‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ is 75 years young

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein turned 75 this year. The iconic horror-comedy, filmed in February and March of 1948, was an instant hit when it was released and has remained a perennial favorite from its 1959 debut on television and 8mm home movies, through VHS, laser disc and Blu-ray releases. It is easily the most famous of the comedy team’s 35 films. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2001 , and is part of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Laughs as well as “Reader’s Digest” list of the funniest movies of all time. It’s as mandatory at Halloween as “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are at Christmas. It counts among its fans Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, and Robert DeNiro. Comedians in both Mexico and Egypt produced virtual shot-by-shot remakes.

Bud and Lou had been among the Top 10 box office stars throughout World War II. But by 1946, seventeen films in only six years had eroded their impact. Producer Robert Arthur suggested rebooting the team by revisiting their early triumphs. When Buck Privates Come Home helped the boys re-bound to 16th place in 1947, Universal signed the team for an additional seven years. Arthur consid-ered another early smash, Hold That Ghost (1941), which leveraged Costello’s priceless “scare” take to great reviews and profits. Arthur suggested exponentially multiplying the fright quotient by pairing the boys with the Frankenstein Monster, who had been idle since 1945. That notion wasn’t new; in 1942 Bud and Lou made It Ain’t Hay while Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was in production, and the team mused about doing a Broadway show with the Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. The logistics quashed that idea, but moviegoers back then must have also seen the possibilities when both of those films played on double bills around the country.

Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo, who wrote Hold That Ghost and Buck Privates Come Home, were put on the project. They thought it was, in Lee’s words, “the greatest idea for a comedy that ever was.” Their wry title, “The Brain of Frankenstein,” implied a straight horror film and was changed to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein during production. The new name also saved money on advertising: the title said it all.

Many assumed they would ridicule the genre, and Boris Karloff wouldn’t see the film. But Lees and Rinaldo avoided the hackneyed and crafted a tight, plausible monster plot to give Bud and Lou something dangerous—better yet, terrifying—to play off. As a self-reflective satire of Universal’s horror films,  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein references all of the genre’s familiar conventions and brilliantly exploits the brain transplant trope for its linchpin. It not only merges two of Universal’s signature franchises, but goes further by literally trying to merge Costello with the Monster. Abbott’s incredulity, meanwhile, stops short of meta-cinema scoffing that monsters exist only in movies, and preserves the credibility of these horror icons. (Sadly, these two screenwriters were blacklisted in the 1950s.)

Of course the monsters wouldn’t be effective without the authentic gravitas of the legitimate icons in the roles. Bela Lugosi plays his signature character for only the second time and, owing to seventeen years of film acting experience in the interim, is arguably better here than in the original. Lon Chaney, Jr., was the only actor to portray the tormented Larry Talbot, who nobly warns everyone about his alter ego, the Wolf Man. Since Boris Karloff vowed never to appear as the Monster after Son of Frankenstein (1939), the honors again defaulted to Glenn Strange, who played the role as often as Karloff. (Technically, he shares the part in this film; after Strange broke his ankle on an earlier take, Chaney put on the Monster make-up to toss Lenore Aubert’s character through the lab window.)

It’s no secret that Lou Costello hated the script. “My daughter could write a better script than this,” he told Robert Arthur. “You’re not serious about making it, are you?”

But sometimes, artists do not recognize their own masterpieces. Bruce Springsteen did not want to release Born to Run. Woody Allen doesn’t like his film Manhattan. Claude Monet destroyed a bunch of his famous water lily paintings just before an exhibition.

But producer Robert Arthur had so much confidence in the screenplay that he offered to buy Costello’s portion of future profits. Contrary to reports elsewhere, the deal fell through because of tax laws and Lou never did receive any advance. Costello remained stubborn and required coaxing to do iconic scenes like the “Moving Candle” or sit in the Monster’s lap.

The film is a rite of passage for children as an introduction to one of the great comedy teams and the classic monsters. Kids crave stories about monsters, and being scared is an important part of maturing. At their most basic level, monsters represent our fears of the surrounding world. For generations of kids, the film has served as a safe way to experience and subvert those fears. Yet in its day, the film was not so child-friendly. The animated opening credits are deceptively reassuring, but Frank Skinner’s thrilling score and Charles Barton’s atmospheric direction quickly change the mood. Roger Ebert wrote that as a kid, the film “scared the shit out of us.” Theater owners complained about crying kids, screaming women and walkouts. The Legion of Decency rated it for adults. It was banned in Finland, and Australian censors excised every scene featuring a monster. Perhaps it was so potent because kids strongly identify with Costello, who is so frightened that he cannot form words and sees things that Abbott, the parent figure, reflexively dismisses. Costello’s ultimate vindication is a vindication for kids, too.

Celebrating Lou’s 42nd birthday during production. (No, that’s not Fred Gwynne; it’s Glenn Strange.)

The film is also a touchstone for contemporary writers, actors and directors. Quentin Tarantino cites it as one of his three most influential films: “I literally thought, ‘Wow this is the greatest movie ever — my two favorite types of movies in one. When it’s scary, it’s really scary, and when it’s funny, it’s really funny. And I guess I’ve been trying to do that my whole ca-reer.” It paved the way for such horror comedies as The Fearless Vampire Killers, Young Frankenstein, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead II, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland.

With a final cost of $793,000, the film was Universal’s second cheapest production of 1948 but the studio’s third highest grossing film at $3.2 million. The team vaulted back to the upper reaches of the Top 10 box office list again, where they remained through 1951, and met, with diminishing returns, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy and, on live TV, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

There was no expectation that the film would revive the passé horror characters, and Lugosi and Chaney did not see any renewed interest in their work. But far from killing off the monsters, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has helped keep them alive for generations.

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