In 1948, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello met Frankenstein (as well as the wolf man and Dracula, and point in fact, they don't meet Frankenstein, just his monster), and two flagging brands were revived. One of those was Universal horror, which had completely flatlined after 1945, as part of a more general fading of big studio horror in the post-WWII landscape. The other was Abbott & Costello themselves, coming off of a very rocky 1947, the worst year of their cinematic career to that point. Big hits breed imitation, and Universal's stable of horror characters was turned into parody fodder, dutifully hauled out every couple of years for Abbott & Costello to work through their shtick yet again; there was not a single halfway serious horror film made at the studio in the years 1946-1950, and it would be decades more before they decided to trot out any of their big monsters in any remotely serious capacity.

As for the revived comedy duo spent the next few years drifting in and out of horror pastiches (their whole career was really some kind of pastiche or another - war films, African adventure films, and so on), till their career took another, ultimately fatal dip in 1953. The first of these pastiches to follow Meet Frankenstein was 1949's bluntly-titled Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, about which we needn't concern ourselves now; I just really wanted to type all of that out. Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Ahhhh. Their third horror-comedy (and it is a gigantic stretch to suggest that's how we should describe it) came along in 1951: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, an enormous hit that implicitly followed right on the tail of Meet Frankenstein, which ended with the boys in a life boat with no less an invisible man sailing alongside them than Vincent Price himself, who'd played the role in 1940's The Invisible Man Returns. In fact, there turns out to be no continuity between Meet Frankenstein and Meet the Invisible Man at all, though astonishingly, there's very specific continuity between Meet the Invisible Man and 1933's series-originating The Invisible Man, whose star Claude Rains puts in a cameo as an oil painting of mad doctor John Griffin.

The plot of this one is an exorbitantly wide-ranging mishmash of like, everything: Bud and Lou (their actual onscreen names this time around, which makes things easier) have just graduated from detective school, and they get their first case in the form of a shadowy figure stalking through their offices in an Expressionistic sequence that comes amazingly close to actual horror. This turns out to be suspected murderer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a middleweight boxer accused of killing his manager; he's escape prison to find a pair of whip-smart private eyes to help clear his name. But Bud and Lou will have to suffice. Tommy, with his fiancΓ©e Helen Gray (Nancy Guild), throws himself on the mercy of her scientist uncle Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir), who has been working on refining the invisibility serum he inherited from the late Dr. Griffin. Seems like in the exact tradition of The Invisible Man Returns, Tommy wants to be made invisible to more safely investigate the frame-up, which of course tracks back to a gangster who had tried to pay Tommy to throw a fight. For at this time, there was only one plot that all the boxing movies had to share. Which this is now. A boxing movie. You perhaps thought it was still a horror parody.

Unsurprisingly, this is more of an Abbott and Costello movie than it is anything else: that's pretty much how these work. Though even there, perhaps I misspeak: it's better, maybe, to call this a Lou Costello movie more than anything else, since some of the best parts of the movie find him interacting with other straight men than his longtime partner (there's a scene with a police psychiatrist that's close to the best case scenario for what could be expected from an aging vaudevillian at the dawn of the 1950s). What turns out to be shocking is how thoughtfully this treats the equal and opposite needs of being a movie about an invisible man: it's never mocking the genre material, the way Meet Frankenstein (and the duo's execrable Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy four years after this) had done by poking fun at the hoary tropes of old-fashioned monster movies. It instead mines the comic possibilities that take advantage of having an invisible man in a broad comedy, first with the ancient "Lou is a scaredy cat, Bud thinks he's full of shit" material, and then turning considerably more interesting once the detectives officially team up with Tommy. This inevitably results in a scene where Lou has to pretend to be a boxer while Tommy actually fights, a scenario which I'd have greeted with stone-faced hostility if you described it to me in advance; and yet it's actually quite charming physical comedy, given sardonic heft by the presence of a character shocked that such a dopey ruse is actually working. It's at no point the equal of Universal's other full-comedy picture in the broadly-defined franchise, The Invisible Woman, but its best moments are only a little below Meet Frankenstein, which is more than a fair-minded person who have ever expected.

There are cost-cutting measures in place, including props and I believe even full effects shots re-used from The Invisible Man Returns (to go along with the recycled plot, presumably), and the days of really involved effects work are gone. That's for the best, probably. The driving notion of the film is that the invisible man is funny, or at least funny things can be done with him, not that he is impressive or scary, or in any way otherworldly (the film introduces the idea that that the invisibility serum can drive a person to madness, only to never pick it up a second time). It's hard to imagine the patter-based comedy of Abbott and Costello surviving all that well if the film had to make room for more complicated invisibility tricks than just some objects on wires or Franz's voice being overdubbed.

Compared to the best of the stars' vehicles, this lacks a bit for energy; the inevitable result of what was at that time a full decade glutted with Abbott and Costello movies, with the comics growing increasingly ossified into their rhythms. Nor did director Charles Lamont try very hard to push them; they tend to coast, Abbott especially - and I would hear repeat myself, that the best parts of the movie tend to involve Costello solo, or at least Costello against actors with whom he didn't have and extremely well-rehearsed repartee. Still, the film is good far more than it's bad: the weirdness of the scenario carries it over the rough spots, and the leads' comfort with the material is relaxing rather than irritating and unpleasant, as would happen in Meet the Mummy, for starters. It's not generally regarded as a classic in the way that Meet Frankenstein is, nor should it be, but it's enjoyable silly, and it manages to do right by both Abbott and Costello and the Invisible Man, something none of their other horror pastiches did with such ease or good-natured fun.

Reviews in this series
The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933)
The Invisible Man Returns (May, 1940)
The Invisible Woman (Sutherland, 1940)
Invisible Agent (Marin, 1942)
The Invisible Man's Revenge (Beebe, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (Lamont, 1951)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Lamont, 1955)