In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, I thought I’d 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.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello 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, of course), and then on radio, where they gained nationwide fame in 1938 as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour. 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 probably best, film, Buck Privates. In fact, they made no fewer than four films in 1941, 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 in the year with Keep ‘Em Flying (by the way, it’s interesting 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, 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 Lou didn’t appear together again on film. Here, she plays Camille Brewster, a radio actress specializing in opening a murder mystery series with her blood-curdling scream each week.
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, don’t ask), who had also hid a fortune in cash somewhere on the premises. Rival bad guys also enter the picture in search of the loot, and one of them is 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, and fainting.
Highlights include a hilarious comic tango between the two of them 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 priceless. At one point, Lou sends her falling butt-first into a wash bucket on the floor. The bucket was specially built to suit her measurements, enabling it to firmly stay put after she got up and continued 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 float upwards as Davis fails to see a thing.
In 1948, Bud & Lou again mixed laughs with frights in 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? That’s just what
happened, with Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for the first time on film since his 1931 starring role in the original Dracula. Lon Chaney reprised 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, was signed to repeat the role here as well. Add a couple of beautiful women — one innocent (Joan an insurance investigator), one sinister (Sandra, in cohoots with the Count, who puts her under his spell)–and all of the elements are present 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.
The plot has the team 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, which would allow Dracula to revive the monster. But during his call to Lou, a full moon sends Talbot into his tortuous transformation into the growling Wolfman, causing Lou to hang up.
Plot machinations have them all converging on Dracula’s castle, where the Count and Sandra plan to put Lou’s brain into the monster’s head. At one point, Lou 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 culminate in a frantic chase through the castle–at which point, of course, Talbot succumbs once again to the full moon. The team soon find themselves opening one door to find Frankenstein headed their way, and then running to open another door to witness Dracula and the Wolfman engaged in hand-to-hand combat with each other.
The stirring, urgent music score enhances the mood, 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 and let their fight-or-flight responses opt for flight!
Other comedians of classic-era Hollywood made efforts to combine horror and comedy; Bud and Lou themselves later starred in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but these films don’t measure up to the two we’re honoring 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.
Thanks to David C. Tucker, author of Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy for his help with today’s blog.
Until next week…