Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday, August 8, 1970: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Synopsis: Times are hard in the village of Frankenstein, and a town hall meeting is being held to discuss the situation. The village's reputation has suffered greatly since the events of Son of Frankenstein (1939) and now the inn stands empty, the children go hungry, and a general atmosphere of despair hangs over the town. What can be done to make life better for the citizens?

Well, not much, the mayor admits. But he allows the villagers to go blow up the abandoned castle of the Frankensteins, which they believe is still carrying the family curse.

Of course it can't be a real Frankenstein movie without a torch-wielding mob, and this one races off to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, we find that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has remained in the old castle, playing a rustic horn (which sounds suspiciously like an oboe) by the sulfur pit where his friend the monster was destroyed in the previous film. When the villagers trigger the explosives and blow apart the castle, the monster is freed, and Ygor is delighted to find that he is still alive, though greatly weakened. The two of them flee the destroyed castle.

They make their way to the nearby village of Vasaria. But the monster is soon captured by the police and imprisoned, and the village prosecutor, (Ralph Bellamy) goes to the local psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and asks him to come and assess this difficult case.

But before Frankenstein can do so, Ygor pays him a visit as well. He tells Ludwig that he knows something the people of Vasaria don't know -- that he's the brother of the hated Wolf Frankenstein and the son of the even-more-hated Henry Frankenstein. Moreover, Ygor threatens to reveal this information to the locals if he doesn't act to help the monster.

Compelled to hide the monster in his laboratory, Ludwig decides that it must be destroyed once and for all. He prepares to drain all of the electricity out of the monster's body and disassemble it piece by piece, essentially reversing Henry's installation instructions. But he is visited by the ghost of his father, who implores him to carry on his work and recharge the monster to full power....

Comments: The Ghost of Frankenstein a pretty solid variant on the Frankenstein formula, offering little that's new in terms of story, but staking out some interesting motivations for Ludwig, our latest monster-building contestant.

In the original Frankenstein, Henry was driven by a grotesque desire to become god-like, to create life out of inert material. In Bride of Frankenstein, he is still tempted by that power, but ultimately chickens out on Dr. Pretorius' even wackier ambitions. Ultimately it's fear of the Monster's wrath that compels him to assemble the Bride.

Wolf in Son of Frankenstein believes that he must rebuild the Monster in order to vindicate the work of his father and redeem his reputation with the people of Frankenstein. Wolf saw his job as to prove the Monster's value to the superstitious yokels.

But in The Ghost of Frankenstein it is clear immediately that Ludwig isn't at all like the others. He has no interest in his family's monster-building activities, and he knows the fate that would befall him if he had (Henry, we learn, is long dead, while Wolf has fled the country in disgrace*).

Ludwig is a man who doesn't need to prove anything; and more importantly, he seems to be the most mentally healthy Frankenstein we've ever met. Given the opportunity to restore the Monster to its full health, Ludwig has a better idea: drain its energy away, remove its internal organs and disassemble it, piece by piece.

So in the end the whole plot turns on a very simple question: why does Ludwig change his mind?

Having presented Ludwig as a sane and sensible fellow clearly created a dilemma for the screenwriters. Ludwig isn't going to be tipped over the edge into a monster-building frenzy by an appeal to his vanity or the lure of vindicating the family name. So now a very odd (albeit very old) plot device is introduced: he is visited by the ghost of his father (played by Hardwicke himself) who lays a guilt trip on his son, essentially asking "how could you do this to me?" And Ludwig, against all common sense, gives in to it.

Why this should work on the rational Ludwig -- besides that fact that it's convenient to the plot -- is an interesting question. So let's put ourselves in Ludwig's shoes for a moment. He grew up in the shadow of a father who was domineering , brilliant, and insane. He was overshadowed, too, by the haughty golden child Wolf, who won his father's approval by sharing in his dreams of personal glory and power.

Ludwig was no less ambitious, but his dreams were altogether healthier. He wanted to use his talents to help the human race, to heal the sick minds that he saw all around him going without treatment. And without knowing it, the mind he most wanted to heal was the one that forever lay beyond his reach -- that of his father. So now, hearing his father pleading his case from beyond the grave, Ludwig gets sucked into the biggest rescue fantasy of all time. And like any good child attempting to help a parent who is beyond help, he is on a trajectory toward spectacular failure. That's the kind of failure that Frankenstein movies are all about.

We last saw Sir Cedric Hardwicke on April 25th when he played the conniving cousin in The Invisible Man Returns. He was an enormous asset to that cast, and he is just as valuable here. He is working without the presence of Boris Karloff, and for the first time the role of the monster has devolved to another actor -- in this case Lon Chaney, Jr.

Chaney is lugubrious and forgettable, more of a prop than an actor, but far worse actors would eventually don the big shoes and the flat-top headpiece.

One of those actors would be Bela Lugosi, who was brought back as the amusing Ygor. Somehow Lugosi seems livelier and more interesting in this role than almost any other he's associated with.

The cast list mentions someone named Evelyn Ankers, but I'm afraid I don't remember a thing about her performance.
*For the record, there is no evidence of this disgrace at the end of Son of Frankenstein. In that film, Wolf has destroyed the monster and gunned down Ygor (who has now officially survived a hanging and three .45 slugs at point-blank range, and I'm starting to think he's more durable than the Monster). Wolf deeds the castle and land to the people of the village, and bids them a cheerful farewell at the train station. It is a bright sunny morning, in stark contrast to the rainy, dismal night he arrived. The whole village sees him off, hailing the name of Frankenstein at last. It's safe to say this revisionist history was easier to pull off in the days before TV and home video, when audiences would only vaguely remember the ending from the previous picture, if they remembered it at all.


kochillt said...

Pointing the way to the decline of the Universal series, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN has probably endured more criticism than it deserves. Ygor remains one of the few roles created by, or for, Bela Lugosi, so it was a wise decision to bring him back. What was not so brilliant was the transplanting of his brain into the skull of The Monster, creating an identity crisis for further sequels. The script presents The Monster as a menacing brute with childlike qualities, hampering Chaney's performance; he remains the best post Karloff (only his "baby," The Wolf Man, was better). This film aired 10 times on CHILLER THEATER. Minnesota certainly got the classics up front, Pittsburgh had to wait three years before the arrival of SHOCK!

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