By 1939, in the deepest throes of the Great Depression, Universal Picture and it's head, Carl Laemmle, had a solid triumvirate of creature feature franchise in THE INVISIBLE MAN, DRACULA, and the most popular, FRANKENSTEIN. It was eight years since Boris Karloff stepped into the oversized platform shoes of the creature and the clamor for it didn't seem to die. What's more, Boris had gone on to be a big star beyond the creature, playing THE MUMMY; Asian villain, FU MANCHU, and Asian Detective, MR. WONG.
Four years after THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it was time to bring the creature back.
At the time, Basil Rathbone (A NIGHT OF TERROR, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE MAD DOCTOR, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR, THE SPIDER WOMAN, THE PEARL OF DEATH, THE HOUSE OF FEAR, TERROR BY NIGHT, TALES OF TERROR, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET, QUEEN OF BLOOD, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE), launching his role that same year as Sherlock Holmes in the eponymous franchise, was an even bigger draw than Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, BLACK SABBATH, TARGETS) or Bela Lugosi (DRACULA , WHITE ZOMBIE, THE HUMAN MONSTER, THE DEVIL BAT, THE WOLF MAN, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE CORPSE VANISHES), and got top billing in the movie and on the marquee.
But that wasn't enough for Universal. This was the third sequel and they really had to bring it (that was the business model for studios back then. Strangely enough, attempting to make each sequel better and different from the last was amazingly successful).
Carl Laemmle and James Whale were out of the picture as producers and Roland V. Lee was in. As Whale did before him, the producer was also the Director. Universal had a formula for success and, while the may change the line-up, they weren't about to change the rules.
Strong, popular character actors, Lionel Atwill (DOCTOR X, THE VAMPIRE BAT, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, MAN MADE MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR Rx, NIGHT MONSTER, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA), Josephine Hutchison (STEP DOWN TO TERROR), and recent discovered child actor, Donnie Dunagan (TOWER OF LONDON), rode shotgun.
At the gate to Castle von Frankenstein, a sign: Eingang Verboten (Entrance Forbidden)! The surly, bearded face of Ygor (Bela Lugosi) peers menacingly through a broken window. Hard times have fallen upon the House of Frankenstein as well as the village and the people who once loved their lords.
In the village of Goldschtatt, there is a stir among the council elders. The adult son of Henry Frankenstein, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) is arriving by train to claim his rightful inheritance and heritage. The elders want nothing to do with any more Frankensteins and agree to ignore protocol and not welcome the prodigal son's return. They will meet him, but not greet him.
On the train heading to Goldschtatt, things are a bit nicer. Wolf's wife, Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) is regaling her young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) with how nice things will be at the old family castle. Wolf and Elsa are excited about living there. Wolf remembers nothing of being born in the castle as he grew up in England.
Of course, there is the matter of his legacy and history: Something the son cannot live down. People even call the misshapen malevolent creature Frankenstein!
A small group of villagers have gathered in the rain to see the face of this latest Frankenstein. Obsequious as he can be, Wolf tries to placate the crowd with apologies and promises of a better life, but the villagers walk away in disgust. Except among the servants, the Frankensteins will find no friends here.
The castle is a bit more disheveled than they expected and the "welcome" they received has given her pause. Wolf tries to put the best face on everything, but Elsa is quieted for the moment.
In the study, Wolf sees an old painting of his father and it is clear as he confides to his butler, Benson (Edgar Norton: BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER), that Wolf feels the best way to save his father's legacy and mend fences, is to carry on his father's work, right the wrongs of it, and validate it. But how? All research was destroyed in the explosion that consumed his laboratory.
Soon Wolf is visiting the abandoned ruins of his father's old laboratory, which shouldn't be standing at all considering what we saw happen to it in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Sulphurous steams boil from beneath the floor and Ygor nearly kills him. But Wolf is armed and threatens Ygor at gun point. Ygor quickly explains that he once worked with Wolf's father, stealing bodies for research. Bela is brilliant in the role, stealing the scene right out from beneath Rathbone's feet.
Throughout his life, Wolf Frankenstein convinced himself that the awful reputation of Frankenstein grew in rumor far past the reality - to an unearned extent. Ygor shows him that the true legacy is far worse than the wild imaginations of rumor. The Frankenstein creature still lives, because he can be injured, but cannot die. The creature is an immortal and a friend of Ygor: Ygor's only friend. Ygor demands, not begs Wolf to fix the creature, make him better. Ygor knows that Henry Frankenstein's journals still exist.
On his father's tomb, someone has wrote in chalk, Maker of Monsters. Wolf crosses out the word monster and writes in so that it reads, Maker of Men. Wolf is now committed to continuing his Father's work.
When wagon loads of large wooden crates pass through town, the villagers are outraged. They've seen this before.
Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) pays a visit to the Castle. With his leather bound prosthetic hand and military bearing, he comes to warn Baron Frankenstein. His false hand is not without meaning. When he was a child, the creature, while on rampage, tore his small arm out by the roots.
Baron Frankenstein is stilled by the man. Krogh is exactly the person he needs to bring healing to if the name Frankenstein is ever to be saved.
Krogh has every reason to hate the Frankensteins but doesn't. Dedicated to the law and order, Krogh truly comes to help Frankenstein in the hopes that things won't go murderously mad again. At first Wolf tries to reassure Krogh, but the Inspector is a man of logic who isn't easily fooled. He can read Wolf and knows the man will continue is father's research. Wolf denies it, but has a terrible poker face and is an awful liar.
Young Peter is both inquisitive and fearless and his parents dote on him. Both are science minded and fear nothing in nature except for the safety of their son.
When watching spoofs of FRANKENSTEIN movies, from TV to Mel Brooks brilliant, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, this third movie is the one referenced most. With the first appearance of Ygor, Bela made Dwight Frye's brilliant turn as Fritz into his own. Lugosi played Ygor with a scene chewing ferocity that even competed with the Creature himself for frightful aggression. Audiences felt sympathy for Karloff's consummate performance as the creature (his last as the creature), but they were afraid of Bela's Ygor.
Lionel Atwill, as Inspector Krogh, also dominated in his role, as did Donnie Dugan as Peter Frankenstein, who at the age of five, uttered some of the most terrifying lines in the movie. Basil Rathbone turned in a fine performance as the son seeking to vindicate his father, and mentally crumbling into failure and paranoia. But as good as he was, Wolf doesn't possess the brilliant passionate madness that Colin Clive gave as Henry Frankenstein in the first two movies. As such, Basil never owned the mantle of Frankenstein.
Five Shriek Girls.
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