Watching 1939: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Release date: 

Cast:  Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan, Emma Dunn, Edgar Norton

Studio:  Universal

Director:  Rowland V. Lee

Twenty-five years after Dr. Frankenstein and the monster’s death, his son Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) and his family (Hutchinson, Dunagan) travel to the Frankenstein estate from the United States when it is left to them after his father’s death. The whole town resents Baron Frankenstein returning because of the terror his family brought on the village. When realizing the Monster (Karloff) is still alive, he follows in his father’s footsteps to bring him back to life with the help of Ygor (Lugosi).

1939 Notes:
• Boris Karloff’s last role playing Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster.
• Josephine Hutchinson’s only film released in 1939.
• Lionel Atwill was in nine films released in 1939.
• Bela Lugosi was in five films released in 1939.
• Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone were both in six films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Peter Lorre was originally approached to play the role of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, which he turned down, according to 1938 articles in The Hollywood Reporter.
• Director Rowland V. Lee tested shooting the film in color, which was abandoned.
• The third Frankenstein film released by Universal. The first two were Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
• Donnie Dunagan’s second film.
• The monster makeup was created by Jack P. Pierce, and it took approximately four hours to prepare Boris Karloff for the scenes.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
The year 1939 was important for a few actors in this film. For Boris Karloff, it was the last time he would have to dress in the heavy monster costume after performing the role three times.

For Basil Rathbone, the year would end up profitable as he would end up playing his most well-known role: Sherlock Holmes.

But before becoming the famed detective, Rathbone had to play Dr. Frankenstein’s misguided son in “Frankenstein’s Son.”

Moving his family across the world and excited to shed the college professor life, Rathbone’s character views Dr. Frankenstein as a genius, rather than a madman. While the monster is supposed to be scary, Rathbone’s character is one of the main villans of this film, with Bela Lugosi’s Ygor leading the madness.

“Son of Frankenstein” features a high quality cast with Basil Rathbone, providing evil with panache, and Josephine Hutchinson. I also love Donnie Dunagan, who later voiced “Bambi” in 1942. The film of course features creepy mainstays Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and Boris Karloff (as the Monster).

“Son of Frankenstein” isn’t the most important film of the year, but it’s a fun example of the Universal horror films. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite of the Frankenstein films. Plus Frankenstein wears that awesome fashion vest.

I would also say it’s the last high-quality Frankenstein film before Frankenstein is teamed up in the cross-reference films, with the Wolfman and his other horror friends.

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3 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

  1. Great film that was overlooked for way too long. Sets are amazing and yes, great cast. Atwill and Bela in career roles. If it wasn’t for Dracula, this would be Bela’s most remembered role. Probably his best performance.


  2. Thanks for your reviews of the films of 1939. I have an interest in classic film after teaching a course entitled Introduction to Film at Gaston College for several years. Son of Frankenstein is interesting because if the legendary cast, but my favorites in the Frankenstein canon remain the two films that James Whale directed. Everything since pales by comparison.

    By the way, what is your theory on the monumental achievements in film in 1939 and why it happened? Is there a motif running through that year with the threat of fascism raging in Europe and World War II escalating?

    Incidentally, I follow you on Twitter and enjoy your tweets.

    Michael Powell,
    Professor of English


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