Thursday, August 23, 2012

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: Blu-ray (Universal International 1948) Universal Home Video


In the history of great comedy teams few can hold a candle to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; two of the most prolific comedians the entertainment industry has ever seen. They began in Vaudeville, made the seamless transition to radio, graduated to movies and then went on to have their own week television comedy sketch series for years. Each has three stars on the Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’ – one each for their contributions to film, radio and TV. But the teaming of Bud and Lou that, in retrospect, seems like such a foregone conclusion was not immediately apparent to either comedian at the start of their professional relationship. Afterward, the association was anything but smooth. The boys feuded and bickered constantly, but inevitably always came together for the sake of the act and remained ‘friends’ until a row split their friendship for good in 1956.
But in 1948, things were riding high for Bud and Lou. In fact, they were Universal’s biggest and most consistent box office draw, eclipsing Deanna Durbin and the monster serials in popularity. Throughout the forties, Universal saturated the market with A&C movies. During the war the team was consistently ranked as the #1 box office draw in America for four years. But with fame came increasing headaches and Bud and Lou’s desire to not simply repeat themselves in like-minded and low budget regurgitations of their stage work. Universal did attempt to honour the team with solid scripts and ever more lavish production values.
Originally titled ‘The Brain of Frankenstein’, and often described as ‘Transylvania burlesque’, by fans and critics alike, Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was a movie that neither Abbott nor Costello wanted to make. “Are you kidding?” Lou reportedly told producer Robert Arthur after reading the script, “My daughter can write better crap than this!”
Costello had a point. The original draft submitted to A&C for consideration concerned Doctor Felt, a venomous surgeon who has discovered the secrets of life and death by reading Dr. Frankenstein’s original manuscripts. The good doctor unfortunately misplaces the document while sailing home to America. Aboard ship are two stewards played by Bud and Lou who inadvertently learn that salt, vinegar and baked beans can revive Dracula, the wolf man and the Frankenstein monster. Accidentally spilling this food on all of their bodies, the monsters are predictably revived and wreak havoc on the boys until Dr. Frankenstein arrives with a potion that shrinks the monsters to four inches in height. The film was to have ended with A&C deciding to make a quick buck by displaying these pint size nemeses as a freak show on Broadway.
Throughout the late 1930s and early 40s Universal had been fuelled by Carl Lemmle Jr.’s absolute fascination with tales of the macabre. But by 1945 virtually all of the truly great monsters had been interminably mined of all potential to shock value. The approaching atomic age would strike a final blow for the likes of Dracula, the wolf man, the mummy and Frankenstein with their own particular fascination for giant bugs and space age creatures and aliens. But Universal decided to take one last stab at resurrecting these vintage scares.
A lot was riding on the success of this film, especially after the studio was sold to William Goetz. Primarily known as the son-in-law of L.B. Mayer, Goetz’s personal aesthetic tastes helped to build one of the finest private art collections in the world. Unfortunately, his desire to transform Universal into a prestige studio en par with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had all but forced the company into receivership by 1948. At the start of production on A&C Meet Frankenstein, Goetz told Barton, “Good luck…and God bless you.”
Robert Lees, Fredric I. Rinaldo and John Grant’s final script was a marked improvement over the aforementioned draft. In it, Bud and Lou are Chick Young and Wilbur Gray, an unprepossessing pair of baggage clerks working in a Florida railway station. They receive a long distance call from Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who forewarns that two crates scheduled for McDougal’s House of Horrors must not reach their destination until he, Talbot, arrives in town. Unfortunately, before Talbot can conclude his conversation with Wilbur he is transformed into his alter ego, the wolf man, and proceeds to tear up his hotel room.
Wilbur is dating Doctor Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert); a sultry vamp whose bizarre fascination with Wilbur’s brain baffles Chick. In the meantime, the easily perturbed Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to collect his crates. He orders Bud and Lou to deliver them to his wax museum that evening. Predictably, all does not go according to plan. A perilous thunderstorm knocks out the power inside McDougal’s House of Horrors, leaving Wilbur in the dark while Chick goes in search of the electrical box.
