powered by AFI
One of the most memorable amongst the signature horror films released by Universal Studios, Son of Frankenstein (1939) has the twin distinctions of giving Boris Karloff his last big-screen opportunity to assay the role of the patchwork creature that made him a household name, and appropriately giving a reviving jolt to a genre that had reached a cyclical nadir by the late '30s.
When Universal founder Carl Laemmle was ousted in a 1936 takeover of the studio, the new regime made no bones about its distaste for the gothic shockers like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) that had proven so lucrative in the past. Within two years, however, it was only the studio's financial statements that were bleeding red - and a reconfigured front office set out to reverse the trend.
In 1938, a struggling L.A. theater took a shot with a triple-bill of Dracula, Frankenstein and Son of Kong (1933), and wound up catering 21 hours a day to crowds that stretched around the block. Universal responded with a hugely successful national reissue of Dracula and Frankenstein, and by green-lighting a follow-up to Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Universal handed the director's reins to Rowland V. Lee, a recent arrival to the studio who had distinguished himself on sweeping costume dramas for Fox and RKO during the '30s. He made his first impact on the production by steering Universal from its plans to cast Peter Lorre as the heir to the Frankenstein legacy, and successfully lobbying for Basil Rathbone, whom he had directed in Love From A Stranger (1937). With Sherlock Holmes still in his future, the all-purpose villain Rathbone relished the opportunity to play a nominally heroic figure.
With Karloff's services as the Monster secured, and Lionel Atwill installed as the one-armed police inspector who'd been mauled by the creature as a boy, Lee needed a role for an already-committed Bela Lugosi. He and scenarist Willis Cooper expanded the role of Ygor, the broken-necked shepherd who had grave-robbed for the elder Frankenstein and become the sole companion for his creation. The powers-that-be at Universal sought to humble the horror-typed, struggling Lugosi by halving his salary and mandating that his scenes be shot in a week; an appalled Lee responded by keeping Bela on set for the duration of the shoot.
Lee's maverick posture didn't stop with his advocacy for Lugosi, either. While Universal initially allotted a modest $250,000 budget to the project, the director's demands to upgrade the effort - from testing for Technicolor to abandoning the original script on the eve of shooting - ultimately pushed Son of Frankenstein's final production tab to $420,000. It all reflects onscreen, as the imposing sets designed by studio art director Jack Otterson evoke the best of German expressionist filmmaking.
The performances sustain the film, as well. It's been argued that Lugosi had his best moments in film as the grotesque, gravel-voiced Ygor, shading the menace with disarmingly mordant wit ("Bone get stuck in my throat!"). Rathbone is earnest in his misguided efforts to redeem the family name by resuscitating the comatose monster, and Atwill's mannered use of his "prosthesis" displays the clever craft that underlay Kenneth Mars' inspired lampoon in Young Frankenstein (1974).
While Karloff made the most of the relatively limited screen time in which the Monster showed full consciousness, his reasons for refusing to reprise the role after Son of Frankenstein showed a great deal of prescience regarding the franchise's subsequent direction. "There was not much left in the character of the Monster to be developed; we had reached his limits," the star was quoted in Scott Allen Nollen's biography Boris Karloff (McFarland & Co.). "I saw that from here on, he would become rather an oafish prop, so to speak, in the last act or something like that, without any great stature."
Whatever private sentiments the Universal brass had regarding Lee's overruns would go unstated, as Son of Frankenstein went on to become a huge hit, and helped bolster Universal's then-record million dollar profit on its operations for 1939. Generations of genre fans would reap the benefits due to the career boosts for the films' principals and the studio's renewed commitment to its flagship properties.
Producer/Director: Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay: Wyllis Cooper, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Cinematography: George Robinson
Editing: Ted Kent
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein), Emma Dunn (Amelia), Edgar Norton (Thomas Benson).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg