Thursday, February 18, 2010

Talbot vs. Dracula, Part II

When Larry Talbot responded to a woman's distress call in Dr. Edelmann's house, he had no idea until after the fact that he was about to have a close encounter with Count Dracula. It's unclear from the evidence of House of Dracula whether Larry even knew that "Baron Latos" was a fellow patient of the great scientist. Yet the next time we see Talbot, he is a sworn enemy of the Count and all his evil works (whether Dracula knows this or not), tracking him across the Atlantic to thwart his latest scheme. Asked why he must battle Dracula almost on his own, and definitely without police aid, Larry tells a new friend that going to the cops would require him to explain "why I know what I know." But what's to explain? Why can't Larry simply say that he was being treated at the late Dr. Edelmann's clinic in Visaria when he encountered the vampire? Leave aside whether American cops would believe the vampire part; unless Talbot has a compulsion to tell the whole truth he shouldn't have to say that he was a werewolf, or believed himself to be, at the time....that is, unless Larry was talking about something else that explains why he knows what he knows about Dracula.

There's an obvious temptation to try to draw a line of continuity from House of Dracula to Bud Abbott [and] Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), to give the film its full title, but is it necessary to try? My friend Wendigo says he used to wonder how Larry's cure from the previous film failed. For amusement purposes only, he speculates now that Dr. Edelmann's surgery simply lacked lasting effect. The pressure on Larry's brain may have reasserted itself, or his curse may have. While there is no compelling reason to identify Charles Barton's comedy as a sequel to Erle C. Kenton's monster rally, Wendigo, like many people, can't help thinking of it as one. When Larry talks of what he knows, then, he could just be referring to the events of House (which Dr. Edelmann would have to have filled him in on in the doctor's declining moments of sanity) or he could be dropping a hint of a to-date untold story that may link Talbot's pursuit of Dracula to the resurgence of his curse.

My own view is that A&CMF is as much of a cartoon, if not obviously more so, than House of Dracula was in their common disregard for continuity. While HofD barely acknowledges its predecessor, House of Frankenstein, A&CMF acknowledges HofD not at all. Dracula never calls himself Baron Latos (it's "Dr. Lejos" instead) and no attempt is made to explain his latest escape from exposure to sunlight. Since it's unclear whether Latos even knew that Edelmann was keeping the Frankenstein Monster in a separate lab, HofD can tell us nothing about how the master vampire hooked up with the creature. There's definitely a tale to be told here if you feel a need to explain how everyone got from House to Florida, but we can just as easily take House out of the equation altogether and consider A&CMF a kind of default Universal Horror film with the classic monsters in what might be assumed was their typical state. And because Larry Talbot was essentially a good and righteous man when he wasn't the Wolf Man, he's naturally going to be Dracula's enemy.

Pitting Talbot against Dracula and the Monster is actually a stroke of genius on the part of Abbott & Costello's writers -- all veterans of Bud & Lou rather than the horror cycle. Compared to the House movies, A&CMF is a masterpiece of plotting with all the monsters integrated thoroughly into a single story. Larry's alliance with Wilbur Gray and Chick Young also integrates the comedians into a fairly straight horror-fantasy story beyond Dracula's plot to implant Wilbur's brain in the Monster's body. It makes Bud & Lou more than hapless scaredy-cats constantly on the run. Instead, they're part of a team that can take the battle to the enemy, even to the point of Bud Abbott, normally a monster of selfishness in his own right, rallying a guilt-stricken Talbot to invade Dracula's lair to save Lou from doom.

Lou Costello stoically faces Bela Lugosi's silent command (above) and Glenn Strange's silent scream (below).

