Tonight: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. in the four-star comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Universal Pictures was founded 100 years ago in 1912 by Carl Laemmle.
“Uncle Carl,” as he was known, originated the concept of movie studio tours in 1915.
Lon Chaney Sr. was an early star at Universal and made several highly profitable horror films there during the silent era.
When sound arrived, followed by the Depression, the studio faced the real possibility of bankruptcy.
Universal Pictures responded by ushering in a new and definitive cycle of classic horror films, including Dracula and Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).
Other studios were famous for gangster films and lavish musicals. Universal was famous for its monsters.
The first cycle of horror films ended at Universal in 1935, in part because of the arrival of the Production Code, and because—in 1936—the Laemmle family lost control of the studio.
Under new management, Universal survived with the popularity of Deanna Durbin musicals—until the arrival of an unlikely pair of burlesque comedians in 1940.
The success of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello once again saved the studio and, in 1941, they became one of the 10 top box office draws in movies.
Universal simultaneously revived the horror genre, too, with Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and The Wolf Man in 1941, with Lon Chaney Jr., son of the original silent movie monster.
Lon Chaney Jr. came to prominence as the retarded handyman in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with Burgess Meredith (1939).
But with the return of monster movies, it seemed inevitable that the younger Chaney followed in his father’s horrific footsteps.
He was a hit in The Wolf Man.
And when Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein monster, declined the role in the fourth in the series, Chaney became the monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).
Chaney became the mummy in the sequels to The Mummy’s Hand as well—The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (1944).
He also played Dracula, the role originated by Bela Lugosi on stage and screen, in Son of Dracula (1943).
Convinced they were on to a good thing after The Wolf Man, the studio decided to put two of their most popular monsters in one film with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943—with Chaney the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula, as the monsters.
A role Lugosi had originally turned down in 1932, giving the role to Karloff that would make him a star.
In subsequent films—House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945)—more monsters were added.
With Karloff as a demented doctor, Chaney as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s creature.
By then the studios seemed to have run out of variations on the theme—and by 1946, they had run out of money.
William Goetz, the brother-in-law of David O. Selznick and son-in-law of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, presided over the reorganization that became Universal International.
The new regime cancelled the production of the studio’s B-movies and low budget horror films.
Goetz also wanted to get rid of Abbott and Costello, but was talked out of it.
In its first year of operation without the B-pictures Universal International lost $12 million.
It would be left to the former studio saviors of 1931 (the monsters) and then 1941 (Abbott and Costello) to once again save Universal from insolvency.
Producer Robert Arthur is credited with the idea of combining the comedy of Abbott and Costello with the studio’s favorite monsters.
The gimmick? Abbott and Costello would play it for laughs and the monsters would play it straight.
And it worked. And how!
With Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster and Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula, as the infamous vampire.
A role he hadn’t played since 1931. Although he had portrayed similar bloodsuckers along the way.
Principal photography on tonight’s film began with a budget of $759,524.
Only one Universal Picture would cost less that year—and only two would gross more!
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled for a 32-day shoot, but ran a week over.
Glenn Strange said it was the most fun he ever had making a movie.
“If you know about Abbott and Costello,” Strange said, “they play a quarter of the time and work the rest.”
Lugosi ignored the between-scenes foolishness, occupying himself writing an autobiography.
Karloff had declined to play the monster he created after The Son of Frankenstein (1939) and turned down the role when it was offered to him in 1947.
“I’m too fond of the Monster,” Karloff told the New York Times in 1948. “I’m grateful for all he did for me and wouldn’t want to watch anyone make sport of him.”
And yet, he held his successors (Lugosi, Chaney and Strange) in high esteem.
“Anybody who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect,” Karloff said.
It took six long hours to get Glenn Strong into make-up every day on this picture and four hours to turn Chaney into the Wolf Man.
Strange expressed gratitude to Karloff, who coached him in the role of the monster when both worked together in House of Frankenstein (1944).
“Karloff showed me how to make the monster move properly,” Strange recalled. “And how to do the walk that makes him so frightening.”
During production, there were accidents. Glenn Strange fractured an ankle when a stunt man fell on him. The next day, Lon Chaney happily filled in for him. The scene where the Monster hurls the woman through the laboratory window—that was Chaney.
The stunt woman, Helen Thurston, sustained injuries too—candy glass fragments in her eyes that required hospitalization.
And watch when the Monster punches his fist through the door with Abbott and Costello on the other side.
Strange was supposed to strike right between their heads, but Abbott wouldn’t stay on his mark as instructed.
He got hit, ending all shooting for the day.
And that’s the take they used in the film.
Another couple of minor points of interest: A vampire’s image is not supposed to be reflected in a mirror, but Dracula is visible in the bedroom mirror in one scene.
And at one point, Lou Costello calls Abbott “Abbott,” instead of by his character’s name.
Shooting concluded on March 26, 1948.
Previews were sensational.
The picture was released on June 15th to great reviews and a sensational audience response.
Variety exclaimed: “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a happy combination of both laughs and chills.
“The comedy team battles it out with the studio’s roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious fracas that is funny and, at the same time, spine tingling!”
There was actually regional censorship of the film. In both Australia and British Columbia most of the scenes with the monsters were cut—destroying any sense of continuity.
Nevertheless, the film grossed a monstrous $3.2 million in its initial release and was successfully reissued in 1956.
The initial box office reception also propelled Bud and Lou back into the top 10 box office favorites.
And what followed thereafter were a raft of lesser, similar films—Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, The Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc., etc.
This is the best of them all, however, a four-star comedy classic.
So now, from 1948
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein