Thursday, October 6, 2011

October Movies - Spend An Evening With A Monster: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill.

October is the best month of the year to watch ghoulies cavorting on screen. But I restrict my viewing to vintage ghoulies because the more recent stuff is just too ghastly. My imagination is vivid enough, thank you.

I'll be talking about four (possibly more) movies that are perfect for this chilly time of year - one a week. Today it's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN are my two favorite Frankenstein films. (Not including Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN which is another kettle of fish.)  But since Basil Rathbone stars in SOF, that tips the balance for me. I am a Basil Rathbone groupie.

Basil Rathbone

The film is very well directed by Rowland V. Lee and you couldn't ask for more atmospherics than are provided by the art director, Jack Otterson and the Set Decorator, R.A. Gausman. They, I assume, were responsible for one of the oddest, creepiest, strangely angular interior sets I've ever seen. The isolated castle of the Frankensteins is no homey place of welcome.

Castle Frankenstein. Home Sweet Home.

Instead it is moody, dark, unfriendly, filled with shadows and odd angles and the strangest dining room ever. The castle's quirky staircase alone reminds me of something out of Fred Flinstone School of Decorating. Everything is unembellished and stark - you could roast an ox in the fireplace. If you were so inclined.

The fun part is watching everyone trying to make everything seem perfectly 'normal'.

The cozy dining room at Castle Frankenstein.

The plot:

The Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) and his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) are traveling by train through a barren landscape (out the carriage window it looks like an atomic bomb leveled the scenery - nothing but black, scraggly, leafless trees enveloped in blank gray) on their way to the family castle somewhere, I suppose, in Roumania or maybe the Balkans.

Wolf is trying to cheer up his wife who is, naturally, not taken with the scenery. He tries to put a brave face on everything for her sake. You'll love the castle, dear. Pay no attention to the lifeless scenery.

Once the train pulls into the grim, rainswept station, the von Frankensteins are met by the grim, hostile villagers who are angry and fearful. You can hardly blame them. The Frankenstein monster has a bit of long ago history in that area. In fact, recently there have been several strange murders - all the victims with broken backs. Looks like the work of the monster. But isn't he supposed to be dead?

Note the Fred Flintsone staircase.

Mom and Pop Frankenstein are welcomed at the castle by some ominous flute music coming from somewhere outside. Inside, their little curly-haired son Peter (Donny Dunagan) awaits. He arrived earlier with the housekeeper and Benson the butler (Edgar Norton) and one assumes, enough staff to get a decaying castle up and running.

At dinner they are joined by Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the village policeman who has come to offer his protection should the irate villagers get out of hand. The Baron poo-poos the danger.

Surely the monster is just a myth, an invention of superstitious peasants.

Not so, says the Inspector.The monster is no myth. "One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots." And here the Inspector shows Frankenstein his useless right arm which is made of wood (I assume). A terrific scene as Krogh goes about polishing his monocle with the help of his black gloved wooden hand. This is my favorite Lionel Atwill character.

The villagers have long memories.

The next day, while touring the Castle grounds, Frankenstein discovers his father's laboratory which is built over a cave complete with bubbling pit of sulfur or lye or whatnot. The floor of the laboratory has a thick round trap door which when lifted, reveals the dangerous pit and cave below.

Frankenstein spots a scruffy malevolent hunch-backed creature lurking - he is the wretched Igor, played with zest by Bela Lugosi. (He is the source of the earlier flute music. Who knew Igor was musically inclined?) Wolf threatens the hunchback with a pistol.

Igor reveals he has Wolf's father's monster hidden away. Wolf is taken aback. The monster is sick, Igor explains. (But not too sick to carry out Igor's murderous plans in the village. He has been slowly eliminating the members of the jury who condemned him to hang. Though, obviously the hanging didn't take.)

Igor wants Wolf to cure what ails the monster. He takes the disbelieving Baron down and shows him the monster who is resting - dormant.

See? I told you.

Soon as Wolf realizes that the monster is indeed, breathing, he is smitten with the idea of bringing him back to waking 'life' - he wants to salvage his father's tarnished reputation. How bringing the monster back to mobility will do this isn't revealed. What is it about this monster that makes supposedly rational men of science instantly lose their senses?

Up from the basement.

So, while Frankenstein works on the monster, he doesn't tell anyone except Benson the butler whose help he needs in the lab (to Igor's dismay). This is supposed to be a SECRET!

I think I see my father's initials.

Not to worry, Igor will protect you.

When the monster become mobile again (soon after, Benson the butler mysteriously disappears) he is controlled by his buddy Igor.

Drop him. I say, drop him!

