Monsters and Matinees: How Abbott and Costello brought the Meet-cute to Horror

How Abbott and Costello brought the Meet-cute to Horror

To start this new year of Monsters and Matinees let’s take a deep breath, exhale all the anxiety from 2020 and laugh. Yes, even here in the world of Monsters and Matinees, we need to laugh and remember that horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin.

So this column is dedicated to the monsters and matinees that brought us chills and laughter courtesy of that dynamic comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. These guys perfected the scare comedy and the fact that they brought Universal monsters and iconic horror stars with them is an irresistible combo.

The gang’s all here in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Though there were scary elements in Hold That Ghost (1941), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is the first with the Universal monsters and remains the duo’s most popular film. We can think of the five films in the A&C Meet… series for Universal International as the horror version of the meet-cute with comedy duo getting to know the all-star horror roster of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Glenn Strange. There were scares and laughs in equal measure and even controversy that led to heavy editing, an “X” rating and banned films. (Getting laughs out of corpses was not OK at the time.)

Here’s a quick look at the Abbott and Costello Meet … movies. Since the duo often went by variations of their own names in the films, I’ll call them Abbott and Costello, then list the character names.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

This was hailed as an instant classic on its original release. Today, the film that inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Landis is considered one of the best horror comedies ever made and is on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest Comedies and National Film Registry.

It’s also a favorite of classic horror film fans who admire this movie for the respect it shows to the creatures and actors. In “Turner Classic Movies Presents Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide,” Maltin writes that the “All-time great horror-comedy still works beautifully, mainly because the monsters play it straight.”

Lon Chaney Jr., who reprises his role as Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man, remains the tortured soul he was in the original 1941 film. And though we laugh at Costello’s reaction as he’s hypnotized by Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the close-up of Lugosi’s eyes – used so menacingly in 1931’s Dracula – remains intensely chilling.

Abbott and Costello are bumbling baggage clerks put in charge of two crates carrying the remains of Count Dracula and Frankenstein. It’s a set-up by Wilbur’s lovely girlfriend Sandra (Lenore Aubert). She’s a surgeon working with Count Dracula to find a “pliable” brain for Frankenstein so they can control the creature. Who better a brain donor than the childlike Wilbur?

Talbot tracks down Costello and begs him not to move the crates until he arrives. Now if Costello heeded that warning, we wouldn’t have a movie, so the crates are moved to McDougal’s House of Horrors where hilarious hi-jinks ensue. Costello sees Dracula rising from the coffin – the moving candle on the coffin routine is from Hold That Ghost – but can’t prove it. The scene is replayed when the action moves to a fantastically creepy castle on a lake where Costello is chased by Dracula and Frankenstein but again isn’t believed.

The boys, the monsters, a beautiful insurance investigator and a handsome doctor attend a costume party at a club that is ripe with opportunities for mistaken identity. Watch and laugh as Costello bravely takes on the Wolf Man thinking it’s Abbott who is dressed as a wolf. The music club is next to a forest that’s made for chases and has plenty of isolated spots for people to be hypnotized and bitten. The action returns to the castle where things go haywire as everyone comes together to either help or stop the transfer of the brain from Costello to Frankenstein.

This lean 83-minute film moves along quite well. Every scene is packed with action, laughs, chases, creatures, vampire bites, hypnotism and, my favorite, secret passageways.

Stay to the end for a surprise cameo that’s the perfect conclusion for this monster mash-up.

Trivia: The working title of The Brain of Frankenstein was changed because it sounded like a straightforward horror film. Nearly all the scenes with the monsters were cut in Australia and Finland – which leaves you with a very short movie. This was the second – and last  –  time Lugosi played Dracula on film. Lon Chaney Jr. was the only actor to play Lawrence Talbot and even subbed for Strange in one scene after he hurt his foot on set.

Names: Abbott is Chick Young, Costello is Wilbur Grey, but listen for Wilbur to call Chick “Abbott” during the revolving door scene.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff ( (1949)

(1949) Without the late addition of Boris Karloff to the cast – and film title – this could have played as a murder mystery. But when you’ve got Karloff as a mysterious Swami and other odd characters skulking about a secluded resort on a dark and stormy night, the tone changes quite a bit.

Abbott is a detective and Costello an often-fired bellboy at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel where a high-powered attorney arrives and within hours is murdered. Costello, who finds the body, is becomes the prime suspect and is then framed for the murder by those strange hotel guests who all have a shady past with the attorney. They spend much of the film peering out from behind curtains, popping their heads out of hotel doors and just looking guilty. The group is led by Karloff playing Swami Talpur complete with turban, satin shirt and cigarette holder. He uses hypnotism – to little avail – on Costello by wiggling his fingers in front of his face. Though it’s a comical gesture, it mimics the same hand movements of Lugosi in Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott, left, and Lou Costello (dressed as a maid) are trying to hide two corpses but are forced to sit them at a card game to fool a flirtatious hotel clerk played by Percy Helton (standing) in this hilarious scene from Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.

The body count grows (don’t open the closet door) and the action turns farcical as the boys move the corpses around the hotel to avoid the police. There is an especially funny sequence where Costello, dressed as a maid to transport a body in a laundry cart, catches the eye of the desk clerk played by character actor Percy Helton (his raspy voice is instantly recognizable). In another famous scene, they somehow make it believable that the corpses are two members of their card game. Though the corpses look impeccable in their suits, these scenes were deleted in Australia and New Zealand and the film was banned in Denmark.

Despite his perceived guilt, Costello is used as a pawn to draw the killer out and the plan works. He’s stalked by a masked person in a long raincoat through the very nifty Lost Caverns – complete with a bottomless pit. When the killer is revealed and all is told, don’t be surprised if you’re scratching your head at the quick, nonsensical explanation. And don’t be surprised when you shrug it off either because you’ve had a good time.

Trivia: The film’s original title was Abbott and Costello Meet the Killers which was too similar to 1946 Burt Lancaster film The Killers. The “s” was dropped to make it “Killer”; the final name change occurred when Karloff was signed days before filming started.

Names: Abbott is Casey Edwards; Costello is Freddie Phillips.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man(1951)

When are Abbott and Costello like the 3 Stooges? When they meet the Invisible Man. 

Newly licensed private detectives A&C realize too late that their first case is with boxer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz) who is wanted for murder. Tommy needs help proving his innocence and thinks the invisibility formula being worked on by his fiancée’s (Nancy Guild) uncle, Dr. Gray (Gavin Muir), will buy him time. One problem: the doctor warns it comes with a side effect of madness, which is especially bad for a guy with a hot streak. That doesn’t deter Tommy from injecting himself to evade the police, allowing hilarious 3 Stooges-like antics throughout the film where the trio is poking, prodding and slapping each other like children. (Take notice of the “spaghetti” scene between Costello and the invisible Tommy; it looks an awful lot like the spaghetti sequence from Lady and the Tramp, released in 1955.)

When Abbott and Costello help by going undercover as a manager and boxer, the invisibility leads to the film’s best known and funniest sequences where Tommy throws punches so it look like the hapless Costello (as Louie the Looper) is doing it. Everyone buys it and the shady promoter gets Lou in the ring to throw a fight – or else. (The promoter is played by Sheldon Leonard who you’ll recognize from his thick New York accent and similar roles as heavies.)

Genre fans will appreciate the nod to the 1933 Universal film as it references the work of Dr. Jack Griffin, played by Claude Rains, whose photo also is on the wall.

Names: They use their first names with Costello as Lou Francis and Abbott as Bud Alexander.

Trivia: Look for William Frawley as Detective Roberts.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1953)

This film is an absolute gem, an underrated film packed with some of the duo’s best comic set pieces.

For the first 20 minutes or so, you’ll forget you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie. We’ve got a murder on a foggy London night; newspaper headlines screaming “Monster Strikes Again”;  a women’s suffragette rally; a lovely young lady (Helen Wescott) and equally handsome journalist (Craig Stevens) making eyes at each other. Oh look, there’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, regally portrayed in cape and top hat by Boris Karloff. And we’re off.

Is this a murder mystery? A romance? Whatever it is, I’m into it. Plus any film with a revolving bookcase is a winner.

Abbott and Costello’s role? They’re in London studying local police methods but get thrown off the force when they bungle helping at the suffragette rally. To get back in the force, they go on a monster hunt where their lives get tangled with the young lovers, Dr. Jekyll and the monster Mr. Hyde. Then the fun really begins.

Lou Costello starts to transform into a mouse – and it won’t be the last time he doesn’t look like himself in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Witness:

  • Costello trapped in a museum with Mr. Hyde and wax statues including Dracula, Frankenstein and police officers.
  • A basement research lab where rabbits bark, a dog mews like a kitten, and a monkey moos.
  • Costello turning into an adorable mouse.
  • Two – yes two – Mr. Hydes being pursued by authorities culminating in a clever overhead chase around a large chimney. And by the film’s end, don’t be surprised to see more.

Trivia: The scenes with Dr. Hyde led to an X rating in England. Reginald Denny plays a police inspector.

Names: Abbott plays Slim and Costello plays Tubby.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy(1944)

This was the last film the duo made with Universal after 15 years. They would make only one more film together, Dance With Me, Henry, in 1956.

Abbott and Costello are in Egypt where they overhear a doctor who needs help getting a newly discovered mummy to America. Klaris is the guardian of the tomb of Princess Ara and has a sacred cursed medallion that will open her treasures. That makes the mummy highly sought after by others including Semu, the leader of the followers of Klaris (the wonderful Richard Deacon, looking a bit humorous – in a good way – in his high priestess garb) and Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) who are willing to kill for the treasure. That’s bad news for the doctor who is dead by the time the boys show up to offer their services, leading to another “moving corpse” scene played for laughs.

The boys find the medallion and naively try to sell it, putting a target on their backs. When they learn it’s cursed, they try to pass it off to one another in a hamburger scene originally in The Colgate Comedy Hour. Costello eventually swallows the medallion, but that doesn’t deter the bad guys who will get it out of him one way or another.

Lou Costello, left, Bud Abbott, Richard Deacon and Marie Windsor are in trouble
in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

As in the other films, the movie has a frantic and hilarious denouement, this time with an ancient pyramid filled with mummies standing in for the haunted houses.

Trivia: The flower girl in the café is Costello’s daughter, Carole.

Names: The end credits list them as Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin, but they used their real names in the film.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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3 Responses to Monsters and Matinees: How Abbott and Costello brought the Meet-cute to Horror

  1. Billy Slobin says:

    GREAT post! Thank you

  2. Bill says:

    England slapped an X on practically all horror/scifi. Two British sf’s even had an X in the title in anticipation. Everyone always says the monsters are played straight in Meet Frank, but that’s not accurate. They’re actually straight men for Costello. Outwitted by him at all turns. Little wonder they were all thru at Universal after.

  3. Pingback: Universal monsters headed to YouTube – briefly – Watching Forever

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