(7/10) Basil Rathbone is the son of Frankenstein who moves back to his father’s castle, only to find Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi hiding in the basement. The latter gives what is perhaps the performance of his lifetime in this visually stunning movie, which unfortunately treats Karloff’s classic monster with little respect.
Son of Frankenstein. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Wyllis Cooper, Rowland V. Lee. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan. Produced for Universal. IMDb: 7.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 91% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the Universal smash hit that wasn’t supposed to be made. In fact, Universal didn’t release any horror films in 1937 or 1938, mainly because of pressure from the PCA, Production Code Administration, set up in 1934 to enforce the infamous Hays Code in the US film industry. But happy coincidences and a new-found confidence in the genre made this semi-classic a reality, and once again kicked off a horrorfest in the States.
Plotwise the film sets up what would become the staple of the following B-class sequels to the Frankenstein franchise: A descendant of Henry Frankenstein happens upon the old monster and revives it, just to have it overtaken by some evil influence. The townsfolk of the poor, poor little European town once again rise up against the creature and the Frankenstein family, the monster turns on its master, and the old lab/castle goes down in flames, killing the monster until it is revived again in the next sequel.
This time it is Henry Frankenstein’s son, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) who returns to what was formerly known as the city of Ingolstadt, now renamed Frankenstein for some bizarre reason, as nobody there was very fond of the old baron (who wasn’t a baron in the first film and had no ”von” in his name in either of the predecessors). Henry (or Heinrich as his tomb says) has passed away, leaving Castle Frankenstein with all its belongings to Wolf von, his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). The townsfolk, led by the burgomaster (Lawrence Grant), give them no warm welcome, though, as they are certain that the ghost of either Frankenstein or his monster is haunting the town, as several strange murders have taken place during the past years.
Wolf is adamant that his father was a noble and wise man, whose great discovery was ruined by the old assistant Fritz who gave the creature the wrong brain (see Frankenstein, 1931, review), and the ignorant villagers who turned it into the monster it became. In his spartan, Expressionistic castle, he proudly salutes the gigantic portrait of his father.
When inspecting his father’s old, smashed laboratory, he encounters Ygor (Bela Lugosi), an old blacksmith and bodysnatcher of Henry’s, who has a broken neck and a crooked back. Ygor leads him to the monster, who has apparently been going about killing people at the command of Ygor. But after being hit by a falling tree, the creature (Boris Karloff again) is now in a coma.
Determined to carry on his father’s work and perfect that which went wrong, Wolf revives the creature with the help of Ygor and his servant Benson (Edgar Norton), and the monster rises again. Only, it seems, he has now lost the art of speech he acquired in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), and is completely under the control of Ygor, whom he seems to consider both friend and master. Ygor eventually turns on Frankenstein, and havoc is about to be wreaked.
Meanwhile, the stern and bullish police inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) and his wooden arm come sniffing around the new owners of castle Frankenstein – providing his assistance, should any dark secrets come to life, but also to deliver a not too subtle warning – in case any dark secrets be brought back to life. Krogh has personal issues with both the Frankensteins and the creature, since it was the monster who ripped his arm out of its socket when he was a boy, and thus ruining his chances of becoming a soldier. Nevertheless, he seems quite able to put his wooden arm to good use, when need arises – as when playing darts with Frankenstein or lighting a pipe. And of course, corpses soon start piling up in the little town, and it all leads up to a dramatic showdown at the lab, involving a bubbling sulphur pit with a monster on a ledge, and a heroic swashbuckle swing by a Frankenstein from a rope.
The backdrop for the film was a slump of the American horror industry, particularly noted in Universal, the standard bearer of horror films in the thirties. By 1936 the PCA had already intensified their crackdown on horror films, repeatedly sending scripts back for revisions. By the end of the year, when studio head and primary owner Carl Laemmle Jr. was more or less forced to sell the loss-ridden studio, the new owners ousted many of his closest allies. Junior Laemmle was responsible for almost single-handedly saving the studio from bankruptcy in 1931 with the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, but he was accused for mismanagement and for allowing too many pictures to go over budget.
