My seven year-old daughter and I were looking through our dvd collection last night, like we often do, and as she picked The Little Mermaid for the 4,987th time, I said, "Okay we can watch this if I get to pick the second movie." She did that squinty eyed thing she does whenever she's suspicious of my motives and agreed reluctantly, and that's when I knew I had her. Tonight I would introduce her to the childhood joy that is Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, made in 1948 and filled with all the monster goodness that Universal could pack into one film.
If you've never seen this film, then you, my friend, are in for a serious treat. In 1948, Universal horror was on a roll and they knew that combining their horror goldmines (Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman) into one film with their comedy duo goldmine (Abbot & Costello), they were sure to have box office gold.
And they were right. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a huge hit, and a catalogue of icons for generations to come (that's us). I saw the film for the first time in the 80s when I was a kid and I was instantly smitten. Monsters AND comedy? How could it possibly be? It was the perfect elixir of scary and funny for kids.
But I'm not here to tell you it's a great mix of scary and funny. There's other places to go for that message. What I'm here to point out is something I bet you've never noticed... that this movie is surprisingly feminist in it's ideology and execution. And not in the angry man-hating way. In the super-cool "women-are-just-as-competent-as-men" kind of way.
It's all in the characters - let's look at the male characters of the film first:
Okay first up, the titular duo, Abbott and Costello.
Abbot is a shipping clerk who's dominant character trait in this film is being bossy, negative and whiny. When he isn't busy picking on Costello for being fat and stupid, he's begging Costello to set him up with one of Costello's beautiful girlfriends.
Costello, well... the poor bastard is best described as a slouchy, overweight little man-child with mommy issues and a great fear of the unknown. He's also so simple of mind that he's the target of a mad scientist who wants his brain, so that she can place Costello's malleable little mind into the Frankenstein monster so that the monster will be easily controlled.
Next up is Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr., who's reprising his role as the Wolfman. Larry is frightened, desperate and out of control. Nuff said there.
Dracula, played by the immortal Bela Lugosi is devious, brilliant and evil, just like the original Dracula films.
Frankenstein's monster is played not by Boris Karloff (and it really is a shame that he wasn't involved in this one) but rather by the aptly named and very competent Glenn Strange. Frankenstein, in this film is nothing more than a walking prop, and a killer sight gag for the various chase sequences where he pops up and Costello screams like a little girl.
The only other two male roles in the film belong to the ineffective rage-aholic Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) owner of the house of horrors, and pretty-boy eye candy Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) who does absolutely nothing but look nice.
So that rounds up the rogues gallery of miscreants, goofballs, and shallow personalities that make up the male cast.
Now let's look at the female cast. Granted there are only two of them, but they're not only the ONLY competent characters in the story, but they're each EXTREMELY competent, and in fact, are the principal protagonist and antagonist of the plot, with the male characters simply filling in the gaps around them. Seriously. Check this out...
Our villainess is played by the always eloquent Lenore Aubert, who is not only believable as a mad scientist and European highbrow Dr. Sandra Mornay, but also someone who is capable of taking on Dracula himself as an evil mastermind.
On the protagonist side of things is insurance investigator Jane Randolph, played by tall blonde Joan Raymond. While the male protagonists bumble and run from the male monsters, Jane spends her time investigating the monsters and figuring out exactly what's going on.
And in the scenes where Randolph goes head to head with Dr. Sandra, the screen simmers with rivalry and mental swordplay. These two women could easily have had their own horror film sans comedy and I would have been first in line.
And in the end sequence, the "damsel in distress" is not one of the women at all, but rather Lou Costello, who spends a good portion of the third act strapped down to a wheeled gurney and screaming for his life.
As the credits rolled and I sat there laughing with my daughter, she turned to me and smiled, " I liked that movie, Dad."
"Cool monsters and funny guys, huh?" I said.
"Yeah, but the ladies were the coolest," she said.
Yeah. come to think of it, they were. Glad I had a seven year-old there to explain it to me.
Gaudium Per Atrox.