Their Genius: "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"

by Mark Lotto

Bride of Frankenstein was the very, very best of the Universal horror movies, because its director, James Whale, was as perverse as any mad scientist and as gentle as his monster. After the bride’s black hair is stood up on end and shot through with white, and after she screamingly rejects the monster’s plaintive pleas for friendship, and after he detonates the laboratory with both of them inside it, I turned off the big-box TV — this was years ago, when I was an emptier person living in an empty apartment in an empty city — and I lay there feeling lonesome and ugly instead of skittish and jumpy. I’ve never seen it since, or wanted to.

But most Halloweens, I catch at least a few minutes of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were a comedy duo for 32 years, before their popularity was overtaken by Martin and Lewis and their fortunes were taken by I.R.S. auditors, before Lou died of a heart attack and Bud ended up doing their old routines onstage with a Lou-impersonator named Candy Candido. They made a whole bunch of movies that made a whole bunch of money, including this one, and they also spent years perfecting six or so minutes: “Who’s on First?”

“Who’s on First?” is the sort of reference you always chuckle knowingly at, and maybe you even remember seeing it, start to finish, that one time or another. Watch it again, though, or for the first time. Nowadays, our comedies of errors are timed out like “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation,” where any ill-considered remark, and the awkward pause after, dilates into an excruciating eternity. But in “Who’s On First?”, each further miscommunication compels Bud and Lou to go faster and grow more furious, like racecar drivers trading paint. It is beautiful.

Back to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was made in 1948 and was maybe the most successful horror-comedy movie until Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters. Tall, dandyish Bud and round, boiling-over Lou play Florida baggage clerks who deliver to MacDougal’s House of Horrors museum crates containing the actual Count Dracula (Béla Lugosi) and the actual Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), not the wax dummies listed on the packing slips. Dracula, for his part, is scheming to remove Lou’s brain and stick it into the monster’s body, a plan which everyone involved finds patently ridiculous. Explains Lou, while begging for his life: “I’ve had this brain for 30 years and it hasn’t worked yet. Ask me how much one and one is, Frankie. I don’t know.”

It’s funny to see Béla Lugosi again in this age of diamond-sparkling, designer-dressing vampires who, unlike the rest of us, want to go back and redo high school. Lugosi was 66 when he appeared in Abbott and Costello and is described as “tall, aristocratic,” with a “far-away look in his eye.” But he is exactly as gross and tiresome as you’d imagine a Romanian count would be after centuries of sucking blood and hypnotizing raven-haired maidens and turning back and forth into a screechy, animated bat. Glenn Strange, who played Frankenstein’s monster in this picture and three or four others, is the weak link, neither as scary nor as sad as Karloff, just big and dumb and weaponized, almost a forerunner to Michael Meyers or Jason, an unstoppable force in search an immovable babysitter. These actors, it’s important to note, don’t parody themselves, like they’re on SNL or “Scooby Doo.” They play their parts precisely as they did in many other Universal pictures, hammy as usual but no hammier, which makes them straight men of a sort, but not punch lines.

Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, “a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night” who becomes “a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” In addition to having contracted lycanthropy like it’s a venereal disease, he is cursed to pursue his fellow abominations among the matte-painted moors and expressionist watchtowers and high-contrast lighting of the Universal backlots, always nipping at their heels, ending every flick in pyrrhic victory, beginning every sequel defeated and dispirited.

When Bud and Lou open the door Talbot insisted they lock him behind the night before, only to discover all the furniture’s been ripped to shreds and all the paintings knocked askew, they admonish the poor man: “Boy, what a bender he must have been on last night.” Which is basically right on: Lon Chaney Jr. has the same hangdog eyes and muttering, spastic mouth and careful way of explaining himself as a drunk trying to keep steady and clear just long enough to accomplish a single meaningful task. This is what would happen if Fred Exley fought monsters, in addition to the ones, you know, inside himself. Except then the full moon catches him like a spotlight and the gent’s hands turn hairy and his hair is suddenly perfect. Draw blood!

In other words, the Wolf Man is too afflicted, too self-defeating, to be of much help, and mostly he’s more trouble. Which Abbott and Costello definitely do not need. Though the duo went on, in later films, to …Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff…Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and …the Mummy, bumbling was more their bailiwick, not grit or guts or attacking anyone other than one another.

Sure, yes, do I kind of wish it was the Marx Brothers in this mess? I can almost see it: a Halloween costume party at Margaret Dumont’s country house, where the villains mix freely among the costumed guests. The Count has his vorticular eyes on Zeppo’s love interest. The Wolf Man pads over to the bar and orders a piña colada. Frankenstein’s monster even gets caught up in a dance number or two. But in the end it would be no contest: Groucho and Harpo and Chico are like bad, wild weather and you just pray that by the time they blow back out to sea, your house is still standing. They’d fuck up the monsters’ plans along with everyone else’s night and never even notice.

But Abbott and Lou Costello are more human and more accessible, and that was their genius. Bud spends most of the movie refusing to believe that he’s in a monster movie. And Lou is so out-of-his-gourd terrified that he repeatedly loses the ability to speak English, or form words at all. They act, in other words, like each of us would in exactly the same situation. Lou and Bud don’t arm themselves with stakes and garlic and silver bullets, and they don’t act bravely, like Grace Kelly snooping around the murderer’s one-bedroom in Rear Window, or maddeningly, like Jamie Lee Curtis running back up the stairs in Halloween. They don’t even make that many jokes. They remain in disbelief as long as they can rationally manage, and then they run for their damn lives.

And when they’ve finally escaped the haunted island, only to discover they’re sharing their rowboat with a cigarette suspended in mid-air like a firefly — i.e., the Invisible Man (Vincent Price’s voice, in a cameo) — Bud and Lou do the only sane thing. They jump right in the river.

Mark Lotto is an editor at the New York Times.