Son of Frankenstein (1939) was directed by Rowland V. Lee. The film was released by Universal Studios. Boris Karloff stars in the role of the monster with Bela Lugosi as Ygor, Basil Rathbone as Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein, Donnie Dunagan as Peter and Josephine Hutchinson as Elsa Von Frankenstein. The film is available via streaming on Amazon Prime, Youtube and Itunes, as well as for rent or purchase in DVD and VHS format.


Wolf Von Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife Elsa and their young son Peter; they are greeted on arrival with a suspicious crowd at the train station. Wolf is the son of Victor Frankenstein, who created the monster in the previous 1931 James Whale filmWolf soon meets Ygor, who has survived the villagers' attempt to hang him despite having a broken neck. Ygor brings wolf to a family crypt, where he reveals the comotose monster laying near the tombs of his father and grandfather. Ygor demands Wolf revive the monster. Wolf examines the monster's body decides that the extreme abnormalities causing the monster to be nearly immortal  warrants scientific investigation. Once the monster is revived, Ygor uses a flute type instrument to control him, committing multiple murders. These victims were members of the the town council, having testified against him and causing the hanging which broke his neck. Inspector Krogh's arm was torn off by the monster when Krogh was a small child. Eventually Wolf shoots Ygor; when the monster discovers Ygor's body he screams in anguish. The monster seeks revenge on Wolf by kidnapping and attempting to murder his young son Peter. The monster hesitates before killing the child, allowing Wolf to swing in on a rope in the last possible moment and knock the monster into a boiling sulfur pit below, while waving Krogh's detached arm. The film closes with the Frankenstein family leaving the village on the train amidst a happy crowd wishing them  a cheerful farewell. 

Family Relationships


Peter and the Monster, played by Boris Karloff in Universal's Son of Frankenstein (1939) directed by Rowland Lee

Son of Frankenstein (1939) empahsizes familial relationships, as the title indicates. Father and son relationships are especially depicted; the relationship between Wolf and his family legacy as well as his young son Peter are repeatedly emphasized. The scene with Ygor in the crypt goes further, references Wolf as a sibling to the monster. Wolf responds, saying, "Are you calling that thing my brother?!" Here the film explicitly ties the monster to Wolf's family.  The monster's body is also shown between the bodies of Wolf's father and grandfather; this visually ties the creation of the monster with Wolf's paternal line. Wolf strives in the film to redeem the stain on his family's legacy. He views his father's work as having been intended to be morally positive, blaming his father's assistant for the monster having been given a criminal brain which ruined what would have been a positive outcome. This belief is shown visually when Wold crosses out the graffiti on his father's tomb which reads "maker of monsters," and re-writes the phrase so that it reads "maker of men." When Wolf saves his young son Peter, he is also acting to literally save his family's legacy. He acts to not only heal/save the emotional bond between he and his father and the previous generations that the monster blighted, but also saves Peter physically literally from the monster.  

Movie poster for Rowland Lee's Son of Frankenstein, produced by Universal Studios

Ygor and the monster are also shown to have a familial type bond. The scifist  commented on the relationship: "(The monster) is completely under the control of Ygor, who he seems to consider both friend and master."  (Scifist ) Ygor controls the monster with a musical instrument, using him as a tool for commiting murder. However, there seems to be some affection between them. When the monster stumbles upon Ygor's corpse, he lets out a bellowing, painful scream. The way Ygor demands Wolf revive the monster, calling him "my friend," shows some level of affection beyond purely utilitarian motives. The resolution of the relationship betwen the monster and Ygor is contrasted with that of Wolf's family; where the Frankenstein family is re-integrated into the community by the conclusion of the film, Ygor and the monster die. The two family groups are reversals or foils for each other in appearance, morality and the outcome of the narrative. 

The monster's silence renders him more of an instrument of Ygor's murderous intentions than a fully autonomous being. He is shown in the role of child in relation to Ygor who displays control over him; this is a marked difference in this film adaptation versus the source text where the monster was independent. It also shows a departure from the role of the monster in the James Whale film Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where the monster had a speaking role. 



Frankenstein's Laboratory in Son of Frankenstein (1939) by Universal Studios

Wolf does is characterized as a morally 'good' character. Although he views his father's actions as having been positively motivated, he doesn't participate in some of the more morally ambiguous acts his father had perpetrated. He does not scavenge graves for body parts, or animate a new creature. Wolf is a more wholly sympathetic character than his father, striving to redeem family honor and forwarding scientific investigation but not attempting to overcome  the boundary between life and death. When he saves his child he is further shown to be a sympathetic hero. Wolf here sucesfully inhabiting of the role of 'father' while defeating the monster his father had created. This moment diverges from the source narrative's tragic ending where most major characters die. It emphasizes Wolf as a much more wholly 'positive' figure than that of Victor in the source text, who suffered guilt after causing the deaths of numerous people close to him. 

