Director: Charles T. Barton| Producer: Robert Arthur | Screenplay: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant| Cinematographer: Charles Van Enger| Country of Origin: USA| Year: 1948 | Running Time: 82-83 min.
Principal Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph
During the 1930’s and early forties, Universal Studios was known as the home of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and other screen monsters but by the end of the decade, the characters who had terrified audiences had become less frightening as they paraded through a series of inferior B-movie sequels. For many historians, 1948’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein is the definitive end point to the American golden age of the monster mash; however the film is considered both a first-rate horror-comedy that ranks as one of the comedy team’s finest and most profitable efforts and an affectionate homage to the screen horrors of the classic Universal monster cycle.
The idea of Abbott and Costello parodying horror films certainly wasn’t a highly original concept at the time since the comedy team had already appeared in 1941’s Hold That Ghost. The actual script for what would become Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein went through several transformations. For the first draft, screenwriter Oscar Brodney came up with a story outline and Bertram Milhauser, (who penned numerous Sherlock Holmes’s films for Universal) delivered a more detailed plot which recycled plot elements such as a search for some secret microfilm from his Sherlock Holmes in Washington screenplay. Milhauser’s story was abandoned in favor of a new scenario from writers Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees, who would later say:
“You know it was a very complicated plot for an Abbott and Costello picture. We had two women – one was a heroine and one was a villain. And nobody could figure out why these two beautiful girls were after Costello.”
The screenplay that Lees and Rinaldo eventually delivered which had the working title of “The Brain of Frankenstein” pleased everyone – except Costello. Producer Robert Arthur later recalled:
“Lou hated the script… in fact, he came charging in the office one day and said, ‘My [five-year-old] daughter could write a better script than this. You’re not serious about making it, are you?’ “
Arthur managed to convince him by giving him a $50,000 advance in salary and by signing the team’s good friend Charles Barton as director
Unlike any of the comedy team’s previous films, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein was a big-budget production, costing almost $800,000. Part of the expense went toward the atmospheric sets such as Dracula’s castle, a cartoon title sequence, special effects and makeup. The film would be the first time that Universal-International used Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan’s more cost-effective rubber appliances for the monster make-up instead of the effective but lengthy application time of make-up artist Jack P. Pierce.
Principal photography began on February 5 and ran through March 20, 1948. Filming was highlighted by card games, exploding cigars, and daily practical jokes on the set (which was just Abbott and Costello’s way of battling boredom and having fun with the cast and crew). Apparently not everyone enjoyed the horseplay, however, as Bela Lugosi (who took the role very seriously) told The New York Times, “There is no burlesque for me. All I have to do is frighten the boys, a perfectly appropriate activity. My trademark will be unblemished”. As director Barton would later say:
“There were times when I thought Bela was going to have a stroke on the set. You have to understand that working with two zanies like Abbott and Costello was not the normal Hollywood set. They never went by the script and at least once a day there would be a pie fight. [Abbott and Costello respected the three monsters (Lon Chaney as the Wolfman, Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster) and made sure no pies were flung at the heavily made-up actors]. Bela of course would have nothing to do with any of this. He would just glare at those involved with his famous deadly stare and the only emotion he would show physically was one of utter disgust.”
During filming, scenes between Strange and Costello often needed many retakes as Strange found Costello so funny he would often break up laughing; this is readily apparent in the scene where Costello sits on the Monster’s lap as the scene allowed him to improvise wildly.
An infamous story from filming also involved Strange who, during the scene in the laboratory where the Monster comes after Chick and Wilbur after throwing Sandra through the window, stepped on a camera cable, causing the camera to fall and break some bones in his foot. Chaney Jr. wasn’t working as the Wolf Man that day, so he put on the Frankenstein makeup/outfit and filled in. So in fact Chaney wound up playing two different monsters in this movie. Another humorous story from the set involved actress Lenore Aubert, who wrapped in a mink, put a leash on Strange and, accompanied by Abbott, Costello, and Chaney in full make-up, took the Monster out for a stroll on the lot just in time for the studio tour tram. Since Universal’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid was shooting near the set where they were filming, tourists would also get the shock of seeing Strange’s Frankenstein Monster having lunch with Ann Blyth in her fishtail costume.
Abbott and Costello’s children visited the set and met the “monsters” which made quite an impression on the kids as Paddy Costello later recalled, “Glenn Strange was so sweet – ‘Frankenstein’ was always walking around with a smile. I always got a big kick out of that…seeing the monsters between scenes, sitting in a chair reading a newspaper or chewing gum, or laughing and smoking like regular people”.
Upon release the film received possibly the best reviews of any of their films and was such a hit that it was reportedly Universal-International’s second highest grossing film of the year. The Variety review set the tone when it said “The comedy team battles it out with the studio’s roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious farce that is funny and, at the same time, spine-tingling.” The New York Star commented that “Nobody excels Costello at strangulated, speechless terror [and nobody] can top Abbott at failing to see the cause for it. Nobody can beat Frankenstein, Dracula, The Monster, and Dr. Moray at engendering it separately and together behind Abbott’s back, but always in Costello’s full view.” In 2000, the American Film Institute ranked the film at #56 on its 100 Years… 100 Laughs special. In 2001, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film of “cultural, historical, or aesthetical significance” and in September 2007, Readers Digest selected the movie as one of the top 100 funniest films of all time.
Some Interesting Trivia:
The rubber head appliance worn by Glenn Strange to play the Frankenstein monster fitted him so tightly that, after a few hours under the hot lights, he could shake his head and hear the sweat rattling around inside it.
During the final chase scene, when Wilbur and Chick are standing in front of a door and the Frankenstein monster punches through it, Costello deliberately went off his mark and got hit on the jaw. Director Barton liked his reaction, so he decided to keep it in the film.
At one point in the film, where Abbott and Costello’s characters are going through the revolving panel, Costello calls Abbott by his real name instead of his character’s name.
The animation sequences of Dracula-as-a-bat and Dracula-changing-from-bat-to-Dracula were done by Universal-International’s animator, Walter Lantz (of Woody Woodpecker fame).
Boris Karloff (Universal’s original Frankenstein monster) was originally approached to play the monster once again but declined. As a favor to Universal, even though he refused to actually see the film, he did help promote the film and can be seen in several publicity photos, including one where he is buying a ticket.
Although he would play similar vampires in other films, this was the only time Lugosi reprised the famous role he had created in 1931’s Dracula.
Modern sources report that Lugosi wrote his autobiography on the set of the film.
This was the final Universal film to feature Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman, until Van Helsing.
In a 1996 documentary, 100 Years of Horror, hosted by Christopher Lee, it was revealed that the studio hired two additional comedians to add laughs between takes on the set.
The Australian film board required that almost every scene involving a monster be removed before release.
Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of the film and at one time both Elvis Presley and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia counted it as one of their favorite movies.
For Further Reading:
Furmanek, Bob; Palumbo, Ron (1991). Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. New York: Perigee Books.
W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Waco, Texas: Baylor, 2011)