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Son of Franknestein (1939)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson

Written By: Wyllis Cooper Directed By: Rowland V. Lee

The Short Version

Universal Horror gets a second wind with this well-cast threequel.

Karloff takes his last turn as the Monster in a feature film.

Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill steal the show.

Son of Frankenstein is beautifully designed and beautifully filmed.

If you love old school horror, Son of Frankenstein is essential viewing.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GERMAN TILSIT.

An attempt to play a riff on Gouda (to create new life from spare parts?) instead resulted in this tangy cheese that tastes like it’s having an argument with itself (the taster wins) and which carries an odor that might make one think of the bubbling pit beneath Frankenstein’s laboratory.


Pairs Well With...

BRANDY.

“I’ve been working him pretty hard lately.  Perhaps he wanted to go out and get drunk.”

“Where is this monster?  Where is he?  I’ll stay by your side until you confess!  And if you don’t, I’ll feed you to the villagers like the Romans fed Christians to the lions!”

“I wouldn’t put it past you.  In the meantime, will you have a drink?  Or would you like to play darts?”


With a runtime of ninety-nine minutes, Son of Frankenstein is easily the longest film in the classic Universal horror catalog.  However, it’s not ninety-nine minutes of Tesla coils, pitchfork-wielding peasants, burning windmills, and chases through the woods, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you may be disappointed, and you’ll probably think that the movie’s both long and slow.  But if you’re mainly after an interesting story… well, that’s different, then.

Our tale picks up roughly twenty-five years after the events of Bride of Frankenstein.  Baron Henry von Frankenstein is dead, and has left his estate in Germany to his son, Wolf (Basil Rathbone, Tales of Terror), who has heretofore been pursuing an academic career elsewhere.    When the new Baron arrives to claim his heritage, however, he and his family are given the cold shoulder by the locals.  It seems they’re still sore over that monster his father loosed upon them back in the day.

Wolf, however, takes pride in his father’s memory, and considers the man a misunderstood genius.  He vows to rebuild his father’s crumbling laboratory, and as he’s inspecting the ruin, he finds the town outcast, Ygor (Bela Lugosi, White Zombie), lurking amongst the stones.    As it turns out, Ygor has a surprise for the new Baron: in a secret chamber below the lab, the old monster (Boris Karloff, The Terror) lies comatose, but very much alive.  If Wolf could heal the monster, perhaps then the world would see that Henry von Frankenstein was not a madman, but a genius, and the family’s name could be restored to its former glory!

Or perhaps the town’s population might just get thinned again when things go horribly wrong.  Place your bets…

Looking back from the following century, it seems impossible to believe that Universal almost gave up the horror business back in the mid-late 1930s.  Of course, modern businesspeople will recognize the phenomenon well enough: new management comes in, and they want to make their mark by changing everything, even if the changes don’t make sense.  That’s what happened at Universal.  But after a couple of years had passed, as modern businesspeople will also be quick to recognize, yet another new management team came in and decided to give the old formula that made the company so popular in the first place a go.  And so they green lit Son of Frankenstein.

Needless to say, it made scads of money, and Universal was officially back in the horror movie business.

Good call, really.

But even though the fact that this is a horror picture marks Universal’s returning to the well of past success as a production company, the story of Son of Frankenstein is a departure from the formula of the first two films in the series.  While easily recognizable as a Frankenstein movie, it doesn’t really focus on the monster or on the process of its restoration any more than it absolutely has to.  Even the inevitable rampage of the monster feels like it’s been watered down to a minimum.  (Was that a spoiler?  If so, I pity you.)  Instead, this film is driven by the obsessive desires of two of its characters, with the monster serving only as a pawn for either man.

First, of course, is the title character: Wolf, the son of Frankenstein.  His obsession is with restoring the good name of the father he barely knew, and when he finds the monster alive but unwell, he seizes the opportunity to continue the old Baron’s work.  However, there is a marked difference between Colin Clive’s Henry of the first two films and Basil Rathbone’s Wolf in this one.  Whereas Henry’s driving force was a passion for science and the thrill of attaining new levels of knowledge and understanding, Wolf’s is a much baser force: pride.  Indeed, for all of the blustering he does about his father’s work, it’s clear that he really doesn’t give a damn about the actual monster; for all Wolf cares, the monster could be a pocket watch.  It’s all about the family name, and the drama that obsession generates makes up for all of those missing pitchforks.  (All right; in theory, the pitchforks are still there, but they’re implied instead of shown, and there is a difference there.)

Because of this, I have to go against what would otherwise be my normal instinct and agree with the studio’s choice to replace Peter Lorre – who had been publicly announced as playing the title role – with Basil Rathbone at the last minute.  I love Peter Lorre’s work, but his is a quiet intensity that bubbles under the surface; a knife instead of a cannon.  Rathbone, however, brings a very different brand of intensity to the role: one that is electric, loud, and explosive.  This is especially apparent during the dialogue exchange quoted up top, wherein Rathbone delivers every line as a challenge with a voice raised like a fist.  It can also be seen during a moment with no spoken words wherein Wolf scratches out graffiti from his father’s crypt and adds his own, changing the accusation “Maker of Monsters” into the declaration “Maker of Men.”  I tried picturing Lorre there, and while I could do it, the effect was not the same.  Basil Rathbone was definitely the right choice for this role.

Outshining him, however – indeed, outshining everyone – is the great Bela Lugosi, who absolutely steals the show as Ygor.  On the surface, Ygor is a pathetic character, and it’s almost possible to miss that it’s Lugosi under the heavy makeup and through the false teeth that distort his voice even further than the gravel the actor gives it already does.  But then you see his eyes, and even without spotlights to shine in them, there’s just no mistaking those eyes.  Here, Lugosi truly shines as an actor, essentially creating a character from whole cloth as he goes and delivering on of the finest performances of his career along the way.  For Ygor is a dangerous schemer, and no one from the classic horror era can play the schemer like Lugosi can.  Even through all of that hideous makeup, Lugosi gives Ygor charm and charisma, and through his eyes, he lets that audience know that Ygor is far more intelligent than his outward-facing persona would suggest.  Whether he’s shambling across the floor or playing his horn at a window, when Ygor is on the screen, you watch him.

If you hadn’t already guessed, it is Ygor who is the second obsessive character using the monster as a pawn for his own purposes.  See, part of the reason that Bela Lugosi is hiding under such heavy makeup is because Ygor has a broken neck.  He got that broken neck after being sentenced to die by hanging.  The doctor pronounced him dead, but somehow, Ygor managed to come to again, and though the Burgomaster decreed him free to go since his sentence was lawfully carried out to its conclusion, Ygor harbors a grudge against the jurors who sentenced him to die in the first place.  As it so happens, Ygor is the only person the monster trusts – possibly because he sees the disfigured Ygor as a fellow monster – and Ygor takes advantage of that trust by using the monster as an instrument of vengeance to murder those jurors who sentenced him to die all those years ago.

If you think about it, not only do both Frankenstein and Ygor mean to use the monster as a pawn for their own purposes, but they’re even setting the monster against the exact same enemy: the townspeople.  Deep, isn’t it?

As for that pawn, as suggested above, his is a reasonably thankless turn this time around.  The injury that put the monster into a coma between movies also robbed him of the power of speech that he acquired in the second film, and his mute lumberings don’t carry the same sense of… well, monstrosity… as they did the first time around.  As such, the talents of Boris Karloff are almost wasted here, though it is definitely good to see him wearing the makeup again none the less, for it has never seemed quite right on any of the actors who would follow him.

Indeed, Karloff is not simply outshone by the other two leads; he’s even upstaged by one of the supporting players.  That would be Lionel Atwill (The Vampire Bat) as the tenacious, one-armed Inspector Krogh: the town constable who figures things out before anyone other than Ygor.  Most who comment on his performance look at it as humorous, and there is indeed some humor to be had here.  However, I primarily found him to be an excellent dramatic foil for Basil Rathbone who indeed carries the upper hand during their exchanges more often than not (no matter what the script says).  Atwill’s prim Prussian portrayal (say that seven times quickly) stops just short of caricature, and instead comes across as dignified and heroic in a story that otherwise has no real heroes to speak of.

Are there pitfalls to found here?  Of course there are.  Excellent though the characters and their interactions may be, the story often feels unpolished and bumpily paced, which one supposes is only natural given that the shooting script was written literally as it was being filmed, with the cast regularly being handed their freshly-penned lines only on the day they were meant to read them.  (It is said that this was done on purpose as an act of humanity by director Rowland V. Lee, who continually revised Willis Cooper’s screenplay to first insert and then continually update the part of Ygor, who wasn’t in the original draft at all.  This was done to keep Bela Lugosi on the set – and thus getting additional paychecks – for as long as possible, since Universal was otherwise trying to take unfair advantage of the financially strapped actor by paying him as little as they could.  Given how well the part of Ygor turned out, one can definitely say that Lee’s kindness paid incredible dividends, and Lugosi himself was very happy with the results on all fronts.)  For my own taste, the part of Wolf’s six-year-old son is given far too much prominence, and the film would have played more smoothly had the child been toned down a bit.  (A loud and innocent child just does not fit in a gothic horror setting, and let’s face it, he’s mainly there to be threatened; my regular readers have seen this rant before.)  But really, these sins are minor when set against the overall excellence of the film, and should not at all dissuade anyone from seeing Son of Frankenstein.

There’s also one more enticement for fans of the period: the production design includes some magnificent set pieces in the German Expressionist style of stark rooms and impossible angles.  But while the cameras capture these elements to wonderful advantage, they also manage to make them seem naturalistic, so that the exaggerated lines end up blending seamlessly with the more traditionally designed set pieces.  It’s a beautiful stylistic merger.  For those who appreciate the visual art side of movie going, Son of Frankenstein is definitely worth a peek.

Bottom line, Son of Frankenstein is a unique entry in classic Universal Horror catalog as a monster movie wherein the monster is really peripheral to everything else that’s going on.  It’s an approach that happens to work, and though Boris Karloff’s final feature performance as the monster is somewhat marginalized as a result, we do get one of Bela Lugosi’s finest performances instead, in the form of the hastily written-in Ygor.  At the end of the day, I’d call that more than a fair exchange.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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