Wilbur unearths the contents of each crate; one containing Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in his coffin, the other, housing the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). After hypnotizing Wilbur, Dracula revives the weakened monster and the two hide behind a curtain inside the waxworks. McDougal arrives with his insurance adjuster and is appalled to find both crates empty. He accuses Chick and Wilbur of theft and promptly has them arrested.
But another insurance adjuster, Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) has a better idea. She bails the boys out of jail and pursues a romantic attachment with Wilbur, convinced that he will eventually lead her to the missing ‘exhibits’. Wilbur invites Joan to the same masquerade ball he has agreed to go with Sandra. Talbot arrives in town and orders Wilbur and Chick to lock him in his hotel room at night so that no harm will come to them. Wilbur obeys, but then realizes that Talbot has left his luggage in their room. By the time he has returned to Talbot’s suite the man has once again morphed into a wolf. But Wilbur’s own stupidity and good timing ensures his safety.
The next evening Chick, Wilbur and Joan arrive at Sandra’s isolated island castle to collect her for the masquerade. They are introduced to Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and Dr. Laos (nee Dracula in disguise) who assures them that they must make the most of life while it lasts. Sandra takes Joan upstairs to freshen up, leaving Wilbur and Chick to explore the castle. Wilbur finds a secret passage where Dracula has hidden the monster and a chase ensues. But attempts to show Chick what he has found repeatedly – and cleverly – fail. In the meantime, Sandra snoops through Joan’s purse and learns her true identity. She alerts Dracula and refuses to go through with their plan to transplant Wilbur’s brain into the monster’s body.
Dracula hypnotizes and then bites Sandra, thereby transforming her into his vampire bride. Joan, Chick and Wilbur arrive at the masquerade first and are met by Talbot once more, and also Mr. McDougal who attempts to bully Wilbur into divulging the whereabouts of his exhibits. Previously determined to fake a headache to get out of attending the masquerade, the boys are surprised when a more complacent Sandra arrives on the arm of Dr. Laos, dressed as Dracula. Sandra encourages Wilbur to go for a stroll with her in the woods while Dr. Laos takes Joan for a spin around the dance floor.
Meanwhile Talbot is once more transformed into a wolf. He accosts Mr. McDougal and nearly severs his jugular. McDougal accuses Wilbur of attempted murder, forcing him to flee into the wood with Chick close behind. Wilbur finds Joan under Dracula’s spell. He is sedated by Dracula’s hypnotic stare and the two are taken back to Sandra’s castle. Early the next day Chick alerts Talbot what has happened and the men charter a boat to the island to rescue Wilbur and Joan. Talbot finds Wilbur first, strapped to a gurney in preparation for the removal of his brain. However, before Talbot can free Wilbur he is transformed into a wolf for the third and last time. The wolf man and Dracula do battle and cause a short in the circuitry in the lab as Chick arrives on the scene.
The monster frees himself from his gurney but is briefly thwarted in his attack on Chick and Wilbur by Sandra who attempts to subdue him with Dracula’s commands. The monster rebels, however, and throws Sandra out the window. Chick and Wilbur race around the castle, hiding in bedrooms and attempting to barricade themselves from the monster’s terror, but to no avail.
They run out the front door, pursued by the monster.  Dracula transforms himself into a bat but is captured by the wolf man, the two toppling from a balcony into the raging waters below. Joan awakens from her hypnosis and is rescued by Dr. Stevens who also sets fire to the pier where the monster is bidding to sink Wilbur and Chick’s boat by tossing barrels of gasoline at it. The monster is consumed in the flames and Wilbur and Chick are saved. Relieved, Wilbur declares there is no one left to haunt them. A cigarette suddenly lights from behind them however and a voice (actually that of Vincent Prince) introduces himself to the boys as the invisible man.
Depending on one’s point of view Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein either provided Universal’s cavalcade of monsters one final bow or made an utter mockery of their prowess to shock and terrorize an audience. Both points of view were expressed in critiques of the film when it had its premiere. But most who saw it, absolutely loved it and for good reason. Lou Costello’s ability to make ‘fear’ funny had been well mined in two previous A&C comedies, 1941’s Hold That Ghost and 1942’s Who Done It?
Viewing the film today, it is a miracle that Lou Costello made it. Before shooting, Lou was stricken with a particularly virulent bout of rheumatic fever that forced him to take an entire year off. He nearly died. Upon his return, first to radio, Lou suffered an even more tragic loss when he was informed that his only son, Lou Jr. had drowned in their backyard pool. The child was not even a year old. Ever the trooper, Lou dove into his work, even dedicating his radio program to his late son and later, establishing a trust fund in his memory.
Meanwhile, Bud Abbott’s epilepsy was gradually worsening. Throughout the shooting schedule Bud knocked off after five p.m. each day over concerns about his condition. He suffered several heartbreaking attacks on the set, each time brought out of his uncontrollable thrashing by Lou punching him in the stomach.
Miraculously, none of this backstage tragedy manifested itself in the film. In fact, Bud and Lou are in rare form. There is a vitality to their sparring, a joyfulness to the excursion as a whole as the boys run like hell from their worst nightmares, only to be repeatedly thrust in their midst with riotous results. A few interesting side notes to consider: first, Lenore Aubert almost didn’t make it into this film. She had begun as a ‘Goldwyn girl’. But her career was nearly ruined after she refused to become Sam Goldwyn’s mistress.
Bela Lugosi had only played Dracula once before co-starring in this movie and was in desperate need of cash. He was not the first actor considered for the role, primarily because in the intervening years Dracula had been played by several other actors in the Dracula sequels.  Eventually, he won the part by default. Boris Karloff had been asked to reprise his role as the Frankenstein monster but staunchly refused, saying that “Abbott and Costello ruined horror movies,” leaving Lon Chaney Jr. as the only actor to consistently play the wolf man through three movie sequels, as well as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Chaney, son of ‘the man of a thousand faces’ was suffering from his own alcoholism and inner demons, reportedly brought on by a lifetime of abuse from his father. Finally, Jane Randolph – who had made a mark for herself in two Val Lewton horror classics, Cat People (1942), and Curse of the Cat People (1944), retired from movies after finishing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, content to marry well and live a life of privilege apart from Hollywood.
Viewed today, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the enduring masterpieces in Bud and Lou’s canon of classic comedies. Arguably, it is their best work, certainly the one film for which the team are most readily identified and appreciated by their fans. In 1956, after an absolutely crippling financial debacle with the IRS, Abbott and Costello dissolved their partnership for good and on a decidedly sour note. When Lou died just three years later, Bud openly wept, saying that he never knew his old partner was so sick.
Today, Abbott and Costello are as popular as ever. Their films endure not so much for their overwhelming production values, their stellar plots or even their regurgitation of perennially amusing Vaudeville routines ever so slightly refreshed for the movies, but because the boys are obviously having a very good time with one another. Despite their professional and private disagreements, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were never far removed in their mutual admiration and respect for what each brought to their teaming. While critics have often adored them for their perfect comedic timing, audiences continue to love them simply because they are.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is a marked improvement over their previous DVD incarnations. The 1080p B&W image takes a considerable leap forward in extolling all of the gothic charm in Charles Van Enger’s cinematography. Contrast is bang on, with blacks appearing darker and whites much more crisp. The image is quite clean too, although it doesn’t appear to have suffered from undue DNR. Grain is present, if slightly tempered, and age related marks and scratches are infrequent. Overall, this is a very impressive transfer that will surely not disappoint.
The audio remains mono but improves in its crispness. Dialogue sounds more refined. The memorable Frank Skinner score sounds better too. Extras are confined to those that were included on Universal’s DVD. Thankfully, these include some good production notes and an absolutely marvellous audio commentary by historian and author Greg Mank whom I could listen to all day.  Great stuff and highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2.5

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