(5/10) In a nutshell: The magic is all but gone from the fourth Universal Frankenstein picture, made in 1942. Although well-paced and fairly entertaining, the film stumbles on a ridiculous script with more holes than a Swiss cheese and a low budget. Decent acting from Misters Hardwicke, Lugosi and Atwill, but substituting Karloff with Chaney was a bad move.
The Ghost of Frankenstein. 1942, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Scott Darling & Eric Taylor. Inspired by the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Barton Yarborough. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 75 %. IMDb score: 6.1
This is the fourth instalment in Universal’s Frankenstein saga, and notable for a number of reasons. The Ghost of Frankenstein is the first Frankenstein film to be relegated to the studio’s B movie unit, resulting in slashed funding. It is the first film to replace Boris Karloff as the monster with another actor, in this case Lon Chaney Jr. It is also the last film where the Frankenstein monster was the solo monster in Universal’s cannon. The next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (review), well the title says it all.
As you may or may not know, on this blog I review science fiction films in chronological order, as I find it easier to assess their qualities when seeing them – in a way – in the context of the time they were released. But this also has its drawbacks, one of which I am now starting all too painfully to realise. In the late thirties and the forties sci-fi hit a serious slump as a film genre, and 9 out of 10 sci-fi films churned out during this time were mad scientist films modelled on the Universal horror movies. With the mad scientist subgenre hitting a high mark in 1935 with The Bride of Frankenstein, almost everything after that was a slow decline. Now, at 1942, reviewing yet another Frankenstein film feels a bit like treading water.
On paper everything looked good. Universal had been able to rekindle the interest in the monster franchise in 1941 with the smash hit The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. Producing The Ghost of Frankenstein was The Wolf Man’s producer and director George Waggner, who had also directed Chaney in Man Made Monster (review) in 1941. As director Universal had been able to get Erle C. Kenton, who directed the masterpiece Island of Lost Souls in 1932 (review). True, Boris Karloff had swore never to play Frankenstein’s monster again. And true, a lot of Hollywood’s top talent was unavailable, as many were serving in WWII. And even if they were available, Universal might not have afforded them for a B movie. Nonetheless, the film didn’t lack talent. Renowned British character actor Cedric Hardwicke plays Henry Frankenstein’s other son, Ludwig, and renowned American character actor Lionel Atwill plays the film’s other mad doctor, Theodore Bohmer. Karloff was replaced in the flat-headed makeup by Universal’s new horror star, Lon Chaney Jr, and as icing on the cake, the studio revived Bela Lugosi’s evil assistant/villain Ygor with the broken neck from The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), by many seen the best role in Lugosi’s career.
But, alas. Despite The Wolf Man’s success, the allure of the monster movies was slowly fading, and now played mostly to a juvenile audience and die-hard fans. Erle C. Kenton was never able to reprise the artistic qualities of Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls, which perhaps had other factors than the director to thank for its greatness, and he was now deeply mired in the B movie bog. Likewise, The Wolf Man probably had screenwriter Curt Siodmak and makeup genius Jack Pierce to thank for its success, rather than George Waggner, who had done a very bland job with Man Made Monster previously. While Cedric Hardwicke was always a very good character actor, he didn’t have the crazed charisma to carry a film like this, in the same way as Colin Clive in the first two films. And Lon Chaney Jr. was, despite his lauded performance in The Wolf Man, not an especially versatile actor, and fails (along with the script) to do anything interesting with his role. And the heart of the Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had always been Boris Karloff and his uncanny ability to provide the monster with a very human soul. And now the filmmakers didn’t even have the budget on their side.
With The Ghost of Frankenstein Universal no longer cared too much for the artistic quality of the film, and treated in as a product to draw in some cash and fill up a B slot for a bigger movie. So unique vision was not an issue when choosing screenwriters, and the job went to prolific hacks Scott Darling and Eric Taylor, and the result is a rehash of The Son of Frankenstein with giant holes in the logic, bad dialogue and a script that sells on cheap thrills rather than any deeper thought.
The film opens in the village Frankenstein, with basically the same scene as in The Son of Frankenstein, with bad extras as villagers complaining to the burgomaster about the curse of Frankenstein, one of those scenes that Mel Brooks loved to spoof. The script disregards the fact that the first son of Frankenstein, played by Basil Rathbone in the previous movie, had left as a hero. In a show of utter lack of originality, the film then has an angry mob burn down the castle, which once again looks nothing like in the previous film. Ygor the almost hunchback (Lugosi) escapes to the caves beneath the castle and finds the monster (Chaney) buried in the dried sulphur pit in which he apparently did not die at the end of the previous movie. The two set off to find the other son of Frankenstein, of which there was no mention in the previous film.
