Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Hallowe’en: Son of Frankenstein (“The New Universal,” 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the 1939 Son of Frankenstein, number three in the Universal series of Frankenstein films and, at 99 minutes, the longest of Universal’s English-language horror films in their classic period. (The Spanish version of Dracula is about five minutes longer, mainly because — surprisingly — censorship was less stringent in Latin America and they were able to restore quite a lot of the original play that had to be cut from the English version.) With James Whale having left Universal in disgrace (though he would come slinking back the following year for his last completed film, the ridiculous Green Hell), Universal brought in Rowland V. Lee to direct — a semi-major name whose career had been spent elsewhere, mostly at Fox, and who was not known as a horror specialist. They were clearly going for a prestige product here, including contemplating the use of Technicolor (they shot color tests for the film and a reel of them surfaced in the Universal vaults in the 1980’s, only to be stolen from the desk of the Universal executive who had had possession of them; interestingly, one rumor current in the 1970’s was that the film had been shot in Technicolor but the color negative had burned up just before the film was scheduled to be printed and only a black-and-white version remained, so Universal released that — as things turned out Universal wouldn’t make an entire film in the three-strip Technicolor process until Arabian Nights, three years later), hiring a number of the big names in the horror field (Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill) and spending a decent-sized budget on quite formidable sets, credited to Universal art department head Jack Otterson but more likely designed by the named “associate,” Richard H. Riedel. Universal ballyhooed them as “psychological sets,” specifically designed to give the viewer a feeling of dread which would only be added to by whatever the actors were doing on them, though watching the Frankenstein movies in sequence one finds oneself wondering why the Castle Frankenstein looks so different than it did in Charles Hall’s sets for Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. 

Though Willis Cooper (whose first name for some reason is spelled “Wyllis” in’s entry on the film even though “Willis” is the spelling on his credit) got sole credit for the screenplay, it apparently was a collective product among several anonymous scribes on the lot and Cooper’s first draft did not include Lugosi’s character Ygor (that’s how it’s spelled in the credits), who stole bodies (“ … they say,” he explains) and was hanged but survived the noose (though he developed a stiff neck and a hunchback) and, having already been declared legally dead, couldn’t be tried again for anything else he might have done. (The politicians running this town — which, in yet another of the maddening inconsistencies that plague this series, has changed its name from “Goldstadt” to “Frankenstein” before becoming “Vasaria” in later episodes — are a grand bunch of doofuses wearing such ridiculous headgear Charles wondered why the Frankenstein City Council meetings looked like a Shriners’ convention.) The big problem in reviving the Frankenstein monster again and again was figuring out how he had survived whatever cataclysm the screenwriters for the immediately previous film had devised to kill him and what he had been doing in the meantime. Willis Cooper’s solution was to have had the monster survive the blast at the end of Bride, albeit in a weakened state and no longer having the ability to talk (there was a whole message board on coming up with fanciful explanations for why the monster had lost the power of speech, but the most likely one is simply that Boris Karloff, who had objected to the monster speaking in Bride, probably wouldn’t do the film unless they made the character mute again). He’s been befriended by Ygor, who being a Bela Lugosi character has the power to hypnotize over long distances (and who plays a somber-sounding and even more somber-looking metal horn as a means of controlling the monster, sort of like a snake charmer), and is discovered when Henry Frankenstein’s son Wolf (Basil Rathbone, top-billed — of his three movies as the monster Bride was the only one in which Karloff got top billing) returns to his ancestral home with his American (but British-sounding) wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (the disgusting child actor Donnie Dunagan — after Shirley Temple’s great success every child in Hollywood, of either gender, was compelled to imitate her cloying cuteness) to carry on with his own experiments and, of course, he gets bitten by the Frankenstein bug and decides to revivify the monster after working out his own theory of how the creature works. 

