One of the immediate effects of the takeover of Universal in 1936 was that the horror films which had become such an important part of the studio's brand name were very abruptly cut off (no doubt, the cost and middling performance of Dracula's Daughter aided in this decision somewhat). This bold executive decision lasted for all of two years. In 1938, Dracula and Frankenstein were released as a double feature, mostly because it was a good chance to fill some theaters without having to spend money on actual production; to the execs' very pleased surprise, this program turned out to be a smash success, the highest-grossing film the studio had released in quite some time. So quicker than you can say "printing our own money", a new Frankenstein sequel was pushed into production, and for a project that began its life in such unabashedly mercenary terms, 1939's Son of Frankenstein is a surprisingly good effort to extend the narrative of the first two films in a manner both intelligent and likely. Though it is not remembered so universally as Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, is without doubt a worthy addition and deserving of classic status; and in this respect it may be worth noting that it was the last of Universal's horror films good enough to influence Mel Brook's 1974 parody Young Frankenstein.
The story by Willis Cooper, one of the men responsible for the Mr. Moto films, opens an indeterminate 30-ish years after Bride: the son of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (re-christened "Heinrich" in this film) and Elizabeth Frankenstein, the suggestively-named Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), is returning to his family's ancestral village from a life-long sojourn in America with his own family: Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) his wife, and their little boy Peter (Donnie Dunagan). It is apparent that Wolf - and his name is always pronounced just like that, "Wolf", and never "Vulf" - has never been in this corner of Germany, if indeed he's ever been out of the United States; at any rate, he's never been in a place so colorful as a Hollywood studio's representation of a Mitteleuropean community that never arrived in the 19th Century, to say nothing of the 20th. He's quite unprepared for the rather angry local response to the very name "Frankenstein", which to these villagers conjures up decades-old memories of a crazy man who cobbled together a man from corpse parts and a murderer's brain. In contrast to what we've come to expect from the many films in the subsequent decades to use this model, Wolf does not denounce the rumors as unsophisticated superstition, nor does he denounce his father as a madman with mad theories; he's damn proud that Heinrich sought to unlock the secrets of death, and he thinks that people who have a problem with killer monsters made of dead tissue just don't appreciate the vagaries of scientific research.
In the next few days, Wolf remains a bit of a pariah, with only the head of the local police, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) making any effort to get to know the von Frankensteins - and that because of his lingering suspicion that Wolf is there to continue his father's experiments. The only other person outside of Wolf's household staff who spends any time in Frankenstein Castle (which looks not much at all like the large but ultimately sane-sized manor home in the first two films) isn't an invited guest at all: it's Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the local creepy deformed man, who was just the local creep before he was hanged until not-quite-dead, and his neck broke into a hideous bend that has left him stunted, in pain, and very, very angry. The reason Ygor keeps hanging around, thoroughly unnerving Wolf, is that he has a best friend hiding in the ruins of Heinrich Frankenstein's laboratory - a friend who is supposed to be dead, but has survived in a horribly ruined state in a cave adjoining a sulphur pit - a friend, naturally, with metal electrodes on his neck, and a squared-off head. Yessir, Ygor has squirreled the creature (Boris Karloff for the third and last time) into hiding, and he demands that Wolf fix it; it's the only friend Ygor has. Though Ygor's concerns are not social so much as he wants to use the creature as his own personal assassin, and when a series of mysterious deaths starts up again, months after the last such body was found (and lo! that is exactly when Ygor mentions that the creature was hurt), Krogh in his wisdom figures out that Wolf has been up to something naughty. The villagers have figured it out too, and unlike Krogh, they're not above storming Frankenstein Caste with the Universal-standard torches and pitchforks.
For a movie that was written and directed by a pair of wholly anonymous Universal contract hacks (the aforementioned Cooper and Rowland V. Lee, respectively), Son of Frankenstein is a terrifically respectful and thoughtful attempt to continue the story of the Frankensteins still further beyond the scope of Mary Shelley's novel than yet before. It's easy to get lost in a thicket of nitpicking things like the name of Wolf's father, the design of the town and the castle, the name of the town ("Goldstadt" in the first two, "Frankenstein" here), when the hell it's supposed to be taking place (for that matter, when the hell did the others take place?), but that's a pretty un-generous way of looking at a rather intelligent treatment of predestination, fate, and the sins of the father, all wrapped up in genre film trappings. And even if we don't want to get all literary and thematic about it, those genre trappings are done rather well themselves.
