Ten Great Things I Learned From “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (Universal-International, 1948)
At age seven, seated before a vacuum-tube-driven DuMont console TV, loosely wired to a temperamental antenna vying for space on my parents’ tiny apartment house roof, I first witnessed, transfixed, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
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And unto this day, through VHS, DVD, laserdisc, bluray, and once, in Manhattan’s now-shuttered Regency Theater, a pristine 35mm print, I can warrant there is no greater horror-comedy experience than this 1948 Universal-International production.
I know I am not alone.
A vast internet cornucopia of blogs, bloopers, gossip and memorabilia celebrate this seventy-two-year-old black and white classic, ranked #56 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Funniest American Comedies,” the only Abbott & Costello film so honored.
Something that works so well and lasts so long has things to teach us.
The Great Things I Learned From Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Here are ten great things I learned from “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”:
Spoiler alerts apply!
The working title was “The Brain of Frankenstein,” in keeping with Universal monster movie tradition:
“Bride of Frankenstein”
“Ghost of Frankenstein”
“Son of Frankenstein” and so on…
The “Brain” is Lou Costello’s, which Count Dracula and Dr. Sandra Mornay, a beautiful psychopathic surgeon-scientist, plan to transplant into the Frankenstein Monster.
But that’s TMI! Too much information.
To sell this picture fans need know one thing:
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!
As clumsy as it reads, the title works.
Contrast “Galaxy Quest” (1999), best sci-fi comedy ever.
Because the title doesn’t tell you it’s a hilarious “Star Trek”-sendup!
How It Reads Is Not How It Plays
Lou Costello hated the original screenplay for “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
He ranted, “My five-year-old daughter could do better than this!”
His disappointment was well-founded.
Nowhere in the script appear the workhorse Abbott & Costello routines beloved by fans.
Instead the writers provided a solid plot with real drama and motivated characters. It was within the team’s circle of competence but outside their comfort zone.
Costello had to be coaxed and prodded into the very vehicle that proved the crowning achievement of a Hollywood career begun as a silent-era stuntman.
But by the time production began Costello was having a ball, as bloopers and outtakes attest:
Simple See What Smart Miss
Bud is smart. Lou is simple.
Bud’s too smart to believe in monsters.
So Lou sees monsters Bud misses.
Bud has a blind spot.
Bud calls Lou “crazy” for seeing monsters and threatens to take him “to a doctor to have you examined.”
Until Bud cannot but see the monsters himself.
And, as Bud and Lou begin a run for their lives, Lou cries at last:
“Do you believe me now?”
And a chastened Bud blurts, “Yes!” as they flee.
“To Understand Is To Know What To Do” - Ludwig Wittgenstein
Love Is Blind
Fiendish Dr. Mornay and street-smart Joan Raymond, a seductive insurance investigator, two world-class beauties in their prime, both claim to be smitten with short, fat, simpleminded, aging, impoverished Lou Costello.
And Lou believes them both.
Twin blind spots for twin honey traps.
Bud can’t believe it either, but he is too blinded--by jealousy-- to divine their reasons.
Like most who are conned or scammed, Lou awakens ever-so-slowly to his victimization. Even as Dr. Mornay reveals her plan to vivisect him and harvest his brain, he reassures himself she still loves him.
Monsters Are Real
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was released as the United States recovered from the trauma of World War II: all-out war against real-life monsters.
Costello’s early warnings fall on deaf ears, much as Winston Churchill’s did.
The wartime monsters, bent on conquest, enslavement and extermination, were even more cruel, merciless, seductive, numerous and powerful than their Hollywood fantasy-equivalents.
Indeed, at the close of the movie, like the close of the war, Americans—Bud, Lou, Professor Stevens and Joan Raymond---emerge victorious and intact.
The European monsters---Dracula, Mornay and the Frankenstein Monster---are “dead.”
Tormented European Wolfman, Larry Talbot, the movie’s moral beacon, an American posing as a Brit, has “sacrificed” himself to the Anglo-American cause.
