A little post on the horror comedies of Abbott and Costello. And, no, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is not a horror comedy, it’s a science fiction comedy, and one that (spoiler alert) never leaves earth, I might add!
Hold That Ghost (1941)
The first of A & C’s many spook comedies, a sub-genre much in vogue at the time, and one of the team’s few (maybe the only one?) that doesn’t plug into a pre-existing Universal Pictures horror franchise. The antics aren’t worlds away from the Three Stooges. For musical diversion they are re-united with the popular Andrews Sisters, and Ted Lewis and his band are also on deck. And a supporting cast that includes Joan Davis, Shemp Howard, Richard Carlson, and Mischa Auer.
The boys are substitute waiters at a nightclub, who are fired when Costello accidentally throws some chicken in the boss’s face. Then they get a job at a filling station and somehow wind up in a gangster’s car as he flees from police. The gangster is shot and dies, but he scribbles out a will first, bequeathing an old hotel to them for helping with the getaway (and just to spite his double-crossing colleagues). Unfortunately the lawyer who executes the will works for a rival gangster and assigns a henchman to go with them to the hotel. Joan Davis is quite funny as a radio personality who comes along for some reason. Shemp plays a soda jerk. An exceedingly dull romantic couple comes along, as well. A terrible thunder storm forces them all to stay in the apparently haunted hotel, which trns out to have been an old bootlegger’s roadhouse. And then….and endless repetition of one or another seeing something scary, screaming and running to tell the others. This happens about 70 times and then some police show up and nab the crooks.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Yeah, I know the title card at the beginning the film says Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein [sic, i.e., missing an “and” or ambersand], but you know what? You’re really weird if that’s what you call it. Anybody normal calls it Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein if they bother referring to the film at all. This is the first of the duo’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stoke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (the actual Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
This one gets an honorable mention here, as it is not actually a horror comedy. Technically it belongs to the closely related subgenre, the murder mystery comedy! As you saw above, Karloff was not involved in the making of the previous film. In fact he didn’t even see it, although he did help promote it. His last role as the monster had been a decade earlier in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In this Abbott and Costello comedy, he plays a sinister Swami. The plot is that Lou is falsely accused of murder, and Abbott, a hotel house detective, has to clear him.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Well, they do and they don’t. The title of this film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie. Also in the cast: Adele Jergens, Sheldon Leonard, and William Frawley.
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Interestingly, though the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been filmed many times, it was not a story associated with Universal Horror (the classic versions were by Paramount and MGM). While the comedy is the usual repetitive stuff, there are several elements that commend it: its atmospheric Edwardian London setting, the presence of Boris Karloff as Jekyll, and cast members like Sid Fields and Reginald Denny.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Ironically, think this is a much more entertaining mummy movie than all of Universal’s “serious” mummy sequels combined. It contains much more of what I want from a mummy movie, at any rate…an Egyptian setting, tombs, pyramids, guys in pith helmets and of course a somnambulant, dusty, 4,000 year old fellow walking around wrapped in ace bandages. Most of the “legit” sequels turn out to be set in the U.S. for some odd reason (probably expense) and we get far too little onscreen mummy time. The irony is that in my view Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the best of all the sequels to the original The Mummy. That is, until the reboot. Because of its close association with an actual Universal horror franchise, this is the one that most resembles Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s one of the better ones. Also in the cast: Marie Windsor, Michael Ansara, Richard Deacon, and Mel Welles.
The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)
We give this one honorable mention because the team had split by this stage and Costello appears in it without Abbott. This one is interesting (in the abstract) because it parodies contemporary 50s giant monster horror for the first time as opposed to the “classics” of the genre. Costello plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl (Dorothy Provine) who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of a building. It was released after Costello’s death that year of a heart attack. Also in the film: Gale Gordon, Charles Lane, Jimmy Conlin, and Will Wright.
For more on comedy film history including the comedies of Abbott and Costello, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc