01 November 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: ACTUALLY, YOU KNOW THE ONE PERSON THEY DON'T MEET?

And so we come to the death rattle of Universal horror. For some reason that will only ever be known to those involved, the studio suits determined that the best way to retire their classic monsters was to mix traditional horror cinema with the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The first of these, and by a fairly infinite degree the best, was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a 1948 riff on House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that combined the essential tropes of the late monster pictures - Dracula schemes, the Frankenstein monster knocks things over, Larry Talbot frets about not being able to die - with the lightning-fast comic reflexes of the biggest comedy duo of the 1940s. Abbott and Costello's monster rally films came at a particularly ripe time: the change in the post-war filmgoing audience had rendered the classic monster movies totally obsolete, while the two comedians - the hottest thing in Hollywood in the first half of the decade - had lost a great deal of their luster by the time this film entered production. The sheer novelty value of the result all but guaranteed a robust box office return, and while the the film is representative of the absolute worst of Universal horror (worse than the worst, in some respects), it is one of the very best Abbott and Costello vehicles, at least of the scant half-dozen of the things I've seen (I have to confess that my tastes aren't wholly in line with Bud and Lou's schtick; I've never failed to enjoy one of their movies, but nor have I been inspired to ever seek one out).

The place: La Mirada, Florida. So you know right off that we're not on familiar turf anymore. Our heroes are two baggage handlers, Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello), but their names and jobs don't actual matter, except as a pretext for making the rest of the movie happen. Like most successful comedians, they were all about persona, which for those of you who aren't aware, consists of the following for this particular team: Bud is the impatient straight man, Lou is the one who misunderstands things or otherwise acts like a bumbling moron, making Bud all the more impatient. Moving along now, the hook of the plot is that a chamber of horrors owner, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) has just acquired a couple of large boxes from Europe, and he wants Bud and Lou to deliver them as soon as possible. Which is exactly what Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) doesn't want, calling La Mirada from London just as the sun is going down to demand that the boys hold onto the boxes until he shows up. When the phone conversation devolves into a lot of barking and snuffling, Lou figures that McDougal let his dog attack the phone and hangs up, and so it is that the boxes, containing "the real bones of Dracula" and "the real Frankenstein monster", get carted over to McDougal's museum of terrors.

Quicker than you can say "well, duh", both the vampire (Bela Lugosi) and monster (Glenn Strange) get woken up, scaring Lou something awful, but always conveniently disappearing whenever Bud is around. McDougal arrives to find two empty boxes and has the boys arrested, while Dracula and the monster show up at the castle-like abode of Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), mad scientist in waiting and Lou's way-too-hot girlfriend. At the same time, the boys are sprung from prison by Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), an insurance investigator who pretends to be infatuated with Lou in the hopes that he'll help her get to the bottom of these missing monsters.

I can't really think of any reason to give away any more of the plot than that, because most of what happens isn't really interesting or important. It's all a pretext for Bud and Lou to go out and do what they did; for the most part, they do it very well. Almost all of the jokes in the first half of the film are some variation of, "Lou sees a monster, Bud just barely doesn't see it, he yells at Lou, who then sees a monster," and it would appear that the guiding mentality behind the movie's script was the kind the understands that the first time you crack a joke it's funny, the third time it's not so funny, and the sixth time it's freaking hilarious. One of the best bits in the whole movie concerns a revolving wall with Bud on one side, Dracula and the monster on the other, and Lou shuttling back and forth, over the course of several minutes. I can't describe it in any way that would make it sound funny, but it is exquisitely-timed physical comedy. That's one of the difficulties of explaining how Bud and Lou work compared to someone like Groucho Marx: almost everything is a matter of body language, tone of voice, and Lou's tendency to get very fluttery and to squeal when he gets nervous. That doesn't sound funny at all, and sometimes it isn't: the only Abbott and Costello vehicle I've seen later than this one, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, is completely wretched, despite/because of doing most of the same things in mostly the same way. But nonetheless, it's hysterical. Trust me on this, I'm a film blogger.

For as much as the film works as an Abbott and Costello comedy, which is pretty well, although I personally find much of the last half-hour or so to be a bit too frantic, and redolent of the worst of post-war screwball comedy (a period where screwball comedy had grown indulgent and irritating, save for the work of Preston Sturges), it is a pretty miserable monster movie, and indeed it has become a sick joke among horror fans that the Abbott and Costello "Meet the" films gave all of the major franchises the most classless send-off possible. None of the monsters are treated with any kind of gravity whatsoever, although they're all given more to do than in either House of picture. It's a pity that Lugosi returned for the only time to the role of Dracula for this movie, an act of desperation engendered from a decade making one tawdry Poverty Row B-picture after another, with his handful of stints in middleweight Universal movies far and away the most respectable thing he was doing. All he really gets to do in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is stand about and look charismatically threatening, and to be fair, he does that better than anybody, and so even though it is a pointless, limited role, at least it gives Lugosi one last chance to reserve some dignity to his person before declining at last into Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and the Ed Wood movies.

Dracula is the only monster thus given even a shred of respect by the movie. Chaney was plainly never so miserable to play Larry Talbot as he was here, and unlike Lugosi he allows the silliness around him to compromise his commitment to the character of the wolf man, and thus it is that the once-proud werewolf is mocked and made the butt of jokes, while Dracula and the monster remain vaguely threatening. As for Glenn Strange first turn as the monster where he actually gets any significant time to do anything (he's onscreen in this film more than both his previous turns in the role put together), it is a thrilling demonstration of why we're none too upset that he didn't get to do more in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

But that's really the thing, this isn't a proper monster movie. It's a comedy with the monsters as an angle, and while we can certainly debate how respectable an approach that is, at least the film works, and rather well at that, on the level it was supposed to. Bud and Lou are in peak form; it is to be regretted that this had to come at the expense of ending the main line of monster movies in the shoddiest possible way, but it doesn't make Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein a lesser comedy, and that is ultimately the only important thing.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

2 comments:

GeoX said...

Nice. I was a big fan of Abbott and Costello when I was a wee lad, and this was the first one I ever saw. I don't think I'd find them all that funny if I watched them today (though at the time, there was a scene in Lost in the Yukon that made me laugh harder than ever before or again, to the point that I seriously thought I might need medical attention), but I should still revisit this one.

Mr. K said...

I think your assessment is dead-on for the most part. However, there is one gloriously absurd moment at the end where the male romantic leads (whose character name/actor name I don't remember or care about) just shouts at Jane Randolph to fill a bucket with gasoline with no explanation. And she does it without any complaint.

(Of course, Frankenstein's Monster is coming, but she hasn't seen it.)