Son of Frankenstein (1939)

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Every horror fan knows the Universal Classic Monsters, as do most people who don't even like horror. I know, I know—it's pretty shocking to realize that some people don't like horror. Horror is everywhere, though, and has become such an integral part of modern culture that it would be impossible to imagine a world without it.

Can you imagine a world without Frankenstein? I certainly can't. As soon as you see the word "Frankenstein," you probably have a mental image that looks something like this...

Frankenstein's monster
Boris Karloff in Son of Frankenstein

What you see above is Boris Karloff in the third film of the Frankenstein series from Universal, Son of Frankenstein. Check out the awesome theatrical release trailer from 1939 right here.

Many people think the monster you see above is named "Frankenstein"—but it's more of "Frankenstein's monster." Or, maybe even "Adam."

"Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

There's an unwritten rule that you can't talk about Frankenstein, even from the Universal Classic Monsters lineup, without acknowledging the woman responsible for the entire thing, Mary Shelley. So, before we jump into the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein, we should all thank Mary Shelley for her incredible blend of gothic horror and science fiction in the book that started it, the book where she literally invented Frankenstein and his monster: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Also, more modern works should bring back the semicolon for titles.

Painting of Mary Shelley.
Reginald Easton's miniature of Mary Shelley, allegedly drawn from her death mask (c. 1857).

In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and plunged the world, especially the Northern Hemisphere, into a long and cold volcanic winter and the worst famine of the century.

Mary Shelley, then Mary Godwin, aged 17, began what would become her Frankenstein story while spending time indoors with her future husband at Lord Byron's Villa Diodati in Switzerland to avoid the dreary weather of the summer of 1816 (known as "The Year Without a Summer"). They were sitting fireside and reading ghost stories when Lord Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story of their own. Unable to come up with a ghost story, Mary conceived a tale about a human reanimating a corpse with electricity. It began as a short story and quickly expanded into a novel, blending elements of gothic horror and what is now recognized as science fiction. By age twenty, Mary published it, and the world forever changed.

And that unwritten rule I just mentioned about needing to acknowledge the woman responsible for the entire Frankenstein everything? Looks like I just wrote it down. Now it's a written rule.

Thank you, Mary, for inventing Frankenstein and science fiction as we know it, as well as a whole host of other things that changed the entire trajectory of storytelling as we know it. Without you, the world would have become incredibly dull, and the Son of Frankenstein film is just one example of a thing that would never have existed.

Did You Know?

In addition to science fiction, Mary Shelley also literally invented dystopian fiction with her 1826 novel The Last Man, beating out Yevgeny Zamyatin, H.G. Wells, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Oliver Bolokitten, and anyone else you may or may not have heard of by years. Years!


Mary Shelley and some of her works are on my list to write about at some point, so let's jump ahead to 1939 and look at one of the many inspired by her monstrous literary invention.

Son of Frankenstein: Spoiler-Free Synopsis

Son of Frankenstein was the third film from Universal that featured Frankenstein, following Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The story opens some (unspecified) time after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, and Dr. Frankenstein from the previous two films is still feared by the local villagers even though he's been dead for a time. His son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, shows up at the castle to collect his inheritance and restore his father's reputation by, you guessed it, resurrecting the monster that went on a rampage in the previous films.

No, no, wait, I know what you're thinking. You're wondering how Baron Wolf von Frankenstein resurrecting the monster that wrecked the village and killed people would restore Dr. Frankenstein's reputation, right?

But it makes perfect logical sense.

You see...

There Was No Script When Filming Began

Told you.

It makes perfect sense.

Okay, admittedly, that header was a bit of an exaggeration. The director, Rowland V. Lee, did have a script, a few of them, actually; he just didn't like any of them. The script was written, rewritten, filming was delayed, the script was rewritten again, and then production started. Still unhappy with the script, Lee kept rewriting, handing new pages to actors minutes before filming scenes, and kept rewriting on set until the filming was completed. The entire production took about two months to finish.

Despite an ever-shifting script, it all came together to make one great movie, probably because Lee had dozens of films already behind him and was working with an entire crew of experienced actors and professionals who could take anything thrown at them and make it work.

Unbelievable Cast of Characters

Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, and make-up by Jack Pierce—every one of them an acting giant in their own right.

Basil Rathbone wearing a stethoscope and lab coat, standing in front of some lab equipment.
Basil Rathbone as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Supposedly, Basil didn't like horror, even though he appeared in several horror films. I haven't been able to confirm this rumor.
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster looking down.
Boris Karloff as the "monster." Wearing the monster costume was brutal; it took a long time to apply, and the shoes weighed about 11 pounds (5 kg) each! Son of Frankenstein was Boris's last appearance as the monster in the films, though he made a few guest appearances in other shows like Route 66.
Bela Lugosi as Igor, looking kind of scraggly with shaggy hair and a beard.
Bela Lugosi (yes, of Dracula fame!) as Igor. Lugosi almost played the monster in the original film but said the role wasn't suitable for him, and he turned it down, opening it up for Boris Karloff.
Lionel Atwill in an inspector uniform.
Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh. He comes on screen and declares that the monster ripped his arm from its socket when he was a boy.
Josephine Hutchinson sitting in a large chair at a table.
Josephine Hutchinson as Baroness Elsa von Frankenstein. Don't miss her in this film. In addition to appearing in Son of Frankenstein, she was also in dozens of films and TV shows throughout her career. Josephine started her career in silent movies and was one of the few actors who successfully transitioned into talkies.
A young curly haired boy, Donnie Dunagan, in pajamas.
Donnie Dunagan, a child actor who appeared as Peter von Frankenstein (son of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein) in Son of Frankenstein, also voiced Young Bambi in Walt Disney's Bambi in 1942. Ten years later, at age 18, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He retired with the rank of major in 1977 after serving in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War and receiving both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Jack Pierce applying Frankenstein's monster make-up to Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff sits in a chair with a cigarette.
Jack Pierce, make-up artist at Universal. Jack was the person who created the iconic looks for Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy. You can (and should) read all about him at Jack Pierce — Forgotten Make-up Genius.

Go Watch: Son of Frankenstein


It's a classic.

Here are some links to where to find it.

It's not free, but it's worth it.

As always, those aren't referral links, and I gain nothing by you clicking through and making a purchase other than the satisfaction of knowing I've made a good recommendation.

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