Road to Xanadu: A Personal Reflection

Citizen Kane turns 75 this year. Our anniversary screening at the Pickwick Theatre on February 11 would’ve been more timely had the film actually been released in February, 1941, as it was originally intended. However, due to the controversy surrounding William Randolph Hearst– the film’s primary inspiration who carried great clout in Hollywood– the original release date was delayed until May, 1941. (See the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane for more on this aspect of its history.)

Our screening celebrates the legacy of what is widely acknowledged as the greatest movie in American cinema. Much has been written of Citizen Kane, and most of it by scholars far more knowledgeable on the subject than I. Instead of simply repeating information you can find elsewhere, I thought I’d say a few words as to how I came to discover this classic. (For those who are interested in the film’s fascinating production, I would highly recommend reading The Making of Citizen Kane by Robert L. Carringer, 1996.)

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My respect for Citizen Kane came later in life when I was already out of my teens. In fact, I knew about William Randolph Hearst before I had ever seen Citizen Kane. I vividly recall a trip in 1993 when I visited the Pacific Coast and toured Hearst Castle at San Simeon, the model for Kane’s Xanadu home. At San Simeon, I was aware of the Hearst connection to the Orson Welles film, but that was about it. I don’t even recall seeing Citizen Kane at Columbia College, but I do remember a screening of Welles’ follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

My first distinct memory of Citizen Kane was at the LaSalle Bank Theatre near Six Corners in Chicago. At that time in my life, there were other films I ranked higher, but I concede that my “Greatest Film of All-Time”– 1933’s King Kong— is more of a personal “favorite.” My History of Cinema teacher did point out to me that a little part of my beloved Kong is, in fact, in Citizen Kane. If you look closely at the Everglades scene in which Charles and Susan are encamped, you can clearly see backscreen projection of “birds” flying in the jungle. I was told this was from King Kong; however, I believe it’s actually from Son of Kong. (Either way, it’s one of the few times Welles used rear projection in Kane, and this particular footage was already available to him in the RKO library.)

A charcoal sketch of Xanadu by the great RKO matte artist Mario Larrinaga.
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When you grow up hearing repeatedly that such and such movie is the greatest, there is an inclination to go against the grain and seek alternatives, but all roads eventually lead back to Xanadu. That first theatrical screening at the LaSalle Theatre made an impression on me, but it only instilled a seed of appreciation that would develop in the years ahead with repeated viewings. The film is technically brilliant with an intricate storyline told in flashback chronicling the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon.

Park Ridge Classic Film hopes to preserve the film’s standing in the public consciousness that this is the greatest movie of all time. With each generation, there is a tendency to look for something else as I had done, perhaps it’s a film with a level of expression that speaks more to that generation. In the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) became the new Number One. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, a great film, but it’s not the groundbreaking film that Citizen Kane is. Fifty or a hundred years from now, will Kane even be in the Top 5?  Look at the unfortunate fate of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)– a film once hailed as the greatest motion picture, and today it’s been relegated to screenings in art museums with historians speaking of its importance only in hushed tones. Of course, the nation’s shift in attitudes towards race and politics adversely affected The Birth of a Nation‘s standing. But how will succeeding generations view Kane— with reverence or boredom?

Citizen Kane is pure cinema, and its camera techniques broke all the rules in 1941. The film was shot by the best cameraman in the business, but will modern audiences really understand what went into those great visuals? Even in its day, Citizen Kane was not a popular film for the general audiences; it did not do well at the box office. Regardless of receipts, Orson Welles was a true visionary in every sense. Filmmakers should look to him and study his films because, unlike the mass mediocrity of filmmakers today, Welles didn’t rely on gimmicks, pixels, or noise. He was a great illusionist who elevated the medium with his artistry.

A controversial connection to Hearst: the Marion Davies-inspired character of Susan Alexander. In reality, Marion Davies was a more talented comedienne than Susan was a singer.
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On the surface, the story of Charles Foster Kane would not appear to be “relevant” to a millennial. What was topical in 1941 is unfamiliar in 2015. How many young people even know who William Randolph Hearst was? But the point is that it doesn’t matter when you watch Citizen Kane. Irrespective of the movie’s character antecedents, Kane‘s themes remain relevant– its drama just as riveting. At its core, Kane is the story of a person whose ideals and innocence are crushed by the pursuit of power and wealth– a “root of all evil” moral that can be traced to passages in the Bible.

