Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

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Movies in the Mountains

October 19
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Bud & Lou and
Bela & Lon Shine

Bud & Lou and Bela & Lon Shine

 Which was the most popular comedy team in Hollywood history? Bud Abbott (1895–1974) and Lou Costello (1906–1959), who first burst onto the screen in the season of 1940–41. The box-office champs for most of the 1940s were Betty Grable, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Greer Garson—and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello.

From 1941 through 1953, Bud & Lou were among the top ten box-office champs in eight of those thirteen years during which they made thirty-seven feature films.

Nowadays, Abbott & Costello, are too often dismissed or ignored, but their better films—Hold that Ghost, Who Done It? Buck Privates, The Time of Their Lives and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein are among the all-time funniest Hollywood movies.

Bud & Lou created the biggest movie fan wave seen in a generation. The timing was perfect; Hollywood studios needed new comic energy.

The great screen comedians born in the 1880s and 1890s, like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were aging out of their youthful personas. Chaplin bid goodbye to his Little Tramp with Modern Times and The Great Dictator but failed to win audience acceptance as new characters, Monsieur Verdoux or Calvero in Limelight. Joe E. Brown’s and Harry Langdon’s late 1930s and early 1940s movies were cheaply made B features that failed to restore their star status. Censors had laundered Mae West’s films into innocuity. The Marx Brothers lost studio support, capable writers and directors in their last years at MGM and tired of the struggle. Laurel & Hardy, once yoked into Hal Roach contracts that renewed separately, never had the combined clout to assert their independence until they were too old, and then foolishly yielded creative control to Twentieth Century Fox and MGM. Jimmy Durante got stuck at MGM in a string of second leads at that petered out. Roscoe Arbuckle and the partners of Bobby Clark (Paul McCullough) and Bert Wheeler (Robert Woolsey) died in middle age.

Eddie Cantor starred in seven fine color musical comedies for Sam Goldwyn, most containing dated blackface routines, so Goldwyn in 1937 switched to a younger and less costly version of Cantor—Danny Kaye, whose creative partnership with wife Sylvia Fine provided him with witty but often too outré material for popular taste. Of the mid-century film comedians Red Skelton earned enduring high popularity–thirty years of stardom on film and television).

In 1936, Joseph Breen, the newly installed chief of the Production Code, began objecting to sexuality on screen as well as gory depictions, especially in horror movies, at a time that the United Kingdom, a very profitable market for Hollywood films, was undergoing a milder version of censorship.

Universal Pictures, home to Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, panicked. Three years later, as the Great Depression lingered and continued to threaten Hollywood studios, Universal decided to ignore Breen’s dictum and revive horror films with Son of Frankenstein, which became a huge box-office success. The studio then turned to inexpensively made horror pics and comedies to feed the coffers of Universal-International.

When Universal Pictures signed Abbott & Costello in 1940, it already had ill and old W. C. Fields on its roster. Also signed in 1940 were the bizarre Ritz Brothers (formerly of Fox), and in 1941 the anarchic Olsen & Johnson (formerly of Warners) joined the roster. Both the Ritz Brothers and Olsen & Johnson were great zanies but their characters and their styles weren’t well-suited to narrative film. However, Abbott & Costello, a traditional straightman sharpie teamed with his clownish buddy, fit well into story lines, so they got the support of studio headmen, the better scripts and productions. In turn Bud & Lou spared Universal from pending bankruptcy.

Universal became the top Hollywood funhouse and the unchallenged Hollywood house of horror, but their well-made horror classics of the 1930s had been succeeded in the 1940s by a turn to cheaply-made, heavy-handed horror pics destined for the bottom half of double features.

Some genius at the newly-formed merger of Universal with International decided to meld comedy and horror movies, one reinforcing the other. The result was the 1948 box-office bonanza, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Boris Karloff had refused another turn as the tragic monster, so Glenn Strange stomped into his boots for a modest fee. After considering other actors, Bela Lugosi was hired to recreate his Dracula role and Lon Chaney Junior to reprise his Wolfman. Both men accepted salaries at bargain prices because Lugosi (1882–1956) was a nearly forgotten high-functioning drug addict with few other prospects, and Chaney (1906–73) was severely alcoholic. Yet both actors gave stirring performances and won reviews as glowing as those for Bud & Lou.

