Skelton Knaggs

This following is a guest post on SKELTON KNAGGS for the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON. The author is Bill Shaffer- President of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, recently retired as Director of KTWU for over 40 years, the go-to fella for anything happening in the “old movie realm” in this corner of the Sunflower State, a spaghetti western aficionado, and a helluva swell guy and personal friend…

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Skelton Knaggs is one of my favorite character actors because – wait a second! Skelton Knaggs? Who is that? Well, I often remember him as the creepy little guy in various 1940’s-era horror movies – three for Val Lewton’s unit at RKO and three more for Universal. However, the most famous bit I ever saw him in was as a menacing gunslinger hanging around Jane Russell’s hotel in Paramount’s terrific Bob Hope comedy, THE PALEFACE from 1948. One look at that face and hearing that voice like a rasping knife and he’s pretty hard to forget.

Knaggs was born in 1911 across the pond in the Hillsborough district of Sheffield, England. He moved to London where he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became a Shakespearean actor. Aside from doing the Shakespeare plays on stage, Knaggs appeared in a few British films including 1939’s Michael Powell production, THE SPY IN BLACK where he was cast as a German orderly. He quickly found his way to Los Angeles and began appearing in Hollywood films including TORTURE SHIP (also 1939) and DIAMOND FRONTIER (1941). He was often cast in sinister parts in horror films due to his diminutive and eccentric looks, his prominent teeth and his bony, pock-marked face. He didn’t have too many lines. One look at that face and you’ll remember him.

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His first association with producer Val Lewton was not a particularly good one, although the film, THE GHOST SHIP (1943) turned out to be one of his best. Knaggs played the part of a mute sailor who narrates the story even though he never speaks. This impressively suspenseful Lewton film was directed by Mark Robson, but it became the center of a plagiarism case in which the plaintiff won and all prints of the film had to be pulled from theaters. It sadly did not see the light of a movie or TV screen until the mid-1990’s. A stunning DVD version appeared in 2006, thanks to Warner Home Video. For Lewton, there were also performances in ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) and BEDLAM (1946), both with Boris Karloff. He also supported Karloff in DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (1947) and landed another part in DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (1946).

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For Universal, Knaggs had good bits in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944) with Vincent Price, the all-star monster mash, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) and the Sherlock Holmes thriller, TERROR BY NIGHT (1946). In between all of these genre productions, Knaggs also managed appearances in some top-rated films like NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1943) with Cary Grant, THE LODGER (1944) with Laird Cregor, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) with Hurd Hatfield and Donna Reed, FOREVER AMBER (1947) with Linda Darnell and the aforementioned PALEFACE (1948) with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.

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After MASTER MINDS in 1949 with the Bowery Boys, Knaggs returned to London where he married Thelma Crawshaw and then returned to Hollywood for a number of film performances. There was CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATOSPHERE, a 1951 serial for Columbia Pictures that ran for 15-chapters in as many weeks, BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE (1952) with Robert Newton, ROGUE’S MARCH (1953) with Peter Lawford and Richard Greene, BOTANY BAY (1953) with Alan Ladd, CASANOVA’S BIG NIGHT (1954) again with Bob Hope and finally, MOONFLEET in 1955, a period adventure film with Stewart Granger and James Mason. It was the final American film to be directed by German-emigre, Fritz Lang. It would be the last film for Skelton Knaggs. He was battling alcohol addiction and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 43 in Los Angeles.  

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This post is an entry in the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, as hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club and Kellee @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled. Follow up with all 3 days of this mega blogging event, Dec 14 – 16, 2018, for informative contributions!     

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Universal Monsters

Modern horror has gone through various subgenre influences from vampires, zombies, Japanese horror, slasher blood-and-gore, to ‘documentary style camera work’ (think Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity), with a slew of sequels plus parodies and a host of others. Those are okay, I guess. But what really does it for me are the Universal horror films or any classic horror comedy. The best of these were the Universal Horror films featuring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

The Frighteningly Funny Five:

ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the KILLER (1949)

ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the INVISIBLE MAN (1951)

ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE (1953)

ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

Note a pattern? With the success of its horror films that starred actors like Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Universal seized an opportunity to take this up a notch by adding the very popular comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello into the mix.

