I mentioned over on my review for Dracula’s Daughter that Carl Laemmle, Jr., was forced out of Universal, and with his replacement, Charles R. Rogers, came the decline of Universal’s trademark monster movies. But as any fan of these films knows well, you can’t keep a classic monster down for long. There is always a “how I survived” story. Always.
It was a popular re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein as a triple feature with King Kong that caused the fans to proverbially attack the studio with pitchforks and torches, demanding the return of their beloved creatures. Ok, so it wasn’t quite that dramatic. A nearly bankrupt theater in Los Angeles staged the screening in desperation, and box office returns prompted similar revivals across the nation. Then as now, the studios responded to the one and only thing they ever respond to: people voted with their dollars, and studio executives were quick to latch themselves to that money train like leeches. If the public wanted the return of monsters in the form of Lugosi and Karloff, then that’s what they’d get. Turns out, getting either one of these stars wasn’t difficult. Due to the British embargo on American horror films in 1936, Karloff and Lugosi found themselves in a career slump due to typecasting. Lugosi had long since hung up the cape, however, and pride wouldn’t allow him to put it back on, so the seemingly obvious crossover wasn’t destined to happen.
Instead, the studio went forward with a big budget sequel to 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, passing the legacy to the next generation in Son of Frankenstein. Director James Whale, likewise in a career slump, didn’t want to make any more horror films, so Roland V. Lee was tapped to helm. Given the star power of Lugosi and Karloff, it was decided a star of equal caliber would be needed to portray the new Baron Wolf von Frankenstein if such a role was to carry the film. Peter Lorre was originally cast in the part, but illness forced him to leave the production. Having impressed crowds and studio alike as Sir Guy of Gisborne in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Basil Rothbone was tapped for the lead.
Makeup legend Jack Pierce once more returned for monster duty, prepared this time for a stunt that was ultimately abandoned due to budgetary reasons: the film was originally to be shot in color. Technicolor test footage was filmed, and while none of it survives, a clip from a Kodachrome home movie shows Karloff in the trademark green makeup goofing around with Pierce. You can find that footage in the 1998 documentary Universal Horror. I’m forced to wonder if perhaps there might have been artistic decision as well, as though maybe colorizing the film felt like the wrong choice, stylistically speaking. I guess we’ll never know.
The film itself deals with the legacy of the Frankenstein family in the aftermath of the first two films. The American-raised son of Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns to the castle with his wife and young son to claim his inheritance, which is precisely what the village fears. Eager to prove no harm and redeem his family’s reputation, Frankenstein is met with bitterness and cruelty, so much so that Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) seems to be his only friend. Krogh, however, sports an artificial arm, having been dismembered by the Creature at a young age during the first attack, so it’s likely he is there to protect the village as much as to protect the family.
Frankenstein meets Ygor (Lugosi), who has survived a hanging for grave robbing, leaving him disfigured and vengeful. Ygor leads the heir to his father’s and grandfather’s crypt where it’s discovered the Creature lies in state, comatose. The young baron makes the fateful decision to revive the monster to restore his family honor by proving his father was right. The Creature responds only to Ygor, however, and a series of murders in the town leads the town to fear the new Frankenstein to be as guilty as his father. The murder victims are those in the jury who convicted Ygor to be hanged. Baron Frankenstein discovers this and confronts him. Ygor is assumed dead after being shot, and the Creature takes his vengeance by abducting Peter Frankenstein, the baron’s son. The Creature finds he cannot kill the boy, however. Krogh and Frankenstein chase the Creature to the laboratory. The Creature rips off Krogh’s artificial arm, prepared to use it to kill the inspector, and Frankenstein swings in on a rope, knocking the Creature into the sulfur pit to save his son. The baron leaves the castle to the villagers, saying they may do with it as they will.
Suffice it to say, the film raked in the cash and returned Universal to profitability, thus ensuring that Universal Monsters would become a brand name in its own right. Rathbone and Atwill were duly praised for their performances, but it was Karloff and Lugosi who took center stage for all the obvious reasons. Despite the success of the film, however, this was Karloff’s final turn as the Creature. He felt the monster had become the butt of too many jokes, reducing the character’s effectiveness. This also marked the end of Universal’s “A” productions. From here, the monster flicks would achieve their oft-known status as “B” films as production cuts and less serious writing took over, beginning with 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein. Lon Chaney, Jr., would take over for Karloff, and Lugosi would return as Ygor. Lugosi would play the monster in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (because Chaney would be reprising his more iconic role). Karloff would return to the franchise for 1944’s House of Frankenstein in a new role. It would not be until the 1960s that Karloff would put on the makeup again, for an episode of the TV series Route 66.
In watching this film over the years as I have, it’s difficult not to see this as a transition between the high standards Universal began with and the B-movies they’d release later. Even with the star power, the excellent acting, and the obvious amounts of money thrown at the production, it’s clear that something vital is missing that keeps this film from achieving the high status of its noted predecessors. It’s still as serious as the first two Frankenstein films in the series. It’s just that something seems to have gotten lost in translation somewhere.
For myself, I rest that blame squarely at the feet of the Creature, who is always the heart and soul of a Universal Frankenstein film, without condemning Karloff himself in the process. The Creature has changed in some fundamental ways for this film. He no longer speaks at all, relying on grunts, and he wears a giant fur poncho that makes him somewhat less imposing (who would have thought that was possible?). He also takes orders from Lugosi’s Ygor, as I mentioned, which reduces him from conflicted soul to generic lackey. Only twice does he show humanity that his creator’s son believes might be there: first when Ygor is shot, and then when he opts not to kill Peter. Aside from that, he is reduced to the mindless abhoration that has long since become stereotype. This reduction would have lasting repercussions on the popular imagination, and this is why, I believe, the role of Dr. Frankenstein took higher prominence of his creature for Hammer Studios’ own series. Through no fault of his own, Karloff’s abilities were cut off a the knees by outside forces. As a result the movie shines a little less than it might have. Even so, Karloff’s very presence makes up for a multitude of sins, and none can speak ill of Rathbone’s enthusiasm or the scene-chewing greatness of Lugosi. For diehard fans of these films, it’s worth the watch just to have these guys share the screen.