Monday, October 24, 2016

Rowland V. Lee | Son of Frankenstein

out for revenge
by Douglas Messerli

Wyllis Cooper (screenplay, based on the novel by Mary Shelley), Rowland V. Lee (director) Son of Frankenstein / 1939

It’s hard when commenting on Rowland V. Lee’s rather clumsy Son of Frankenstein, to not want to mention all the scenes that were portrayed so much more charmingly in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein—a desire I will try to resist.

Let us just say that if Basil Rathbone makes a rather boorish Baron Wolf von Frankenstein —at moments, like the villages of Frankenstein, I wish he, his wife, Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson), and their stock Hollywood child actor son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan) had stayed in England—Béla Lugosi, as the reincarnated former Fritz (in Frankenstein) and Karl (in Bride of Frankenstein), now named Ygor brings some real life into the film, just as the Monster (again Karloff) settles back into grunts and groans, having evidently unlearned the rudimentary language of Bride.

       But even if the Monster cannot now speak, he has truly discovered a “friend” in Ygor, who bids him, one by one, to destroy all of the former jury members who had sentenced Ygor to be hung. The hanging failed, allowing Ygor to survive; like the monster he, too, is now a dead man come back to life. In short, it is now Ygor who is at the center of the tale, not the Monster, who spends much of his on-screen time sleeping in a coma.  
      The great moment of this film, however, returns to Karloff when, discovering the dead body of his friend, he strokes Ygor’s body and screams out in pain, intimating that their relationship had been far more than a simple friendship.

      Another “odd” relationship in Wyllis Cooper’s screenplay is the Monster’s nighttime visitations to Frankenstein’s young son, who even shares his book of fairy tales with the “big man.” And, when in retaliation for Ygor’s, the Monster seems determined to kill by boy, he cannot bring himself to do so, thus assuring his own destruction.
      Similarly inexplicable is the local visits of Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) to the Frankenstein manor. From the beginning this would-be general—despite the fact that as a child he, himself, lost his arm to the Monster’s fury—insists he will protect the Baron and his family. And, even though he strongly suspects the Baron of nefarious activities, he returns to speak to him, his wife, and their son, time and again, sharing drink, food, and a game of darts. Indeed both he and the Burgomaster, despite their druthers, seem determined to treat the interloper better than their fellow townspeople, the inspector, by film’s end, appearing to have practically moved in with the Frankensteins, much to the delight, clearly, of the lonely and fearful Elsa.
      And, finally, we are faced with yet an odder set of relationships in the Baron’s somewhat explicable admiration for the father he had never seen and to the Monster who, because created by his father, is here described as his “brother.”
     Unlike Brooks’ son, this film’s Baron hardly needs any prodding to help bring the Monster back to full life. Even his father more strongly resisted the threats of Pretorius—the later of whom shared a relationship with the monster similar to Ygor’s. 
      Without pushing this too much, accordingly, Lee’s film hints at homosexual love, pederasty, inherited madness, and, even potential infidelity, all wrapped up in a tale of several personal revenges: Ygor’s, the Monster’s, the Baron’s, and Krogh’s. 
      It is, quite obviously, the theme of revenge which drains the film from its previously hubris-driven themes. These figures are more driven by what they have lost as opposed to what the two other tales of Frankenstein suggested were misplaced dreams and aspirations. Imagine Hamlet without any of his imagination and meditations, or even his ability to fear for his “dreaming” after death.
      Here nearly everything seems neatly predetermined, as if the Catholic world of this formerly idyllic German village had been taken over by the Calvinists. Indeed, we discover—another oddity difficult to explain—that the Frankensteins built their original castle upon a bed of Sulphur which over the years has heated up to, symbolically, match the heat of hell. In other words, their whole world has been built upon their own eternal damnation.
      How empty the Baron’s parting words appear, accordingly, as he merrily bequeaths the castle and its grounds to the people of the village while he darts off with his wife and son into the train that will take back to a far safer place. You can almost hear the villagers, under their breaths, muttering “good riddance.”

Los Angeles, October 24, 2016

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