Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

While horror films had been very profitable for Universal, the studio still showed a loss in the Depression years of 1932, 1933 and 1935. With studio earnings lower than expected, Carl Laemmle was forced to take out a loan of $750,000 to keep the studio open as Showboat(1936) was about to go into production. He agreed to repay the loan on time or sell the studio for 5.5 million dollars. When Laemmle was unable to repay the loan Standard Capital bought Universal and renamed it 'New Universal Studios'.  Showboat (1936) was released less than 2 months after Standard Capital took control and was a huge box-office success.

 J. Cheever Cowdin of Standard Capital and Charles R. Rogers, an associate producer at Paramount, now controlled 80% of Universal’s stock.  In an interview given to the Los Angeles Daily News by Rogers on June 17, 1936 he announced that “Universal this year will go in for less tense drama and so-called ‘horror’ pictures, and make more pictures to amuse and enthuse audiences.”
Due to the unofficial British ban on horror films the horror film production had ground to a halt in America.  But in 1938 Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) were re-released as a double-feature, ticket sales soared as movie going audiences flocked to the theater to catch the double feature of two of the greatest horror films of the decade.  The studio heads soon realized that the horror genre was still a viable market. Not wanting to miss out on an almost certain box office hit Universal decided to revitalize its production of horror films with Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the third film in Universal Studios' Frankenstein series and would be the last to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster. Universal decided to make the film an “A”  list movie and had originally planned to film it in color. However test shooting revealed that the monster's make-up was not up to standard and the plan was abandoned.

Bela Lugosi As Ygor
James Whale the director of the wildly successful Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) did not wish to make any more horror films, so Universal selected Rowland V. Lee to direct Son of Frankenstein (1939). Peter Lorre was to play the part of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, but Lorre was replaced by Basil Rathbone when Lorre became ill. Bela Lugosi was cast as Ygor, a character that was not included in the script when filming began.

Director Rowland V. was appalled by that fact that Universal was paying Bela Lugosi only $500 per week. Universal management had learned that Lugosi desperately needed money and took advantage of his dire circumstances. Lee insisted in changes to the script throughout production to make Lugosi's character more central to the story and ensure that Lugosi would earn a respectable salary. Due to the almost constant changes in the script, much of the screenplay was finished just before the scenes were scheduled to be shot. Director Rowland V. Lee, therefore, was able to keep Bela Lugosi working throughout filming, and allowed Lugosi to build up the role of Ygor, a character that was never in the original screenplay. As a result Lugosi almost single handedly created for himself a role that would become one of his best and most remembered of his career.
 Perhaps due to the recent pressure from the censors, Son of Frankenstein (1939), unlike the previous films, included family themes and emphasized Frankenstein’s relationship with his son, Peter played by Donnie Dunagan. Dunagan who would later provide the voice in the Disney classic Bambi (1942), joined the U.S Marines in 1952 never revealing his childhood career as an actor for fear of being nicknamed “Bambi”.  Dunagan would become the youngest drill sergeant in Marine History, served three tours in Vietnam and was promoted to rank of major before his retirement in 1977.

 Son of Frankenstein (1939) would mark the last time Boris Karloff would play the role of the monster in a feature film and it was also the last time that Universal produced an “A” production of a Frankenstein film. The film was a huge hit for Universal Studios and revitalized the horror genre, thus making Son of Frankenstein (1939) perhaps one of the most significant horror films of the decade. The two-year drought of horror films was now over and Universal studios and other motion picture studios opened the floodgates of the horror genre. Son of Frankenstein (1939) marked the end of an era and a beginning of a new one. The early 1940s would see new monsters and new stories brought to life in B- rated productions, none of which would ever compare to their predecessors.

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