Sunday, September 27, 2015

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee                                 Writer: Willis Cooper
Film Score: Frank Skinner                               Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill

While it’s much more convenient to date Universal’s second great horror cycle from the birth of their wholly original monster, Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man, the first of their highly successful vehicles produced during World War Two, the reality is the return to major horror film production began two years earlier with the third installment of their Frankenstein series, Son of Frankenstein. For some modern audiences it may be difficult to overcome the associations with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, as he used many of the set pieces of this film for his comedy send up. But despite a clear separation from the early work at the studio in terms of quality, and some poor choices in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking, the presence of Lugosi and Atwill--and to a lesser extent Karloff and Rathbone--raise the quality of this film above much of what would come later in the monster rally films of the next decade. The first thing one notices here is the overt Expressionism of the film, though artificially so, and therefore the original Frankenstein by James Whale remains the most genuinely expressionistic of all the series. And while that aspect of the set design seems forced most of the time, Jack Otterson combined it with a sort of minimalist approach that is impressive in its own right and remains one of the most memorable aspects of the production.

The film begins with a shot of Frankenstein’s castle, boarded up and guarded, with Bela Lugosi as Ygor peaking out from a broken window above the gate. Meanwhile the leaders of the town argue amongst themselves about the return of Frankenstein’s son, Basil Rathbone, and what that might mean for them. The chief constable, Lionel Atwill, is against it. As Rathbone and his wife, Josephine Hutchinson, arrive by train with their small son, Donnie Dunagan, Rathbone recounts the wrongs done to his father by the villagers, including the fact that most people refer to the monster as Frankenstein. After a chilly reception by the villagers at the train station, Atwill meets Rathbone at his home and tells him of having his arm ripped out by the monster, as well as of the six unexplained deaths that occurred since the death of Rathbone’s father. Visiting the ruins of the laboratory the next morning Rathbone meets Lugosi, who leads him to a hidden chamber containing Karloff as the monster. Rathbone agrees to bring him back to life, but when the village senses what’s going on they bring in Lugosi for questioning. Of course, he tells them nothing. Rathbone is enchanted with the idea of continuing his father’s work. Things get complicated, however, when on restoring the monster’s life Rathbone discovers that Karloff is loyal only to Lugosi who wants to use the monster for revenge rather than scientific study.

This was Karloff’s third portrayal of the monster and it is vastly inferior to the first two with James Whale. Karloff had been unhappy with the fact that the monster had talked in the second film, Bride of Frankenstein, and so he wielded his clout on this picture and kept him mute. He was obviously trying to get back to his original interpretation, but unfortunately it simply began the trend of the grunting behemoth that would inform the portrayal of the monster right through the Hammer years and into public consciousness forever. In addition, his face is full and fleshed out and his costume has him bulked out like a hulking giant rather than the cadaverous monster of the original. Bela Lugosi was justifiably proud of his role as Ygor, and though it doesn’t necessarily hold up today, it was enough to have his part resurrected for the next film in the series, Ghost of Frankenstein with Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster. Lionel Atwill is the real star of the show, and is a tremendous onscreen presence as the inspector who curries favor with Rathbone in order to stay close to him and discover the truth. Rathbone is tremendous at the beginning of the film, but his near mental breakdown at the end strains credulity as he comes unglued while attempting to keep the secret from Atwill. American Josephine Hutchinson is rather forgettable as Rathbone’s wife, though the young Donnie Dunagan does a decent job as their son.

At this point in his career Rowland V. Lee was known primarily for his work on costume dramas and swashbucklers, and continued with those after this film until his retirement at the end of the war. He has some nice directorial touches using long shots to great effect in the Expressionist castle, and nice angles for his close ups shooting primarily from just below horizontal, as well as some interesting shots in the rather minimalist laboratory. The film score was the first for the newly hired Frank Skinner who, along with Hans Salter, would score many of the important films from the second horror cycle at Universal. Some of the cues would be heard later in The Wolf Man, which the two composers worked on together, as well as being recycled endlessly by the studio for the next decade on more than just the monster films. The revival of the series was a hit by any measure, and was responsible for putting Universal in the black and inspiring the studio to invest in more horror films. One aspect of the film that differs from those that would come after it is the relatively lengthy running time of almost one hundred minutes, almost a half hour longer than most of Universal’s later horror films. Son of Frankenstein has nowhere near the humor and pathos of James Whale’s films, but it retains a charm all its own and has some terrific performances by its principal cast.

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