What makes good old-fashioned spookiness even better? When it’s funny too. What’s so comforting about watching Abbott and Costello bumble their ways through scary scenes is how relatable they are. Whether we are part rational cynic or part silly fraidy-cat, we love to watch these guys take on the icons of classic horror, perhaps just as we would.

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ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Bud and Lou are baggage handlers transporting horror museum cargo that is very little wax and a lot more real than either could ever imagine. Bela Lugosi reprises his most famous role as Dracula, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster. (With Vincent Price as the voice of the Invisible Man.)

Take a peek at this scene where Lou frightens the monster in a funny turn of tables…

There’s a surprising amount of action in this film compared to the pace of the original Universal horrors, when you mix all these characters in a scene. At every turn, Lou finds himself in the midst of a frightful and fiendish triangle. Bud finally comes around to believe him…

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ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the KILLER (1949)

After the huge success of “…MEET FRANKENSTEIN” Abbott and Costello, under the direction of their pal Charles T. Barton a second time, agreed to continue with this popular formula. This time, Boris Karloff made famous by his Universal Pictures roles as Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy, joined in on the fun as Swami Talpur. Lou Costello is Freddie Phillips, a hotel bungling bellboy accused of murder. While the Swami tries to coerce Freddie into a confession, others such as Bud Abbott as Casey Edwards, Mikel Conrad as Sargeant Stone, and James Flavin as Inspector Wellman attempt to sort it all out.

Swami: “Perhaps you should choose the manner of your death. How would you like to die?”

Freddie: “Old age.”

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ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the INVISIBLE MAN (1951)

Now into the 1950s with their third installment, with a new director of Charles Lamont, this film didn’t quite pack the star power punch as the first two. While the concept of turning invisible was a fun premise that is rife with comedic opportunities, the convoluted plot (it’s a boxing movie, it’s also a murder mystery and they just happen to stumble scross a recipe for invisibility) and lack of partnering with any big names (although you will likely recognize character actors like William Frawley and Nancy Guild) likely didn’t help matters. But in the end, the irony of Bud and Lou as inept private eyes is enough to keep you in stitches.

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ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE (1953)

The fellas are at it again as “Slim” and “Tubby”, with direction by Charles Lamont again, and Boris Karloff returns to join the whacky horror party… again. Karloff makes for a great tranformative Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The guys find themselves in familiar territory on the run through a house of horrors and across rooftops in chase.

Check out this fan trailer, which has been updated with contemporary music:

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ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

Bud and Lou return for a fifth time, with Charles Lamont in the director’s chair a third time. A mummy theme, an Egyptian cult and medallion, along with Marie Windsor as the commanding femme fatale in charge, this last of the ‘Abbott and Costello Meet…Universal horrors’ packs a campy punch. The gags and bits turn up at every corner with a lot of play on the ‘mummy’ theme.

Bud Abbott aka Peter Patterson: “I overheard Doctor Zoomer say he needed a couple of men to accompany his mummy back to the States.”

Lou Costello aka Freddie Franklin: “Is she afraid to travel by herself?” 

Bud Abbott aka Peter Patterson: “She? No, Lou. This mummy is a he. What’s wrong with that? Some mummies are men, some mummies are women.” 

Lou Costello aka Freddie Franklin: “Such a strange country.”

Bud Abbott aka Peter Patterson: “What’s strange about it Lou?”

Lou Costello aka Freddie Franklin: “Your mummy, your mummy. Wasn’t she a woman?” 

Bud Abbott aka Peter Patterson: “I never had a mummy.” 

Lou Costello aka Freddie Franklin: “What did your Father do? Win you in a crap game?”

Here’s a sampling, with the official trailer…

Some say these films of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meeting the Universal monsters are hokey and became progressively campier with each installment. But for me and millions of others, the ‘campiness’ mixed in with the hilarious lines and gags of this funny duo, along with the homage to those Universal horrors, make for beloved classics to enjoy, time and time again.

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*This article was my contribution to The Universal Blogathon, hosted by SILVER SCENES. Explore the full roster for all the talented and creative contributors.

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