Due to the lack of a prepared script, much of the picture was written just moments before the actors were to shoot their scenes. This was how director Rowland V. Lee was able to keep Bela Lugosi working throughout filming, and built up the role of Ygor, which never appeared in the original Wyllis Cooper screenplay. Lugosi was forever grateful to Lee for allowing him to create what turned out to be one of his very best characterizations. After many delays, shooting finally started November 9, 1938, finishing January 5, 1939, just days before its prescribed release date of January 13. Boris Karloff's daughter, Sara Karloff was born on his 51st birthday, November 23, 1938.
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Plans were discussed to shoot the film in Technicolor, but the decision was made to revert to black and white; both director Lee and co-star Josephine Hutchinson verified in later years that the film was designed for, and shot in monochrome. Urban myth has it that Karloff's make-up photographed bright green and was a primary reason for shooting in black and white. An urban myth has it that Dwight Frye was in the Technicolor test reel and was subsequently dropped from the cast. In the late 1980s a reel of Technicolor test footage was discovered in Universal's vaults, but was either stolen from the desk of the executive who was in possession of it (according to one story) or simply boxed back up by bureaucrats and shipped to a New Jersey film vault (according the film archivist who actually found the reel.) Karloff family home movies shot on the set of the film reveal the Monster's coloration to be grayish with subtle highlights and shadows of blue-green and brick red. The brief clips show Karloff in Monster make-up sticking his tongue out at the camera and pretending to strangle make-up artist Jack P. Pierce can be seen on the CD-ROM The Interactive History of Frankenstein (1995) and 100 Years of Horror (1996), courtesy of Sara Karloff.
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After learning to speak in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the Monster (Boris Karloff) is once again mute in this film. No explanation is given for the change.
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Both Claude Rains and Peter Lorre reportedly were considered for the role of Wolf Von Frankenstein; Lorre's casting was publicly announced before Basil Rathbone was cast.
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In discussing the Monster makeup for a newspaper article, Jack P. Pierce stated that the metal studs in the Monster's neck were really electrodes - inlets for the electricity that brought the creature to life. This is the first film in the Universal Frankenstein series to show any wires actually being connected to the Monster's electrodes.
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Makeup artist Jack P. Pierce estimated it took four hours to transform Boris Karloff into the monster.
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This film marks the final time Boris Karloff would play the "Monster" - at least in a feature film. In August of 1940 he appeared as the Monster in a celebrity baseball game, with Jack P. Pierce in attendance (Pierce was a coach for an amateur baseball team, and played semi-pro when he was younger). In the next Frankenstein film in which Karloff appeared, House of Frankenstein (1944), he played Dr. Gustav Niemann. Originally the Samuel Goldwyn film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) was to have had a fantasy sequence in which Mitty (Danny Kaye) confronted the Monster, played again by Karloff (who played the villain in "Mitty.") Goldwyn sought and received authorization from Universal to use the image of the Monster, and Pierce re-created the make-up. Stills exist of the film's director, Karloff, Pierce, and Evelyn Karloff, but it has not been verified that scenes were actually filmed. In the Allied Artists film Frankenstein 1970 (1958) Boris was an elderly Baron Frankenstein - but the twist ending was the revelation that the Baron had recreated the Monster's face in his own image (i.e., the face of Karloff). The last time Karloff donned the Jack Pierce-style monster makeup was in "Lizards Leg and Owlet Wing," a 1962 Halloween special for the TV series Route 66 (1960). Thus, he played the "Monster" six times in his career (or 6 1/2, if you count "Walter Mitty.").
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Boris Karloff dropped the kid (Peter Von Frankenstein, played by child actor Donnie Dunagan ) he was holding under his arm, who fell flat on his stomach and onto the concrete floor. Little Donnie then had to be wired to Karloff to avoid a repeat fall.
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The name of the town where the action takes place is "Goldstadt" in the first two films in the series, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Here it is called "Frankenstein." In the two subsequent films, the stories would take place in another fictional town, "Vasaria" (or "Visaria").
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Bela Lugosi's performance in this film is considered by many to be his greatest.
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When Dr Frankenstein looks at the monster's blood under a microscope the image we are shown is clearly red blood cells overlaid on top of sperm cells.
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At 99 minutes this was the longest English-language film in the classic Universal horror series (the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931) [Drácula (1931)] was about five minutes longer). Most of the films had running times of less than 80 minutes, which served to increase the number of showings possible in theaters.
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Boris Karloff became a father for the first time while filming this movie.