It may seem curious that Universal dropped its most profitable franchise, though, but the fact was that Laemmle Jr had for the past years held firm against an onslaught of criticism from the censors, religious groups, parent groups and others, who protested against the horrors the studio was rolling out. The final nail in the coffin (hehe) seems to have been a reported ban on horror films in Great Britain – something that has been taken as a fact by many later scholars. Even noted film historians like David J. Skal have reported that Universal shut down their horror productions as a direct result of the British horror ban. But contrary to these reports, there was no actual ban on horror films in Britain in 1935.
What did happen was that the British censors started a rating system of U (for kiddie-friendly films) and A (for films which kids under 14 were recommended to see with an adult accompanying) in 1935. But this was no ban, nor did it have any legal binding. It was simply a recommendation, and theatre owners were allowed, and mostly happy to, allow children of all ages to see the ”A” rated films. There was also a pre-existing ”H” (horrific) rating (16+), introduced in 1933, and not after The Raven in 1935, as some would suggest. But this wasn’t legally binding either. There was no significant drop in horror movie attendance in Britain in neither 1935, nor 1936. On the contrary, the new ”adult” ratings seemed to encourage kids to see the ”forbidden” movies – and despite the fact that theatre owners and local authorities had the right to ban films or enforce age limits on them, very few did. In 1937 British authorities did however make the H rating legally binding – banning children under 16 from some films, but this was long after Universal had dropped their horror franchise. In fact, the British censors BBFC didn’t outright ban a single horror film between 1933 and 1941.
What actually happened was that the American studios had a hard time understanding the complicated censorship system in Britain, and so the PCA acted as a middleman. It was the PCA who discouraged the studious from making horror films, often citing ”the British ban on horror films”. The reasons scholars still cite this ban is probably because it was widely reported as such in American industry press, whose source was the same as the studio’s: the PCA.
But: in 1938 something happened. A nearly bankrupt movie theatre in Los Angeles pulled a desperate stunt by booking Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong (1933, review) as a triple bill – and it was a resounding success, that soon spread to other theatres across the country. This led Universal to re-release their “old” horror films to new and returning audiences, who ate them up. Seeing the tremendous feedback they got from the monsters, Universal decided to take their chances with the PCA and he protesters and mount a second Frankenstein sequel. Once again the PCA warned Universal specifically about ”the British ban”, but either the studio thought the film would make enough profits on the domestic market – or they had simply seen through the PCA:s bluff by this time.
By now, though, Mary Shelley’s book had been mined for all it could be mined for, and the studio called in screenwriter Wyllis Cooper to write a wholly original script. Cooper had by this time only worked on two screenplays for the popular detective stories of Mr. Moto and another little known film – but was famed for his late night horror radio show Lights Out. The Son of Frankenstein would remain his best known film, and similarly his last actual film screenplay. But this screenplay would not be what was finally shown on screen – more on that later.
Fortunately for Universal, Boris Karloff was along for the ride once more. As Wolf von Frankenstein Universal considered both Mr. Moto himself, the horror icon Peter Lorre, and The Invisible Man, Claude Rains, but both declined. The call then went out to Basil Rathbone, a handsome British actor with a flair for the dramatic and a very distinct voice, and something of a family resemblance to the original Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive. Rathbone had slowly worked his way up the career ladder for years, and had a knack for playing slightly unpleasant characters, and would often be seen in important supporting roles in swashbucklers and period dramas.
His final breakthrough into the A star list came 1938 in the role of Guy of Gisbourne in Michael Curtiz’ immensely popular The Adventures of Robin Hood – playing opposite Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and, incidentally, Claude Rains. Son of Frankenstein was his introduction to horror films, and he was able to demand top billing – above Boris Karloff, something unheard of in a Universal horror film. His next role was the one that would define him for all times: as Sherlock Holmes in Sidney Lanfield’s The Hound of Baskervilles – alongside two other horror icons: John Carradine and Lionel Atwill.
After previous successes, Universal wanted to team up Karloff with their other horror star, Bela Lugosi. The problem was that there wasn’t any suitable role for him in Cooper’s script, so under the guidance of director Rowland Lee, the filmmakers created the character of Ygor. Rowland V. Lee was a veteran of silent film, who had flourished in the sound era with successes like The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and would go on to direct the Charles Laughton vehicle Captain Kidd in 1945. For this film, though, he was interesting for having directed the horror/mystery thrillers The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu.