The dining room in Son of Frankenstein (1939) directed by Rowland Lee, showing the aesthetic style of the set design.

Christopher Toumey points out: "Dr. Wolf Von Frankenstein, title character of Son of Frankenstein (released in 1939 by Universal) reanimated the creature. Foolishly he ignored the warnings of the simple peasants and underestimated the creature's violence. Throughout the film the creature was controlled, not by this Dr. Frankenstein, but by Ygor, the crippled grave robber. In effect, this scientist was a spectator to the moral conflicts of his scientific research" (Toumey, 427) Although Toumey ascribes some guilt to Wolf here in lack of preventative action, he is still described as principally inept rather than motivated by evil intentions or a lust for knowledge out of control. Wolf is especially confirmed as a "good" character when the villagers give him and his family a warm farewell, as opposed to the suspicion and 'cold shoulder' they displayed when the family arrived. Wolf succesfully redeemed his family name, resulting in their positive re-integration into the community. 

Appearance Edit

In Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ygor's unattractive appearance and deformity in the form of a broken neck and hunched, twisted back as well as sharpened teeth correlate with his evil inner qualties. He is the ultimate villain of the film, controlling the monster as a tool of murder against those he perceives to have wronged him. The rejection of Ygor by the larger community is shown as justifiable. He is the social 'other,' inhabiting a more significant outsider status than the monster who he uses as a weapon to enact revenge on those who wronged him. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the novel shows the monster suffering intense rejection as a reaction to his physical appearance (Shelley, 103). The monster of the novel sought revenge on the humanity which has scorned him, much as Ygor in the '39 film adaptation seeks revenge on those who had condemned him to death. However, the source narrative is more ambiguous as to who is ultimately at fault for the violence that takes place. Where Ygor is shown as the ultimate villain int he film adaptation, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley questions the validity of the assumptions the community makes about the monster's appearance. The monster is ugly, but it is ambiguous at to whether he is evil, or the rejection of society and Victor were at ultimate fault. The novel questions the validity of assumptions made ased on appearance. As Heffernan observes:  "In the novel, of course, the monster's ugliness of face and form blinds Victor to the beauty of his soul, which is revealed in words that Victor cannot or will not understand because they come from one who seems to him nothing but a repulsive killer" (Heffernan 157) Rowland Lee's film adaptation contrasts with the novel here by repetitively characterizing the beautiful as morally good and the ugly as inherently evil. Wolf and his family are also comparatively attractive, which in the film is congruent with their moral nature. 

The moment in Son of Frankenstein (1939) when the monster witnesses himself in the mirror and expresses disgust and horror evokes the moment of repulsion in the source text when the monster views his reflection in a pool of water: "... but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity." (Shelley, 84-85) The film adaptation similarly shows the monster reacting with what appears to be horror, deep emotional pain, sorrow, and disgust when he sees himself in a mirror. Eventually he turns away in horror or shame, displaying deep pain. Although the film does not attempt to be particularly faithful to the source text, this moment in Son of Frankenstein (1939) clearly echoes a specific instance described in the source text Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. 

Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Rowland Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Outsider Status and RejectionEdit

When the film opens, the Frankenstein family are rejected by the community. The family's outsider status is immediately established due to the legacy of Wolf's father.The family are given a warm farewell by the townspeople in the closing shots of the film, resolving the rejection from the opening scenes. In contrast, Ygor and the monster are repeatedly rejected by the close of the film. Ygor had already been 'rejected' by the community and established as an outsider when they condemned him as a group, and attempted to hang him. His visibly broken neck is a bodily representation of this outsider status and rejection. Ygor responds to this condemnation in seeking murderous revenge on those that had shunned him. Wolf and Ygor's differing responses to social scorn lead to contrasted positive and negative outcomes for the two characters. By the end of the film, Ygor is dead, while Wolf and his family have been positively re-immersed in the community.


