The end of an era. This wouldn't be the last Universal film to star Frankenstein's Monster, but it's the last in which he's worth a damn. There were four Frankenstein films in which he's the sole attraction, then another four (including Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein) in which he's just one of a line-up. From here on he'd be an icon, not a character. The Ghost of Frankenstein is the last of his solo films and the only one in which he's not being played by Boris Karloff, although Bela Lugosi returns as the hunchback Ygor.
As usual, Universal are taking pains to seem to be being faithful to continuity. The opening scene is a huge infodump including the words "You know as well as I do that..." However underneath all that, they've been tweaking the backstory again. Ygor was only maimed, not killed, at the end of the previous film. More surprisingly we learn that the original Dr Frankenstein (now Heinrich instead of Henry) had another son alongside Basil Rathbone, a development which seems hard to square with Son of Frankenstein unless they were only half-brothers. Rathbone's character, Wolf, was even supposed to have emigrated to America with his mother, although Hardwicke's Ludwig seems to have lived in Europe all his life. A divorce, perhaps? If the mother had originally been American, then she might have gone home after separating from her husband and then Ludwig would then have been the fruit of Henry's second marriage.
Then the name change could be a translation convention, if one assumes that everyone's really talking German and that we're only hearing English because it's a movie. Alternatively this might be a bodged rewrite of a version starring Rathbone's character again, since quite a few scenes would make more sense if this was Wolf instead of Ludwig. This is apparently the younger brother, which accurately reflects when the two actors were born (1892 and 1893 respectively), but still feels wrong to the audience. Maybe it's because Wolf's son was about five in the last film, while Hardwicke's daughter is Evelyn Ankers. Mmmm, Evelyn. (This means she was in both prequels to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.) Here she also wears a dress that looks as if hands are groping her breasts.
What a lot of Frankensteins. Anyway, the new chap, Dr Ludwig Frankenstein, is a respected doctor who's conveniently just perfected the science of brain transplants. The Hammer movies got it from here! Unfortunately this is also a sensible fellow who knows how badly things went for his father and brother and has no intention of repeating their experiments. (Ygor has other plans.) He looks like a family solicitor, but more sinister. How many respectable physicians live in their family castle with secret dungeons and facilities for flooding the corridors with knock-out gas? Must have been those wacky relatives of his, I suppose.
There's even a real Ghost of Frankenstein. I'd been expecting the title to be metaphorical, but no. He drops by for a quick word to ensure that his son keeps up the family traditions. Chatty fellow. Incidentally he's not being played by Colin Clive this time, which would have been more forgivable if they hadn't carelessly included the genuine article in a flashback sequence of footage from the earlier films. Well, I'm sure they'd have asked Clive if he hadn't died in 1937. Incidentally his successor here is one Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who'd been knighted by George V in 1934 for his stage and screen work.
Meanwhile Ygor isn't just the usual hunchback, having an agenda of his own. He's not just a lab assistant now.
None of that matters, though. The key figure is of course the Monster. Beforehand I'd been speculating that Lon Chaney Jr. could be a good choice for the role, since his characters usually come across as slightly childlike. Despite being a big man best known for playing monsters, he projected a sense of vulnerability. He was sweet. Apparently he was also like that in real life, although over time he acquired a drinking problem and could occasionally be known to fall out spectacularly with co-workers. However unfortunately his Monster is pretty lifeless. He seems trapped inside the costume, unable to project a fraction of what Boris Karloff managed. (Before you ask, Karloff was doing Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway.) Chaney gets to cut loose somewhat towards the end, but by then it's too little, too late. I'd been looking forward to seeing him act in the role of Frankenstein's Monster, but unfortunately I'm still waiting to see that "acting" bit. The frustrating thing is that he should have been wonderful.
Mind you, he's even in the flashbacks! Karloff doesn't appear and instead we see the footage reshot with Chaney. Presumably the producers felt that their audiences needed all the help they could get in accepting the new guy, although they couldn't have known at the time that they'd end up recasting the Monster three times in three films. Clearly they wanted to establish Chaney as the new incubent, to the extent that they were originally going to have him back as the Monster in Frankenstein meets the Wolf-Man, despite the fact that he'd have also been playing the Wolf-Man. Chaney was big news back then, although he never matched the fame of his father.
The script does fairly well by the Monster, though. He's a supporting character in his own movie, but at least for the last time at Universal the writers have remembered that he's more than a mindless mayhem machine. He has friends (a little girl and of course Ygor), a point of view and motivations. He welcomes the idea of having a brain transplant! (And yes, this was going to mean his brain getting thrown out with the trash.) However his ideas for how to go about the operation betray a rather scary set of values.
This film is shorter and cheaper than its predecessors. The model shot at the end is obviously a model because of the flames. By now Universal's horror films had become B-movies, even reusing actors who'd previously appeared in the same series in other roles, but that doesn't make them bad. I like Ghost of Frankenstein. It's just that it's an enjoyable, well-made slab of hokum rather than a classic. It's a definite step down from Son of Frankenstein, but on the other hand it has a fresher plot. Having finally abandoned any last links to Mary Shelley, the story can move away from the well-worn formula of experiments, lightning bolts, hunchbacked lab assistants and "it's alive". There are surprising developments in Act Three, while for once you're not rolling your eyes at yet another scientific idiot seemingly bent on self-destruction. The acting is strong, apart from Chaney, and it's well-made and well-directed. If only it had starred Karloff, it might have been up there with its predecessors. It doesn't attain greatness, but it's still good.