This was a time when Bela Lugosi was down on his luck, especially after Universal cancelled their horror franchise, and he was being pushed over in bit-parts in B movies and serials for minimal salaries. Rowland V. Lee was sympathetic to Lugosi’s plight, and was outraged when he learned that the studio would only be paying him 500 dollars a week for his work. He is reported to have said that for that salary, he would make damn sure that Lugosi was on set for every single day of production, so he could work up a decent paycheck. Said and done. From a character that wasn’t even in the script, Ygor became the real star of The Son of Frankenstein, as Lee and the production team rewrote the script as they went along.
The fourth cog in the wheel was Lionel Atwill, a staple in Universal horrors, known for his bullish demeanor and commanding presence. His performance as the eccentric one-armed police inspector became an instant classic, and it is difficult to imagine Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick weren’t inspired by it when they created the memorable titular character in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Atwill would return in The Ghost of Frankenstein (review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) and The House of Frankenstein (1944), and appeared in Man Made Monster (1941, review), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, review) and House of Dracula (1945, review). His career took a sharp turn for the worse in 1943 when he was sentenced for an “orgy” in his house, and was thereafter mostly shunned by all major studios.
Josephine Hutchinson had had a string of leading lady roles in a number of B films in the early thirties, but got her breakthrough in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur, starring opposite Paul Muni, who took home an Oscar for his role. She dropped out of acting in 1940, and when returning to film in 1945, was confined to supporting roles – but unlike many female actresses, she did get considerable screen time even after her youthful beauty had passed – most notably perhaps in the 1950 Cary Grant vehicle North by Northwest. In later years she appeared often as a guest star on numerous TV shows, including The Twilight Zone. In The Son of Frankenstein she holds up her part as Elsa von Frankenstein, but as usual in these films, she doesn’t get much to work with.
Donnie Dunagan as the Frankensteins’ son Peter is constantly annoying the way child actors often are. And for some reason, this son of a British father and a mother with a refined New York stage accent speaks with a broad southern drawl. Funny how things work out. He is perhaps best known for voicing the young Bambi in Disney’s 1942 classic.
The original bogey man, Dwight Frye, appears as a villager in the film. Michael Mark in a small role is an interesting character as he was used in four of Universal’s Frankenstein films in minor roles – each time a different one, and kept popping up in small roles in 120 films during his career, many of them horror and sci-fi. Interestingly enough, he appeared in three sci-fis during the golden age in the fifties – The Return of the Fly (1959), Phantom from Space (1953, review), and the much lambasted The Wasp Woman (1959).
The script for Son of Frankenstein does seem a bit cobbled together, and lacks the wit of previous instalments, although Lee manages to add a good deal of dry humour, best invested in the intellectual duels between inspector Krogh and Wolf von Frankenstein. The script tries to incorporate themes of father-son relations and fatherly responsibility, without being able to make much of it, since it is ultimately unrelated to the story revolving around the raising of the comatose monster and the fight against Ygor. The script isn’t bad, but is a bit too much all over the place, probably since the Ygor plotline was added on top of the already existing script.
However, Bela Lugosi’s is a wonderful portrait of the witty, deceitful old bodysnatcher, whose neck is horribly deformed from a botched hanging. Lugosi abandons his usual booming, commanding voice, and does the role in a hoarse, almost whispered voice, and takes full advantage of his famous accent, even sending it up a bit. This is a very different Lugosi from what we are used to seeing. Gone are all his usual mannerisms, and in place is a very sly, understated performance that many consider to be his best – it shows how mesmerising Lugosi could be at the top of his ability. Lugosi was eternally grateful to Rowland V. Lee for effectively giving him the lead in the film, a role which more or less re-ignited his career at a point when it was steadily going down the drain. Although there were very few good roles after this film, he did again receive a few prestigious parts on some of Universal’s productions, and it kept him working, mostly on Poverty Row throughout the first part of the forties, until his career collapsed under his substance abuse in the latter part of the decade, and his tragicomic Ed Wood period and rehab fame in the fifties. Ygor proved so popular that he returned in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and has forever been remembered as the name of Frankenstein’s lab assistant, although most people attribute it to Dwight Frye’s original assistant Fritz.
This would be Boris Karloff’s last (serious) portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, and with good reason. He and James Whale had fought for the creature’s integrity in the first two films, adamant to point out its humanity, loneliness and futile search for understanding, friendship and love. Karloff suffered through exhaustion, chronic back pain and endless makeup sessions to bring the fragility and emotions of the creature to the screen. Although he does he best to recall some of these elements in The Son of Frankenstein, the simple fact is that the creature has now been turned into a dumb brute. Despite Lee’s expressionistic filming, he isn’t able to conjure up the sense of danger and peril that the previous films lent the monster, and it isn’t helped by the fact that Karloff is decked out in a huge fur vest which makes him look fat. The creature is now merely a prop, and occasionally the butt of jokes – but with Karloff on board, it does still retain some dignity, which it would lose very quickly when Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi took over the role.
Despite his close relation with the horror genre, Basil Rathbone hated making horror films. He is such a good actor that he could play mad scientists in his sleep, and he does a reasonably good job on this film, treating the whole business with the same disdain he probably felt for the film. His acting ranges from uninterested to over the top, and both actually suit the film surprisingly well. He does lack the hypnotic energy and hysteria that made Colin Clive’s performance so iconic, though. There is always a sense that he really isn’t very interested in what’s happening – and in a way it is quite refreshing opposite all the scenery-chewing that’s going on around him. Despite appearing in quite a few horror films, Rathbone pretty much kept out of the sci-fi business. He did play the lead in Roger Corman’s cut-and-paste re-edit of the lovely Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur (1962), released in the US with new talking heads in 1965 as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet – at a time when he took any role on offer.
Lee has reclaimed the German expressionist style which Whale partly abandoned in The Bride, and the sets almost look like something out of Robert Wiene’s masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Prolific art director Jack Otterson with over 300 films and eight Oscar nominations to his credit has clearly taken this one for a spin. The exterior of the redesigned Frankenstein castle almost looks like something out of a Salvador Dalí painting, and the spartan, majestic interior is imaginatively designed, with help from set decorator Russell A. Gausman, who later won Oscars for his work on The Phantom of the Opera (1944) andKubrick’s Spartacus (1960) – and was nominated for 5 more. With over 700 films under his belt, I’m not going to start scanning his credits for the occasional sci-fi film.
This redesign does give the film a personality apart from the previous Frankenstein films, but when watching them all three in a short period of time, it also creates some disturbing inconsistencies. If we are indeed alluding to the old films, why does Castle Frankenstein look nothing like it did in the old films? Has the laboratory slid down the Alps, or why is it now located next to the castle, and why does it look like an observatory and not like a gothic tower? And wasn’t it completely reduced to rubble in The Bride? And why is the town now called Frankenstein, when clearly the townsfolk of Ingolstadt want nothing to do with the name? And when did Frankenstein have a body snatcher called Ygor? He clearly hasn’t made any new monsters since the previous body snatcher Karl died. And why is there a volcanic sulphur pit in Central Europe?
Another double-edged change is the way Wolf von Frankenstein takes modern technology like microscopes into the picture, analysing the monster’s blood and realising it is more or less immortal – and I could very well have lived without the notion that Henry Frankenstein drew not only on electricity but on ”cosmic rays” when bringing it to life. We’re not making The Invisible Ray (1936, review) here, folks.
The music by five-time Oscar nominee Frank Skinner is effective without being outstanding and cinematographer George Robinson does a good imitation of German expressionist lighting. Robinson worked on many of the Dracula/Frankenstein/Mummy films Universal churned out in the forties and fifties, as well as the B-movie classic Tarantula in 1955 (review). Brilliant Universal editor Ted J. Kent is back. Kent had edited The Invisible Man (1933, review), The Bride of Frankenstein and later worked on the last classic Universal monster film: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). Naturally one can’t leave out mentioning that the ultimate monster maker, makeup genius Jack Pierce is on board again, creating the truly disturbing look of Ygor and his broken neck. I still can’t stop wincing when Ygor taps his spine that’s protruding from the side of his neck. And a mention should also go to Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton, although the effects in the movie don’t quite add up to some of his previous work. Electric wizard Kenneth Strickfaden isn’t involved this time, but his spark generators and machines that go ZAP are still on display.
