards. Since it was thumbnailed as a “comedy,” kids came for A&C and stayed for the monsters, so to speak. A lot of monster magazine cover art – in particular images of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster – around this time were derived from this film’s images to a degree that almost makes it look biased.

This is certainly true of the Universal monsters licensing art during the 1960’s Shock Theater boom. The colorful Frankenstein images that appeared on the lunchboxes, wallets and 3-ring school binders were almost always of Glenn Strange. The Dracula image was Lugosi, direct from A&CMF. Since these items were marketed for kids, it makes sense that the imagery be plucked from the film created to appeal directly to them.

David goes on to make an excellent point about the film’s intention from the start. “It’s also important that a fundamental turning point occurs early in the movie, where the Monster is frightened by Lou in the wax museum; it is the big wink to the audience that everything will be safe and okay, and cannot be underestimated as the “doorway” through which every subsequent monster spoof or lampoon followed. That one gag is a big red flag signaling the end of the reign of gothic monsters at Universal.

Only the monsters and villains perish in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and while the innocents are placed in great peril, not a single one is harmed during the film’s 83 minute running time. Even the obnoxious Mr. MacDougal survives an attack by The Wolf Man. This makes it an easier pill to swallow for those second-grade first-timers. And once they have made it through to see Chick and Wilbur emerge triumphant, most are quick to grab that remote and return to the main menu for another spin through MacDougal’s House Of Horrors.

The beautiful irony is that the film that was meant to be a stake in the heart for the Universal monsters may in fact be the film that keeps them alive forever. It provided inspiration for the filmmakers of today, and continues to serve as the welcome mat for new generations of classic monster fans. A couple of weeks ago, my younger daughter Tabitha, age 7, decided it was time that she watch her father’s favorite movie. She’s watched it six times since, and is now inquiring about a movie called The Bride Of Frankenstein.

The legacy lives on…

Burbank-based Frank Dietz is the creator of the Sketchy Things series of classic monster sketchbooks. Just a week ago, he won his second consecutive Rondo Award as Artist of the Year!

Don’t miss Frank’s enormous, and enormously entertaining website.

If you enjoyed this Guest Post as much as I did, leave a comment and let us know. I’d like to get Frank to contribute again!


rob! said...

WOW! what a post.

excellent all the way around, frank and pierre.

Karswell said...

If there's one film I've probably watched more times than any other in my 40 years on Earth it's probably this one.

Tim Lucas said...

Frank's wonderful memoir of A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN twists a knife in me a little, because it was probably the last of the classic Universals I got around to seeing; I didn't catch up with it until I was at least 12 years old, maybe even 13! Nostalgic articles like this one suggest that my childhood (and therefore my young imagination) was terribly deprived! I love the movie, of course, and have seen it many times but it's never been the Great Primal Discovery that it was for so many of my friends. By the time I saw it, I had already discovered Cocteau and Franju, which were Great Primal Discoveries and probably explains a lot about my particular horror orientations. I'm not a parent, but I did once have the pleasure of introducing A&CMF to a youngster and, yes, it's a big kick to bring it into someone's life. In fact, it's been such a rite of passage for so many people, you've got to wonder why it was a "death knell" for the classic monsters rather than a kickstart for a whole new kind of tongue-in-cheek monster movie. The later A&C meetings with Jekyll and Hyde, the Invisible Man and the Mummy didn't have the same appeal. They had the wrong co-stars, if you ask me. Anyway, congratulations to Frank on a fine piece of writing.

Dread said...

A brilliant post. Further proof why this is the best horror blog on the net.

Matt said...

Your post makes me want to watch the movie again...well done!

I like your mention of how, in the pre-video days (which weren't so long ago) catching a broadcast of your favorite monster movie was a major treat.

Anonymous said...

I love Lugosi's hypnotic gesture (and Costello's reaction) too. If only it worked as well for us mere mortals. :) Thanks for sharing your memories of the A&C classic and your wonderful artwork too.

Pierre Fournier said...

A note to Tim: I, too, grew up on Franju and Cocteau. La Belle et la Bete was my childhood initiatory experience to the magic and mystery of fantastic films. They still play it every year on TV at christmastime, I never miss it. I have no children of my own, but I have introduced nieces and nephews to it.

I didn’t get to see A&CMF until I was all of 17. Mind you, I was lucky enough to see it in a revival theater, up on a big screen. Loved the movie, especially considering that 40 years ago, it was generally considered as the ignominious end for the Universal horrors. I though it was brilliant. I’ve seen it many times since, but it never had the revelatory power over me that Frank experienced, which makes his essay so fascinating to me. My first Frankenstein was the 1931 original, which I saw on TV when I was 6 years old, just as the Shock Theater era was kicking in.

Wich2 said...

Great memoir, Frank - thanks.

Like Pierre, I came to this one late; and I had been exposed to that side of fandom that found it blasphemous.

"That's the bunk!"

It is, as you say, well-crafted, delicious ham.

(Of course, in defense of the nay-sayers, it probably DID preclude Uni ever being able to use these characters Straight again...)

-Craig W.

Prof. Griffin said...

Thank you Frank...

Your memories stirred my candy corn soul.
And made my glow in the dark Monster teeth shine a little brighter!

-Prof. Griffin

DZONDZON said...

The gateway film for me too. I probably have watched it more than any other. You're description of the animation and noticing it for the first time mirrors my experience. It was my first favorite film and ignited a lifelong love of movies.

Darrell M. said...

Great article about a great. film. I first saw it in the middle of a Saturday afternoon at the age of 7 and have seen it 100 times since. Never gets old.