Halloween with Abbott & Costello
In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, what better time to pay tribute to a pair of classic Abbott & Costello films that combine fright and laughter with great results: Hold That Ghost and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.
A fair number of comedians from decades past have made films in which they’d find themselves in a situation chilling to them, but funny to us — usually in a haunted house, a graveyard, coming face-to-face with a spooky creature, etc. Abbott & Costello were no different, but the two films we celebrate here are arguably the best of their kind.
Bud & Lou enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1940s, especially during the war years. They first teamed in 1936, and quickly made their presence known in burlesque (using only clean material) with countless tried and true routines, and then on radio, where they gained nationwide fame in 1938 as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour — the first program on which they performed their classic “Who’s On First.”
By 1940, they had signed with Universal Studios, first as supporting players in the comedy One Night in the Tropics, starring Bob Cummings and Alan Jones. Their career skyrocketed the following year with their first, and arguably their best film, Buck Privates. In fact, they made no fewer that four films in 1941 alone, with Hold That Ghost filmed immediately after Buck Privates. However, the success of Buck Privates prompted Universal to order a second military-themed feature, In The Navy, as a follow-up. Bud and Lou also took on the Air Force later that year with Keep ’Em Flying (the storylines for most of their films were written by the studio’s contract writers, with the team’s longtime writer, John Grant, brought in to add their specific comedy dialogue, and fit their older burlesque routines into the plot). By the way, it’s interesting to note that they added their hand and foot prints to the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on December 8 of that year, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Hold That Ghost, directed by Arthur Lubin and released on August 6 of 1941, gives us Bud and Lou maintaining a high level of energy throughout, but also features the wonderful Joan Davis as Lou’s comic foil. This was her first film as a freelancer after spending time under contract to Fox, and it’s a shame that she and and Lou didn’t appear together again on film. Here, she plays Camille Brewster, a radio actress who opens a murder mystery series each week with her blood-curdling scream.
The bulk of Hold That Ghost has Bud, Lou, and Davis — along with Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers in fine supporting roles — stranded in an old, dilapidated inn overnight, due to a rainstorm. The inn was left to Chuck (Bud) and Ferdie (Lou), in the will of a gangster (long story), who also hid a fortune in cash somewhere on the premises. Rival bad guys enter the picture in search of the loot; one of them is later found murdered — as if the guests weren’t jittery enough. Just about every room of the building gives Lou and/or Davis cause for fright, screams, or fainting.
Highlights include a hilarious comic dance between the two to keep the others entertained over dinner. The sight of tall, lanky Davis and pudgy Costello mixing it up on their impromptu dance floor is comedy gold. At one point, Lou sends her falling butt-first into a wash bucket (specially-built to suit her measurements, thus enabling it to firmly stay put after she gets up continues her dance).
The two also share the “candle scene,” in which a horrified and speechless Lou watches a candle glide on its own across their table, and then float upwards, as Davis fails to see a thing.
After the bad guys are caught, and Bud and Lou have renovated the inn into a nightclub, we see them enjoying the crowd and the evening’s entertainment — The Andrews Sisters with Ted Lewis and his orchestra. In movies, such was the way to do things in 1941.
Seven years after Hold That Ghost, the team again mixed laughs with frights in 1948 with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton. Universal Studios owned the film rights not only to Frankenstein, but also to Dracula and the Wolfman. So, why not have all three monsters in one film to terrify the comic duo?
Bela Lugosi reprised his classic role as Dracula for the first time on film since his 1931 starring role in the original Dracula. Lon Chaney also returned to his most famous role, as the troubled Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolfman. And Glenn Strange, who had stepped into the Frankenstein monster’s oversized shoes before, signed to repeat that role here as well.
Add a couple of beautiful women — one innocent (Joan, an insurance investigator played by Jane Randolf) and one sinister (Sandra, in cohoots with the Count, and played by Lenore Aubert) — and all of the elements are in place to create a clever mix of comedy and horror. One reason why the film works so well is that the monsters are played straight — and scary — not as comic parodies of themselves. The laughs are wisely left to Bud and Lou. It’s been said, however, that Lou hated the script when he first read it. Considering the quality of the finished product as it is, it’s difficult to understand his objections (producer Robert Arthur had to promise him a hefty advance on his percentage if he agreed to do the film).
The plot has the team (Bud as Chick Young, Lou as Wilbur Grey) as shipping clerks in Florida, who receive crates containing the remains of both the original Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, destined for display at a wax museum, McDougal’s House of Horrors. Lawrence Talbot phones them from London, warning them not to open the crates when they deliver them to the museum, thus allowing Dracula to revive the monster. But during his call to Lou, a full moon sends Talbot into his tortuous transformation into the growling Wolfman, and Lou hangs up.
Plot machinations eventually have them all converging on Dracula’s castle (apparently it’s his Florida retirement castle?) where the Count and Sandra plan to put Lou’s brain into the monster’s head. And, as they say, hijinx ensues. At one point, Lou as hostage pleads to the monster, “Don’t let ’em do it to you, Frankie. I’ve had this brain for thirty years and it hasn’t worked right yet!”
Bud and Talbot’s attempt to rescue Lou culminates in a frantic chase through the castle — at which point, of course, Talbot succumbs once again to the full moon, just as he’s unstrapping Lou in the laboratory to escape the newly-revived monster. Several narrow escapes come fast and furious, as the team find themselves opening one door to find Frankenstein headed their way, and then run to open another door to find Dracula and the Wolfman engaged in hand-to-hand combat with each other. The pace of this sequence gets stronger as it goes on — and so do the laughs.
The stirring, urgent music score enhances the mood well, as the team eventually receive help in vanquishing all of the monsters for good. Rowing away from the castle dock to safety, they hear a disembodied voice (Vincent Price) say, “I was hoping to get in on the excitement. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m the Invisible Man!” Bud and Lou dive into the water, as their fight-or-flight response opts for flight.
In 2001, the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It also rests about halfway down the list of The American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest American Movies.”
In the years after the duo met Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman, they starred in Abbott and Costell Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). While each has its moments, none measure up to the two honored here today.
If you’ve somehow managed to miss either Hold That Ghost or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, seek them out, even after Halloween has come and gone.
Until next time…
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.
You can also become a member in the Medium Partner Program for a modest fee to help support my writing. https://garryberman.medium.com/membership
Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.