I’d like to see young people come out and enjoy the experience and appreciate the things that make the film unique. A lot has been said of Orson Welles producing the film at the age of 25, and that certainly is remarkable. It’s given young filmmakers hope that their celluloid dreams can materialize. But we should also realize that Welles knew nothing about making a Hollywood movie prior to arriving on the RKO lot. The greatness of Citizen Kane is that it was a collaborative process. Welles’ vision was the driving force, but without talents like cinematographer Gregg Toland or screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz or art director Perry Ferguson, Citizen Kane might never have gotten off the ground, or if it had, Welles might’ve floundered without those other talents helping him.

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One of the misconceptions the general public has is that Orson Welles never made anything as good after Kane, that his last years were spent in exile from Hollywood making low-budget independent movies that never came close to the quality of his first movie. This is not the case, and this point will be discussed by our special guest, producer Michael Dawson. Mr. Dawson is a Chicago area filmmaker who has worked on the restorations of Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1966). He is an authority on the life of Orson Welles and he will be speaking onstage before the movie.

Citizen Kane screens this Thursday night at 7:30 PM. It will be presented in a stunning 4K digital restoration.

~M.C.H.

Citizen Kane: 75th Anniversary

WHAT: Citizen Kane (1941) 75th anniversary screening
WHEN: February 11, 2016   7:30 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: Producer (and Orson Welles scholar) Michael Dawson will be our special guest; organist Jay Warren provides pre-show music at 7:00 PM
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors 60+ ($8/$6 advance)

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A Fistful of Spaghetti: GBU at 50

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Thank you to the 465 patrons who came out to support our 50th anniversary screening of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on January 7, 2016. The new restoration of Sergio Leone’s definitive “spaghetti Western” looked spectacular on the big screen! And we had a lot of fun presenting it.

Our ticket-taker Shannon with the hottest ticket in town.
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Our loyal fans, Lee & Dee!
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Jay Warren, back in the saddle…
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Host and Hostess
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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: 50th Anniversary

WHAT: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) 50th anniversary
NOTE: We will be screening the restored version on DCP (digital).
WHEN: January 7, 2016  7:00 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: Organist Jay Warren performs prelude music beginning at 6:30 PM
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 (seniors 60+) or $8/$6 (advance)

Texas, 1862: Three gunslingers with shifting loyalties– Clint Eastwood (the good), Lee Van Cleef (the bad), and Eli Wallach (the ugly)– are on the trail of a Confederate treasure. During their pursuit of the hidden gold, they get caught up in the turmoil of the Civil War.

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Director Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is one of the most anticipated films in our upcoming 2016 schedule. The Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series will be screening the film in honor of its 50th anniversary this year. Over the past fifty years, GBU‘s impact on pop culture and in film history, specifically its influence on contemporary filmmakers, has been profound. Quentin Tarantino, whose new film The Hateful Eight features a score by Ennio Morricone, has called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly his favorite film.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of three films directed by Sergio Leone that made an international star out of Clint Eastwood. It was their third collaboration following A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). GBU is the largest and most ambitious of Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy. Though the Italian Westerns– popularly known as “spaghetti Westerns”– had been around before A Fistful of Dollars, this subgenre of the Western is most associated with Sergio Leone. There would be hundreds of these European-made Westerns in the years to follow– a genre that would be internationally popular well into the 1970s before being supplanted by the martial arts film.

Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo
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Leone’s style is best exemplified by the opening shots in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a wide, semi-barren landscape which suddenly becomes a close-up of a tough-looking character. We see his point of view– a small town– and then we return to the close-ups of him and his partners on the move. The entire film features this pattern of panoramic compositions with intense close-ups. The opening scene is also a great example of Leone’s use of sound, which is a large part of the film’s effect. As was the custom in Italian cinema, all the sound effects were post-synched.

Leone made movies using an epic canvas, allowing his stories to play out at a leisurely pace– unlike modern cinema which fixates on fast edits. His scenes had their own pace, rhythm, and tone. It’s certainly a more brutal, realistic world than the Hollywood Westerns that had inspired Leone, but at their core, Leone’s protagonists– “The Man With No Name”– could be just as mythic.

