Monday, March 5, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: (1)  *uncanny,* (2) marvelous

I chose to bracket these two Abbott and Costello films purely because these were the only A&C films to co-star the inimitable (though much-imitated) Boris Karloff. 

The first (whose posters expanded the title to read ...THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF) doesn't really depend all that much on the acting talent of Karloff.  The original plot for this typical murder-mystery comedy was written with Bob Hope in mind and was rewritten for Universal's comedy duo, as referenced in Wikipedia:

The role eventually played by Boris Karloff in the film was originally a female character named Madame Switzer in the final shooting script which was then titled, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killers. Five days before shooting, Karloff was hired and the character was changed to a swami.

It's unclear to me whether or not the original female character was meant to be a hypnotist, but if so this was certainly the best aspect of the script.  KILLER concerns a murder committed in a respectable hotel where Abbott works as a house detective and Costello as a bellboy.  Costello, always the goat in these films, has the misfortune to threaten the murder victim before the latter is found dead.  He becomes a suspect alongside several shady residents of the hotel, including Swami Talpur (Karloff) and Angela (Lenore Aubert).  It comes out that none of the other red-herrings are any more guilty of the murder than Costello, but as they're all desperate to keep the police from nosing around in their business, they make various attempts to set up Costello as the fall guy for the crime. 

As in her previous A&C outing, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, Aubert is sleekly attractive but she only has a few scenes.  Karloff's near-supernatural ability to hypnotize the hapless bellhop is the only memorable gimmick the film has, resulting in its best scene, in which the testy swami continually attempts to make the bellboy kill himself, which act he invarably bungles.  The comedy isn't overly funny here and the plot feels disjointed as a result of placing most of the narrative action on the other suspects, rather than on the real killer, who only becomes a menace to the hero late in the story.  There's a minor subplot with the customary "straight romantic couple" but it could have been dropped and no one would have noticed.

The "Boys'" third encounter with a classic movie-monster finds them cast as American cops transferred to London to study British police methods, which naturally extends to having the comics dress up as bobbies.  During that time several London scientists are killed, scientists who just happen to have critiqued the outrageous theories of Doctor Henry Jekyll (Karloff).  It turns out that the killer is the werewolvish-looking Mister Hyde, who can "hide" in plain sight by transforming into Doctor Jekyll.

All the usual Jekyll-and-Hyde mythology is thrown out the window here, in that this verison of Jekyll cares nothing about the "good and evil in man's soul."  He's just a standard mad scientist avenging himself on his enemies, and Karloff, who had played many such roles before, executes it again with customary professionalism, though the role gives him no opportunity for Karloff's usual humanizing touches.  The only exception to this appears near the end of the picture, when Jekyll reveals that he nurses an unholy passion for his own young ward (Helen Westcott).  In this ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essay I noted that liaisons between persons related only through a legal fiction should logically be called "legal incest," and I called attention to the "intensity" that the taboo aroused when the legality existed as opposed to similar situations where it did not.  I must admit that it seems strange to find even this sort of EDWIN DROOD-like form of incest in an Abbott and Costello picture, but it does make the film more psychologically diverting.

Overall the film has a more knockabout slapstick feel than KILLER.  Some reviewers didn't care for the inclusion of a largely unrelated plot about London suffragettes fighting for equality, but it does make for a good brawl, with "bobby" Costello taking a lot of punishment.  The very athletic Hyde is never played by Karloff, but by stunt actor Eddie Parker, and the script gives Parker some better-than-average fight-scenes.  The final joke, in which several cops imbibe the Jekyll serum and fill Scotland Yard with maniacal Hydes, is pretty silly even for A&C.

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