June 17, 1948 [Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein]

Universal has cashed in the last chips of its monster movies, recruiting them in the service of frightening Abbott and Costello--while the title insists they “meet Frankenstein,” Dracula, the Wolf Man--even, in a final gag, the Invisible Man--also arrive to play nice.

But I felt something strange, every once in a while: a nagging suspicion that the monsters, now fit only for Halloween costumes, are themselves in disguise, still eager to disturb the peace. So even as they stumble ineffectively after Bud and Lou--here, Chick and Wilbur--they somehow insist they lead their old lives. Frankenstein’s Creature tosses Dracula’s female minion out of a window with his usual amoral lack of hesitation, and Lugosi refuses to wink at us, his eyes instead still gamely trying to bore into our souls with the old spark, despite the pasty wrinkles, the years managing to take their toll even on the immortal undead, and Lon Chaney keeps his face morose, even when his curse becomes a setup: He tells Chick and Wilbur, “Tonight, when the moon rises, I will become a wolf,” and Costello, his timing perfect, adds “You and twenty million other guys.” It’s an easy bit, but Costello knows how to deadpan this kind of thing so that you grin despite yourself--even while Chaney refuses to play along, desperate to keep his Wolf from the door.

It was a little sad to watch the three of them. But they get a payday, no business without show business, so maybe it was me who was a little sad, wanting to keep them dimly in my head like a childhood nightmare, the cellar dark, the shape rising, the world shrinking to one little bundle of terror. Not the sweetest memory, but too important to spoil with corny irony.

--But that’s ridiculous, in the face of Abbott and Costello’s masterful evocation of--well, themselves, the routines smooth, the double-takes and scoldings easy as breathing. We all waited for that moment, when Wilbur is finally paralyzed by fear, and opens his little mouth to call Chick, and nothing comes out, not even a breath, just his lips moving; and he raises his fingers to whistle, and they flap against his lips like stiff rubber, and he looks at us, and wiggles his little stubs, resigned to the fact of their inability to come to his aid. It made the audience roar--and that is the movie, of course, not the monsters but Wilbur enjoying himself--whether playing lover-boy or petrified baby, punching bag or hapless victim. As one of my daughters complained, “I wish they did the baseball joke.” That was all: not the silly, chilled glory of Hollywood Gothic, but the exasperated little guy, plugging along in a world out to get him--without doing any real damage.


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