All in all, one leaves this film with a bit of mixed feelings. Lugosi and Atwill are superb, visually the film is striking, and Rathbone is always a good leading man, however bored he may be. But at over 90 minutes it is a lot longer than the usual 70 minute stretch these films normally last, and it does feel a bit too leisurely at times. The script lacks the philosophical undercurrents of the film’s predecessors, as well as the wit. One truly feels sorry for Boris Karloff, who sees the multifaceted tragic monster he created reduced to a bumbling idiot of a prop. On the other hand it is well filmed and the design is stunning and Son of Frankenstein is undeniably entertaining. If we mourn the loss of our monster, we can instead rejoice for the creation of Ygor, whom we must add to the list of legendary Universal ”monsters” – since Bela Lugosi’s and Jack Pierce’s work is no less impressive than the one Pierce and Lon Chaney Jr. did with The Wolf Man in 1941.
At the time of the film’s release The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther gave it a positive, albeit tongue-in-cheek review, writing “Imagine, if you can, a picture so tough that Basil Rathbone plays a sympathetic part in it, so mean you feel sorry for Lionel Atwill, so ghastly that Bela Lugosi is only an assistant bogyman. If you can imagine all this, then it is possible that you may have a pale, partial conception of Frankenstein, fils.” Variety wrote that the film was “well mounted, nicely directed, and includes [a] cast of capable artists”, while Monthly Film Bulletin noted that for a film “of its kind, however, the production is good and of a high technical quality”.
Modern reviewers almost unanimously gives Son of Frankenstein 3-4/5 stars. There are dissenting voices. Andrew Wickliffe, who’s becoming my go-to guy when I need a negative view on something most people like, calls the film a “mostly missed opportunity. At The Stop Button Wickliffe writes: “For everything good, there’s something significantly wrong with it. The script is good, director Lee doesn’t direct actors well. The German Expressionist-influenced sets are great, Lee shoots it so stagy, the sets go to waste.” Etc. Another nay-sayer is Andreas Hallgren at Swedish russin.nu, who gives the film a mere 2/5 stars. Hallgren also uses the word “verbocentric” when he means “talky”. At the other end of the spectrum is Richard Gilliam at AllMovie, who gives Son of Frankenstein a whopping 4,5/5 stars. Gilliam writes: “Son of Frankenstein is unusual because it maintains its quality despite being the third film in a series, and despite a change in directors. While Roland V. Lee was hardly in the league of predecessor James Whale, he was an above average director who could do good work with the proper material and resources. Here he has a strong story, fine inherited production motifs, and an excellent cast”.
According to Derek Winnert the film “may be slightly slower and more restrained – and less well known – than the two previous films but it is almost just as powerful and enjoyable”. Lisa Marie Bowman at Through the Shattered Lens calls it “a pretty good movie, one that holds up as both a sequel and stand-alone work”, and the sentiment is echoed by Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings, who writes: “it’s not the equal of the first two movies, but it’s still pretty good”. Nate Yapp at Classic-Horror.com writes: “Although the wit of James Whale is sorely missed, Rowland V. Lee brings a quality of his own to the movie, making it as much a necessity to the genre as Bride of Frankenstein.” Sergey Bereshnoy at Russian Bzglyad iz Dyozei writes: “The film is almost completely devoid of the drama of Whale’s works, but Lugosi’s rich portrayal and very good work by Karloff, Rathbone and Atwill saves it, as does perhaps the stylish scenery. Thanks to all this, the picture still remains in good standing.” And French Films Fantastiques concludes that “this third instalment largely exceeds its status of servile sequel to become a new classic of the genre”.
There is a lot of love for Son of Frankenstein among Universal horror fans, and, in my opinion, not without cause. It is a stunningly beautiful and unnerving movie, it’s dark comedy is well balanced with the horror elements and it contains some great acting. But story-wise it can’t hold a candle to its predecessors.
The Son of Frankenstein. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Wyllis Cooper, Rowland V. Lee (uncredited). Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan, Emma Dunn, Edgar Norton, Perry Ivins, Lawrence Grant, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Michael Mark, Caroline Frances Cooke, Gustav von Seyffertits, Lorimer Johnston, Tom Ricketts, Ward Bond. Music: Frank Skinner. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Jack Otterson, Russell A. Gausman. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Special effects: John P. Fulton. Costume design: Vera West, Sound: Bernard B. Brown.William Hedgcock. Produced for Universal. Notable for: The last decent Frankenstein film. Fun fact: Dwight Frye appears as an extra.