The writers actually magnify this team effect by adding not one, but two femmes fatales to the mix, one on each team. Dracula's ally is Dr. Sandra Mornay, who's seduced Wilbur to lure him into their trap. She's both a femme fatale and a mad scientist over whom Dracula has (at first) some blackmail power because she's wanted in Europe for some questionable experiments. With Sandra, Universal was thisclose to an awesome trifecta of villainy: femme fatale, mad scientist and Nazi. Against her, the good guys have Joan Raymond, an intrepid insurance investigator dedicated to tracking down the "museum exhibits" Wilbur and Chick allegedly stole from the obnoxious wax-museum owner Mr. McDougal. She's a femme fatale because her method is also to seduce Wilbur, in the hope of finding out where he's stashed the "exhibits." The women are strong enough characters to have an important scene to themselves as they try to spy on one another's activities.

Dr. Mornay (Lenore Aubert) spies while Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) scans The Secrets of Life and Death at a costume party. Below, Mornay likes to dress up as an evil crypto-fascist nurse for professional occasions.

It's another great feature of this film that McDougal remains a wildcard factor throughout, making mischief for the good guys while remaining clueless about the true nature of his stolen goods. This movie is full of great characters, with the glaring though minor exception of the dull scientist Dr. Stevens, Mornay's unwitting assistant, who ends up with Joan by default.

For many monster fans, the highlight of A&CMF is Bela Lugosi's return to the role that made his name, whose name he made. Wendigo thinks it's always great to see him back, especially since he looks in much better shape than he did in the (still good) Return of the Vampire. Compared to that film of five years earlier, it looks like at least five years have fallen away from him. But have the years changed his approach to Dracula? One change that occurred to me was that the character now has to deal with the legend of Dracula (by concealing his identity) in a way that Tod Browning's Dracula didn't. For his part, Wendigo sees some subtle differences in the two performances. There's a hint of doomed melancholy to the 1931 Bela, and a sense that Dracula is an unnatural force of nature. In 1948 Dracula is more evil, more of a schemer, more inclined to revel in villainy. But there are more differences between Lugosi and his imitators (Latos, Alucard) than between the '48 and '31 models. For starters, those so-called Draculas are hapless creatures with few survival instincts. More signifcant is Dracula's dominance of a briefly-defiant Mornay compared to Alucard's virtual victimization by the femme fatale of Son of Dracula. Bela makes it plain: "I am accustomed to obedience from women," and he gets it. Another difference: the pseudo (or crypto?) Draculas from the Forties get by with mesmerism, a learned skill almost, while Lugosi's Dracula dominates people by overwhelming force of pure will. He can command from a distance in ways his emulators can't dream of. However you may feel about the way the monsters are used here, Bela's Dracula is the real deal.

Lou mugs like mad, and brilliantly, in the "young blood and brains" scene, but he has to to keep Bela from stealing the scene just by wearing that smoking jacket.

It wouldn't surprise us if fans don't feel the same way about Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man. As Larry, Lon is impeccable, as impressive and heroic as he's ever been despite his bouts of despair and guilt. But the Wolf Man is still under the constraints necessary for the film to treat Larry as a good guy. That means he has to be an ineffectual monster in two scenes in which he proves incapable of even pouncing on Wilbur, instead tripping and tangling himself in every possible impediment. It's fair to ask what's worse: the fact that the Wolf Man can't escape from a locked hotel room or the fact that Lou Costello bops him on the nose, mistaking him for a masked Abbott, and survives? It's also fair to remind ourselves that the film is meant as a comedy, and that, as Wendigo reminds, me, Chaney was a very good sport about taking his monster's pratfalls. None of this compromises Larry Talbot's role as a hero, if not the hero of the movie. Wendigo adds: if he can't consider The Munsters a travesty of the Universal monsters, he can't complain about this film.

"Grrrrrr!" Even Bud makes fun of the Wolf Man, but his playacting gets him in trouble later in the picture.

In any event, the Wolf Man redeems himself a bit by taking down Dracula after a rather absurd battle that sees the desperate vampire throw everything he can lay hands on at the persistent lycanthrope. Bela even resorts to hitting him with a chair, rasslin'-style. You can ask whether the Wolf Man attacks Dracula because he knows the vampire is the enemy, or just because Dracula is there? On the other hand, the vampire's enmity toward the werewolf seems to be a matter of panicky disgust, as if Dracula had seen a large rat. In any event, Larry gets the job done even if it means a dip in the rocky drink. Do they both die? Well, Dracula is clearly out of action because the plunge breaks his power over Joan Raymond, but on the evidence of Talbot's suicide attempt in HofD it's definitely debatable whether the drop would kill the Wolf Man. It may be best for us to wish Larry Talbot godspeed on his long, long journey home -- or back to Europe, or wherever.

