In the 1970’s, I was just an average (if not less than that student) at Christie Public School. Yes, I admit it I wasn’t a Svengali with learning, but I LOVED my movies! Growing up as the son of 1st generation Greek parents, the concentration was always on school and being the best, you could be in your grades. Slay them with the learning and the world will be yours…or at least you will be a doctor as my parents were hoping I would be.
It did not exactly work out that way but not for lack of trying. I wish I could say that girls led me off the path of learned-ness but it was another passion that did me in.
The one for films.
I wish I could blame Mr. Dumbinski for this but it was all me. Who was Mr. Dumbinski? He was my 4th grade Math teacher – or was he my history teacher? – and he ignited that passion for film within me. Two things that he did cemented it for me – the class trip he took us on to see the first ROCKY (1976) and his rental of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) for Wednesday Movie Nights at Christie Public School.
The man loved his movies as much as I did and didn’t hide it. He allowed me to carry the film reels to the movie nights and for that particular night that he showed ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENTSTEIN, all was lost for me.
Who were these guys and why were they so damn funny? How did Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula and in a super tiny but great throwaway part, The Invisible Man, become so funny and not so scary? Blame Abbott and Costello. But don’t blame them – thank them for being the first comedians to make horror funny and win a whole new legion of fans.
Let’s start with the boys then, shall we? They were weaned on the breast of burlesque and vaudeville as one of their most famous skits reveal, Who’s On First? The brilliance and simplicity of that skit would inform them and influence generations of comedians to come and they shaped the old routine to suit them! No gag writers for them. Bud Abbott was born to performer parents, but Lou was born to an Italian mother and Italian immigrant father. Obviously, Bud had the upper hand when it came to experience but Lou was unnaturally gifted in the gag department, yet both found it very frustrating trying to find door in to performing. They happened to cross each other on the vaudeville stage, Bud taking in one of Lou’s hilarious but unbridled performances. Bud realized this guy had IT but he needed control and found that the straight men he saw him with weren’t able to put a lassoo on this bucking comedy bronco. After having dinner one night in 1938 together with their wives– it was Bud’s wife that urged the boys to get together and give comedy a go as a pairing which many others had been doing at the time such as Laurel and Hardy who managed to elevate the art form.
And so Abbott and Costello were born……
They worked the vaudeville circuit as a team billed as Abbott and Costello. The name stuck the rest of their careers but the working partnership didn’t as it was in its infant stages. Being the straight man, Abbott was not only the lead on the bill but also had a 60 – 40 split in profits. This team-up would come back later to haunt the team. They continued to ply their comedy in vaudeville and became so popular that they started performing in theatres, radio and then…THE MOVIES!!
The boys were offered their first movie called THE STREETS OF PARIS (1939) upon the urging of Lou to try their hand at film while Bud was much more conservative and wanted to stay with theatre and radio. They stole the movie according to many critics which led to signing a contract with Universal to star in ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS (1940). The movie was a bust, but the boys were only hired as the comic relief and again were the highlight of the film. Their next film sent their comedy satellite into orbit – BUCK PRIVATES (1941). The film was so popular that a string of other films were released which starred the boys – IN THE NAVY (1941), PARDON MY SARONG (1942), BUD AND LOU IN HOLLYWOOD (1945), RIDE ‘EM COWBOY (1945). The boys kept up the pace sometimes releasing two films a year and also doing club and radio shows at the same time.
In 1944, Lou suffered a major tragedy when his young son, Butch, drowned in the family swimming pool before he was one. This forever changed Lou, and many say he forever lost the childlike quality which informed his character and himself inwardly. By 1945, the boys started showing the wear and tear of their constant work schedule and the issues in their personal lives. By the end of 1948, with the boys punishing schedule, boredom with the same material and sometimes vicious infighting, they stopped talking to one another and would only interact when they were filming a movie. One of the funniest movie teams started wearing on the public also to the point where tickets were selling less and less, with inspiration being only a catchphrase they had once worn proudly. After all, they had released 25 films by 1948.