Universal monster fans know, of course, that none of the monsters are truly dead and might well have been “revived” for sequels that never came to be.
Nor did the European monsters of Nazism and Communism succumb to the war: Communism expanded, staggering like an aging monster, until it fell of its own dysfunctional weight.
Nazism went underground, fled to Latin America and even now arises in “neo” forms amidst socioeconomic turmoil.
And Communism lives on amongst cloudy-headed academics, naïve students and maniacal revolutionaries.
Monsters Are Attractive
One must give the devil his due. Monsters are attractive.
To us and each other.
When Dr. Mornay threatens to abandon Dracula’s scheme---“The girl is an insurance investigator. Stevens [their innocent academic collaborator] is asking too many questions and Wilbur [Lou] was up to something in the basement.”---the Count wields his erotic power:
Sixty-five-year-old Bela Lugosi, portraying a vampire many times older, smoothly embraces a beauty half his age, mouth to her neck without even a predicate kiss, as she melts in convincing erotic rapture.
Oddly, Lenore Aubert’s surrender to Lugosi does not befuddle viewers too young to know the vagaries of romance. (There are photos of the two quite chummy on the set.)
In a sequence cut from the final film Dracula dances Joan Raymond into submission: actress Jane Randolph confessed, in an otherwise bland interview, that geriatric Bela’s dancing was excellent.
Monsters Are Gods and Gods Are Monsters
Little as we might want to acknowledge, we live in hierarchies: political, economic, social. The neurochemical serotonin dictates to every evolved organism, from reptiles to mammals to humans, where each stands in their hierarchy: A-listers are high serotonin.
Machiavelli taught that a monarch should be both loved and feared, as murderous tyrants and benevolent presidents indeed are.
Monsters, like monarchs, are also high serotonin A-listers, beloved and feared.
We grieve the death of King Kong, though he slaughters and devours natives of both Skull and Manhattan Islands, and abducts, molests and traumatizes a brave, innocent and lovely Ann Darrow.
We welcome back the murderous monsters of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein---recall the Frankenstein Monster kills a small child, Maria, in the original “Frankenstein” (1931)---each time they reappear in Universal sequels.
And though no one sheds a tear for proud Dr. Mornay, as the Frankenstein Monster projects her masked double through a candyglass window, when she is seen again on repeated viewing we do not hate her. Even as she seeks to vivisect dear Lou Costello, whom Dracula has cautioned is not her first victim.
The Wolfman, the only monster who is low-serotonin, riddled with moral qualms about his lethal powers, is by far the least attractive of the four. Bela Lugosi was besieged by smitten female fans as Lon Chaney, Jr. never was. Indeed the best joke in the movie is Costello’s rejoinder to the Wolfman’s protest that tonight he will turn into a wolf:
“You and twenty million other guys!”
Most such guys having a much tougher time than old high-serotonin Bela.
Plot, Not Jokes, Make A Hit Comedy
Like all comics Lou Costello always sought the biggest laughs. On the set of “Hold That Ghost” (1941), the horror-comedy that presages Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Lou protested the prominent featuring of supporting actress Joan Davis’ comedy. Just as ascendant Marilyn Monroe insisted no female on the set be blonder than she, Lou Costello demanded no one in his movies grab bigger laughs than he did.
But as film editor, Ralph Rosenblum, teaches in “When The Shooting Stops, The Cutting Begins,” no joke, no matter how gut-busting, should ever disturb the plot of a comedy, lest the movie be derailed from its arc.
The original screenplay of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein features a priceless straight line and superb joke for Lou Costello that never made the finished film.
As Lou stands helpless in a yoke and Dr. Mornay gleefully explains her plan, she assures him that he will be soon be “big and tall and as strong as an ox” and able to “break Chick [Bud] in two.”
Lou shoots back: “One Chick is enough!”
The line is too funny for the plot point, especially as Chick/Bud is, even as they speak, risking his life, fighting against all odds to save his partner from the monsters.
