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How Abbott and Costello Helped Create the Horror Comedy

MovieWeb logo MovieWeb 6/28/2022 Donnie Smith
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When thinking of classic horror icons, one will likely imagine the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, or the Wolf Man. However, there are two that may be overlooked. These two are unconventional, but should be considered horror icons in their own way, nonetheless: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The legendary comedy duo left a huge mark on the comedy scene and pioneered many techniques of both stand-up and movie comedy. On the other side of the coin, they helped save not only their own careers but the longevity of the Universal Monsters as well.

Horror and comedy typically go hand in hand. Mixing the genres seems like a no-brainer today, but back then it was a huge gamble. A gamble that clearly paid off. Today, there are countless examples of horror comedies. Films such as Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Shaun of the Dead, and even Scream mix the two popular genres masterfully. However, in a 1940s and '50s world where horror was seen as a lesser form of art, there needed to be a mainstream push. So how did these crossovers come to be?

New Beginnings

Abbott and Costello were famous vaudevillians who transitioned pretty seamlessly into film comedies; they remain perhaps most famous for the legendary "Who's On First?" routine, which is lauded as one of the best comedy bits of all time. As the forties went on, Abbott and Costello began to decline in popularity. The duo struggled with internal issues as well as private problems for both men. The two only did their films for the paychecks, and audiences could tell. The once box office gold the duo brought in began to wane, to the point that they almost broke up by 1945. The two were Universal's most popular actors at the time, and that popularity was rapidly fading.

Universal Pictures underwent a merger in 1946, and some serious changes needed to be made. The other Universal franchise that once brought in huge box office returns were the classic monster movies. Although by this point, the Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy franchises were also on a downward slope. A huge gamble needed to be made, and executives tried to take out two birds with one stone.

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The idea of bringing together several monsters in one film had already been done quite successfully. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, House of Frankenstein in 1944, and House of Dracula in 1945 all enjoyed varying levels of success by combining different Universal Monsters, but by the time of the Universal merger, simply bringing the monsters together again wasn't going to cut it. Robert Arthur, along with Abbott and Costello writers Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees, wrote a script that pit the comedy duo against the legendary monsters.

Originally titled The Brain of Frankenstein, the duo was, to say the least, reluctant to take it on. After much persuasion and some hefty paychecks, they relented. To seal the deal with audiences, veteran Universal Monster players were also brought aboard. Glen Strange and Lon Cheny Jr. reprised their roles as Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man respectively. Perhaps most exciting to horror fans was the return of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, who hadn't played the character since 1931, and would later go on to be a mainstay in Ed Wood films. With all the pieces in place, the film was made.

To the delight of everyone involved, the film (now titled Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) was a huge success. The film reignited public interest in not only Abbott and Costello but the Universal Monsters as well. Abbott and Costello went on to make several other horror comedies including Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. These films introduced a new generation to the comedy duo and defined them in their later years. Even today, these are the films they are best known for. With these movies, Abbott and Costello showed that horror and comedy can be mixed to perfection. But what exactly made it work?

A Recipe For Success

The most obvious reason Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein worked was because of the comedy. Bud and Lou were at the top of their game. Their back and forth was as hysterical as always, and their slapstick was top-notch. However, the movie was never just an Abbott and Costello movie. In order for it to please everyone, it also had to be as dramatic and scary as the earlier monster movies. In order to do this, horror and comedy had to blend together flawlessly. The recipe for this was simple: the monsters weren't going to be in an Abbott and Costello movie, Abbott and Costello were going to be in a monster movie.

RELATED: These Actors Should Play Universal Monsters In Reboots Of The Films

What this meant was, a majority of the film's assets were going to be played completely straight. The monsters were as serious and menacing as they always were, They didn't make jokes, they didn't perform pratfalls, they were there to scare. Abbott and Costello, on the other hand, were there to make the audience laugh, having no dramatic or scary moments. Having each element do what it does best is what makes the film works as well as it did. If the monsters were in an Abbott and Costello movie, then they would likely only serve as parodies of the monsters. They would be silly and not scary in the slightest. Putting Abbott and Costello in a serious horror movie with an actually well-developed narrative pleases everyone. Pleasing horror fans, as well as comedy fans, was the only way this movie would work, and the filmmakers excelled at it.

Current Affairs

Today, horror-comedy has become its own subgenre. One glaring difference is that modern horror-comedy usually serves as a meta satire to horror. These movies poke fun at the horror genre as well as celebrate it. Unlike Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, most things are played for laughs, even the monsters. This could be due in part to the Scary Movie franchise, which are full-on comedies with no actual scary elements. While these modern takes can certainly be entertaining, they are really just comedies with horror elements. Even though the tones may be different, these movies owe their very existence to Abbott and Costello.

Horror and comedy had been mixed before, but never in this way. Putting The Three Stooges in a haunted house is different from putting comedy legends in the same room as established horror icons. The careers of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello should be celebrated as a whole, but their monster movies took the duo, as well as two genres, to new heights. They are remembered today as some of the best comedians to have ever lived, and for good reason. If you haven't seen these monster movies or any Abbott and Costello movie for that matter, it would be well worth the effort to seek them out.

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