“I think Sergio Leone will definitely be known as the man who invented the spaghetti Western. Personally, for my money, I think he is the greatest of all Italy’s filmmakers. I would even go as far as to say he is the greatest combination of film stylist– where he creates his own world– with the storyteller part of him as well. These two are almost never married.” ~ Quentin Tarantino

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Spain substitutes for the American West in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is a picture of America as seen through European eyes. Sergio Leone tried to make his depiction of American history as authentic as possible, having been influenced by the photographs of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. The scenes of war, which Leone claimed were inspired by a little-known skirmish in Texas, show the true spectacle of his vision. The film features large-scale battle sequences including a scene in which a disputed bridge is blown up. These sequences are essential to Leone’s theme, showing the larger violence and waste playing out around the three main characters.

Director Sergio Leone with star Clint Eastwood
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One of the most iconic images in cinema history– Clint Eastwood in his poncho.
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The great Italian composer Ennio Morricone scored The Good, the Bad and the Ugly– one of his most recognizable film scores in a career that has spanned seven decades and hundreds of films. Morricone is still going strong at the age of eighty-seven, having most recently contributed to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).

His score for GBU is one of the best in film history, from the coyote-like howl of its main title to the lyrical choral effects. Ennio Morricone’s method was to compose the themes first. His “Ecstasy of Gold,” which is heard during the climactic cemetery sequence, was written first before anything had been filmed. Leone then shot and edited the movie to conform with the rhythm of the score. It is truly one of the great examples of image and music working together.

Morricone said of this scene, “Those three minutes and twenty seconds are a cinematographic moment of enormous expressivity– but also great editing techniques, great camera techniques, and a great way to think out a scene. Also, I must say, the music did its part…”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is masterful filmmaking done on a large scale. Though critics at the time fixated on the film’s violence, they glossed over its great humanity. With his “Dollars” trilogy, Sergio Leone essentially reinvented the Western genre at a time when Hollywood Westerns had become tired and formulaic. Though he did not actually invent the Italian Western, the best of them begin and end with Sergio Leone. His influence can be seen in a whole generation of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and many others.

For more about Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling’s Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone (2005) is essential reading. Christopher Frayling also provided an outstanding audio commentary on the blu-ray version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

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A Night On the Town

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The Pickwick Theatre was the only venue in the Chicago area to honor Frank Sinatra’s Centennial this December. We are grateful to all those who came out to support our modest tribute to The Chairman. The weather that night was as warm as the audience response.

Thank you to radio host Steve Darnall for his onstage introduction to the music of Frank Sinatra, and to organist Jay Warren, who returned to perform some Christmas and Sinatra tunes on the Mighty Wurlitzer. We would also like to thank all those who entered our free drawing– and won some great prizes.

Hostess Allison holding Jay Warren’s new Christmas cd!
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Steve Darnall with his wife Meg before the movie…
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Signing up for email updates…
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Some of the prizes…
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Program Host Matthew Hoffman with the incomparable Jay Warren before the show…
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Giving stuff away!
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Start Spreading the News: The Frank Sinatra Centennial Comes to Park Ridge!

WHAT: On the Town (1949) on DCP **Frank Sinatra Centennial Event**
WHEN: December 10, 2015  7:30 PM (Doors open at 6:45 PM)
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: Organist Jay Warren will perform prelude music from 7:15-7:30 PM.
Radio Host Steve Darnall will be our guest to discuss the music of Frank Sinatra.
We will have a prize drawing for the new Sinatra documentary, All Or Nothing At All.
Also screening: Warner Bros. cartoon “Swooner Crooner” (1944)
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors, $8/$6 (advance tickets at main box office or online)

“We did try to make it, in a sense, somewhat more realistic than other musicals. It had a freer form to it, and it had the energy and youthfulness of the sailors in New York… Also, I think it had more musical numbers that came out of situations in the story than was usually the case.” ~ director Stanley Donen

Doing away with much of Leonard Bernstein’s original score, MGM’s movie version of the hit stage show still offers energetc Betty Comden/Adolph Green songs and the joyous “New York, New York.” For their first full directorial assignment, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly take it to the streets in this (unheard of in its day), on-location musical. Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin are three sailors yearning to see every sight, especially those in skirts, while on a twenty-four hour leave in New York City. Kelly is smitten by the subway’s “Miss Turnstiles” (Vera Ellen), Ann Miller gets Munshin, and Betty Garrett’s man-hungry hack carries away Sinatra– literally!

