BOO's On First: Abbott, Costello, And The Universal Monsters

When the greats met the greats.

By Diana Prince · @kinky_horror · June 29, 2021, 9:05 AM PDT
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Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Glenn Strange in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

Father's Day may be over, but it's never too late to think about Dad. Whether he’s cheering at your little league game or rising from the grave to demand a cake, your father is a paramount figure in your life.

Most folks honor their dad this time of year with a terrifically tacky necktie or a gift card from the Sizzler, but I thought I'd pay tribute to mine with a positively petrifying piece on his favorite masters of the macabre, Abbott and Costello. My father is just wacky about those two, and I have inherited his enthusiasm. Whenever I see one of Bud & Lou's routines, I instantly think of my dad and the profound impact he’s had on my appreciation of pop culture. Like Dad himself, they never fail to get a smile out of me. Before we go forward, I feel I must answer this simple question: who the heck are Abbott and Costello?

With stellar slapstick, pleasing puns and machine-gun patter, Abbott and Costello dominated the comedy scene for a good many years. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello both worked in burlesque during the 1930s, crossing paths several times before formally teaming up in 1936. The duo garnered widespread attention when they joined The Kate Smith Show (a radio program) in 1938, where they first performed their famous "Who's On First" routine for a national audience. After performing in The Streets of Paris on Broadway in 1939, Universal Pictures cast the jokesters as supporting players in One Night in the Tropics (1940). Their success in that earned them a two-picture deal. Buck Privates (1941), the first of their vehicles, solidified them as honest-to-goodness movie stars. For years, Abbott & Costello were ranked among the most popular stars in the US according to the Quigley Publishers Poll of Exhibitors, even topping the list in 1942. On Dec. 8, 1941, Abbott and Costello’s hand and footprints were enshrined at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

That's all well and good, but what does that have to do with horror? Well, since Universal was the studio behind both Abbott & Costello and the Universal Monsters, some mad genius decided to Frankenstein the two together, thus creating an abominable amalgam of yuks and yucks! The vaudevillians met the villains in several fog-shrouded films that showcased the best of both. Believe it or not, Bud & Lou are inextricably tied to the legacy of Universal's classic horror pictures. At a time when both franchises were beginning to wane, the two joined forces in an unlikely alliance that scared up a profit and had audiences screaming for more. Abbott & Costello gave the Universal Monsters one last moment of gory glory.

In honor of Daddy Dearest, I will now take a look at the fright flicks of Abbott & Costello. Featuring monsters, murder, and all the other things that make life worth living, the Abbott & Costello horror movies have just as many shocks as they do gags. These pictures paved the way for Ghostbusters, Evil Dead, and all future fear-fests that temper terror with slapstick. Horror-comedy may not have been new in Abbott & Costello's day, but they certainly helped to establish it as a cinematic favorite. Without further ado, I now present the maddening mirth of Abbott and Costello!

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Hold That Ghost (1941):

Abbott & Costello's first creep-comedy is not the one that established them as offbeat horror stars. While it has a dilapidated house with a few house ghosts, the truth is that pairing spectres with funnymen was actually a rather popular trend in '40s cinema. The Ghost Breakers with Bob Hope, Ghost Chasers with Olsen & Johnson, and Ghosts on the Loose with the East Side Kids are just a few examples of this curious but undeniable fad. Bud & Lou didn't enter the genre proper until 1948, so Hold That Ghost is really a traditional Abbott & Costello outing that just happens to be spooky.

With that said, Hold That Ghost may be the funniest of all Abbott & Costello comedies. Then-popular entertainers Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters have some musical numbers that may scare contemporary horror fans away (though, honestly, I kinda dig the Andrews Sisters), but Bud & Lou are in top form here. Every second is chockablock with gags and one-liners of the highest caliber. It's the kind of rapid-fire comedy you'd later see in something like Blazing Saddles or any of the other great Mel Brooks pictures. Even the supporting players get some mighty laughs, especially Joan Davis as a wisecracking radio actress with a  keen sense of the macabre (she's essentially a scream queen before the phrase was coined). Davis is the rare love interest who could spar with Bud & Lou and look like a champ. Universal horror enthusiasts will be thrilled to see Evelyn "The Wolf Man" Ankers and Richard "Creature from the Black Lagoon" Carlson in such an eerie atmosphere prior to their respective turns in terror.

And what eerie atmosphere it is! While the ghosts are just masquerading mobsters (spoiler), there is a pervasive dread that manages to penetrate the comedy every now and then. Hold That Ghost may not be as horrific as what followed, but connoisseurs of the weird will find much to admire here. Even the best gags are on the strange side: bodies vanish and reappear at inopportune times, a neat in-camera effect transforms a bedroom into a casino, and a candle seems to move by ghostly means... but Lou is the only one who ever sees it. The "moving candle" routine in particular is a classic, later appearing in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. While we're on the subject...

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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Beginning with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, the Universal Monsters shared the spotlight in a series of crossovers that anticipated the "extended universe" trend prevalent in today's pop culture. These films were marketed on the promise of great monsters haunting the screen in unholy union. Outside of the aforementioned Frankenstein/Wolf Man entry, these films suffered from a most unfortunate flaw: the monsters never interact! In House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, the famous monsters on which they were sold never appear together in any meaningful way. Heck, Dracula gets the stake in House of Frankenstein before the other creatures even arrive! There is only one film in which the Monsters seem to truly inhabit the same space: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Am I saying that the goofy comedy starring burlesque jokers is the best Universal Monsters crossover? Yes. Absolutely. (Take that, Dark Universe!)

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein lacks the graveyard lyricism of the 1930s Universal gothics, but it's among the absolute best of their '40s output and possibly the most excellent horror-comedy to come out of Old Hollywood. Bud & Lou are as funny as ever, and they had the most fearsome straightmen in the world to play off of. While the funnymen crack wise and bumble about, the bogeymen are frightfully serious and seriously frightful. The film affords these preeminent spooksters the dignity they deserve, which is why it’s an unmitigated masterpiece. In their respective manner, Abbott & Costello and the Monsters both succeed in making the audience howl.

The idea of teaming Abbott & Costello with the Monsters had been floating around for some time. Originally, the burlesque boys envisioned the meeting as a Broadway show. Though not the menagerie of monsters that eventually came, the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera was considered as a potential vehicle for Bud & Lou. When this story finally materialized, it was under the title, The Brain of Frankenstein. Fearing that audiences would mistake it for a true shocker, the name was changed to... well, you know.  Though Costello clearly liked the idea of working with ghouls, he abhorred the script: he said that his five-year-old daughter could've written something better.

Lou would later warm up to the project, and film fans certainly took to it. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein made a killing at the box office and is widely considered to be the very best Abbott & Costello film. Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia and Quentin Tarantino are among the film's many admirers, and the American Film Institute put it at #56 on their "100 Funniest American Movies" list. Bela Lugosi's Dracula (only the second time Lugosi played the character on film), Lon Chaney Jr's Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange's  Frankenstein (Chaney Jr played Frankie for a single scene when Strange was injured, so you get two famous Flatheads) get one heck of a sendoff, showcasing their unmatched menace one last time. (Even Little Vinnie Price appears as the Invisible Man, his second portrayal of the character after The Invisible Man Returns.) On top of all that, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein also features one of the greatest exchanges in cinema:

Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in half an hour, the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.

Costello: You and twenty million other guys.

Fantastic stuff.

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Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949):

For whatever reason, Boris Karloff was not the titular creep in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Some say that Ol' Boris felt the script was disrespectful towards his beloved monster and turned it down; others say that he simply wasn't approached. Karloff did promote Meet Frankenstein (there's a lovely photo of the man pointing at that film's poster), but his absence is quite conspicuous in a film that was to be the last of a franchise he helped create. But the former Frankenstein did have his chance to terrorize our beloved jesters.  In 1949, Boris Karloff played this role he was born for in Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.

More mystery than horror (it was written as a Bob Hope comedy called Easy Does It), Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff still has enough corpse-scented morbidity to satisfy fright-seekers. Murder, hypnotism, a bottomless pit, a killer in a proto-slasher hood, and dear Karloff himself are a few of the film’s grisly delights. Lou is framed for murder, Bud plays detective, and Karloff chills them both as a shifty swami (believe it or not, the part was written for a woman). In the best sequence, Karloff attempts to mesmerize Lou into suicide, which results in widow-black humor that ought to amuse any fiend. Though Karloff plays it straight, he does get my favorite line: "You're going to commit suicide if it's the last thing you do!"