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Despite his frequent appearances in horror films, Basil Rathbone had a particular disdain for them. This is likely the reason for his 'over the top' performance. Most noticeable in the scene in which he and Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) play darts.
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This film marked Bela Lugosi's first appearance in Universal's Frankenstein series, but it would not be his last. Lugosi reprised his role as Ygor in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and portrayed the monster himself in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Lugosi also had a run-in with Frankenstein's monster while in character as Dracula in the more-humorous monster-flick, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). So this film marked the first of three appearances by Lugosi in Universal's Frankenstein films (four appearances if you count Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein).
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First film to feature the hunchbacked lab assistant Ygor (sometimes spelled Igor,) who has since become an iconic part of the Frankenstein mythos. The original Frankenstein (1931) featured a similar character named Fritz.
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Frank Skinner's wonderfully creepy musical score for this film, with its slightly off-key horns and plucked strings replicating a human heartbeat, was endlessly "recycled" in Universal horror movies throughout the 1940s.
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Part of the original SHOCK THEATER package of 52 Universal titles released to television in 1957, followed a year later with SON OF SHOCK, which added 20 more features.
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Universal Pictures produced this third Frankenstein film after a re-issue of the 1931 original Frankenstein and the Bela Lugosi Dracula as a double feature proved hugely successful in 1938. The even greater success of Son of Frankenstein prompted Universal to get back into "The Monster Movie Business," and the studio continued churning out Frankenstein, vampire, mummy and werewolf sequels throughout the next decade.
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Lionel Atwill's over-the-top performance as the wooden-armed, dart-throwing police inspector in this film was the inspiration for Kenneth Mars' comic turn in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
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Surprisingly for a film as dependant on make-up effects as this one, make-up supervisor Jack Pierce receives no on-screen credit for his work.
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To add to this film's "spook factor," Universal Pictures scheduled its release for a Friday the 13th (Friday, January 13, 1939).
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Son of Frankenstein (1939) sealed Bela Lugosi's fate forevermore: upset about the critical acclaim that Bela Lugosi received for his portrayal as Ygor, Boris Karloff refused to ever play the monster again, or to appear in another film opposite Lugosi, unless he was the star with the most screen time. This explains why Karloff appropriated the doctor role that was written specifically for Lugosi in Black Friday (1940), their next major film, leaving the Astro-Hungarian to play a minor, American gangster part, and forcing script changes to remove references to the doctor's past in Vienna, since Karloff spoke with a British accent. It also explains their final pairing, with Karloff securing maximum screen time in The Body Snatcher (1945), while having Lugosi relinquished to a "barely there" janitor role.
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"Monster World" devoted most of its #7 1965 issue to a major filmbook of "Son of Frankenstein."
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Not long before shooting began, Boris Karloff began to voice his concerns over how the Frankenstein creature character might develop. His worries were partially justified when the character would be reduced to a comic strip, one-dimensional killing machine. To a certain extent, this began to occur in "Son of Frankenstein."
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According to the sign at the railway station, the village of Frankenstein sits at an altitude of 938 meters (3,077 feet) above sea level.
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The character of Ygor (played by Bela Lugosi in the final film version) does not appear in Wyllis Cooper's October 20, 1938, draft of the screenplay titled "The Son Of Frankenstein". Director Rowland V. Lee was annoyed at Universal's low-balling of Bela Lugosi (who was being paid only $500 per week because he desperately needed a job and Universal knew it), and he kept rewriting the script to make Lugosi's character more central, and to make sure that Lugosi ended up with a decently sized paycheck. The "Ygor" character died in the film, but returned in the sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); for unknown reasons, the spelling of the name was altered to "Igor" in the credits (yet the script for the even later Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) reverted to the original spelling "Ygor."
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The Monster's (Boris Karloff) agonized cry upon finding Ygor's (Bela Lugosi) body was also used for the moment when Wolf kicks the Monster into the sulfur pit. Universal was so impressed with Karloff's scream that it was used in other non-horror films.
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As part of an article about this movie in a 1967 issue of his magazine "Famous Monsters of Filmland," Forrest J. Ackerman published two stills of Boris Karloff as the Monster and Edgar Norton as Benson the butler. In the first, the Monster is standing just behind the other, who is holding a tray bearing a plate of chicken. In the other, the Monster is eating a chicken leg while Benson lies in a heap before him. As no such sequence appears in the movie, from these Ackerman postulated that a scene of the Monster killing the butler had been filmed but left on the proverbial cutting room floor.
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