The murders in the village resume.

Back-breaking is back breaking work.

Inspector Krogh pays a call on the Frankenstein homestead - he suspects that, somehow, the monster is on the rampage again. He also suspects the Baron knows all about it.

Monster? What monster?

Wolf, I sense that you're a bit nervous.

Poor fretting Elsa Von Frankenstein is completely in the dark. But she has noticed that Wolf seems  on edge.

Nerves? I have no nerves. I spit on nerves.

On edge? He is borderline hysterical as he storms about the castle pretending everything is fine. With every attempt to dissemble, he only makes himself more ridiculous.

Rathbone is so wired in these scenes that you expect him to explode in ten different directions at once. There's just something about a hysterical man that is very off-putting. But since it's Basil, I put up with it.

You saw who in your room?

When Wolf learns from his son Peter - who, by the way, has a Southern accent which is never explained - that late at night a big man has been entering his room through the wall, Wolf becomes  unhinged. Well, wouldn't you? Though Peter is remarkably calm about the whole thing.

Eventually, there's a violent confrontation with Igor and during the tussle Igor is shot dead. When the monster finds Igor's body he is heartbroken. Karloff is so good at expressing the monster's anguish.

Frankenstein must swing!

The irate villagers have finally had enough after the umpteenth murder in their little town.

We're going for ice cream, kid.

That night the monster goes up to Peter's room and takes him out to the laboratory. The first we hear of it is the housekeeper's screech when she discovers Peter's room empty. Soon Elsa joins in the screaming and screeching. Wolf and Inspector Krogh who happens to be on scene, run to the lab to save Peter.

Krogh puts up a good fight but the monster prevails.

That's Krogh's arm the monster is holding. The prosthetic arm, that is.

When the monster drops Peter, Wolf springs into action. He swings across the room from a rope and knocks the monster into the bubbling pit below.

Nobody messes with Frankenstein's kid.

So, in the end, all's well that ends well. (I know, I know, I use that expression a lot, but it's a good one.) The Von Frankensteins leave the castle in the hands of the villagers and head back to saner parts of Europe.

The monster is left bubbling in the pit ready ready to be dragged out for his next adventure where he will not be played by Boris Karloff.


Celebrating a birthday on the set.


  1. I have seen FRANKENSTEIN starring Boris Karloff (1931) but I really didn't know he had a son (1939). IMDb says he had a bride too in 1935. Now wouldn't that be obvious!

    Your picture stories, if I may call them so, are amazing and they bring these classic movies to life. One can see all the hard work that goes into the posts.

  2. Prashant: Thank you for the kind words. I do my best. :)

  3. I owe you an apology, Ms Banek. I completely overlooked your mention of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I reread your post this morning and found I had made a fool of myself. No more IMDb!

  4. Yvette, I too am a Basil Rathbone groupie! That man with his looks, his wonderful voice, good acting -- they just don't come much better. I am a HUGE fan of the original monster movies, the first three Frankensteins, Dracula, Wolf Man, The Mummy. This one does have those wonderful, German expressionist type sets, and the sets are a big part of why this film works.

    Poor Bela Lugosi had a nasty little part, and I always felt sorry for the once-big star. And don't ask my why, because I don't really know, but that weird hairy coat the monster wears always bothers me -- I just hate it! LOL!

    You really caught Rathbone's performance: "Rathbone is so wired in these scenes that you expect him to explode in ten different directions at once. There's just something about a hysterical man that is very off-putting. But since it's Basil, I put up with it." Amen!

    Every Halloween I pull out all the originals, plus a few of the greats of all decades, which frankly got fewer and fewer for quite some time, then had a resurgence of good ones (1963 "The Haunting", the '70s-I think- "The Changeling, "The Sixth Sense" and "The Others." All high quality, no blood and gore, supernatural greats.

    Excellent article about one of my favorite movies, Yvette. Kudos!

  5. Prashant: No apologies necessary, I assure you. I got the gist of your post and besides, nobody's perfect. I appreciate the fact that you are a constant contributor to my blog, believe me.

    And by the way, call me Yvette. :)

    I love IMDB. Couldn't do my movie posts without it's wonderful listings of cast and creww.

  6. Thanks, Becky! I'm glad you got a chance to read this one, it's one of my favorites. :)

    I always felt that Bela was having fun with Igor (or Ygor). He was such a hambone. I love him.

    Yes, these early originals are so wonderful. I feel sorry for people who don't, can't appreciate them.

    Basil, dear Basil. I've been meaning to read his autobiography. One of these days I will get around to it.

    For Halloween I'm watching THE UNINVITED, another classic. But I've also got a couple of other treats waiting.

    German Expressionists. Right. That was the term that eluded me. Though I pick on the sets, I love them.

    But I never could get with the kid's southern accent. HA!

  7. I like that visionary art direction. Very much like Cabinet of Dr Caligari. I will soon be posting a review on SUPERNATURAL, a minor Carole Lombard thriller, in which the art direction - especially the settings - is the real star of the movie. I'm trying to find a way to get screen captures off my DVD player on my laptiop. I want to be able to show how striking and strange the settings are.

    Your review as usual makes me want to rent this movie ASAP for a another viewing. BRIDE OF... was on the other night and the cinematography and sets once again blew me away. BTW, ever see GODS AND MONSTERS? A lovely little film about James Whale in his final years. There are very interesting pieces of trivia about the filming of BRIDE that are true. Basically, they are dirty jokes he and the cameraman came up with to entertain themselves. They can still be seen in the movie. One occurs in the blind man's hut. Hysterical once you're in on the joke. Or maybe too juvenile for some people.

  8. Hi John, I did see GODS AND MONSTERS, but I'd have to see it again to remember any pertinent details.

    My favorite scenes in BRIDE are the ones with Doctor Pretorious and his little people in jars. So eerie and frightening.

    Can't wait to see your Carole Lombard post. I'm not familiar with this film at all.

    Don't know how to do screen captures. One of these days I must learn.

    In these sorts of movie, sets and art direction are SO very important.

  9. I have to say that while I don't watch "monster" movies, the Frankenstein movies won me over years ago.

    One I really like is The Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa Lancasteer as "the bride" with her crazy hairdo cracks me up every time I see her.

    And I also like Mel Brooks' The Son of Frankenstein with Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn.

    That movie is just a riot.

    And while I stopped here for a moment after a tiring many hours, I just caught a few tidbits of this review and I can see it's another Show of Shows hilarious review by Yvette.

    I will come back tomorrow refreshed and read every word and laugh.

  10. I couldn't resist. I came back to read the hilarious review.

    A Frankenstein with a Southern accent? Give me a break.

    Anyway, I see that you like The Bride of Frankenstein also, and that you like Mel Brooks' movie, but it's to be reviewed at another time. So I'll gladly wait for that one.

  11. Kathy: Although I have fun with the review, I love this movie. Of the three Frankensteins with Boris Karloff, this is my fave because of Basil.

    Oh wait, I already said that. :)

    Glad you had time to stop by.

  12. Yvette, I got a big kick out of your pictorial review of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN! That dinner scene in that ridiculously huge room looks like it was filmed in some kind of futuristic Art Deco hangar! Your witty captions cracked me up, like the bits about the curly-haired kid with the Southern accent (maybe he's from South Transylvania :-)), and lines like "Back-breaking is back-breaking work" and "We're going out for ice cream, kid." It was fun to see Josephine Hutchinson YOUNG after seeing her in her years in films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST and TV series like PERRY MASON; she was a cutie! Your review was a fun read, as always!

    P.S.: As a fellow Adrien Brody fan, you might want to drop by TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED sometime for my review of his latest film WRECKED. ;-)

  13. Dorian: I am a big fan of Josephine Hutchinson, there's just something so sympathetic about her face. She's not a beauty, but she's got such an expressive face.

    Well, back-breaking IS back-breaking work. HA!!

    Yeah, my brother and I dish this film every now and then and we always bring up the kid's southern accent. It's hard to figure.

    South Transylvania. HA. I always figured it was Roumania. You know, where they still had burgermeisters and such. Transylvania probably had them too.
    Burgermeister capital of the world, no doubt.

    I did read your Brody post and thinking I'd like to watch the film. Let me go to Firefox and I'll leave a comment. Sometimes my mind gives me the slip. Ha!

  14. I await eagerly your review of Mel Brooks' movie, which will be hilarious, too.

    Whenever I think of that movie, I laugh. Not one minute goes by without humor.

  15. Kathy: Mel Brooks is a lunatic. But a brilliant one. Ha!

  16. Yes, Brooks if a certifiable madman, but a brilliant writer, director and comic.

    I once saw him being interviewed on tv, and he was asked what he thought about being Jewish.

    He said Yes, I am of the Jewish persuasion, but I want to know -- who persuaded me?

    I eagerly await your review of the Frankenstein movie, with all of the hilarious crazies, as Cloris Leachman playing Frau Blucher and scaring the horses.

  17. Kathy: I laughed out loud when I read your Brooks quote. He is such a loony. I love the man.

    No wonder Anne Bancroft married him. He probably kept her in stitches. Ha!


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