Review: Erle C. Kenton’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” Starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Cedric Hardwicke

Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. in
Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. in "The Ghost of Frankenstein"

After their success in launching a new monster at Universal with The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Waggner turned to a monster that needed help: Frankenstein. After making Son of Frankenstein, the third film in the series, star Boris Karloff abandoned the iconic part in favor of a role in the hit Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. But Son of Frankenstein did well, so Universal had to find someone with the right physicality to replace Karloff. Chaney—the worst element of The Wolf Man—is a better fit playing Frankenstein’s monster, but overall, The Ghost of Frankenstein was a new low for the series.

The title is also the most misleading of the series—though the original Dr. Frankenstein briefly appears when someone hallucinates, there are no ghosts in this movie, just characters who have survived certain death. The film picks up shortly after the end of Son of Frankenstein, with the monster presumed dead in sulfur pits beneath Frankenstein’s castle. The villainous Ygor (Bela Lugosi) is also alive despite his bullet wounds, doing his best to revive the monster. Villagers agree that they must destroy the castle to finally rid their community of the curse of the Frankenstein family, but the explosions they set end up releasing the monster instead. He travels with Ygor to find the second son of Frankenstein, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), who Ygor hopes can make the monster even more powerful. Ludwig has something else in mind—a doctor studying “diseases of the mind,” he thinks he can make the monster good by replacing his brain. This inspires the crippled Ygor to conspire with Ludwig’s assistant (Lionel Atwill) to get his own brain put inside the monster, making him all-powerful.

Janet Warren, Lon Chaney Jr., and Bela Lugosi in "The Ghost of Frankenstein"
Janet Warren, Lon Chaney Jr., and Bela Lugosi in “The Ghost of Frankenstein”

The titular character of The Wolf Man suffered from Chaney’s awkward physicality, but in this film he serves as a respectable enough replacement for Karloff. Chaney later complained about the intensity of the makeup he had to wear to play this new monster, writing, “I must have been allergic to the Monster’s headpiece or the glue, because I broke out in a rash under that gray-green greasepaint and I started to itch – all down my back and around my forehead and scalp. The makeup men refused to take off the headpiece without [makeup artist Jack Pierce’s] permission and no one else would help, so I tried to take it off myself and part of my forehead came off with it!”1

Costar Ralph Bellamy recalled just how into the part Chaney became, writing, “Lon was a character. He would get so involved in his part that he actually seemed to believe that he had the strength of ten men, as the monster was supposed to have had . . . I could tell he was into his character so deeply that he was forgetting his own strength.”2 This also could have had to do with Chaney’s drinking, which became a tolerated problem. Another director, Reginald LeBorg, later claimed Universal had told him, “be careful that you don’t work too late with him, because in the afternoon he gets thirsty, and then he’ll be difficult.”3

As opposed to the one-hundred-minute, big-budget Son of Frankenstein, this entry is clearly a much cheaper B-movie, one that runs just sixty-seven minutes. Somehow Scott Darling’s script wastes part of that minimal runtime on a perfunctory romantic subplot between Ludwig’s daughter Elsa and local boy Erik (Evelyn Ankers and Bellamy, both also from The Wolf Man). Everything looks cheaper than The Wolf Man, and Erle C. Kenton’s direction is duller than Waggner’s on that film, but The Ghost of Frankenstein still works—if only because Frankenstein’s monster remains a compelling character.

Where to Watch

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

Buy it on Blu-ray in the Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection / DVD Double Feature with Son of Frankenstein

For More on The Ghost of Frankenstein

Read the review in The New York Times

Seek out a copy of  MagicImage Filmbooks Presents The Ghost of Frankenstein

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Lon Chaney Jr., preface to MagicImage Filmbooks Presents The Ghost of Frankenstein (Chesterfield, NJ: MagicImage Books, 1990), 9.
2. Ralph Bellamy, introduction to MagicImage Filmbooks Presents The Ghost of Frankenstein (Chesterfield, NJ: MagicImage Books, 1990), 17.
3. Gregory Wm. Mank, “Production Background,” in MagicImage Filmbooks Presents The Ghost of Frankenstein, ed. Philip J. Riley (Chesterfield, NJ: MagicImage Books, 1990), 27.