Friday, October 07, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' (1948)

Several years ago, I got a promotional copy of a huge Abbott and Costello DVD box set, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to familiarize myself with this classic film comedy duo. As it turns out, however, I find Abbott and Costello completely unfunny, so I stopped watching after two of their most acclaimed movies (Buck Privates and The Time of Their Lives). But I held onto the set in anticipation of watching their encounter with Frankenstein's monster, and I was probably a little more entertained by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein than I was by the other Abbott and Costello movies I watched. The central duo themselves still don't do much for me, but their presence allows director Charles Barton and the various screenwriters the chance to poke fun at the Universal monsters, who've become totally cartoonish by this point in their existence.

Like House of Frankenstein, this is a monster mashup movie that happens to have Frankenstein's name in the title, and despite that prominent billing, the monster (played again by House's Glenn Strange) doesn't have all that much to do. He's definitely secondary to the other monsters in this movie, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. once again) and Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising the role for the first time since the original 1931 Dracula). The Wolf Man is essentially the hero, with Dracula as the villain, and the poor hapless shipping clerks played by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello caught in the middle. There's no continuity with the previous Universal monster movies (this takes place in the present day, i.e. 1948, as opposed to the vague past of the main movies), but the characterization is pretty consistent, especially the angst of Chaney's Lawrence Talbot as he frets over his transformation into a werewolf during the full moon.

Talbot travels from London to Florida to intercept shipments of Dracula (in his coffin) and the monster, which have been sent to a spook show via the shipping company where Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello) work. Dracula and the monster get loose, and Dracula teams up with Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), who plans to revive the monster. This plan involves giving the monster a new brain, which is why Sandra has cozied up to Wilbur, who's so dim-witted that his brain will be the perfect way to make the monster gullible and obedient. This is, of course, a nonsensical plan, especially since the monster is shown being completely obedient to Dracula with whatever brain it has already.

But the point is really just to get Abbott and Costello running around with monsters chasing them, and the movie delivers on that front. I'm not big on slapstick, and this movie is heavy on that and fairly light on the duo's more clever wordplay. Abbott is firmly in the straight-man role here and thus comes off as a bit superfluous in a movie with plenty of other characters to set up jokes, and Costello's trademark flustered buffoonery gets tiresome pretty quickly. Still, I liked that Chaney, Lugosi and Strange play their characters more or less straight, which highlights the absurdity of the humor and gives some of the horror scenes a level of actual spookiness. It's nothing compared to the characters' best moments from movies 10 or 15 years earlier, but at least it keeps a little bit of integrity intact in the increasingly desperate mega-franchise.

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