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Francis (1950);
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
May 23, 2012 - 7:30 pm

New print!

Francis (1950)

Directd by Arthur Lubin

Former actor Arthur Lubin had directed over 40 features—most of them B pictures, with an occasional A picture like the 1943 Technicolor version of Phantom of the Opera—when he approached Universal in 1949 with a proposal for a World War II comedy about a talking Army mule named Francis. Contract actor Donald O’Connor starred as Peter Stirling, an inept second lieutenant who is rescued on the battlefield by the mule at the film’s outset, only to be serially committed and released from the mental ward by unbelieving superiors whenever he explains Francis’ role in his subsequent adventures. (In the time-honored tradition of supernatural fantasies, Francis only talks to Peter and only when no one else can hear them.) The mule’s voice was supplied by veteran character actor Chill Wills, a fact Universal tried to keep a secret, perhaps to little avail given the familiarity of Wills’s voice to audiences at the time. Lubin always refused to divulge how he got the mule’s mouth movements to match his dialogue—although there were rumors that liberal applications of peanut butter were required.

Francis returned a healthy profit of $2 million on an expenditure of $125,000, and was credited with rescuing Universal from bankruptcy at a time when all the Hollywood studios were reeling from the impact of television. Universal released six more modestly budgeted Francis comedies between 1951 and 1956. Lubin directed and O’Connor and Wills starred in all but the last feature, Francis in the Haunted House. O’Connor, whose career on loan from Universal during the same period included acclaimed performances in Singin’ in the Rain (1951), Call Me Madam (1953) and Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), always chafed at being trapped in a series where, as he put it, the mule got more fan mail than he did. After 1957, Lubin worked almost exclusively in television, where he recycled the talking animal formula in the popular series Mr. Ed, producing and directing over 140 episodes between 1961 and 1966.

—Charles Hopkins

Universal-International Pictures. Producer: Robert Arthur. Based on the novel by David Stern. Screenwriter: David Stern. Cinematographer: Irving Glassberg. Editor: Milton Carruth. Cast: Donald O’Connor, Patricia Medina, ZaSu Pitts, Ray Collins, John McIntire.

35mm, b/w, 91 min.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Directed by Charles T. Barton

By the mid-1940s, Universal’s star comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello experienced a considerable drop in popularity from the heights of their first top-billed film for the studio, the blockbuster hit, Buck Privates (1941). As the Universal and International Pictures merger in 1946 found the studio transitioning away from B pictures, attempts to insert Abbott and Costello into higher-budget productions, such as the costume comedy The Time of Their Lives (1946), were mostly poorly received. In Hollywood, rumors indicated that the studio was considering releasing the once-bankable team from their contract.

The venerable duo’s fortunes improved with the return-to-basics sequel Buck Privates Come Home (1947), which pointed back to the vitality of their early days and paved the way for a full comeback. Originally titled The Brain of Frankenstein, the scenario that would become the smash hit Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was initially rejected by Costello, who reportedly protested that his “[five-year-old] daughter could write a better script.” However, producer Robert Arthur (Sweet Charity), credited with the inspired high-concept pairing of Abbott and Costello with Universal’s forgotten stable of horror movie monsters, persuaded Costello to get on board with financial incentives and by bringing on the comedian’s favorite director, Charles Barton.

Boasting a significant budget for what was considered a B-picture, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein features an animated title-sequence by Walter Lantz (of Woody Woodpecker fame) and highly detailed sets, costumes, and make-up all worthy of Universal’s classic horror canon. That authenticity was extended to the casting of cinema’s revered horror veterans Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange (with a cameo from Vincent Price). True to their roots, the gothic legends play it straight, leaving the comedy to derive from Abbott and Costello’s perfectly timed reactions and double-takes. Perhaps the best-reviewed and most financially successful title in Abbott and Costello’s long career, the beloved evergreen remains a landmark genre mash-up. The cult classic was named to the National Film Registry in 2001.

—Mark Quigley

Universal-International Pictures. Producer: Robert Arthur. Screenwriter: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant. Cinematographer: Charles Van Enger. Editor: Frank Gross. Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange. 

35mm, b/w, 83 min.