Playing at Bucknall Elementary: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

In the 1970s, the Moreland School District owned copies of two Hollywood films.  The first was American Graffiti, a version unprofessionally edited to the point of unwatchability.  Our principal at Castro Junior High School, now Moreland Middle School, trotted this out each semester to reward students with acceptable grade-point averages.  I sat through it once during my two-year tenure at Castro (1977 – 1979).  From then on, I worked hard to miss the academic mark for entry into these showings.  We were children living in the expanding Silicon Valley, for shit’s sake, near San Francisco, arguably the most liberal American city ever. We could handle edgy content.  Had our august administrators not been so fearful of parental wrath and avoided going after that poor copy with pinking shears (I’m not kidding), I’d have attended Harvard . . . well, okay, maybe.

The second film I never missed seeing.  I parked front and center every time Bucknall Elementary offered Saturday showings for, I think, about a buck.  Our parents popped corn in old-school oil machines — so much better than air-poppers and microwave packets — and loaded it up into huge grocery bags.  Sometimes, we’d even receive extra money for goodies at the Stop-n-Go Market down the street.  So prepared, we’d fill the multi-purpose room at Bucknall to, once again, watch Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and the disgraced scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) invade La Mirada, Florida, only to be thwarted by the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.),  the insurance agent Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), the good scientist Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet), and two fumbling baggage handlers, Chick Young (Budd Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello).  The invaders’ goal? The brain of Wilbur Gray! You know I’m talking about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Hey, kid on my lawn, hear me out.  Back before VHS and later innovations, we prayed for opportunities to see our favorite Universal Horror films.  Bob Wilkins would air them periodically on Creature Features, or they might surface through other televised venues and theater revivals.  We couldn’t hack the Internet or purchase Blu-rays.  I was fifteen before seeing The Ghost of Frankenstein from start to finish. We scanned commercials, advertisements, announcements, connected through oral grapevines, and adjusted our schedules accordingly.  Woe upon poor suckers who missed their chances.  Now Peacock, the NBCUniversal streaming service, features many within their annual Halloween library. No more walking ten miles each way in the snow for us, at least metaphorically.

“You went to all that trouble for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, you ask incredulously while scuffing holes into my Kentucky Bluegrass with your kicks, you whippersnapper? We’ve come far with horror movies. Hollywood has replaced Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy with a far more nefarious bunch: Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, and Michael Myers, for example. We have Predators and Xenomorphs too. Indeed, why bother?

Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein stems from tradition. Great filmmakers, both American and European, contributed to a phenomenon that would define how we view monsters still today. Current directors, makeup/FX artists, and actors have reacted to and learned from the combined creative output of legends including Lon Chaney, Sr., Carl Laemmle, Karl Freund, Tod Browning, James Whale, Curt and Robert Siodmak, Jack Pierce, Vera West, Colin Clive, Claude Rains, Lionel Atwill, Basil Rathbone, Evelyn Ankers, Ilona Massey, Elena Verdugo, Dwight Frye, Edward Sloan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ernest Thesinger, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi.

When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein hit the screen in 1948, the Universal Monster line had fallen victim to its tropes and to the restrictive Hays Code which squelched much potential. Abbott and Costello, then, is the endpoint of a loosely interrelated cycle, a subset within the larger Universal Monster oeuvre that eventually brings together Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Wolf Man.  Lugosi only played Dracula twice on-screen while Karloff donned his flatheaded Frankenstein Monster makeup three times.  Both actors portrayed other roles across releases, however. The viewing order of what’s sometimes called the “Monster Mash” is as follows:

Dracula (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were funny guys, and their capstone to an era, both a satire of and an homage to this multi-film narrative, deserves respect.  What better way for Universal to end something that had nowhere else to go than with self-referential humor?  In 2007, Readers Digest named Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein a Top 100 Funniest Movie of All Time.  If this doesn’t impress you, maybe knowing that the United States Library of Congress deems it worthy for preservation in the National Film Registry will?  The decided factor for such an honor must have been seeing Bela Lugosi trade his famous black cape for a classic smoking jacket.  At a special Halloween viewing, my classmate Heidi Schaetzle offered perhaps the most cogent criticism related to Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein’s Monster when she leaned into me and asked, “Why isn’t Herman Munster being funny like on TV?”

Whether fans love or hate the concept, most realize that Universal Monsters is one of the first franchises to come out of Hollywood. So, pop some corn, fire up your big-screen equivalent to our now antiquated projectors, and hopefully understand that it’s all about nostalgia.  Fifty-five-year old Chuck loves feeling like he’s ten again.  Indulge an old boy, would you?