70 Years of Cinema-1939: The Son of Frankenstein

8 Jul

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 THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (no rating–today it would probably be a PG) Directed by: Rowland V. Lee. Written by: Wyllis Cooper. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson. Cinematography: George Robinson Original music by: Frank Skinner

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I honestly can’t believe that I had never seen this until now. I imagine I would have gone on not seeing it too, if it weren’t for this little experiment. The weirdest part is, I’m a huge Frankenstein fan. I adore Shelly’s book, absolutely love  James Whales’ first two films (did a double feature of both back at Halloween) and have watched pretty much every other incarnation of the character. As a child I was enchanted by Karloff’s version of the monster; it was then, and still is, the only one that mattered. In the mid  80s there was a Philly(I think) station that used to run a Saturday evening double horror feature hosted by a guy called Dr. Morgus. Living in the boonies of Maryland, with a cheap attenna, somehow we managed to pick it up.  Any of you out there remember him? If so, check this out.

Morgus had all of the silly accoutrements; a sidekick named Chopsley, goofy teeth, a fright wig and a set that looked like a kid’s bedroom made over in a dungeon theme. Unlike some of his schlockier brethren who aired the bottom of the sci-fi and horror barrel, Morgus’ show played the classics; it was the place I was first introduced to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Tingler, The Wolf Man and the Hammer version of Frankenstein. It was like a monster buffet for a creature-loving kid in the 1980s. It provided the first spark, and Morgus and his cheap gimmick are responsible for this unhealthy monster crush I still harbor today. And yet, despite seeing The Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the completely forgettable Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, I managed to miss this one; the first sequel after Bride of Frankenstein and the last one to ever feature Boris Karloff as the monster.

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I’ve owned a copy of Son for awhile as part of  The Frankenstein Legacy Collection, which Universal released to cash-in on the monster mush that wasVan Helsing. And now, having finally watched Son of Frankenstein, I can understand why I assumed I had seen it for all those years. Because, in some sense, I  had.  Not only does this pic spend most of its time rehashing the basic plot of the first film( man revives monster, monster roams free, terrorizes cute child, fights creator) it also uses set design similar to the German Expressionism of the original. Whale had moved in a different direction in Bride, making everything more theatrical and Victorian Gothic, but Son digs up and dusts off everything memorable about the 34 Frankenstein and replicates it so effectively it sometimes feels like watching the same movie minus the energy the earlier film had. It also becomes clear that Mel Brooks’ wonderfully witty spoof Young Frankenstein is almost a blow by blow recreation of this one, with other characters (like The Bride) shuttled in from the first two. What original elements this movie did provide, like the introduction of the hunchback Ygor, have been processed so completely by pop culture that I think most of us assume they were present from the very beginning of the Frankenstein mythology, or at least the first feature film. So, it’s something of a task to get in the mindset where Son of Frankenstein has the opportunity to stand on its own. And once you get there, you realize that it really can’t.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t like the movie; in point of fact, there are alot of really good things going on here, not least of which is Bela Lugosi’s performance as the murderous assistant. But, this entry is so reliant upon the rest of the series for its power that entire chunks of its 99 minute running time (easily the longest of the three original films) are completely inert. Everyone spends time talking about what previously happened, the intentions and ambitions of earlier characters, and all of the malice and menace the monster has is simply a holdover from before. When something resembling an original plot begins to take shape– the hunchback wants the monster as his engine of revenge on the court system that hanged him–it quickly settles back down in time for a conclusion that feels trite and stale. Karloff is wasted as the monster, and the plot calls up all the right pieces and players but has no idea how to put them all together. So, Rowland Lee tries to use Whale’s work as a template, but forgets to bring the sense of humor and warm eccentricity that the director was so well known for.  It turns out to be a handsome looking movie with plenty of style to spare, but without a story worth telling. Son has clearly been cobbled together, like it’s protagonist, out of ill fitting parts that have a memory of their former selves but none of the intelligence. But, I am still glad I saw Son of Frankenstein, and I’m recommending it because it does have some tremendously bright spots, especially if you are a fan of Universal’s monster movies.

