Saturday, August 4, 1973: Son of Frankenstein (1939) / The Cat Creeps (1946)

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father’s estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father’s work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail. At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms.

Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father’s “monster”; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots. Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father’s laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father’s work by bringing the creature back to life…

Comments:  Son of Frankensteinwas the last film Basil Rathbone worked on before starring in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), which vaulted him permanently onto the Hollywood A-list. Up until this point Rathbone had been a splendid supporting player, cast most effectively in villainous roles (Tybalt in the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), but he also excelled as fellows who were at least partially sympathetic — Major Brand in The Dawn Patrol, and the French pirate Levasseur in Captain Blood. But Rathbone was not seen as leading man material.

In spite of his Shakespearean pedigree and obvious strengths as an actor he didn’t project the same warmth as his contemporaries Errol Flynn and David Niven. This would not matter when he donned the deerstalker cap and became for decades the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes in the public imagination. Holmes was always a difficult character to cast, or perhaps more accurately an easy character to miscast (Roger Moore, Frank Langella and Matt Frewer being only three of many actors to embarrass themselves in the role). What makes Holmes such difficult territory is that he isn’t a conventional hero and is strangely immune to screen adaptations that try to make him one.

Over the years many filmmakers have tried to domesticate him: prettying him up, giving him a love life, making him warm and accessible. Those adaptations invariably fail. The only successful Holmes adaptations have kept him as both more — and less — than human. This is a big reason why Rathbone was so successful with the role. He couldn’t do warm or romantic the way Niven and Flynn could, but those actors could not match the icy determination, the cerebral coolness, that Rathbone projected.

For the same reason he is perfect as Wolf. Frankenstein père was depicted as little more than a simpering neurotic, who loses all agency once the monster is created. We are happy to discover that Wolf is made of sterner stuff. Even when events spiral out of control he manages to keep his head, and he regains the upper hand in the end. And unlike his father or the sinister Pretorious, Wolf’s intentions remain good. He is motivated primarily by his desire to erase the graffito found on Henry’s casket: Maker of Monsters. And he wants to erase that sobriquet not just from the casket, but from the hearts of the people of Frankenstein, and from his own guilty conscience. His circumstances are outsized, but Henry’s impulse — to redeem the reputation of his father — is almost Shakespearean in its ambition and in its ubiquity. Wolf’s also motivated by a surprisingly honest desire to expand the frontiers of knowledge. In reviewing the notes in the laboratory he realizes that his father did not fully understand the implications of the lightning that he was using to give life to the creature. In fact, Wolf concludes, it was cosmic rays, not lightning, that gives the monster its titanic strength and near invulnerability. At this point the monster ceases to be “just” an undead creature stitched together from corpses and reanimated with electricity. “He cannot die,” says Ygor. “He lives for always”. Accidental exposure to cosmic rays must have seemed a fairly novel explanation in 1939, but audiences would soon get used to it : by the 1950s radiation would be a one-stop shop for Universal’s screenwriters. It could cause any problem and become every solution.This is movie that wears quite well on repeated viewing. Bela Lugosi is simply delightful in this movie, and made me wish Ygor had turned up in a few more of these pictures.

The Cat Creeps

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Terry Nichols (Fred Brady) is given an assignment to look into a 15-year-old cold case, which may implicate senatorial candidate Walter Elliot (Jonathan Hale) shortly before election day. Nichols knows that the publisher’s brother-in-law is the incumbent senator and is in danger of losing the election to Elliot, so he’s suspicious of the motives behind the assignment. Nevertheless, the tip the newspaper has received from the elderly Cora Williams, while flaky, might just be legitimate: she claims that the supposed suicide of bootlegger Eric Goran was in fact a murder; that $200,000 was the motive and that Williams — and her black cat — have discovered the whereabouts of the money.

Nichols has reason to resent the assignment, aside from his distaste in doing someone else’s dirty work: his girlfriend Gay is Walter Elliot’s daughter. Nichol’s first stop is the Elliot household, where he tells both Elliot and Gay the situation. Walter is not upset at the news, and understands the position Nichol’s been put in; but Gay is angered by his actions.