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Elvis Night at the Pickwick!

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Thank you to everyone who came out to our “Elvis Night” on November 12. We had another fun time at the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series!

Movie Hostess Allison with Program Host Matthew
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The winner of our Elvis gift basket, Colleen!
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Abbott & Costello Break Attendance Record!

“Hope all of you enjoy the screening of this A&C classic, by far the cult film of all their movies. Wish I could be here with you to see it on the big screen, but will be there in spirit… Keep the laughter flowing, and thank you for keeping the A&C legacy alive. Enjoy the film, and Happy Halloween. Chris Costello and the entire Costello family.”

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This past Thursday night (10/29/15), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein set a new attendance record for the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. Nearly 800 people (782) attended our screening, breaking the old record of 735 held by last season’s showing of Gone With the Wind. We are extremely grateful to all those who attended this Halloween event, especially the dozens of kids who came in costume.

Special thanks to Chris Costello, Lou Costello’s daughter, for the special introduction she sent us, our guest organist David Drazin, and our costume contest judges: Allison, Allie, and Elizabeth.

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The largest crowd we’ve ever seen came out for the antics of Bud and Lou…
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Parade of the ghouls…
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Starting the costume contest…
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Our First Place winner, Connor…
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Ringmaster Matthew with Movie Hostess Allison/Marilyn
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Morticia (Elizabeth)
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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein at the Pickwick Theatre

WHAT: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) on DCP
WHEN: October 29, 2015   7:30 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: “Shiver Me Timbers!” (Popeye, 1934)
Musician Dave Drazin will be performing pre-show music on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ beginning at 7:00 PM.
We will have a costume contest (with prizes) for kids 12 and under.
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors 60+ ($8/$6 advance tickets)

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“Frankenstein gave the Monster eternal life by shooting it full of electricity. Some people claim it is not dead even now– just dormant.”

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Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) are two baggage handlers who receive crates containing the remains of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). A stranger by the name of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) tries unsuccessfully by phone to warn Chick and Wilbur of the danger they are in. The crates are transported to McDougal’s House of Horrors where they are unloaded. The contents, however, are far from dead. Dracula and the Monster escape from the museum with the Count planning to restore the Monster. With the aid of Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), Dracula intends to give Frankenstein’s creation a new, pliable brain so that the Monster can be more easily controlled. The unsuspecting brain donor, however, is Wilbur. With the help of Talbot, the boys try to stop Dracula’s evil scheme.

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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is simply the greatest horror-comedy of all time. Besides being a top-notch comedy, it also works as a legitimate horror film with some genuinely chilling moments. It is this quality that separates it from other “spoofs” like Young Frankenstein. Besides being one of Abbott & Costello’s finest films, Meet Frankenstein serves as a wonderful homage to the great Universal monsters of the 1930s and 1940s.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is a film that remains an audience favorite. Comedy is a genre that works best when seen in a theatre; the crowd’s reactions to the movie are a good barometer of its strengths. Meet Frankenstein plays extremely well at theatrical screenings and always gets appropriate laughs from all ages. The film shows just how well Abbott & Costello performed in the horror genre. Who can forget Lou’s gasping terror, which only baffles Bud.

“What we need today is young blood– and brains.”
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The irony is that, for all its success, then and now, Meet Frankenstein was a film that Lou Costello did not want to make. Although Abbott & Costello had considered doing a Broadway show in the early 1940s using the Universal monster characters, Lou wanted no part of the film and was unhappy with the script, originally called The Brain of Frankenstein. Lou was eventually convinced to do it, however, by the fact that they would be working with their favorite director, Charles Barton.

Barton’s career in movies went back to the days of silent cinema where he performed as an actor at the age of 15. In later years, he worked as an assistant director for Paramount on such films as Island of Lost Souls and Monkey Business starring the Marx Brothers. Barton was no stranger to horror and comedy. By 1948, he had already directed Bud and Lou in The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, and The Noose Hangs High. His films stand out considerably from those of Charles Lamont, who directed most of the other Abbott & Costello films at Universal. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein features some of the most atmospheric lighting and camerawork (by cinematographer Charles Van Enger) ever seen in an Abbott & Costello film. (One early example is the mobile camera evident in the first scene at McDougal’s House of Horrors.) Perhaps the greatest benefit of Barton’s collaboration with A&C is that he got them to try things they wouldn’t have done for any other director.

