Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 51 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about a theater called The Princess where he used to watch movies as a child. He describes tickets as costing 9¢, popcorn 5¢. Shows started at noon & lasted hours as newsreels, serials, and double features (often a pairing of a Western and a comedy) lit up the screen. One of the comedies mentioned in this anecdote is Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
What Ebert had to say in his review: Ebert never reviewed the film, but he did expand on his memories of The Princess, including the memory of watching this feature, in his essay “Hooray! Hooray! The First of May!“. Roger writes, “When Bud & Lou met Frankenstein, it scared the shit out of us.”
By the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein reached cinemas, Universal Studios had more or less discontinued their “Famous Monsters” brand & decided to retire the loose franchise on a remarkably silly note. Bela Lugosi returned to his role as Dracula for the second & final time in the film (though he would continuously play various other vampires throughout his career). Lon Chaney Jr. returned as the Wolf Man (despite being cured of his lycanthropy in The House of Dracula three years earlier). Sadly, Boris Karloff didn’t return as the Frankenstein monster (possibly due to his longtime rivalry with Lugosi), but Glenn Strange serves as a suitable replacement. All three actors had been sufficiently terrifying before in previous horror pictures, but that’s not their exact purpose here. Instead of scaring the audience, they’re meant to scare skittish funnyman Lou Costello, who delivers the film’s true bread & butter: broad, child-friendly yuck-em-ups. The film’s horror context is merely a backdrop, a stage for Costello to play on. Horror comedy is one of my all-time favorite movie genres, but I don’t think it’s a format that really came into its own until the 1980s. Old Hollywood horror comedies struggled to homogenize both of their respective formulas & the results often feel like a standard vaudeville routine that happens to feature scary monsters. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein offers no exception.
In light of recently watching the Marx Brothers’ comedy A Day at the Races for this project, it’s difficult not to compare Abbott & Costello’s vaudevillian humor to that of the Marxs’. The comparison is not flattering. Bud Abbott is an uninteresting straight man archetype, which leaves Lou Costello to carry all of the film’s humor on his own two shoulders. His banter is never quite as impressively complex as Groucho’s. His physical humor never even approaches the high standard of Harpo’s. Lou Costello is, in essence, adequate as a comedic force in this picture. I can pick out a couple moments here or there when he got a really good laugh out of me: I particularly enjoyed the gag where he attempts to match the Wolf Man’s beastly howling over the telephone & the self-deprecating humor of him answering the suggestion “Go look at yourself in the mirror sometime” with the response “Why should I hurt my own feelings?”. For the most part, though, he’s entertaining, but far from the height of hilarity. It might be an issue of Costello himself not being especially into the production. Before filming, he was quoted as saying “No way I’ll do that crap. My little girl could write something better than this.” He eventually warmed up to the film & had fun during filming, but it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that his heart wasn’t fully into it.
The plot of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is fairly bare bones. The titular comedic duo are a pair of dock workers charged with delivering crates that contain the corpses of none other than Dracula & the Frankenstein monster (despite what the title implies, Dr. Frankenstein is not involved) to a sort of House of Horrors wax museum/cabinet of curiosities. The monsters come to life & scare Costello stupid. Laughs ensue. You get the picture. What really surprised me about this story line, though, was how familiar it felt. About halfway into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein I had to ask myself whether or not my childhood favorites, The Monster Squad, was in fact a remake of the comedy classic, at least in terms of their shared central conflict. In both films Dracula serves as a criminal mastermind hell-bent on taking over the world by controlling the Frankenstein monster through a magical talisman. The only real difference is that in the Abbott & Costello version the Wolf Man is determined to stop the dastardly Dracula instead of blindly joining his ranks (and getting punched in “the nards” by young children). If you have any personal affection for The Monster Squad, I think Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is worth a look as a possible starting point for its source material.
I’m slightly diminishing the significance of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein here. The film is effortlessly charming as an old school horror comedy & has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be selected for preservation by the US Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. I think the picture had a lot of significance among younger viewers who grew up to hold it in high regard. Just like my generation latched onto the similarly-minded The Monster Squad, Ebert’s generation connected with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on a personal level. Not only was the humor of both films skewered towards younger crowds, both Ebert & I most remember being scared by the relatively tame horror end of our respective childhood favorites. If nothing else, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein captured the terrified imaginations of its pint-sized audiences during its theatrical release & also served as the final major studio production for future legend Bela Lugosi, who desperately needed the money. That’s all the significance a broad comedy really needs to justify its place in the world.
Roger’s Rating: N/A
Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)
Next lesson: My Dog Skip (2000)