Ludwig Frankenstein (Hardwicke) is a beloved doctor and a star surgeon on the brink of a medical revolution, as he works on a way of witching brains between human bodies. Exactly how often this would be convenient is wisely left untold, despite a very forced exposition scene at an operating table where he and his two assistants try to lay out a whole backstory in approximately five lines. One is the good assistant, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough), and the other the bad assistant, Dr Bohmer (Atwill). It seems Bohmer was the actual genius of the brain-switching method, but a botched experiment has now turned the master into apprentice, and for this he clearly holds a grudge against Frankenstein.
There is also Ludwig’s daugher Elsa Frankenstein, who learns the secrets of Henry Frankenstein’s horrible creation (in a flashback from previous films where Karloff’s face is replaced by Chaney’s – a big no-no in my book). She is played by Evelyn Ankers, who became a staple as a leading lady in Universal’s horror franchise in the forties. She is one of the better leading ladies we have seen in these films, but her role is ultimately redundant.
So. Ygor blackmails Frankenstein into ”curing” the monster by giving him a new brain. The monster kills Dr. Kettering for no apparent reason, which is completely out of character with the original Karloff monster, and Frankenstein then plans to replace the monster’s brain with Kettering’s. For some reason the monster agrees to having his brain removed, which is one of those major plot holes that is hard to get over – even when he insists that his brain be replaced with that of a little girl he kidnapped. Seeing as he grasps the whole idea of the brain switch, one wonders why on earth he would want to discard his old brain – it’s not his brain, but his body that has caused him all the trouble. As far as we know he is quite fond of his brain – basically himself, and he would die if his brain was removed, right? Why on god’s good earth would he want to kill himself and let the little girl go through the agony he has suffered in that body for all those years for no good reason at all? This is completely out of character for the monster we got to know in the first two films.
Ygor secretly conspires to give Frankenstein the wrong brain, by having Dr. Bohmer put Ygor’s brain into the body of the monster, thus ridding him of his own deformed body and gaining him an immortal one. And, yes, about that immortality. It was The Son of Frankenstein that established the monster’s invulnerability, completely disregarding both Mary Shelley’s novel and the previous films: apparently Henry Frankenstein’s electrical treatment of the monster made cellular changes that basically renders the monster Wolverine-like immortal. Apart from the whole thing being completely illogical, it also removes the genre from its roots.
And his ”immortality” also feeds the crazy logics of the film. At first Ludwig Frankenstein wants to destroy the monster, and concludes that since he is immortal there is only one way to do it: by dissecting him limb by limb just the way he was made. But hold on here. Haven’t we sort of established that it is the brain that runs his body? Then why must he be dismembered ”limb by limb”? Can’t you just chop his head off – AS YOU ALREADY HAVE HIM SEDATED”? And – seeing as he succumbs to sedation like an ordinary human being, it would follow that he can also be poisoned like an ordinary human being. And: since we have established that he is immortal and no bodily harm can come to him, how would you go about dissecting this unharmable body? And: the first films clearly established that fire can hurt him – and it is fire that ultimately ”kills” him even in this film, so why can’t you just burn the bugger? I don’t mind screwed up logics as such, but when a film can’t even follow its own screwed up logic, we have a problem.
So, on with it: Yes, Ygor gets transplanted into the Frankenstein monster, which then regains the power if speech – in Bela Lugosi’s voice, which adds some unintentional(?) comedy. But in a brilliant deus-ex-machina it turns out that the monster’s blood type isn’t the same as Ygor’s, turning him blind. ”It won’t feed the optical nerves”, Frankenstein informs Bohmer. What sort of science is this? You give a guy an organ with the wrong blood type and it ”won’t feed the optical nerves” is the only – very specific – problem? Who makes this shit up? Anyway, this is the short part of the film where Chaney starts walking around with his arms stretched out in front of him flailing from side to side, which has unfortunately been incorporated as the picture of how the monster moves, even if Karloff never did it. When Lugosi took over the role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, he continued doing so, without any explanation, which is sadly what turned the character and Lugosi into laughing stock.
Finally the monster kills Bohmer, and then flails around so heavily in the lab that he sets it on fire and is buried in the burning building.
Ah yes, and then there was the daughter and her romantic interest, the town prosecutor, played by the great Ralph Bellamy. If I forgot to mention this romantic subplot, it’s because, as mentioned earlier, the daughter doesn’t have much consequence for the plot. Neither does the prosecutor, or the romantic subplot. But of course the film had to have some romance.