Charles Barton: “Do you remember that pantomime scene where Lou sat in the Monster’s lap, and he got his hands mixed up with the Monster’s? Well, Lou didn’t want to do that. I had worked with (screenwriter) John Grant on that bit and when Lou read it he said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I said, ‘Well, if you just listen and try it, you’ll find out that it is beautiful.’ At first Lou didn’t understand it, but he finally became very enthusiastic. He just loved it. Well, we began shooting the scene and right in the middle of it, Glenn Strange started to laugh. And by God he couldn’t stop!” ~ Abbott & Costello in Hollywood (1991) by Bob Furmanek & Ron Palumbo

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Meet Frankenstein‘s cinematic qualities certainly add to its classic status, but the film is primarily remembered for its great cast. This was only Bela Lugosi’s second appearance as Dracula–he only got the part at the last minute by the insistence of his agent– yet he dominates with the old magic that had captivated audiences 17 years before in Dracula. Bela is commanding, and his delivery of his lines are some of the best moments. (It’s unfortunate that this would be his last film for a major studio.) Lon Chaney, Jr., reprises his role of the Wolf Man for the fifth and final time onscreen, once again projecting those qualities of anguish and torment associated with Lawrence Talbot, cinema’s patron saint of lycanthropy. Glenn Strange returns as the Frankenstein Monster, which he had played in the earlier House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. This time, Strange wore a more efficient makeup designed by Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan, which replaced the time-consuming process of the great Jack Pierce. And finally, for Abbott and Costello, this was their comeback film which restored them as box office champions.

Bud Abbott, the greatest straight man, and Lou Costello were experts at what they did, whether it was those methodical word games or the timing of their lines. Their appeal rested in the stage routines where it didn’t matter who the director was. They came from the burlesque tradition on stage and quickly became stars in radio and on film. They were the most popular comedy team until post-war America sought uninhibited, unhinged, and juvenile behavior in their entertainers. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein downplays the Abbott & Costello routines, and as a result, the two comics blend in more seamlessly with the plot. The film does feature the “moving candle” gag, which was a routine they had developed in vaudeville and used later in 1941’s Hold That Ghost– the first A&C film to combine comedy with horror.

Lenore Aubert, the film’s femme fatale, with the hypnotic Bela Lugosi.
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Lon Chaney, Jr. believed, in the years after the film’s release, that Abbott and Costello killed the horror genre. For Chaney, the sympathy that audiences had developed for these monsters was now gone. But time has proven otherwise. The quality of movies like House of Dracula did more to kill off the monsters than anything else. These later monster movies, made during the latter part of World War II, were B-movies cranked out mechanically and remembered today mainly out of nostalgia. By contrast, Meet Frankenstein is genuinely inspired and features a climax far more exciting than anything in either of the House pictures. Most importantly, the monsters play their roles straight and retain their dignity to the very end.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is the final curtain for the Universal monsters. It benefits from a great script, solid direction, atmospheric sets, a wonderful score by Frank Skinner, and a stellar cast of horror greats with two comics captured at their best. There are so many details and nuances that make this a rewarding film.

When this famous monster rally comes to the Pickwick Theatre on October 29, we’ll be presenting a film which has touched so many people at so many age levels. Its legacy, like the monsters themselves, is eternal and will go on for as long as movies exist.

~MCH

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Record Turnout for Season 3 Opener!

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Minutes before the show started, the line continued to stretch down the block!
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Nearly 600 people (598) attended our season opener last Thursday! It was a rainy weekday night, so we are very grateful to all those who came out to see North By Northwest!

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We were not featured in any newspaper– not even listed in the local papers– but thanks to our volunteers like Lena and Angelo (pictured) we had a tremendous turnout!
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Happy faces!
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Ever wonder what Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” might sound like on a Mighty Wurlitzer? (pictured: Jay Warren)
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Reminding fans to pick up their advance tickets before the next show.
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Program Host Matthew Hoffman with Movie Hostess Allison
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