A&CMF, of course, is the top-billed team's big comeback film, restoring a declining pair to audience good will by riding their lingering good will toward the Universal Monsters. The comedy is knowing rather than contemptuous (unless you disapprove of the Wolf Man's clumsiness) and is arguably the first filmic expression of the fandom that would blossom with the spread of television in the next decade. As for Bud and Lou, once upon a time you could see a movie of theirs at least once a week on cable TV. Now this film is one of the few Abbott & Costello movies that turns up occasionally on stations like TCM. It's been a long time since we've seen any other besides their awful public-domain films. A&CMF shows the team in top form after a series of non-team experiments. Lou gives as good as he takes here in an incredible performance, talking back to everyone, going nuts with pantomiming the monster's movements, reveling in the attentions of two beautiful women and coping with the creatures with childlike credulity. Costello often strikes me as a progenitor of the obnoxious infantile men of modern movie comedy, but Lou brings something extra to the show: a self-consciousness that cracks the fourth wall and invites you to share his enjoyment of the ride. His character may be a sap, but he's a sap and he knows it, and in a redeeming way he seems to know more than he thinks he knows. You can't leave this film feeling contempt for Lou Costello, and the more you watch the more little details you catch, including his titanic scene-stealing battles with Lugosi. His interplay with Abbott (and Chaney, for that matter) is note perfect.

"Back...back... He thinks I'm Dracula."

Abbott & Costello are Wendigo's favorite comedy team, and he has many fond memories of Sunday morning double-features on WPIX. I didn't like them as much as he did back then, but every time I see A&CMF I get an urge to see more of their films. Some time ago I put this film on my list of ten favorite comedies, and I'd say that Lou Costello gives one of my favorite comedy performances ever in it. With Bud and Lou in top form and the return of the monsters, I'm inspired to ask: does any other Hollywood studio have a film in its library that is as definitive an expression of its creative identity as this film is for Universal? Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is Universal's monument.

And here's the Realart trailer, uploaded to YouTube by horrormovieshows


The Vicar of VHS said...

Another stellar review of another of my favorite films. ;) This is a very early horror/comedy hybrid, and for my money still has everything to teach wannabe horror/comedy filmmakers today. Perhaps the chief lesson is the effectiveness you glean by not treating the monsters as part of the gag. All the comedy comes from Bud and Lou here, and the monsters are all played absolutely straight. Though I doubt anyone was really scared by the monsters in this flick (though my father recounts having walked out of the theater at the tender age of 6 b/c the scene where the Wolf Man just *barely* misses Lou 3 or 4 times was too intense for his young sensibilities), they're treated seriously and that makes their struggle more exciting and involving.

Your points about Lugosi's performance here are excellent, and drive that point home more--no George Hamilton, he. ;)

Like Wendigo I used to see A&C all the time on weekend television, and counted them my favorite comedy team of the Golden Age. (Before you praise my tastes too much, The Ritz Brothers were second, followed only then by the Marxes. :P) I think it's a shame Buck Privates and The Naughty Nineties don't pop up on TV more often--the kids today don't know what they're missing. ;)

hobbyfan said...

As memory serves, Sammy, 'PIX only aired 1 A & C movie on Sundays, always at lunch time (11:30-1), which gave the Yankees a pretty good opening act back then. I think they ran through much of the team's Universal library on a yearly basis.

All that having been said, "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" is one of their very best. What you neglect to mention is the teaser ending, where Wilbur & Chick meet "The Invisible Man" (voiced by an uncredited Vincent Price) and flee the rowboat. As we know, Abbott & Costello would "Meet the Invisible Man" in another picture.....