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Ygor, Wolf and the monster in Rowland Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939) produced by Universal Studios.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) is the last of the Universal Frankenstein film adaptations to be considered an "A" film. It has a critic rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes . The film was a commercial success for Universal. (wikipedia page ) Scifist commented: "The expressionistic style is stunning... with Karloff on board, it (the monster) does still retain some dignity... One truly feels sorry for Boris Karloff, who sees the multifaceted tragic monster he created reduced to a bumbling idiot of a prop,  and that is the film's ultimate downfall. On the other hand it is well filmed and the set design is stunning..." (Scifist )



Visual Style of German Expressionist film, as seen in this still shot from the 1920 silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," directed by Robert Wiene

The 1939 Rowland Lee film Son of Frankenstein is the third installment in the Universal series which began with the James Whale films Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is the last of the Universal films to star Boris Karloff in the role of Frankenstein's Monster. The film echoes previous film adaptations in the use of electrical equipment to awaken the monster from his coma. The inclusion of X-rays and microscopes to study the monster's body and blood cells determine he was almost indestructible. This is a development of the older trope of the defective brain in the '31 Whale film, as well as the superhuman strength from the source narrative. Ygor shows a development of the 'hunchback assistant' character, which although absent from the source text, was introduced and adapted during 19th century play adaptations where characters referred to as 'Igor,' assistants and hunchbacks appeared. These roles were combined to become a culturally accepted and recognizable element of the Frankenstein narrative before and after Son of Frankenstein. (1939)  The film is also described as a precursor to Mel Brook's film Young Frankenstein, (1974) with many elements of the film being used or parodied in the later Mel Brooks film adaptation.  

The bubbling sulfur pit below the scientific lab appear are a new addition to the narrative, especially when they are attributed to use during the Roman period as 'medicinal baths.' This is a new historical background to Frankenstein's scientific laboratory. The fact that the pits are sulfurous, and Krogh's mention of "sulfurous fumes," alludes to a common conception of hell, which has been associated with sulfur. The laboratory is connected here metaphorically with a gateway to hell; the location of the sulfur in a pit below the floor of the lab adds to this connotation. 

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The film has been described as invoking a German impressionistic style, as Picart says: "The Universal series, and in particular Whale's films, bear the stamp of German expressionism with their atmospheric and symbolic settings. Employing the aesthetic of black and white film, they utilize techniques of chiaroscuro (such as a scene in Lee's Son of Frankenstein, in which the storm effects from the outside are projected onto the castle wall behind Wolf Frankenstein and his wife, reflecting their differing psychological states in response to arriving at the castle) and subtly incorporate symbolic framing..." (Picart 24) The film has also been compared to Robert Wiene's silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a benchmark in German Impressionist film style.  "The sets almost look like something out of Robert Weine's masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."  (Scifist) The set design in Son of Frankenstein (1939) is minimalist, uses elongated shadows and skewed angles thrown across large, over sized spaces. Angles of walls and furniture are also out of proportion. In Thomas Elsaesser's article on German Expressionist cinema, he defines this style: "More specifically, what in the films is identified with “Expressionism” is the stylization of the sets and the acting, “Gothic” stories and perverse eroticism, angular exteriors, claustrophobic interiors, and above all, that uncanny feeling of not quite knowing what is going on, a lack of causal logic, and stories with twists and turns that double up on themselves. " (Elasser, 18) Some of these characteristics in particular would apply to Son of Frankenstein (1939), especially the angular exteriors and set style. German expressionist film style seems particularly applicable to the overall Frankenstein narrative when Titford's article is taken into account: "Within expressionist films themselves, then, the division between objects and living organisms is broken down" (Titford, 19)The narrative of Frankenstein with it's central theme of animating dead bodies seems to be especially applicable here. Titford's descripton of expressionist film also states:" German and Scandinavian myth and legend, and even the cult of the "Schauer Roman" ("Shudder Novel"), reveal a predisposition for Dammerung-the world of twilight in which the inanimate can readily become alive with no warning. Expressionist films are frequently lit in the style of Reinhardt, using sharp blacks and whites, distorted shadows, and large areas of darkness. Precisely because light or absence of light gives space its reality, being what Germans call a Raumgestallender Faktor, it can effect a Hoffmanesque transformation of concrete into abstract, living into dead, or vice versa, making us doubt our senses, and even our awareness of figure and ground distinctions.4" (Titford, 21)  Here the narrative of Frankenstein, with its transgression of the boundary between life and death, and the set design of Son of Frankenstein (1939) fit precisely into the expressionist style. The description of this category throughout the article show that this particular film style where the 'living (turning) into dead, or vice versa might occur', seems uniquely suited to film adaptations of the of Frankenstein narrative. Titford does not directly reference the animation of the monster or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in his article but the reanimation scene would fit into his description thematically. (Shelley, 37) 


Son of Frankenstein. Dir. Rowland V. Lee. Perf. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Josephine Hutchinson. Universal Studios, 1939. DVD.</p>

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The shadow of the monster as he kills the apothecary, in Son of Frankenstein (1939) directed by Rowland Lee.

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Frankenstein's study in Son of Frankenstein, (1939) directed by Rowland Lee.

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