I know people who can’t stand black and white movies. As if B&W is the dial-up internet of cinema. I have a theory that these people don’t actually care about the color of the screen. These people hate old movies because old movies are slow, dated, and because everyone talks like they just fled England to colonize the New World. Which is fair. Though I would argue there are old movies that work as well today as they ever did, regardless of color, or lack thereof.
Case in point is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I know because it’s an old movie I saw as a kid and loved. I was never the type to scoff at old movies, but I’d be lying if I said I watched and enjoyed anything pre-1960s that wasn’t a cartoon. Maybe I like
The reason A&CMF (I’m sticking with that for now) works is because it combines the two most digestible kinds of old movies, slapstick comedies, and b-horror movies. Monsters? Getting hit in the nuts? Some things never change. A&CMF wasn’t the first horror/comedy. It wasn’t even the first horror/comedy with Bela Lugosi. Minutes ago I discovered a movie from 1941 called Spooks Run Wild featuring Lugosi and a group of characters known as the East Side Kids. Who sounds like the favorite comedy act of Mitt Romney’s grandparents.
Abbott and Costello dabbled in “creepy comedy”—a term I now claim full ownership of— themselves in 1941 with the haunted house movie Hold that Ghost. So why is A&CMF considered a landmark horror/comedy and not that other one? Because instead of a generic ghost or a bunch of kids from the Eastside, the movie pairs two of the most iconic comedians of all time with the most iconic monsters of all time. In the same movie! This is like The Avengers before The Avengers
Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) work as baggage clerks at a Florida railway station. Lawrence “The Wolf Man” Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) makes an urgent call from London warning the pair to postpone the delivery of two crates to “McDougal’s House of Horrors” before he arrives. What’s in those crates? Oh, just a Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and a Frankenstein (Glenn Strange). It’s never explained how Talbot knows about these crates. All the monsters must keep tabs on the other monsters. Before Talbot can explain himself he turns into a werewolf, which Wilbur mistakes as a dog on the phone. They go for a lot of easy jokes in this film, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny.
McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to claim the shipments and Chick and Wilbur go to a back room only to end up with Wilbur dangling atop one of the crates and it crashing to the ground in comical fashion. What a dumbass. In response, McDougal demands the pair hand deliver the crates to his museum so that an insurance agent can inspect them. Here is where the movie earns a lot of respect. Actions have consequences in this movie. An insurance agent, Joan (Jane Randolph), does investigate and becomes more entwined in the story as she learns about these so-called “exhibits”.
Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates but accidentally let Dracula and Frankenstein loose at McDougal’s museum. If you love bits where people don’t realize there’s a monster behind them and then take a really long time to piece it together, you’re going to love this sequence. Spook-house shenanigans ensue before Dracula and Frankenstein escape to an island castle where they meet with Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). I almost forgot to mention this character’s clever introduction.
We first meet Sandra at the railway station meeting up with her beau… Wilbur. Of course, she’s beautiful and Wilbur is a bumbling fat idiot, which pisses off a jealous Chick to no end. It’s a great dynamic. It doesn’t make a lick of sense until we realize Sandra wants Wilbur’s brain. Still following? Dracula wants to control Frankenstein’s monster by giving him a subservient mind. I don’t remember if Drac’s plans extended past the brain thing—ultimate bad guy team?—but I love that Abbott and Costello are actually crucial to the plot.
The other important character dynamic in this movie is Larry Talbot teaming up with Chick and Wilbur to stop the other monsters before they unleash their reign of terror. This relationship is the perfect example of what makes this movie such a great horror/comedy. The horror is played straight and the comedy is played broader than Frankenstein’s shoulders. This means it’s a movie with dramatic weight and an interesting plot but also lots of laughs. Deep down I can see a kinship with how this movie is structured to how a modern-day Marvel movie is structured.
Chaney is solid as a pleading Talbot, as Lugosi is as charming and comfortable as ever in his iconic role of the Count. What’s crazy is this film is the only other time Lugosi ever played Dracula. How they didn’t milk that shit for all it was worth I don’t know.
6’5’’ character actor Glenn Strange plays Frankenstein’s monster replacing Karloff, who retired from the role four years earlier. Strange had already played Frankie once before in the 1944 film House of Frankenstein. What’s crazy is Boris Karloff stars in House but plays the mad scientist instead. That film also has the Wolf Man (Chaney) and Dracula (John Carradine) but there’s nothing quite like having a monster team-up movie with Bela. Back to Strange (his real last name btw) did you know it was Strange who popularized Frankenstein as a shambling, groaning, dummy? Don’t believe me? Check out those early Karloff Frankenstein films and I think you’ll find a much more articulate monster.
The film is a lot of fun on both ends. My only minor problem is Bud Abbott is underutilized. He gets in his jabs in but after watching a handful of the duo’s most famous bits online, I noticed Abbott shines brightest when he’s playing a smug asshole outsmarting Costello. In this movie, he’s just an asshole. A damn fine asshole but an asshole. Here’s my favorite asshole moment:
Chick Young: I don’t get it. Out of all the guys around here that classy dish has to pick out a guy like you.
Wilbur Grey: What’s wrong with that?
Chick Young: Go look at yourself in the mirror some time.
Wilbur Grey: Why should I hurt my own feelings?
Oh, Abbott, you cold asshole.
Does this goofy horror movie deserve to be on Fangoria’s 300 Greatest Horror movies list? Absolutely. It might be the first great Horror/Comedy ever made and with its gothic sets and old school atmosphere, it’s the perfect film for a Halloween get together. Go watch it ya dummies.
P.S. Vincent Price shows up in the closing seconds as the Invisible Man. I’m telling you, Universal was building a cinematic universe years before Marvel knew what was what.