Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein makes a surprising number of Universal monster movie gaffes. Most obvious is director Barton’s fault—Dracula (a very fun Bela Lugosi) casts a reflection. After shooting the “vampire seduces lady” scene half in reflection, careful not to show Lugosi, the finish just has a visible Dracula in the mirror. So it goes from being a clever constraint to a bewildering fail.
There’s also some questionable vampire logic—Lugosi’s victims crave blood but aren’t vampires—and then it’s a full moon at least five nights in a row, maybe six, so Lon Chaney Jr. has something to do in the movie.
For the first and third acts, gaffes don’t really matter. Only in the plodding second; Meet Frankenstein is only eighty minutes and change. There shouldn’t be any plodding, but it indeed plods, mainly because Bud Abbott is convinced there aren’t monsters, and Lou Costello’s either making it up or too dumb to successfully process reality, and it’s a drag. Every gag ends the same way—Costello seeing monsters, Abbott just missing them. In the first act, when Costello’s got a lengthy bit with Lugosi coming out of a coffin next to him, it’s amusing.
Approximately fourteen times later? Less amusing.
It’s especially unfortunate since Abbott’s pretty good when he’s not playing dunce. He and Chaney have to team up to save the day, and it’s a missed opportunity for more. Especially for Chaney, who starts the movie with a bunch of potential but then they just keep doing the same thing for him over and over again.
At least Lugosi gets some variety. He gets to terrorize Costello, pretend to be a mad scientist, seduce the ladies, and lead Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein Monster around. Lugosi’s got the best part by far.
Strange has the worst. While Chaney’s Wolf Man makeup is pretty good, Strange’s makeup seems cheap and flimsy. When he moves too much, it looks like his hair’s going to fall off. But there are decent enough sight gags for Strange in the third act; it just takes until then for him to figure into the plot.
Abbott and Costello are baggage handlers in sunny Florida, where local haunted house owner Frank Ferguson has just bought the original corpses of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster from Europe. Ferguson’s an obnoxious blowhard, and the film’s best early joke has Costello treating him appropriately. Costello’s better in the workaday scenes than when he’s doing the horror dating comedy—see, new-to-the-area, glamourpuss Lenore Aubert has taken a liking to Costello (frustrating Abbott), but then Jane Randolph starts cozying up to him as well. The second act is basically Costello juggling unlikely girlfriends; Aubert’s a mad scientist after his brain and Randolph’s an insurance investigator trying to figure out if the boys stole the infamous corpses.
Then throw in Charles Bradstreet as Aubert’s assistant, who doesn’t know anything about his boss’s nefarious plans, but Randolph needs to be able to smile at a cute guy occasionally instead of Costello.
The finale’s a madcap haunted castle romp with Abbott and Costello trying to escape but being foiled by monsters at every turn. Of course, Lugosi has the best material, including throwing potted plants at his adversaries. The movie does need to do something with all the monsters, which it resolves pretty well for half of them. The other half gets shrugged off, with the last one hurried so there can be the final, funny gag.
All things considered, it’s far from a failure. It’d be nice if Abbott and Costello were strong together instead of apart, and Randolph seems like she’s going to have a good comic part then gets an immediate downgrade. It’s probably worst for Chaney, who always seems like he’ll get something, but then the full moon interrupts. Lugosi’s a delight.
The special effects—outside Strange’s makeup—are decent. They use a cartoon bat for Dracula, but the transformation scenes aren’t bad, and there’s at least one really good composite shot. Unfortunately, the exteriors are all soundstages, and while Charles Van Enger’s photography does okay, they’re visibly sets. Any related problems seem to be more director Barton’s.
Good music from Frank Skinner.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein doesn’t set itself a very high bar, but it does clear it. Lugosi alone makes it worth it.