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Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)

Egad! He's back! After his cameo at the end of Meet Frankenstein, it was inevitable that the Invisible One would join the fun. Vincent Price is nowhere to be heard, but Arthur Franz plays the man with the complexion of air. In this comic thriller, Bud & Lou help an invisible boxer clear himself of a crime he didn't commit. If that brief synopsis didn't tip you off, Meet The Invisible Man isn't the most horrific horror-comedy Bud & Lou have starred in. Much like The Invisible Man Returns, the Invisible Man is really just a nice guy in a rotten situation. Growing insanity is hinted at, but the film doesn't really venture beyond that. Instead of an unseen evil, invisibility is depicted as the neatest of all magic tricks.

Though definitely a low point in terms of actual horror, Meet The Invisible Man works incredibly well as a science-fictional slapstick comedy. I'm a sucker for classic Invisible Man gags, and this movie employs them to excellent effect. A high point of the film involves Lou posing as a boxer (Mr. Costello was a real-life amateur boxer) while the Invisible Man fights for him. It's a superb bit of physical comedy that has to be (un)seen to be believed. And though the film is mostly bereft of scares, it does feature one creepy invisibility scene: as he fades away, the Invisible Man laughs maniacally and his still-visible teeth appear to float in midair. Outta sight!

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

Is Mr. Hyde really a Universal Monster? In 1913, Carl Laemmle released an adaptation of the timeless terror tale through IMP, which later became Universal... but how many people have actually seen that version? When most film fans think of that particular story, they think of the 1931 Fredric March movie from Paramount or the 1941 Spencer Tracy remake from MGM. Universal still had the Phantom of the Opera, so why did Abbott & Costello have to meet another studio's monster? The world may never know, but the funnymen did play a rather fine game of Hyde & Shriek. Boris Karloff even returned to portray Jekyll, though Hyde was performed by stuntman Eddie Parker.

Perhaps the best aspect of this film is that it places Bud & Lou firmly within the realm of the gothic, something we haven't seen since Meet Frankenstein. Abbott & Costello play the aptly-named Slim & Tubby, two American police officers pursuing (pursued?) by Jekyll & Hyde in Edwardian England. Bud & Lou do their schtick against a particularly respectable Karloff, which is always a good time. Fog and weird science permeate the picture, bringing the series back to the classically creepy. Its ending, in which everyone transforms into a Hyde monster, is simply magnificent. Stuart "Re-Animator" Gordon was a fan of Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: after watching the film at age 10, the young Gordon had nightmares for two years!

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Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy (1955)

All good things must come to an end. After 15 years of exquisite burlesque, Abbott and Costello made their final film with Universal, Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy. (It was also the last of the classic Mummy movies.) Maligned by critics, this one is considered by many to be the nadir of the series... which I think is a bit unfair. It definitely isn't Meet Frankenstein, yet I can't help but love this one. For starters, Meet The Mummy feels like a genuine Universal Monster movie, with curses, danger, and a desiccated corpse-man. And if you ask me, a good amount of the humor lands. The shovels and "picks" bit is classic Abbott & Costello. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but I'd say this was a pretty decent farewell from old friends, both living and undead.

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It Came from Variety Television:

Now, I could end it at Meet the Mummy, but Bud & Lou did run afoul of one more Universal Monster: the Creature from the Black Lagoon. To promote Universal's latest creation back in 1954, Abbott and Costello appeared on the Colgate Comedy Hour in a skit featuring dummies of the monsters they met and one lively Gill-man. To make an already stupendous moment better, the Creature was portrayed by Ben Chapman, the actor who played the beast on land in the actual movie. For connoisseurs of both classic comedy and monster movies, this spooky skit is 15 minutes of sheer bliss.

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And that, dear fright fiends, concludes our journey through the thrilling, chilling world of Abbott & Costello! I'd like to thank my father for introducing me to Bud & Lou, two of the most prolific figures in horror-comedy. If you like your chuckles with a side of chills, you can tip your hat to these ferocious funnymen. Nobody does burlesque & grotesque better than Abbott & Costello.