As you may have guessed, I am no big fan of this film, although I know there are a lot of people out there telling me to take a chill pill – it’s all in good fun. And so it is, and it’s not really that I have such a major problem with a programmer film having bad logics. It’s just that nothing in this script holds up to scrutiny. I haven’t even mentioned the ghost of Frankenstein – Henry Frankenstein turning up as a ghostly figure, only now he is no longer Colin Clive – who we clearly saw in the flashbacks, but Cedric Hardwicke. This very short scene is there to justify the name of the film, and it is this short dialogue between Frankenstein and Frankenstein that completely alters the mind of Ludwig who previously wanted nothing to do with the memory of his lunatic father. Now he suddenly wants to clear the noble name of Frankenstein and reinstate his father’s honor. Just like that. Because somehow the script had to make him go there.
Anyway, despite the bashing I give the script, it isn’t all bad. In fact, in some ways it is actually better than The Son of Frankenstein, which was quite a slow-moving and dragged affair. Here things move along swiftly and efficiantly, and the quick pacing and plot twists makes for an ultimately enjoyable, albeit brain-dead (pardon the pun), viewing experience, and adds some doses of mildly amusing humour. It is, in fact, quite a fun little film.
As far as the actors go, especially Hardwicke, but to some extent also Atwill, are sligthly above this type of script, although the latter did find himself mired in them, especially after 1943, when he got shunned by major studios after a sex scandal. They both phone in their performances, but both are good enough to pull it off even when they’re not really interested. Bela Lugosi relishes in his wonderful role as Ygor once more, and is the salt of this movie, although his part isn’t nearly as well written as in The Son of Frankenstein. Lon Chaney is perhaps the worst part of this film, as his monster loses all of the subtle nuances and all the soul that Karloff and director James Whale put into creating it, and it is a sad demise from one of movie history’s greatest characters (although it would become even worse in later films). Now Chaney just walks around frowning, and the monster is more or less turned into a prop. Ralph Bellamy playing the prosecutor was one of the great character actors of the period (and a long time after that), and he does what he can with his blandly written role, but isn’t able to take it out of its constraints. As for Evelyn Ankers, she is not bad at all, but once again, hasn’t got much to do other than look scared.
Lionel Atwill had appeared in Doctor X (1932, review), The Son of Frankenstein, and later played in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and The House of Frankenstein (1944, review), and appeared in Man Made Monster, The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and House of Dracula (1945, review). His career took a sharp turn for the worse in 1943 when he was sentenced for an ”orgy” in his house, and was thereafter mostly shunned by all major studios.
Lon Chaney had a rollercoaster of a career, and managed to do some good roles in a number of mainstream films, sometimes garnering praise for his work, sometimes not so much, but his drinking made him difficult to work with as he would sometimes forget his lines and show up drunk on set. His later career was also marred by health problems brought on by heavy drinking and smoking, which led to him almost losing his voice. He appeared in Man Made Monster, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), Indestructible Man (1956), The Cyclops (1957), The Alligator People (1959), La Casa del Terror (1960), and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), which was his final film.
Although never one of Hollywood’s brightest shining stars, Ralph Bellamy was one of the most enduring actors of both the screen, the stage and television. His career on the stage, where he would continue to flourish during his entire career, started in the twenties. His film career started in 1933 and lasted almost 60 years. The role he is perhaps best known for today is as the old millionaire who almost gets destroyed by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman in 1990. That was Bellamy’s last role. Another one of his famous portrayals was that of the villainous doctor in Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. He played the lead in one of TV:s first ever detective series as early as 1949, called Man Against Crime. During Bellamy’s younger years he was often typecast as ”the other man” competing for the leading ladies against a more famous male star. He is quoted as saying: ”I always tell the producers, if I can’t get the girl at the end of the picture, at least give me more money.”
Bellamy won the prestigious Tony Award in 1958 for his portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the play Sunrise at Campobello. He would reprise the character in one film and two TV series. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in The Awful Truth in 1937, and for an Emmy three times, but never won. He did, however, receive an honorary Oscar in 1987, not for his work on screen, but behind it. Bellamy was a champion of actors’ rights and one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, and a longtime president of Actors Equity, including the McCarthy years, when a lot of actors were forced to testify about their communist connections and give up colleagues they suspected of being left-wingers. If they refused, they were blacklisted in Hollywood and unable to work. Bellamy was blacklisted himself for refusing to testify, but as many others he found work on Broadway, which ignored the blacklisting. He was also responsible for setting up the first actors’ pension fund in the United States. It was for his work for the good of the profession he was honoured in 1987.
Although not immediately recognized as a prolific sci-fi actor, he de appear in a number of science fiction films and series in his later career, including the film Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), the TV series The Invaders (1967) and The Twilight Zone (1986), as well as in two science fiction pilot episodes that never went anywhere, now available as TV movies: Search for the Gods (1975) with a young Kurt Russell and The Clone Master (1978).
