It’s Been 75 Years Since Abbott and Costello Met Frankenstein … and Dracula … and the Wolf Man
Around this time in the summer of 1948 (a set release date for the film has been hard to confirm, but I’ve found initial reviews of it published in late June), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein premiered in theaters.
Regardless of its official premiere date, the film is worth remembering, celebrating and watching 75 years later for a few reasons.
Above all, it is still very funny, one of Abbott and Costello‘s best, while simultaneously managing to be spooky (in a fun, and not outright terrifying way).
Movies that combined laughs and scares had been around before Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The comedy duo themselves had already made a movie with similar sensibilities, 1941’s haunted-house comedy Hold That Ghost.
Before that, Bob Hope had led a couple of mystery/ghost-themed comedies, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940); in 1944, another comedy team, Olsen and Johnson, made the spooky comedy Ghost Catchers; and in 1946, The Bowery Boys had tangled with ghosts and a mad scientist in the comedy Spook Busters.
A few of these earlier titles had setups that initially invoked the supernatural, but the stories ultimately revealed some gangsters or other criminals behind the supposed ghostly activity, reminiscent of what Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its many offshoots did starting a few decades later.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a production from the recently formed-via-merger Universal-International, differentiated itself by bringing in actual monsters … and not just any old ghouls.
The film finds dim-witted baggage clerks Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) encountering a number of the classic Universal Monsters that had haunted movie theaters starting in 1931 with Dracula and Frankenstein.
Dracula (Bela Lugosi) is most successful at controlling the weak-minded … and minds don’t come much weaker than Wilbur Gray’s (Lou Costello).
Chick and Wilbur meet Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange; yes, technically Abbott and Costello do not actually meet Frankenstein, but rather his creation), with a cameo from the Invisible Man (voiced by an uncredited Vincent Price) at the end.
Eventually, Dracula has an ill-advised plan to transplant Wilbur’s brain into the Frankenstein monster.
The only major Universal monster of the time not in the film was the Mummy (the Gill-man would not be introduced until a few years later, in 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon), though Abbott and Costello would meet the Mummy another time.
Chaney Jr. had been playing the mummy Kharis in Universal’s most recent Mummy movies made in the early ’40s, and he had also played Frankenstein’s monster in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Dracula in 1943’s Son of Dracula, so the actor was truly a Universal Monsters all-star.
I’m guessing for this film they wanted him to stick with his most famous character, the Wolf Man, and I’m glad they did, since it proved to be a wonderful swan song for him in that role.
The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) “sneaks up” on a clueless Wilbur.
There had been onscreen gatherings of Universal creatures before, in so-called “monster rally” pictures starting with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in which Chaney Jr. first reprised his most famous character, Larry Talbot and his monstrous alter-ego, which he introduced in The Wolf Man (1941), and Lugosi, interestingly, played Frankenstein’s monster.
A couple more monster rallies followed with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), which had Chaney Jr. again playing the Wolf Man, and Strange making the first two of his three appearances as the Frankenstein monster.
But those films were played for straight scares. Beyond that, they were produced at a time when these monster movies, while still popular and fun, were more relegated to B-movie status. And by 1948, there was now a generation who, while they may have been familiar with Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man from the ’40s pictures, had not really known Bela Lugosi as Dracula or Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.
Over the next decade, as some of those early Universal Monsters movies came to television, those names and characters would become more renowned to younger people, but Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein offered an initial chance for kids to see the great Lugosi in his most famous role for just his second and final time since the ’31 Dracula.
And Lugosi is terrific once again as the iconic bloodsucker here, displaying not only the combination of charisma and menace he is remembered for bringing to the character, but a fun sense of comedic timing at the same time, in scenes like this one:
Just as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was Lon Chaney Jr.’s final Wolf Man performance, it also marked Lugosi’s final appearance as Dracula in a movie.
Additionally, as basically the last high-profile studio picture Lugosi made before his passing in 1956, the film is a great spotlight for the actor, and a dignified close to his career as a Universal Monster. I’m glad to have read that he had a positive experience with the production, and seemed happy to be able to scare a new generation of kids as the infamous Count.
Along with rekindling interest in Universal’s classic monsters, and Lugosi’s Dracula in particular, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also gave the titular comedy duo a spark in their career.
They would follow this with a number of Abbott and Costello (fill in the blank) titles over the next several years, including others of this spooky comedy nature which featured Universal Monsters (or were Universal Monsters-adjacent).
The first one came right away in 1949, with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (featuring Karloff not as his most famous role of Frankenstein’s monster, but as a swami).
Following that was Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), with Arthur Franz as the Invisible Man.
During this time, the duo also came to television with The Abbott and Costello Show, which ran from 1952-54, while continuing to make movies, including Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), with Karloff as Jekyll and Eddie Parker as Hyde; and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), with Parker as the mummy, named “Klaris.”
That last film basically represented the end of Abbott and Costello’s big-screen career. I’m sure that career was extended by the success and enduring entertainment value of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and the film has had continuing influence on other movies of the sort in the decades that followed.
You can see elements of that spooky/funny balance the film pulled off so well in a title like Ghostbusters (1984), and especially in monster-themed films like The Monster Squad (1987) and Van Helsing (2004), which also borrow from Abbott and Costello’s production in having Dracula as the leader or even the controller of a group of monsters.
I’m not sure what Lou Costello’s Wilbur is saying to Bud Abbott’s Chick here, but I’m sure it’s something like: “CHICK! …. WHOAAAAA CHIIIIIIIICK!”