It’s been a bit over three years since Universal put a stake in the studio’s Dark Universe, an ambitious project announced in the buildup to the release of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. So confident was Universal in the prospects of that movie, which costarred Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the leader of a shadowy group of supernatural investigators and enforcers, that it cast Javier Bardem and Johnny Deep in addition to Cruise, Crowe and Sofia Boutella.
Universal has tried a few times in the last several years to get a franchise based on its classic monsters up and running. The recent news that director Paul Feig would be taking on an original concept called Dark Army and the recent Invisible Man shows there’s life in the idea, but it may not be the “shared universe” that has long been envisioned.
That’s not quite true, though. 72 years ago Universal Studios had all of their biggest monsters appear together in a single motion picture, showing that in some manner they all existed in the same universe. The landmark movie in question is the cinematic classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Comedy + Horror
By the time 1948 came around, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been working together for a dozen years, first in stage shows, then on radio and then on television. In 1941 they made the transition to films, with Universal signing the pair to a deal that resulted in two to four movies released each year until 1950. Meet Frankenstein, then, stands as their 21st feature inside of just seven years.
With the stars playing a pair of railroad baggage clerks – Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) – who are pulled into a situation where Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is trying to stop the delivery of boxes to a museum. When the two damage the crates, they are enlisted to complete the delivery themselves, eventually discovering it was Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) being transported. Talbot is revealed to be a werewolf, and it’s up to Chick and Wilbur to survive while trying to stop the monsters from being loosed on the city.
Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman are, of course, all characters that had become standards in Universal’s classic monster lineup reaching back to the 1920s. The studio, then, saw a chance to revive the Abbott and Costello team whose luster was beginning to wear off with a host of characters that were also nearing the end of their shelf lives. On the latter point, the appeal is heightened given Chaney Jr. and Lugosi both reprise their roles.
Selling the Movie
“It’s a grand new idea for fun!” the audience is told on the primary one sheet. Dracula, The Monster and Wolfman are chasing Chick and Wilbur as they all run away from a decrepit and spooky looking house. While everyone’s bodies are shown with the same painted look, their faces are actual photos superimposed on the image, a common tactic at the time. It’s a fun painting that puts the title in the white (actually yellow) space around which the characters are running.
A number of lobby cards were sent out by Universal to show off stills from the movie and increase its appeal among the audience. One set features painted-in colors shows one of the primary monsters each. Notably, it’s only Wilbur (Costello) of the comedic stars that appears on this set, either unaware of the threat looming around him or in the thrall of a monster. There’s also one that has Wilbur attempting to woo Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). Others rearrange the elements from the poster to emphasize the monsters.
All of those that contain film stills are framed on the left by a strip showing Chick and Wilbur at the bottom urging the audience to keep quiet, the monsters placed above them as looming dangers.
As is often the case with trailers from this era, this one features lots of corny puns and phrases as on-screen text amidst scenes from the movie. “Jeepers! The creepers are after somebody” and “The laughs are monstrous” are two examples of the wordplay being used here. Abbott and Costello are billed as “the nation’s top comics” as we get the gist of the plot, with them encountering the various monsters and getting into assorted hijinks as they seek to escape the dangers lurking around every corner.
Before their partnership dissolved and their film career ended, Abbott and Costello would go on to “Meet” more monsters like The Invisible Man and others, but this stands as one of the greatest of their output, perhaps the last great one they would release.
The idea of a shared universe isn’t in and of itself problematic and can be pulled off successfully, but you have to have an idea around it that’s more than just “a way to make a bunch of money.” It has to be clever and entertaining, as this movie illustrates.