The Unsung Son |
The Son of Frankenstein
It's funny how we all discover films at different time in our lives. In 1957 after having seen King Kong a year earlier, I caught Frankenstein, or should I say the first half of it. I made it all the way to the point where the monster enters the lab backwards, and then under the sofa I went. The next year, the monster and I became fast friends with The Bride of Frankenstein, which I viewed on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie.
During those years, we discovered monster magazines and dreamt about seeing the films we read about in these pulp publications. In those days, there was no home video - the closest thing we had were Castle Films 8mm shorts with scenes from our favorite sci-fi and horror films, and the television showings on the local TV stations. Some of these had horror hosts, and some did not.
Spring of 1963, a friend and I were walking down the old Laurel Canyon (it was moved half a block west in the seventies to widen the road) at dusk, on our way to the old (and now gone) Sun-Fax Market. Our mission was to check out the latest monster magazines before the magazine stand closed. In those days, the Sunset Strip was world famous for Schwab’s Drug Store, Sherry’s Nightclub, and a host of other Hollywood hot spots. But to us, Sun-Fax Market was the Mecca of our existence.
Passing through the front door of the food emporium, you’d make a quick left and you were at Ethel’s Newsstand, where everything from racing forms to digest magazines were available at prices you (and your teenage allowance) could afford. Ethel was a Hollywood character. She had the unfortunate happenstance of being a hunchback, but she had one of those pure souls that made the affliction all but disappear. Ethel greeted us as we filed into the news rack filled section of the market. A year before, she had nicknamed me “Screen Thrills”, because I wasn’t allowed to buy monster magazines like my friends, and confined myself to “Screen Thrills Magazine”, which was focused on comedies, serials, and action films. I always used to sneak monster magazines in the house under a sweater or coat.
Fantastic Monsters #7 cover, with Bela Lugosi as Igor in Son of Frankenstein
Our intended purchase was the seventh issue of Fantastic Monsters of the Films. After a bit of browsing, our eyes lit upon a brilliant blue cover with Bela Lugosi as Igor from The Son of Frankenstein, with a fold-out of Boris Karloff as the monster. Pay dirt - we hit the jackpot! We forked out seventy cents, plus two cents sales tax, and bought two mags apiece (one to read, and another to cut up and plaster on our room walls. We couldn’t afford glossy photos.)
Back at my buddy’s home, which resembled Castle Frankenstein in Son, we began cutting up the sacrificial magazine and started to choose the best wall spaces to adorn with our favorite photos from Son. In the glow of a single scarlet lightbulb, the cover of Fantastic Monsters virtually glowed on my friend’s closet wall, now dubbed “The Monster Cove.”
Two weeks later, my pal and I (after installing a “Monster Cove” in my clothes closet) sat in front of my old secondhand Philco television in my mother’s living room, with TV trays loaded down with Swanson’s Mexican TV Dinners, watching Weird, Weird World on Channel 5, and the afternoon’s feature was Son of Frankenstein. From Frank Skinner’s opening theme music to the Basil Rathbone speech on the train, we knew this was going to be an altogether different Frankenstein picture. The Original and The Bride were Gothic Grimm’s Fairy Tales, set in Tyrolean landscapes, with wonderful weird comedic characters. Son is full-on in-your-face melodrama, where the main players have twisted multifaceted personalities, which provide all the elements to make this show into a creepy classic all on its own.
This is a Basil Rathbone tour de force, a year before he became the world’s most famous detective (Sherlock Holmes), a role he could never escape. His verbal duels with Lionel Atwill are the dramatic underpinning of the picture.
While Rathbone and Atwill square off with their semantic swords, Lugosi essays different sides of the living dead when he crows, “They hanged me once, Frankenstein.” ... “They wouldn’t bury me in holy place, like churchyard - because I stole bodies - - - they said. So, Igor is dead!” From undead count to body snatcher, Lugosi’s Igor is a role that pulled him out of an unemployment rut, and the horror ban that condemned him to an impoverished exile. Once again he was a bankable actor, even if it was only to play boogeymen in low budget features, and the occasional second banana in Universal’s 40s horror cycle.
Karloff (who was now billed as Boris Karloff under Basil Rathbone) was reduced to play a comatose monster in what he described as “furs and muck.” He spends most of the film lying on tables, being subjected to Rathbone’s experiments, and growling when he gets an overdose of Kenneth Strickfaden’s amplified electrical effects. It is to Karloff’s credit that he underplays through most of the picture, but when his only friend Igor is slain by Rathbone, Karloff reanimates and carries the last third of the movie.
The old monster plays out his swan song in grand fashion, with a blood curdling scream upon discovering Igor’s lifeless body, that seven decades later resonates with an emotional dept that is clearly lacking in modern cinema. It is to Boris Karloff’s credit that he took his last bow as the monster by turning in a restrained performance, full of menace and darkness, and pulling out all the stops in the last reel for a dynamic windup to the final A budget Frankenstein film.
Critics past and present have not always been kind to the Son. Some have proclaimed that Rathbone’s and Atwill’s banter is way over the top. The fact of the matter is, the whole premise of horror movies is over the top. The idea of a man made of cadavers being alive, and another gentleman who has been hanged by the neck telling a doctor the recent history of his dead friend, isn’t exactly in the reality zone.
The first three Frankenstein pictures have always been part of the rumor mill as far as out-takes and missing footage is concerned. In 1986, Universal released the restored Frankenstein (with all but one graveyard scene, which appears in the flashbacks at the beginning of Bride). Later, when remastered for DVD, Universal restored sound cues that were missing from the laser disc edition.
From time to time, rumors have surfaced in fandom that The Bride of Frankenstein preview print had been found with the out-takes. None of this ever panned out. Theaters printed announcements that they would be running the complete 90 minute version, but this proved to be erroneous.
In 1976 The Son of Frankenstein was shown on a double bill with the 1943 Phantom of the Opera. The print of Son had one additional scene of Josephine Hutchinson that was not in the 99 minute version. In all fairness, it should be noted that in Gregory William Mank's Karloff and Lugosi - The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, Mr. Mank reports that all the missing scenes were in the print that was screened that evening at the Vagabond Theater. I was present at the Vagabond that night, and only remember the one sequence being in the print, but that was thirty-two years ago. I do remember that Suzanne Foster, the co-star of the Claude Rains Phantom was in attendance. It should be noted that Dwight Frye was slotted for Son, but for whatever reason did not make the final cut.
In late fall of 1987, Universal announced that it had found the uncut version of Son of Frankenstein. At the same time, it was rumored that the Technicolor test footage of Son had also been retrieved. Both stories turned out to be red herrings. At this point, this writer contacted some collectors and obtained on loan the out-takes of Son, which were shown to a representative of Universal Pictures, who deemed them unsuitable for insertion into the print due to poor quality.
As to the issue of the color footage, the late George Turner, then the editor of American Cinematographer Magazine, told this writer over lunch that at a private screening of the restored Frankenstein at YCMA Laboratories, a technician showed him a reel of color film and asked, “Do you know what this is?” Mr. Turner replied, “No,” and the tech said, “This is the color test of The Son of Frankenstein.” At that moment, a Universal employee walked in and took the reel, placed in the box with the restored Frankenstein, and it was shipped to Universal’s storage unit in New Jersey. Many attempts have been made over the past two decades to relocate this priceless reel, but all have failed.
The Son of Frankenstein is the last of the classic Frankenstein flicks, and is Karloff’s swan song to his old friend, the monster. It reignited the horror cycle after the horror ban of the mid 1930s, and led the second horror cycle of the 1940s. Its production values, musical score, and overall atmosphere make it a classic in every sense of the word.