Nichols leaves, but with photographer Pidge Laurie (Noah Beery, Jr) follows Elliot to the waterfront; the latter has secured a boat to take him, Gay, attorney Tom McGalvey (Douglas Dumbrille), his secretary Connie Palmer (Rose Hobart) and private detective Ken Grady (Paul Kelly) to the island where Cora Williams lives. Nichols and Pidge cadge a ride with Elliot’s party.

As they approach the island they see a light on in the house, but it is out when they reach the shore and the house is locked; Nichols reasons that Williams saw the party approaching and is pretending to not be home. But as it turns out Elliot has a key to the house and lets himself in, while Grady gains entry through the cellar.

Once inside the house, the party splits up and looks around. They hear a scream from upstairs and find Cora Williams has been attacked and is unconscious. Gay goes to the boat to get help, only to discover that it has been set on fire and the party is trapped on the island.

Grady pulls Palmer aside and tells her to listen for anything Williams might say while she is unconscious, and it becomes clear the two are secretly working together. Pidge, gathering firewood outside, hears someone moving in the servant’s quarters near the shore, but he is kicked in the face by an unseen assailant when he investigates.

Soon Williams is dead — Nichols believes whoever attacked her has finished the job. Unexpectedly someone new appears on the island — Kyara Goran (Iris Lancaster), the daughter of the possibly-murdered Eric Goran. She claims that even though Williams is dead, her soul has been reincarnated into the body of her black cat…

Comments: Universal released two different films with the title The Cat Creeps; the first, from 1930, was based on the stage play The Cat and the Canary and has long been presumed lost. It spawned a well-known remake (The Cat and the Canary) starring Bob Hope in 1939 (though it was released by Paramount, not Universal). Tonight’s movie from 1946 has no connection with either film, but is a completely independent story that seems to have simply used the title The Cat Creeps as a starting point.

The movie was the last gasp of Universal’s golden age of horror. It was released on a double bill with She-Wolf of London in 1946 and shares that film’s disheartening cheapness. Tonight marks its first appearance on Horror Incorporated.

In spite of a brisk running time (57 minutes), the plot is unnecessarily complicated, apparently for no other reason than to hide the fact that not much is going on. Red herrings are trotted out and forgotten, plot points are introduced and abandoned, and horror elements are hinted at and never realized. Like She-Wolf of London, it assumes the trappings of a horror movie (there’s an Old Dark House to wander around in, and a black cat that we’re told contains the soul of a dead woman) but it ultimately reveals itself to be a standard mystery story.

While the dialogue is a bit snappier than some of the B-pictures of this era, the script seems to have been written very quickly, and neither the characters nor the plot are very well thought-out. The liveliest actor in the cast is Noah Beery, Jr. as Pidge Laurie, the sidekick of the reporter protagonist. Normally this kind of character is relegated to comic relief duties (as was Donald Kerr’s odious “One Shot” McGuire in The Devil Bat), but Pidge is more of an equal to Nichols in this one, and even gets some good lines of his own.

Frederick Brady was an undistinguished actor who appeared only in B-films; he later found some success as a writer in the early days of television, penning scripts for 77 Sunset Strip and Cheyenne, as well as anthology programs like Alcoa Theater, Jane Wyman Presents and Studio 57. He’s a somewhat unconventional lead and I rather liked him for that, but he doesn’t really command the screen as a lead actor should, and it’s not a surprise that he didn’t find more success in front of the camera.

Lois Collier was a radio-actor-turned-Universal-player who seemed to spend most of her seven years under contract marking time on the studio lot; she had a pretty face but not much else to recommend her. Like Brady, she moved over to television in the early 1950s, appearing as a regular on the Boston Blackie TV series before disappearing from the business.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. SON OF FRANKESTEIN popped up 10 times on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, as did BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. For whatever reason, THE CAT CREEPS was just as prolific with 7 broadcasts. There are really only two choices for the mystery killer, and once one gets bumped off, well…’nuff said.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.