Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are comic legends, presenting a unique blend of zingy word-play and razor-sharp slapstick. They brought these honed sensibilities to the silver screen in 36 films between 1940 and 1955. Their appearances in radio and television, likenesses in several Looney Tunes, and creation of perhaps the greatest comedy sketch of all time (“Who’s On First?”) cemented their legacy as legends.
By the late 1940s, they were at the peak of their power with wickedly inventive films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). By the next decade, however, their timing began to slip. Not only were contract disputes with Universal Studios hampering the quality of their pictures, but their well-worn routines were creaking with age. Three movies exemplify this slow decline: Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Watching these, in order, is to watch the slow death of a once radiant star dimming into the inexorable void of blackest space.
But how do these films hold up individually? What flickers of inspiration still rise up after the fire is gone? These are the questions of our time.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
Orville (Lou Costello) is an orphan who, while running from the cops, hides in the delivery truck of Lester (Bud Abbott). Lester works for a space agency and thus, the two end up aboard a rocket ship bound for Mars. Following some antics, Orville predictably ignites the rocket and they are launched into the sky. After whizzing around earth several times over, they unknowingly land in New Orleans. Due to the tropical environment and concurrent Mardi Gras, Lester and Orville believe they have indeed landed on the Red Planet. They don space suits and venture into the city where all the inhabitants are decked out in equally absurd costumes, concealing their identities as humans. Meanwhile, two gangsters on the lam stumble upon the ship and see it as their ticket to freedom; Lester and Orville return and are forced to pilot the craft to space where they land on Venus, solely inhabited by women. Hilarity ensues between the male earthlings and female Venusians, until Lester and Orville make their return to Earth.
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is a prime example of the science fiction bandwagon of the early 1950s. More flash, than substance, the film spends indulgent screen time on the special effects; unfortunately, those effects were cheap by contemporary standards and consequently grow old fast. Furthermore, the antics of A&C begin to show their own age with new material delivered with little enthusiasm. What remains memorable are the broad set-pieces of Mardi Gras and Venus (never mind they never actually go to Mars). The New Orleans setting is entirely bizarre in concept, with revelers wearing the most outlandish costumes. It is a fever dream of nightmarish whimsy, and honestly should have been its own film.
As for Venus, the concept is dated from the start with the men vying for sexual pleasure. Yes, the Venusian women are doing the same, but make no mistake: this is a plot line made by men for men (and teenage boys). It is like Castle Anthrax but without the satirical bite, and therefore, relevancy.
Ultimately, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, jumps the shark in every way and yet remains a fascinating time capsule of early 1950s sci-fi and gender dynamics. While dated and forgettable, it nevertheless remains harmless. It is this lack of danger, however, that signals the beginning of the end for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, this late entry into the Universal Monsters cycle follows two American policemen, Slim (Bud Abbott) and Tubby (Lou Costello), as they investigate a series of strange murders. The great mystery, of course, is that the culprit is Mr. Hyde, the evil alter-ego of Dr. Jekyll. Boris Karloff plays the infamous doctor (with Eddie Parker as Hyde), providing the only memorable presence of the film.
As for Abbott and Costello, their horror-comedy shtick grows wearisome, relying on antics that had proved successful in Meet Frankenstein; for example, a wax museum again serves as the backdrop for haunted hilarity. But while the scene plays keen and kooky in Meet Frankenstein, it is tired and uninspired in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Apart from Karloff’s stalwart performance, the whole film appears to be going through the motions. Music is recycled from the aforementioned hit, transformation scenes are Wolf Man light, and even the characters’ names indicate the blasé attitude of those involved. Slim and Tubby. Really?
Nevertheless, there remains one stand-out sequence that puts the movie ahead of what was to come. Tubby mistakenly ingests a potion of Dr. Jekyll’s and turns into a mouse-man. He even goes to a bar, completely unaware of his appearance! It is wonderfully absurd and yet, simultaneously reminds you how lifeless Universal’s lone Dr. Jekyll adaptation truly is.
Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy
If character names mean anything, look no further than this film – the last Abbott and Costello outing produced by Universal Pictures. Despite the pair being credited as “Peter” and “Freddie”, they refer to themselves solely as Bud and Lou. All pretense is gone; the curtain is dropping; everybody’s either already at the bar or on their way.
The story is standard mummy fare involving a cursed amulet wanted by nefarious criminals. Peter and Freddie – er, I mean, Bud and Lou – are hapless Americans who get mixed up in the subsequent murders. There is also a mummy in the movie (played by Dr. Jekyll‘s Eddie Parker), but it is criminally underused; the monster seems to make appearances whenever the writers are unsure how to end a scene. A shred of credit to those writers, however, for starting the film strong. John Grant and Lee Loeb were screenwriting veterans, with Grant penning every other A&C-Universal picture. Perhaps even he was tired by the end, for the initial dark-alley mystery quickly dissolves into mindless shenanigans involving sand, tombs, and dynamite. One sad bit involving shovels and picks is a mere shadow of “Who’s on First?”
For all intents and purposes, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, concludes the partnership of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Their contract was over with Universal and financial troubles damaged their friendship. Despite these three lousy flicks, however, there is tremendous re-watch value in much of their filmography, especially for fans of slapstick and wordplay. Monster lovers would be wise to seek out Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Hold That Ghost (considered among their finest).
by Vincent S. Hannam