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‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’: A Look Back at the Universal Studios Horror Film 80 Years After its Release



'The Ghost of Frankenstein': A Look Back at the Universal Studios Horror Film 80 Years After its Release

Eighty years ago, Universal Studios underwent a changing of the guard with regard to its Frankenstein franchise. Boris Karloff no longer wanted to play the Frankenstein Monster for the studio; he had handled the role beautifully in the original film, along with two sequels, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, but felt the character had run its course. The studio, however, believed differently and felt the franchise still had enough energy to bring big box office numbers. Facing the daunting task of having to replace Karloff in his iconic role, Universal turned to its up and coming star, Lon Chaney, Jr. to take over the reins of its most marketable monster. And thus, The Ghost of Frankenstein was born in March of 1942.

On paper, a Frankenstein movie without Karloff might have seemed destined for failure. But Universal believed in Chaney’s bankability. The studio also knew that it could lean on Bela Lugosi, who had so masterfully taken on the role of the hunchbacked Igor in the third Frankenstein film, Son of Frankenstein.

The Frankenstein Monster had been killed at the end of Son of Frankenstein, but that was not the kind of obstacle that Universal found difficult to overcome in creating sequels. The titular “ghost” appears for less than two minutes in The Ghost of Frankenstein; the centerpiece of the movie is simply a monster that has somehow been brought back to life. Scriptwriter Scott Darling and director Eric C. Kenton revive The Monster through a series of explosions at the castle where he is entombed; he is then struck by lightning, giving him a further jolt of energy.

The Ghost of Frankenstein Lon Chaney, Jr

Lugosi’s Ygor, who is somehow alive after seemingly being fatally shot in Son of Frankenstein, discovers The Monster and brings him to Ludwig Frankenstein, the son of Wolf von Frankenstein. Ygor wants Ludwig to provide further care for the creature, who is in a weakened condition. Played by English actor Cedric Hardwicke, Ludwig believes that The Monster must receive a new brain in order to live. He becomes consumed with the idea of replacing his current brain, which is criminal in nature, with one that comes from someone who has more character and a sense of morality. But Ludwig unwittingly ends up transplanting the brain of the evil Ygor, thanks to the trickery of Atwill’s character, Dr. Bohmer. The transplant does allow The Monster to live, but given Ygor’s lack of law-abiding, does nothing to change the course of his evil ways. What it does do is leave The Monster blind, because of the incompatibility of Ygor’s blood type with that of the creature.

As historian Frank Dello Stritto points out, Chaney was the logical choice for Universal in finding a successor to Karloff. “Chaney’s performance in Of Mice and Men made Chaney a star,” Dello Stritto explained during a presentation at the 2018 Monster Bash Conference. “Then came Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man.” With those two 1941 films representing successes for Universal, Chaney seemed like the ideal choice for Ghost of Frankenstein.

On the surface, Chaney’s size and stature add to the brutality of The Monster. The makeup that was applied made him look similar to Karloff, but with added brawn and muscle. Counting the makeup and the costuming, Chaney carried over 280 pounds of weight, including his own weight of 230 pounds. Chaney certainly looks the part of a dangerous and raving monster, but as Dello Stritto points out, “Chaney was the anti-Karloff. He did not want to imitate Karloff.” So rather than portray The Monster in a pathetic way, Chaney makes him a raging and powerful creature.

The Ghost of Frankenstein Actress Janet Ann Gallow

Perhaps intentionally so, Chaney lacks the emotional range and variety of facial expressions that Karloff used so well in creating a character that was simultaneously vicious and sympathetic. With Chaney, the soul of The Monster is lacking, and perhaps completely absent from the story.

In contrast to Karloff, who was generally easy to work with, Chaney created some difficulties while on the set of Ghost of Frankenstein. He reportedly drank heavily during the production; during one scene, while wearing the full makeup of The Monster, he was so intoxicated that he lost his way while walking through the laboratory set’s maze.

Chaney was also short-tempered during the filming. Fitted with a rubber headpiece that was attached to his forehead by makeup man Jack Pierce, Chaney complained repeatedly about how uncomfortable the attachment felt. One day, he became so frustrated that he angrily tore the headpiece away from his head. That fit of temper resulted in a huge gash on his forehead. The degree of the injury was severe enough that it halted production for a few days.

The Ghost of Frankenstein Cast

While Chaney’s behavior was less than exemplary, Lugosi was also going through some persona problems that likely affected his performance. He’s still good as Ygor, giving the character an inherently demented evil while maintaining his phony veneer of ignorance, but it’s not quite at the level of his remarkable portrayal of the hunchback in Son of Frankenstein.

Thankfully, the additional cast members help the situation, making the story more credible. Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers, and Ralph Bellamy, four reliable players for Universal, all deliver in their supporting roles behind Lugosi and Chaney.

The Ghost of Frankenstein succeeds in providing entertainment, but it doesn’t meet the high standards of the first three films in the series, all of which have achieved classic status. The acting from the two main stars is not quite as good, the sets are lacking the same atmosphere, and the running time at 67 minutes is simply not long enough to allow for character development.

If the viewer is willing to overlook such comparisons and judge the film on its own merits, The Ghost of Frankenstein is still a solid, worthwhile film. It’s also fun to see Chaney, a large and muscular man, give The Monster the sheer size and strength that had never before been seen on the screen. It’s quite a sight, and one that any fan of vintage horror films will appreciate.



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