The film plods along — it probably could have been 20 minutes shorter — with little of the humanity of the monster in the James Whale movies (the closest we get is when the monster is entranced by a coloring book of fairy stories he’s stolen from little Peter) and none of the dazzling imaginativeness with which Whale and his writers (especially John Balderston) used the Frankenstein story to challenge conventional notions of religion, sexuality and morality. There’s nothing really wrong with Son of Frankenstein — it’s a solid genre piece, tastefully made, richly photographed, generally well acted (though Rathbone can’t do the moral dilemma as well as Colin Clive did, at least he’s sufficiently well schooled in neurotic mania he can pull off that part of his character, and Josephine Hutchinson is simply a blank) and mostly done justice in this DVD transfer (though when Rathbone sees the graffito which has been scrawled on his dad’s coffin — “Maker of Monsters” — and crosses out “Monsters” and writes in “Men” with the burning end of a torch, the transfer is too dark to make out the key word) — except that it’s the follow-up to James Whale’s masterpieces and it suffers from the inevitable comparison. Karloff, who’d objected to the monster speaking in Bride (a real pity; frankly, I wish William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston had taken that even farther and given Karloff some of Mary Shelley’s utterly heartbreaking dialogue from the monster’s narrative in the book), was upset this time around that instead of having him wear the same costume as he had in the first two films, he was dressed this time in a fur tunic that looked like Lugosi’s character had made it up for him out of carpet samples. After Son he gave up playing the monster[1] (when he returned to the series three films later, in House of Frankenstein, he played a mad scientist who was supposedly the brother of Dwight Frye’s character in the first Frankenstein) because he thought the character was being turned into a joke, a gigantic prop with no real sense of development or depth (and he was right), though Glenn Strange, who did play the monster in House, recalled Karloff generously coaching him through the role and in particular giving him pointers on how to do the walk (deliciously imitated by Donnie Dunagan in the one generally entertaining part of his otherwise insufferable performance). — 10/29/07


Charles had expressed interest in watching a classic horror film on Hallowe’en eve, and since he’d recently located an online source for the trailer to the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein ( I thought we might watch the entire movie. We’d last seen Son as part of a special Hallowe’en celebration in 2007 during which we’d shown ourselves the entire Universal Frankenstein cycle — minus the eighth and last, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which Universal Home Video hasn’t included in the horror boxes but which we got later as part of Universal’s complete Abbott and Costello boxed set (all 28 films they made for Universal plus a couple of later compilations). When the Laemmle family lost control of Universal in 1936 the people who took it over after them, J. Cheever Cowdin and Charles Rogers, decided horror films were passé and concentrated on musicals with the studio’s newest and biggest star, Deanna Durbin. They ran out the contracts of James Whale (with three “B”’s) and Boris Karloff (with the intriguing drama Night Key) and canceled all future horror projects after the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter. Then in 1938 an enterprising Los Angeles theatre owner got hold of prints of the original Dracula and Frankenstein and ran them as a double bill, creatively advertising a special rate if you dared to see them after midnight. The showings did so well that Universal released them as a double-bill nationwide and the films did better than they had on the original releases in 1931.

Of course, they also decided to make new ones, starting with Son of Frankenstein, the biggest-budgeted and longest (at 99 minutes) film in the entire Universal Frankenstein cycle. They hired an outside director, Rowland V. Lee, an all-arounder rather than a horror specialist, and they brought in four luminaries to head the cast: Basil Rathbone as the title character, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who inherits both the Castle Frankenstein and the monster-making bug from his dad Heinrich (played by Colin Clive in the first two films in the sequence, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein); Boris Karloff as the Monster; Bela Lugosi as Ygor, a hunchback who survived being hanged because “I stole bodies … they said,” and who’s using the Monster as his instrument to kill all eight jurors who convicted him of whatever it was they said he did; and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, a police officer whose boyhood ambition to serve in the military was dashed when the Monster literally tore out his arm from the roots (and Atwill’s delivery of his lines when he explains this to Wolf is chillingly effective and authoritative, showing that in his own way he was just as good an actor as the three billed ahead of him even though they were listed above the title and Atwill was below it). Karloff played the Monster in three films, of which this was the last — he was billed fourth in Frankenstein, first in Bride and second here — and not only did Universal plot a long running time for this movie and bring in an outside director, they at least briefly planned to shoot the film in color. A reel of color tests surfaced in the 1980’s but almost as soon as it was found, it disappeared again, stolen from the desk of the Universal executive who had possession of it. Son of Frankenstein is a problematical film because it’s quite good on its own merits but suffers by comparison to the preceding two masterpieces in the cycle, both directed by James Whale — compared to Whale, Lee is just too damned serious; there are very few of the flashes of humanity and sympathy Whale and his writer, John L. Balderston, gave their version of the Monster (about the only one is the Monster’s fascination with a children’s book of fairy tales the Monster steals from Wolf’s son Peter, played by Donnie Dunagan with the disgusting sort of cloying, saccharine cuteness Shirley Temple’s great success had made de rigueur for child actors of both genders in Hollywood in the 1930’s).

The screenwriter was Willis Cooper (for some reason gives his first name as “Wyllis,” but I’ve never seen him billed that way in any actual credits), and though he’s the only one credited the script certainly seems as if it was written by a committee. According to, Cooper’s first draft did not include the character of Ygor, and he was added largely because someone at Universal realized the cash-poor Lugosi would be willing to take a role at the low-ball salary of $500 per week — and when director Lee heard how little Lugosi was getting, he ordered Cooper to write more scenes for him so Lugosi could at least be making that $500 per week a bit longer. Another odd change Universal made was that, even though the bulk of the film supposedly takes place in the same Castle Frankenstein as the first two films, by this time Charles Hall had been replaced as head of Universal’s set design department by Jack Otterson, and he and his associate Richard Riedel (more likely, given the way these credits were usually apportioned, the “associate” actually did all or most of the set design) threw out all Hall’s sets for the castle and instead went for a starker, more Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque look which Otterson, in an interview he gave at the time, called “psychological sets,” meant to instill a feeling of terror and fear in the audience regardless of what the actors were doing within them. Scenarist Cooper also changed the name of the town in which the Frankensteins lived from “Goldstadt” (in Mary Shelley’s original novel, which fixed the national setting as Switzerland and used real Swiss place names, it was “Ingolstadt”) to “Frankenstein” (in later films in the cycle it was “Vasaria,” though it’s possible the Frankenstein City Council, accepting Wolf’s deed of the castle and the Frankenstein properties to them at the end of this film, decided to change the name to end the town’s horrific associations with Frankenstein and his creation). Son of Frankenstein is a well-produced movie, though as part of the cycle it pales by comparison to Frankenstein and especially Bride; on its own it’s a bit better even though Basil Rathbone, an excellent and authoritative actor, seems a bit too reserved to portray a scientist who goes mad as he exults over the power of his dad’s creation; towards the end, all he can do is raise the pitch of his voice to a level that makes it sound like he sucked helium before each take. Rathbone was best as Sherlock Holmes and in fully rational villain roles like Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood.

Karloff resented the fact that his costume was changed from the first two films — he was dressed in a fur tunic that made him look like Lugosi’s character had found a carpet sample somewhere and draped it over him — and he agreed to do the film only after Cooper assured him that the Monster would be non-verbal this time (for some reason Karloff felt that giving the Monster the ability to speak in Bride had weakened the appeal of the character — I think quite the opposite was true; one of the great cultural tragedies is no one thought to record an audio book of Mary Shelley’s novel with Karloff reading it; one aches to hear what that great voice could have done with it, especially the chapters the Monster narrates!) — and he acquits himself well but he quit the part after Son because he realized the Monster was being turned into a giant animate prop and any possible sympathy for the character was being written out of the scripts. Lugosi’s character is haunting — when he plays that weird instrument to summon the Monster I couldn’t help but remember that in 1939 Rathbone also made The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which also features an obsessed madman who plays a weird horn — but he was more effective when his characters had a façade of nobility to them (Dracula, Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue, Murder Legendre in White Zombie, Bill Chandler a.k.a Chandu in The Return of Chandu, and his marvelous comic performance as General Petronovich in International House). Son of Frankenstein is the sort of movie that makes you want to pat the filmmakers on the back and say, “Nice try” — it’s entertaining, even though too long for its own good (there’s a reason the New Universal went back to a 67-minute running time for the next film in the cycle, The Ghost of Frankenstein) and a bit too stately to be as frightening as they intended. Still, aided by George Robinson’s vividly chiaroscuro cinematography and Frank Skinner’s score (though bolstered by some recycling of the themes Franz Waxman had composed for the even more awesome score for Bride!), Son of Frankenstein creates an appropriately sinister mood and is far better than the awful gore-fests that pass for “horror” these days! — 10/31/16

[1] — At least in feature films; an “Trivia” commentator wrote, “In August of 1940, he appeared as the Monster in a celebrity baseball game, with Jack Pierce in attendance (Pierce was a coach for an amateur baseball team, and played semi-pro when he was younger). In the next Frankenstein film Karloff appeared in, House of Frankenstein (1944), he played Dr. Gustav Niemann. In the Allied Artists film Frankenstein — 1970 (1958), he was an elderly Baron Frankenstein— but the twist ending was the revelation that the Baron had re-created the Monster’s face in his own image (i.e., the face of Karloff). The last time Karloff donned the Jack Pierce-style monster makeup was in the ‘Lizards’ Leg and Owlet Wing’ episode of ‘Route 66’ [in which Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared playing his father’s trademark role of the Hunchback of Notre Dame]. Thus, he played the ‘Monster’ six times in his career.