For some inexplicable reason, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are often confused with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Apart from the skinny guy/fat guy theme, the two comedy teams have nothing in common (except perhaps to muggles). In their prime, Stan and Ollie etched a creative brand of celluloid comedy full of nuance and infused with their winning personalities that raised laughter to an art form. With Stan as the uncredited creative force, they produced a body of short films, from the silent era to the late 1930s, which remain the proverbial comedy yardstick. With two notable exceptions, they were less lucky in their studio-controlled features, which sadly led to their eventual fall from grace.
In contrast, Bud and Lou were assembly line hacks who never made a great film. None of the Abbott and Costello films hold up, but the closest they approach to classic status is in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which is, overall, a happy accident with uneven results.
The real stars of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are Bela Lugosi and Lenore Aubert. An erroneous consensus holds that Lugosi plays the part of Dracula straight here. In fact, there is little in common here with his iconic 1931 performance which was shaped by Tod Browning. Revisiting Bram Stoker’s anti-protagonist, Lugosi spoofs his original role. The parody here is almost equally iconic, and these two performances are so cemented in people’s minds that viewers often mingle two contrasting interpretations, separated by seventeen years. A typical example of this confusion is Stephen King’s description of Lugosi’s original performance as a second rate Valentino, with cape over his nose, frightening no one. The cape-over-the nose cliche came from Lugosi’s mugging opposite the comedy team.
In Aubert, Lugosi has his most charismatic leading lady, and she really is the most underrated monster here. Aubert is no hapless victim and makes Lugosi’s vampire actually work to control her. Lugosi, enjoying the chase, and in best European, satirical grand guignol style, maintains his dignity throughout. In contrast to this, Lon Chaney, Jr. gives what is unquestionably his worst performance as Larry Talbot, AKA The WolfMan. By 1945’s House of Dracula, Talbot had been reduced to a whiny, one note character. Apparently, sharing the spotlight with Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, playing second banana to Lugosi’s superior count, being subjected to Bud Westmore’s hackneyed rubber makeup, and reduced to the butt of Bud and Lou’s pranks, made the poor man utterly miserable. It shows. Glenn Strange, as the Monster, is merely a warm body in makeup, as he was in previous Frankenstein entries. Vincent Price‘s cameo is a welcome injection of joy.
Abbott and Costello are as canned and stale as usual, but they do have moments of authentic, contagious fun when breaking away from their routines. Despite the film’s flaws, the curiously titled Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (they never actually meet the long dead doctor) was the yardstick of horror spoofs for many years. That is, until Rankin and Bass’ Mad Monster Party (1967) proved the usurper.