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The plot is almost entirely arbitrary, but in the early going it shows promise. Baron Henry Frankenstein has died and left his lavish estate and forboding castle to his son, Wolf (Basil Rathbone), who brings his wife and family to the remote location only to encounter two unwanted things his father left behind; the resentment  of the townfolk and the monster he made. It isn’t too long before Wolf, in an effort to clear his father’s dastardly reputation, begins picking about the remnants of his laboratory and discovers in the wreckage a vile and twisted man named Ygor(Bela Lugosi). He’s a creepy wretch who walks with a shuffling limp and a hunch.You see, he was found guilty of murder and hanged–only the rope eventually snapped and he managed to survive on in an demented state.  After the events of Bride, Ygor found the unconscious monster and brought him back to the  catacombs, where he reveals him to Wolf and convinces the man to pick up his father’s experiments. Heck, Wolf has it alot easier than Henry. He doesn’t even need to create life, just dump enough Red Bull back into this one to getting it going again. In the meantime Karloff lays there on the table, covered in enough makeup to choke Tammy Fay Baker and tries to look peaceful, serene and unconscious.

Once the creature is up and running, the movie takes off–for awhile. Karloff, Rathbone and Lugosi would make an interesting trio, but the script hasn’t written much interaction for them. Rathbone’s Wolf shares most of his best scenes with  Lionel Atwill as Krogh, the Burgomaster who lost his hand to the monster the last go round. Atwill would find himself sharing screentime with Rathbone later this same year in The Hound of the Baskervilles and it would prove to be the latter’s breakthrough performance. Which is just as well, because Basil Rathbone, a very engaging and charismatic screen presence in his own right, is just lost in this movie. His Sherlock Homes is probably the best version of the character anywhere, but Wolf Von Frankenstein is a milder, less kooky version of his father, Henry, and he doesn’t have the presence (I fault the writing and direction, not Rathbone) necessary to carry the film–which he needs since, unlike the other entries in the series, this one focuses not on the monster but the man.

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Karloff was the crown jewel of Frankenstein and Bride; he is the entire reason the series has found such an indelible place in the cultural zeitgeist. He brought beleagured humanity and soulless terror to his portrayal of the monster, and in the second film he added to it with the implication that this half-formed man was not only developing a sense of humor, but maybe a soul. Gone. All of that is gone here. When he finally is revived, (in a nod to the burgeoning genre of science fiction, we learn it was not the lightning but cosmic rays which did the trick) Karloff’s creation is just a mute brawler, staggering around menacingly and paving the way for the hulking brute that would feature in all later Universal pics.  And yet, Karloff is ever a professional and dedicated actor. He does all he can with what he has to work with, trying to embed any traces or glimpses of empathy and spark into this meager role. He mines entirely throwaway scenes for pathos when he can; at one point the creature has kidnapped Wolf’s son and the boy helps the goliath up a ladder and Karloff takes a moment to regard the child’s kindness before continuing along his sinister path.

So, consider me surprised and overjoyed to learn that the performance that saves the movie and lights up the screen is none other than the once lauded, and later discarded, Bela Lugosi. Despite having 30 some more credits to his name after this film, even playing Frankenstein’s monster in the later Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Lugosi would never have a role as strong as this, and in ten years time his star would be almost completely faded. He was then relegated to bottom barrel comedy sludge and dopey sci-fi pics, eventually landing in the company of one Eddie Wood Jr. and starring in some of the most gleefully awful films evern concieved. But here, as the villainous Ygor, Lugosi creates a character that endures, and he does what I imagine he probably always wanted to do; he acts circles around Karloff. It’s not only refreshing to see, its pretty darn entertaining.

Ygor is the real monster of the piece, and his physical appearance is menacing enough without adding in Lugosi’s toothy, hungry grin that just makes you want to pee your pants. He lurks in the shadows, and sizes people up with shifty sidelong glances, his twisted, fractured neck swinging back and forth like a watchful buzzard. Lugosi taunts Rathbone, orders around Karloff and, in one of the film’s most entertaining sequences he rebuffs an entire courtroom. He is a scoundrel, for sure, but he develops a kind of trickster’s charm. He has had time, skulking in the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, to grow clever and patient. When Ygor moves to execute his revenge, there is a sinister satisfaction that comes along with it. I don’t think Bela has ever had more fun, and if you want to know the truth, this is a better performance than even Dracula, which was essentially just a repeated set of mannerisms. Here, there is a living breathing man under all the grotesque makeup and exaggerated expressions. It’s top notch work, and it proves that Lugosi had the talent, even if his own private life and other factors sought to eventually rob him of it. If for no other reason than Lugosi, Son of Frankenstein is worth a look-see. 

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In the next installment of 70 Years of Cinema:1939, we will take a look at Bette Davis in Dark Victory. See you then.

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One Response to “70 Years of Cinema-1939: The Son of Frankenstein”

  1. fandangogroovers July 9, 2009 at 4:45 am #

    What you said “I’m a huge Frankenstein fan. I adore Shelly’s book, absolutely love James Whales’ first two films and have watched pretty much every other incarnation of the character” is the same for me but I have NEVER seen this film and I don’t know why. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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