British character actor Cedric Hardwicke made his sci-fi debut in the British sci-fi epic Things to Come (1936, review), and later appeared in The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review) as the villain (Invisible Agent, 1942, review) again as a villain and narrated The War of the Worlds (1953, review).
Evelyn Ankers was a British actress who emigrated to Hollywood in the thirties, and soon found herself as a recurring leading lady in a number of horror and science fiction B movies. Her first outing in the genre was as Lon Chaney’s love interest in The Wolf Man, and after The Ghost of Frankenstein she went on to play the ”other” female lead in Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), and she reprised that role in Jungle Woman (1944). She also had the biggest female role in The Mad Ghoul (1943, review) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). She may also be recognized by matinée TV viewers from Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), and a few of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone.
Doris Lloyd in a supporting role was a prolific bit-part and character actress, appearing in 200 films or TV series. She is perhaps best known for playing a spy in Disraeli (1929), Mrs. Cutten in the first Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), and Nancy Sykes in the Monogram version of Oliver Twist (1933). She had bit-parts in notable blockbuster musicals such as Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), and was the voice actor for The Rose in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). She had bit-parts in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941, review), Frankensten Meets the Wolf Man and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Her most notable sci-fi role is probably that of the time traveller’s housekeeper in the classic George Pal film The Time Machine (1960).
The rest of the cast is mainly made up of Universal stable bit-part players many of whom we’ve met earlier in small roles in this blog. Worthy of mention, though, is child actor (extra) William Smith, who would later grow up big, and, among other things, was a boxer, body builder, weight lifter, arm wrestling world champion, discus thrower, stunt man and Korean war veteran. He was fluent in five languages and would have become a Doctor in Russian, had he not landed a contract with MGM.
He appeared in over 300 films or TV series, and is notable for playing Adonis in the TV series Batman in 1966, for playing the lead in a number of cheap exploitation B films, such as the biker film Run Angel, Run (1970), Grave of the Vampire (1972) and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). A more mainstream audience might recognize him as the guy who brawled with Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can (1980), but his crowning achievement for all genre film fans was playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father in Conan the Barbarian (1982). He appeared in a whole slew of sci-fi films and series, but we’ll catch up with him later. And another thing worthy of notion: he is the second actor that I’ve recognized on this blog that is still alive as of today (January 2015).
Original Frankenstein henchman Fritz, Dwight Frye, also turns up as a villager.
Oscar-winning DP Milton Krasner provides clean, well-composed images, and even breaks the monotony of Kenton’s direction with some fluid camera moves. Krasner also filmed The Invisible Man Returns, and years later Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The overall visuals of the film look very much like they were filmed on a set and much of the movie is static. The sets, although ”setty” are not at all bad, and I especially like the cramped town environments. For much of the time the film is too brightly lit for a Frankenstein film, and there is no hint of the expressionism that was still present in The Son of Frankenstein, although Kenton tries to resurrect the first film’s stagy feel in the beginning with an obviously staged forest and graveyard set. But by now it feels more like a ripoff than artistry, especially since he isn’t able to carry the feeling through to the rest of the movie.
Six-time Oscar nominated composer Hans Salter provides an effective score, and we find the whole usual team of Universal horror crew members aboard, including art direction duo Jack Otterson and Russell Gausman, costume designer Vera West, makeup legend Jack Pierce, editor Ted J. Kent and special effects guru John P. Fulton, who does his best with a small budget. But the magic from the previous films are gone. The lab is small and barren, and hardly emits a Strickfadenian crackle and zap, the burning buildings look like very obvious miniatures – although the scene with stunt man Eddie Parker as the monster collapsing in the burning building is quite impressive.
The make-up on Lon Chaney looks like it has him painted white, rather than the more subtle nuances given to Karloff, and unfortunately the design looks rather silly on the stockier Chaney. Even Karloff didn’t look as good in it in his later films, after he had put on just slightly more weight than in the first movie, where he was still practically starving as a mostly out-of-work actor. Chaney’s saving grace is that the makeup looked even sillier on Bela Lugosi.
The film is not a complete failure thanks to the entertainment value, decent acting, just enough money for decent sets and competent, if uninspired, direction. This one still holds it head above the water, but things would turn uglier as the Universal horror franchise tumbled ever deeper into the B movie bog in years to come.
The Ghost of Frankenstein. 1942, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Scott Darling & Eric Taylor. Inspired by the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Barton Yarborough, Janet Ann Gallow, Doris Lloyd, Leyland Hodgson, Olaf Hytten, Holmes Herbert, Richard Alexander, Dwight Frye, Lawrence Grant, William Smith. Music: Hans J. Salter. Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner, Elwood Bredell. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: Charles S. Gould. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Special effects: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Eddie Parker. Produced by George Waggner for Universal.