Movies Were Never Silent
We watch “silent movies” in silence but in truth they never were. There was always musical accompaniment to heighten drama, enliven comedy, foreshadow danger and maximize joy.
Hollywood veteran Frank Skinner wrote a fabulous score for Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, one that performs each task spectacularly well and, even more, assigns a theme to each monster and every situation, mixing horror and silliness, comedy and pathos, leaving no emotion untapped.
Remarkably, despite efforts, no soundtrack album of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein has ever issued.
But fear not.
William Stromberg conducted the Golden State Pops Orchestra in a three-minute suite for public performance on Halloween, 2008 and you can view and hear it here:
For those who seek the full score it is available in a Midi-reconstruction by Gaetano Malaponti here:
10) Abbott & Costello Are Win-Win; Monsters Are Win-Lose
How could diminutive, hapless Bud and Lou defeat such proud, powerful monsters?
Even if Hollywood can make it happen on the screen, why do we believe it in our hearts?
John von Neumann’s game theory teaches there are four possible outcomes in any two-person game:
Nature blesses only Win-Win.
The pairing of Bud and Lou is Win-Win.
Failed vaudevillians as solo acts, they became top box office as a comedy team: radio, movies, TV. They loved and hated each other like a mismated couple stuck like glue for the sake of the kids.
The kids who are their fans!
Meanwhile monsters are Win-Lose. Monsters exploit. Monsters want more than their share. Monsters want it all. Monsters don’t care about their victims.
And monsters are so powerful they believe themselves all-powerful and their victims powerless. So they fail to recognize their victims and fellow monsters will strategize to beat them at their own games.
Monsters have blind spots, too.
Dr. Mornay blithely recharges the dormant Frankenstein Monster who shortly pitches her through a window. Lose-Win. Mornay loses her experiment and her life and the Frankenstein Monster is free to roam again, fully charged.
Dracula humiliates Larry Talbot at the masquerade ball but shortly learns that his vampire powers are useless against Canis lupus: the Wolfman grabs the vampire bat-Dracula and they hurtle from the castle balcony to their common “doom” in the rapids below. Lose-Win. If both, in fact, die, Dracula gets his comeuppance and Larry Talbot is released from his lycanthropic curse.
Woke Professor Stevens, spellbound by the no longer vampire-spellbound Joan Raymond, teams with her at the dock to immolate the Frankenstein Monster. Win-Win.
And Win: Stevens and Raymond are a couple right off a wedding cake. After jointly destroying and surviving Universal monsters, marriage will be a cinch--if Joan can limit her seductive ways to the good professor alone.
(Note non-monster, but real-world bully, McDougal (Frank Ferguson) of McDougal’s House of Horrors, who menaces Bud and Lou from the very first reel, gets his due at the dock as well: drenched and humbled, losing his boat as well as his exhibits. Bless the subplot that squares the circle!)
Win-Win beats all other outcomes: it’s the happy ending of the best stories.
Though it takes a full movie arc for that truth to be confirmed.
And we believe that happy ending because Win-Win works in all of life and nature, slowly and subtly like compound interest: https://www.valuewalk.com/2020/07/power-force-compound-interest/
and The Fundamental Algorithm: Repeat What Works: https://www.valuewalk.com/2020/06/munger-fundamental-algorithm-life/
But, as all Abbott & Costello fans know, at the end of the film Bud and Lou are not finished with monsters.
Vincent Price, voicing the Invisible Man, wittily suggests more mayhem, as Bud and Lou’s stunt doubles dive from McDougal’s forfeit boat.
A box-office smash in 1948 and ever after, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein spawned a long procession of Abbott & Costello horror-comedies, none of which ever approached the extraordinary standards set by the first.
Sadly, after Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ended their partnership, they went Lose-Lose and failed mightily in every solo project. The whole had been far greater than the parts.
Best to see and remember them here, together, at their zenith, and savor the profound life lessons hidden in their best and most enduring comedy.