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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Ring a Ding Ding

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

I made my first forray into the films of Abbott and Costello earlier this week and had the great fortune of doing so in the theater. I would not say I have avoided the comic team’s movies so much as I just have not gotten around to them, instead being focused on the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. Now that I have entered their world, however, I’ll be making myself at home.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was certainly a star-studded way to start my new comedic love as the cast creates a fun romp through the seasonally appropriate adventure. Lon Chaney Jr. recreates his role as the Wolfman here and is the one monster aligned with Abbott’s Wilbur and Costello’s Chick. Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster join forces with a lovely lady in a sinister plot against the duo.

Working at a post office, Wilbur and Chick are tasked with transporting two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors that contain Dracula’s coffin and Frankenstein’s monster’s body. Wilbur received a phone call from London from Mr. Talbot –aka the wolfman– who advised him not to deliver the crates, but that warning falls on deaf ears.

Once at the House of Horrors, the men unload the crate contents. Every time Chick leaves the room, Wilbur witnesses Dracula’s coffin opening and is the only one to see a dormant monster before Dracula rouses it from its sleep. Chick refuses to believe his pal’s fantastic tales, but when Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives on scene, he demands to know where his specimens have gone. Having thoroughly insured the parcels, the wax museum proprietor sicks the insurance agency on the men.

Having escaped, Dracula and the monster travel to a castle on an island where a pretty young doctor is awaiting them. This woman happens to be Wilbur’s girlfriend. Although the monster is animated, he has little life in him. Dracula and this Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Auburt) plot to revive the creature with a less violent and more obedient, idiotic brain. Sandra has just the one in mind.

The insurance agent, a lovely Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), meanwhile sees Wilbur as a way to get to the bodies McDougal thinks the men stole. She flirts with him and soon enough Wilbur has two dates for the night’s masquerade. Talbot/the wolfman has by now arrived in America and is trying to convince a reluctant Chick of the plot of which Wilbur is all too aware.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein relies largely on the traditional now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t gag where one character –Wilbur– witnesses a monster that manages to disappear whenever Chick is paying attention. This device allows Abbott to use his comedic skills to the best as he calls “Oh, Chick!” in fright every time Dracula makes a move. This comedic plot element is used extensively in cartoons going all the way forward to its regular use in “Scooby Doo” episodes. This is worth noting because Abbott had the talent of embodying in live action the sort of zany, jump-out-of-your-skin types of humor that were animated in their cartoonish way.

While Costello plays the necessary straight man, Abbott manages to steal the show not only from his partner but from the big stars playing the monsters. His interaction with the supernatural creates is what gives the movie life and draws laughs in light of the monster performances that are given in line with the horror movies from which they originate. Lugosi and Chaney are not making fun of themselves or their monster characters here, but playing them dramatically and with serious dialogue. Only Abbott breaks down the intense nature of the story to make the movie a comedy.

  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is set for 3:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

The Wolf Man

Dullsville

The Wolf Man (1941)

     I realize now I had higher hopes for what I perceived as among the great classic horror stories than I should have. I think the downfall of The Wolf Man might lie in its script. Silly, contrived and dumb dialogue make for many a hokey moment in this tale of the beast within all men.

     Lon Chaney (Jr.) plays Larry Talbot who returns home to his father’s English estate after 18 years away. He buys from a pretty girl a silver topped cane whose handle is a wolf with a pentagram on its side. When on a date with this girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the couple and their chaperone Jenny (Fay Helm) visit some gypsies to have their fortune told. Unfortunately, one of the gypsies –the one played by Bela Lugosi— is a werewolf and soon thereafter shifts into his beastly form and kills Jenny. During the scuffle, however, Larry comes to the rescue, beats the dog dead with his silver cane and is bitten on the chest.

     The next morning the wound has disappeared and the gypsy is found dead in the spot where Larry had killed the wolf. The man’s journey into the life of a werewolf is facilitated by an old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) while his father, played by Claude Rains, a local doctor and others insist that lycanthropy is merely a condition of the mind through which a man imagines he is a wolf. We are entreated to some fancy effects in the morphing of Chaney from man to beast and back using both lapsed and continuous dissolves. The first two transformations are of the feet only but the film’s close shows the man’s face change.

     The concept of a werewolf has been at the root of many horror films, the later of which depict a much more gruesome creature than the one Chaney played here. His wolf man is merely hairy with feet and hands resembling more canine-like anatomy and some enhanced teeth to boot. It is hard for me to know given my upbringing in an increasingly gory entertainment society whether or not this facade was terrifying to the public of the time, although it was a highly popular endeavor for Universal Studios. As I said, however, the poorly written dialogue makes it difficult for even actors of talent, such as Ralph Bellamy as the constable, to give a genuine go of it. Rains’ was the only solid performance, which alongside all the others seems out of place.

  •  The Wolf Man is set for 8 p.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.
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