First, the good news: Universal's Blu-ray of Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is a major improvement over their earlier Blu-ray of the team's Buck Privates (1941). That transfer was unimpressive, grainy and lacking in detail but this one is near-perfect, with rich blacks and much more detail than was ever visible before on home video. It's also $13 cheaper than Buck Privates and includes an audio commentary, unlike Buck Privates, on which Universal senselessly opted not to include a similarly preexisting track.
The movie is being marketed as part of Universal's 100th Anniversary campaign, though, even as a lifelong Abbott & Costello fan, I question the wisdom of trying to market this and Buck Privates to mainstream audiences stubbornly resistant to old black and white movies, and at (still) premium prices. Would anyone but the most devoted A & C fan cough up $26.98 for something like Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein? I wonder.
(Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein is the on-screen title; on the posters it was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein but everyone these days knows it simply as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is what I'll call it for the rest of this review.)
Regardless, the movie holds up best among the team's 36 features, and with a receptive audience even non-fans find much to like. It's a perfect family film around Halloween. For Abbott & Costello, it came along at just the right time. The team had been in a prolonged slump, first following a year-long absence from the screen (due to Lou Costello's rheumatic fever and the death of his infant son) and then by a feud that semi-separated the pair for two 1946 films. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein put them back on the list of Top 10 Box Office Stars (ranking third, ahead of such stalwarts as Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant!). Its success led to other "meetings," with "the Killer, Boris Karloff" (1949), the Invisible Man (1951), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), the Mummy (1955) and, on television, the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
But Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein unquestionably is the best of these variable monster spoofs. The script by Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, with additional Abbott & Costello material by their usual writer, John Grant, is very lean with almost no fat; nearly every scene plays fast and funny. Most importantly, it treats the monsters respectfully. Indeed, as a "straight," classical monster movie it's better than the last couple "official" Frankenstein/Wolf Man/Dracula pictures, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). It certainly uses the monsters to better advantage giving the Frankenstein Monster far more screen time than those two films combined. (In House of Dracula, the Monster doesn't even get off the slab until something like 20 seconds before the movie ends.)
Bud and Lou are Chick Young and Wilbur Grey, lowly baggage clerks at a Florida train station where overbearing House of Horrors owner Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) anxiously awaits shipment of two big crates. They contain his latest and greatest attractions, the lifeless bodies of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is hot on their trail, and believing Dracula plans on revitalizing the weakened Monster, hopes to locate and destroy them before it's too late. The monsters briefly come to life at the House of Horrors, escaping into the night, but only Wilbur sees this and no one, not even Chick, believes him.
Talbot traces the crate back to Chick and Wilbur, but makes the mistake of revealing that when the moon is full he turns into the Wolf Man. Chick and Wilbur think him mad. Meanwhile, Chick is baffled as two beautiful women pursue roly-poly Wilbur: the exotic Sandra (Lénore Aubert) and pushy blonde Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who unaccountably has bailed the pair out of jail after McDougal accuses Chick and Wilbur of theft. Joan, it turns out, is an insurance investigator also trying to track down the missing crates, while Sandra is actually fugitive Dr. Sandra Mornay, who in league with Dracula plans to transplant Wilbur's pliable brain into the head of the Frankenstein Monster!
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein perfectly balances its straight monster movie elements with its broad slapstick. Despite the rather peculiar Florida coast setting (1943's Son of Dracula and the following year's The Mummy's Curse had been set in Louisiana) and its anachronistically Gothic island castle, the film is very much in keeping with the stylish look of Universal's '40s monster movies. The musical score by Frank Skinner (Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) is incredibly evocative, even eerie at times.
I wish I could have experienced the film when it was new and when audiences still found the monsters genuinely frightening. They really were, too. Hand-in-hand with this is that while there are myriad verbal and sight gags as Bud and Lou scramble to get away from the monsters, there's a vital hint of real peril, that something terrible really could happen to them. I was struck, for instance, near the climax, when Sandra, scalpel in hand, is about to cut into Wilbur's skull. "Please give me a little ether," pleads Wilbur. It's not a joke.
The high definition greatly enhances the viewing experience. The textures of the elaborate sets of the castle, the wonderfully moody lighting, the special optical effects (animation of Dracula turning into a bat and back again), the special make-ups (including Talbot's transformation into the Wolf Man), and the animated (by Walter Lantz) main titles, all look far clearer and in a richer, less washed-out black-and-white than ever before.
John Carradine played Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, but Bela Lugosi, for only the second and last time in a movie, ultimately played Dracula here. He was by this time singularly down-on-his-luck and aged, but Bud Westmore and Universal's make-up department make him appear healthier and heartier than he had in several years, or ever would again. Similarly, although heavy drinking was beginning to catch up to Lon Chaney, he makes an equally strong impression. It was for both a kind of last hurrah, and Lugosi especially is clearly having a ball. Though Talbot's lycanthropy was cured in House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein bids farewell to him and Dracula quite spectacularly. For decades after, the film was wrongly accused of disrespecting the old monsters, an opinion few share today.
Glenn Strange probably never had better billing outside of a few minor B-Westerns. The most visually striking of Frankenstein Monsters, even compared to Karloff's original, Strange in full make-up is truly creepy looking. He was even more unnerving in Jack Pierce's makeup for the Houses of Frankenstein and Dracula, but here he's still an imposing presence. Famously, Lon Chaney, who'd played the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) stepped into the makeup for a day or two after Strange injured himself. Freeze-framing the high-def picture makes it pretty easy to tell which shots are Strange's and which small handful are Chaney's.
The script uses Abbott and Costello wisely, with Bud largely dropping his straight man role in the last third, and instead helpfully aiding Talbot and nominal hero Professor Stevens (Charles Bradstreet), Sandra's assistant, in rescuing the others. In weaker Abbott & Costello films of this period, Lou had a tendency to indulge in much ad-libbing to good and bad effect (good when the material was bad, bad when it was good), while his juvenile, overdone "I'm a ba-a-a-a-d boy!" persona could be hard to take, especially for adult audiences, but Lees's and Rinaldo's screenplay keeps him too busy for that kind of nonsense.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1080p high-def on a BD-50 and in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio (listed as 1.33:1 on the packaging), the black and white Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein looks great, with inky blacks and without a trace of intrusive DNR. My lone complaint is that the opening titles have been overly and needlessly windowboxed, but otherwise it's near perfect. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) sounds fine, and includes optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles. The 2000 DVD is included, along with access to a digital download of the movie, for those living in the United States anyway.
An audio commentary by Gregory W. Mank, which first appeared on the August 2000 DVD, has been retained, along with a notably dog-eared trailer, and "Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters," an older featurette about their horror spoofs.
New to Blu-ray is "100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters," a terrible nine-minute featurette that plays exactly like a nine-minute commercial. In the vaguest, most uninformative manner imaginable it attempts to link disparate characters from various Universal films stretching back to Dracula and continuing to present-day hits. Somewhat better is "100 Years of Universal: The Lot," which while superficial and occasionally misleading offers a nice overview of the Universal City stages and backlot with illustrative film clips, archival footage, and newly-shot material. Something more extensive and truly informative would have been better, however.
I've probably seen this film at least 20 times over the years, and especially after the disappointment over Buck Privates, I wasn't expecting it to look as good as it does. Further, the greatly improved image not only allows the viewer to notice little heretofore unseen details, but it also enhances the viewing experience generally, pulling the viewer into the film more deeply than ever before. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.