Svengoolie presents … Son of Frankenstein (1939)

son1Basil Rathbone joins the cast of Son of Frankenstein (1939) for some reason and this movie again makes me wonder why these sequels were so popular.  Universal made three sequels to the original Frankenstein (1931) and this one was produced in 1939, a lengthy four years since Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a movie I hated in spades.  This is the last time Boris Karloff would play the monster for Universal.  Bela Lugosi plays Igor in this movie and it is his second most famous role in movie history.  

As if the audience needed a recap, the movie begins with a court scene discussing the death of Henry Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the arrival of his son.  Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who wants to redeem his father’s reputation.  To do this, he moves into Castle Frankenstein, and promises to be friends with the local townsfolk, not their enemy.  Good luck, right?

frankenstein5This setup gives the movie some hope.  This is due mostly to Basil Rathbone and the approach of the script, placing Rathbone’s character as an outsider.  This is a good move, because it’s been years since the last sequel, and his character develops as he learns more about his father, just like the audience does.  Frankenstein’s son investigates his father’s work like a famous detective we all know, but it is a little predictable and is dominated by scene after scene of endless dialogue.  All of them run together.  At the end of all this dialogue, he basically thinks his father was a genius.  This puts him in a suspect position because I thought he was going to be the protagonist, not a crazy dude.  So much for that.

Basil Rathbone had some great roles in his day.  Before this movie, he made The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, a great movie that’s on TV every other week.  He plays Sir Guy in that movie.  So he made that wonderful movie, then this movie, and had even more success.  Afterward, he landed the role of Sherlock Holmes, becoming famous as a result.  

The scenery and backdrops in this movie really are striking, most of them dominated by contrasting elements of shadow and light.  There are no odd angles, but many sets have strange, winding staircases, and oversized doorways.  The knocking rings on the castle doors are at least ten times normal size, which is a strange sight.  Many of the rooms are empty and contain only shadows, plus a few pieces of old furniture.  There are the usual dog heads in stone and bubbling pools of ooze.  All of it is pretty interesting and creepy.

The music is sort of generic, but the Frankenstein themes are instantly recognizable.  Violins surge with each noticeable action and they do not pause very often, even playing slowly underneath scenes of dialogue.  

son2I’m not sure if Inspector Krogh was put in the movie for laughs, but Lionel Atwill plays this role way over-the-top.  It doesn’t help that he moves his arm around with exaggerated effect because it’s made of wood.  He wears a monocle for god’s sake, that’s how strange this guy is.  He reminds me of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.  Anyway, he pals up with Frankenstein and warns him about the crazy townsfolk.

After Wolf defends The Monster as innocent, this comes back to bite Wolf Frankenstein on the ass because it only answer’s Igor’s commands.  I’m not sure why Wolf agreed to bring it back in the first place.  In this movie, The Monster can no longer speak as in the previous sequel and is once again a character like that seen in the original.  This is good.  His is make-up is just as good, but he wears a wooly coat that makes him look strange, like extra built or something. I guess that’s good.   

I like Sherlock Holmes well enough, but Basil Rathbone drags this movie down with more lines than any other actor in history.  Well, maybe not, but it sure seemed like it.  Much of the other exchanges are padded out too.  I don’t get it.

frankenstein6The movie finally erupts with action toward the end.  Wolf and Captain Dead-Arm chase The Monster into a laboratory.  The Monster rips off Krogh’s arm, but Basil Rathbone swings from a rope like Errol Flynn and knocks him into a bubbling pool of something.  In the end, there’s an epilogue where Wolf recants on what he said earlier and now realizes how evil his father’s work was.  He celebrates with the townsfolk.  Hooray.

All in all, this is a heavy film.  Universal learned from their mistakes in Bride of Frankenstein and made a lot of improvements.  Not many, but it had extraordinary sets and much better performances.  Basil Rathbone must have asked for lead status to take this movie because it shows.  He dominates the picture.  Despite its pace, this movie was a blockbuster for Universal, and very profitable for the studio.  You can see all the old-school traditions in this movie, which are put to good use to continue the Frankenstein tradition.