In either case, most of the success of the third film revolves around its presentation of Wolf von Frankenstein, a rather deeper and more complex figure than his father; he is not motivated by a God complex, at least not at first, but by the simple wish to live a comfortable life and to make the lives of those around him better. At the same time, he has an understandable desire for people to think of him not as the son of a psychopath, but as the heir to a rich tradition of scientific curiosity. It is worth pointing out that Wolf does not make a monster; he attempts to rehabilitate his father's monster. So despite the rumblings in the village about "the blood", and the way that you can't trust a Frankenstein to keep away from tampering in God's domain, Wolf is never motivated by the same desire to cheat death (though he certainly views that as a noble goal). He is, pure and simple, out to show that world that Heinrich Frankenstein was right.
Casting Basil Rathbone was key to the film's success. His Sherlock Holmes films just barely in the future (The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of the cycle, came out later in the same year), he was still at that time known exclusively for playing supercilious villains in things like Captain Blood. His approach to Wolf is maybe a little bit supercilious, sure, but it's surprising even now how much it seems like we're meant to like the character, to sympathise with his frustrations at the cold shoulder he gets from every corner. And Rathbone's performance is at any rate much warmer and more sympathetic than Colin Clive ever seemed to care about in the first two films.
By and large, Son of Frankenstein has a much better cast than it has any right to. Josephine Hutchinson, in the traditionally thankless role of Mrs. Frankenstein, is not so colorless as her two predecessors, and she is far the least interesting lead. The four men in the movie are all pretty great: Lionel Atwill, a delightful character actor who appears here and there all through the '30s and '40s, is at his peak as the dogged, clever Krogh, and the finest scenes of this movie are the ones that set him and Rathbone against each other in a gleefully British clash of wills. Bela Lugosi is, as always, Bela; but he was just barely not quite a sad-sack parody of himself yet, and his terrible, hammy overperformance as the slick and villainous Ygor - incidentally, the only character in the series who could be thought of as a hunchback named Igor if you squint a bit - is exceedingly charming, for all that it is terrible and hammy. Because it is terrible and hammy.
In fact, the least distinct of the male leads is Karloff himself, tragic as it is to say. A big part of the problem is that the script doesn't give him anywhere near enough to do: he spends most of the film sitting around in a fur coat, and in the last five minutes goes about roaring and tossing crap into a sulphur pit. It's implied that the traumas of the intervening decades have more than undone all the growth the creature experienced in Bride, and if this makes good story sense, it nonetheless is no favor at all to Karloff, who is thus forced to scale back the beautiful, immature humanity that made his performances in the other two films so iconic and timeless. The creature here really is just a monster, with none (or very little) of the delicacy that we saw before.
Perhaps on account of the much reduced role of the creation in this film, Son of Frankenstein is much more like a science-fiction film than a horror film. Particularly in the very lengthy sequence in which Wolf discovers, studies, and revives the creature, which is packed from one end to the other with all manner of technobabble and cod-medical rambling; besides that, the laboratory scene itself has none of the awesome wonder of James Whale's treatment of the same, but is much more "technical" and less "ritual", if that makes sense.
In fact, the most prominent example of the third film's less horror-oriented approach is largely a result of the direction. Whale's films were German Expressionism, with virtually no filter between the silent Weimar cinema and the Hollywood studio. Lee makes a certain stab at that aesthetic, but it clearly doesn't come as naturally to him. The film has a Gothic veneer, let us say, but not a Gothic soul, and outside of an early scene during a thunderstorm, virtually none of the moody, shadow-besotted lighting that typifies the Universal horror style.
I mean this more in the spirit of description than criticism. Sci-fi and not horror it may be, but pretty good sci-fi, especially since that genre was still pretty ill-defined in 1939. Coupled with a much more expansive running time (the longest English-language Universal monster movie by some 25 minutes) that gives it much more time to let its characters and narrative breathe - for it has no more story to fill that extra time, it merely does not run its story at a hundred miles an hour - and Son of Frankenstein feels quite different from its franchise-mates, but in a way that makes it more interesting and in some ways better than nearly all of the others. It's arguably more character-driven than any of the other Universal monster movies, and though it is an outlier among them, it does its own kind of special honor to the name Frankenstein.
Reviews in this series
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)