October 7, 2013

Olsen and Johnson Meet Frankenstein

The Frankenstein Monster creeps up on Olsen and Johnson on their Halloween television show of 1949. It was actually the comedy duo’s second encounter with The Monster.

Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson first teamed up in 1914, touring the Vaudeville circuit, honing their own special brand of chaotic comedy based on fast patter, blackout jokes and sight gags. By the late Twenties, the duo scored radio gigs and appeared in some early Warner talkies, but Hollywood wasn’t quite ready yet for Olsen and Johnson’s patented hysterics. As an example of the team’s inspired lunacy, their segment on Rudy Vallee’s radio program was called The Padded Cell of the Air.

In 1938, the boys opened on Broadway with a relentlessly manic revue entitled Hellzapoppin’, combining jokes and prop gags, wild improv and surrealistic musical numbers, all way over-the-top. It was a sensation, playing over 1000 performances before taking to the road for years to come — with no two shows ever exactly alike.

Hollywood came calling again. Universal tackled Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, inserting movie star cameos and a spectacular musical number by the legendary Slim Gaillard. This being Universal, the Frankenstein Monster also appears, throwing Martha Ray across the set in an elaborate wire gag. Legendary stuntman Dale Van Sickle donned full Monster makeup for the bit. An All-American athlete, Van Sickle became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most respected stuntmen, eventually serving as first president for the Stuntmen’s Association. Tragically, he died in 1977 after a long illness provoked by a movie car crash gone wrong.

It is believed that Van Sickle played The Monster again, spelling for Lon Chaney in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and as one of a tag team of doubles for Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

According to The Frankenstein Film Sourcebook, screenwriter Edward Cline wrote The Monster into Olsen and Johnson’s next two pictures, Crazy House (1943) and Ghost Catchers (1944), but the gags were dropped in pre-production. It is very unlikely that they were filmed and cut. Still, The Monster wasn’t done with Olsen and Johnson.

In 1949, the boys took their act to the nascent medium of television with Fireball Fun For All, good for 13 one-hour episodes of certified craziness that practically overwhelmed the small screen. The final program, broadcast on October 27, was built on Halloween themes. The last sketch, a haunted house number called 13 Bleak Street, featured creaky floors, howling noises, ghostly appearances and a mummy, then a door opens and our old friend, The Monster, appears. He creeps up on Ole and Chic and asks, “Are you Abbott and Costello?” — “No!” says Chic, “We’re Olsen and Johnson!” Whereupon The Monster shrieks in horror and runs away.

The gag was topical, obviously referencing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the wildly successful comedy hit of 1948. Another neat thing about the Monster cameo is that the actor is wearing an original Don Post over-the-head Frankenstein mask. Introduced just a year earlier, this is very likely the first use of the Frankenstein mask on television.

The Frankenstein rubber mask would prove to be a great substitute to elaborate, time-consuming makeup jobs whenever Franky was needed for a quick gag. It would become downright ubiquitous with the onset of TV Horror Hosts in the late Fifties.

The Halloween episode of Olsen and Johnson’s Fireball Free For All is up on YouTube. The Bleak House sketch kicks in at 41:27, and the Frankenstein Monster appears at 48:57. You can also download the episode from Archive.org.

Dance Hall Frankenstein, perhaps the first use of the Don Post Frankenstein mask in a movie.
Ole Olsen meets Frankenstein (Glenn Strange).


wich2 said...

As Johnny Carson used to say, "I did not know that...!"

Great stuff, Pierre.

Rick said...

New to me too. I guess I'll take a look, though my aversion to Olsen and Johnson makes it tough. I'm biting the bullet.

Thanks, Pierre.