Then, 1948 came with another Abbott and Costello film…meh, so what……
Stop the presses – it was ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Universal Pictures, who were the home of Lou and Bud, were also the home of the famous Universal monsters. Imagine the cheapo studio bosses- and I mean that with complete love- at Universal saying “Hey we got Frankenstein sitting in a plastic bag along with the Wolfman and Dracula in the basement…… And Ed the Horse! Why don’t we throw all these characters together and see what happens?” Well, ok, maybe not Ed The Horse – yes kids, he was a talking horse and the less said the better. This was the masterstroke that put the wheels in motion to pair up Bud and Lou with the Monsters to try and kickstart two tired franchises back into gear.
Comedy and horror gold and Universal had that lightning in the test tube…errrrr… bottle with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. The plot was crafty enough and funny enough (very funny actually) to revitalize Bud and Lou, the Monsters and Universal’s fortunes. The beauty of the film itself was in the details. Ok so the plot was some weird mixed up scenario where Lou is being harvested for his brain by Dracula and his minions for the recently resurrected Frankenstein monster – a brain so docile and simple that Frankenstein will listen and do Dracula’s bidding. Throw into the mix Bud who is the best voice of reason throughout all the shenanigans along with a total straight faced/hairy faced Wolfman trying to sidetrack Dracula’s plans on world domination using the Frankenstein monster to lead the legion of the undead…or is that the three of them taking over the world?
Never mind, the film itself was another way in which Bud and Lou could wedgie in their old vaudeville routines but when their other films just clunked along with the totally misplaced changes in tone, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN just flew into the moonlit darkness because of it on the blackest of comedy wings. With a cast that was just as inspired as the script – Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula playing, well, Dracula; Glenn Strange playing Frankenstein due to the original Frankenstein monster, Boris Karloff, swearing he would never play Frankenstein again; and Lon Chaney Jr. playing the role he originally made famous, The Wolfman. There was no right for this to work but because everyone played their characters straight and letting Bud and Lou lay waste to the proceedings with their comedy chops, it worked beautifully. Word has it that Lon Chaney Jr. had at this point found his popularity on the wane and being a full-blown alcoholic trying to fill his fathers’, the immortal Lon Chaney and his own un-bankable career, couldn’t understand the comedy in the film and thought it was being played straight throughout. The mastery of this film is that all the Universal monsters in the film were playing what Bud had been playing for years with the team – the straight man – while both Bud and Lou just reacted and riffed madly.
The popularity, even to this day, of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN resuscitated the duo’s career to the point that they were able to draw huge audiences to their further films after this gem and all with a horror bent – ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER (1949) (starring the aforementioned Boris Karloff), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955). Bud and Lou were the top comedy team for four years straight in the early 50s until they decided to tackle a tv show called THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW. After filming their last film together DANCE WITH ME, HENRY (1956), Lou Costello felt that the team had run its course and split the act up in 1957. Lou struck out on his own and made a few appearances on TV but never achieved the highs he had when with Bud Abbott. He sadly died of a heart attack on March 3, 1963, just shy of his 53rd birthday. Bud Abbott was devastated by his death and stayed semi-retired for a time. After trying to team with another comedian as a duo, passed-away from cancer in 1984.
To this day, the boys still count many accolades to their credit. Their tv show, THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW, has been named one of the top 100 comedy tv shows ever by Entertainment Weekly. A statue was erected of Lou in his hometown of Paterson and Jerry Seinfeld hosted a tv show in 1994 in their honor. Who’s on First? ended up being both Abbott and Costello for their abundant and historic contribution to comedy and film in the 20th Century. I loved ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN so much that I decided to buy the 8mm movie reel of it to play it in my basement for my friend’s enjoyment. It was silent unfortunately and only had subtitles to illustrate dialogue coupled with the fact that it was no more than half an hour long but damned if my friends and myself didn’t laugh ourselves silly watching that reel countless times over and over during the early 1970’s. That’s what good comedy does for you.
Abbott: “What’s wrong with you? I know there’s no such thing as Dracula, you know there’s no such thing as Dracula” Lou: “yeah, but does Dracula know it?”