The consequences of A&C Meet Frankenstein were oddly varied. Bela Lugosi never again worked in an ‘A’ film, and the few he made before his death were lame comedies or amateurish trash. Chaney got small parts in a few good films and larger parts in dozens of inferior movies until liquor and tobacco robbed him of his voice and then his life.

Their success in Meeting Frankenstein put Bud and Lou into six variants of the formula in which Abbott & Costello Meet … The Killer, …The Invisible Man, …Captain Kidd, …Jekyll & Hyde, …The Keystone Cops and …The Mummy. With each repetitive film, their box-office appeal slipped a notch.

Bud, the son of burlesque and circus folk, was a straightman on par with the best: Moe Howard, George Burns, Margaret Dumont and Carl Reiner. Lou started with stunt work in silent movies and boxed before finding his niche as an athletic burlesque comedian. Both men were working with unsatisfactory partners when in 1935 they formed a double act that in three years propelled them to the top in network radio, personal appearances, movies and, by 1950, television.

Everywhere one turned, there were Bud and Lou, performing. In addition to making two dozen movies in their first seven years with Universal, Abbott & Costello also starred in a weekly network radio show, hosted television’s Colgate Comedy Hour fifteen times in five years, and filmed a syndicated half-hour television series that ran 1952–57.

Early on, most experienced comedians like Ed Wynn, Bobby Clark, Ritz Brothers Olsen & Johnson and Bert Lahr realized that a couple of seasons on weekly television shows ate up decades of carefully honed routines. Bud and Lou became poster boys for visiting the public too often and offering the same, well-worn routines—until Martin & Lewis replaced them as box-office champs and did their pratfalls into the same trap.

As Abbott & Costello dimmed in appeal, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis rose and created a similar frenzy after they debuted in films (1949), but their partnership went bust in 1956 after sixteen films in seven years plus monthly hostings of the Colgate Comedy Hour and personal appearances.

Martin & Lewis’ overexposure mirrored Abbott & Costello’s. Dean and Jerry spilt the act. Counter-intuitively Martin succeeded as a single while Lewis struggled.

It wasn’t a simple matter of over-exposure and repeated formulae. Lewis blossomed into a tanned, well-built adult quite at odds with his skinny schlub comic character, just as Lou Costello’s chubby, cheerful innocent became a jowly, baggy eyed middle-aged man. Once slim sharpie conman Bud Abbott, seemed to age twenty years in a decade. Both men lost zest on screen and lost friendship off the screen.

Though talented, skilled and tough, Lou and Bud were as unsophisticated as their comic characterizations—unprepared to handle big-time careers and big money.

Incompetent or crooked hangers-on managed Bud and Lou’s business affairs that left them vulnerable to tax demands that bankrupted both men. Meanwhile Lou and his brother Pat ran the show and relegated Bud to supporting roles as Abbott’s health deteriorated due to epilepsy.

Their last films were poor, and their fan base withered. Bud semi-retired, and Lou soloed, becoming a semi-regular on Steve Allen’s Comedy Hour and acquitting himself well in two TV dramas. Lou made one more (poor) movie, then died of a heart attack age 52 before the was released. Bud lived 15 more years in straightened circumstances.

Abbott & Costello should be respected and remembered for their better films. The early WWII comedies, Buck Privates, In the Navy, Keep ’Em Flying, are among their best, as are Hold That Ghost and Who Done It? All five were filmed in 1941-42. The dozen films between 1942 and 1956 were variable, so their popularity dipped bit-by-bit, yet the non-formulaic Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives (both 1946) were critically lauded. Buck Privates Come Home (1947) and The Noose Hangs High (1948) returned to formula and archived routines, but both were funny.

It was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), though, that pumped box office power back into their careers (if only for a few more years), and it is usually considered their best film.

—Frank Cullen
for Movies in the Mountains

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