Release Date: February 23rd, 1935 (first chapter) Directed by: Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason Written by: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Hy Freedman, Maurice Geraghty Music by: Hugo Riesenfeld Cast: Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman
Mascot Pictures, 245 Minutes total (12 episodes)
Marketed as “The most astounding serial ever made!”, The Phantom Empire is quite a bizarre piece of work even for serials. It combines the western, science fiction and musical genres, which was pretty risky, at the time. It also was the first starring role for Gene Autry, who was the quintessential singing cowboy.
Regardless of it being a strange mixture of genres and singing, The Phantom Empire was a successful serial for Mascot Pictures and Gene Autry, who would go on to be a pretty big star.
The story sees Gene Autry playing himself as a singing cowboy who runs a dude ranch where he also does radio broadcasts. The place is called Radio Ranch. Autry’s sidekicks, Frankie and Betsy lead the Junior Thunder Riders, a club featuring kids who dress like knights and ride around on horses. Gene, Frankie and Betsy are kidnapped by the real Thunder Riders, who come from a highly advanced subterranean empire called Murania. Above the surface, a group of criminals plans to rob Murania of its radium, while under the surface a group of revolutionaries plots to overthrow Murania’s evil queen Tika.
The genre mixing alone isn’t the weirdest thing about this picture. As the plot unfolds it gets stranger and stranger.
While this isn’t the best looking serial, it was fairly well shot for its time. It isn’t as exciting as the odd premise would make you hope but it is still a pretty entertaining experience.
Gene Autry was a love him or hate him kind of guy. I was never really a fan of the singing cowboy thing but this serial provides so much else outside of that popular gimmick that it isn’t bogged down by it.
The Phantom Empire is unique and it is a noteworthy body of work in film history due to giving Gene Autry a stage to prosper and for taking some risks that paid off and paved the way for creativity in future serials.
I’ve now gotten up to the Wolf Man’s series of films. Only two films here actually feature that character: The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. So in addition to that, I am also reviewing the two other werewolf films put out by Universal during this era. Plus, they are also included in the Wolf Man collection of my Universal Monsters DVD box set.
The Wolf Man character was a late bloomer in the Universal Monsters franchise. Granted, he beat the Gillman of Creature From the Black Lagoon by more than a decade but unlike the Gillman, at least the Wolf Man got to mix it up with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula a couple of times.
The Wolf Man (1941):
Release Date: December 12th, 1941 Directed by: George Waggner Written by: Curt Siodmak Music by: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers
Universal Pictures, 70 Minutes
In The Wolf Man we are introduced to Larry Talbot, played by the great Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney’s interpretation of this character is almost heartbreaking at times, as he really connects with the audience and conveys real genuine emotion as the tragic title character of this film. In fact, the Wolf Man is probably one of the top five most tragic figures in film history. And without Chaney in the role, chances are that the Wolf Man would’ve been just a pretty one-dimensional monster.
In quality, this film really could rival the James Whale films Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, as well as the first Dracula film under the Universal Monsters banner. The Wolf Man like every other first film in each of Universal’s classic horror series was the pinnacle and a great kickoff to what would become a reoccurring character in the larger shared mythos.
This film also gives us two other horror icons: Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. Rains plays Larry Talbot’s father, Sir John. Bela Lugosi plays the gypsy man who is the werewolf that infects Talbot. Lugosi was awesome in this role and it is my favorite thing that he did for Universal after Dracula.
There isn’t a lot that anyone can criticize this film for. It is a classic horror gem and still plays well today, over 70 years later.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943):
Release Date: March 5th, 1943 Directed by: Roy William Neill Written by: Curt Siodmak Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Hans J. Salter Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dwight Frye
Universal Pictures, 74 Minutes
This is my favorite of the Universal Monsters team-up or versus movies.
It truly is a Wolf Man movie that Frankenstein’s monster just happens to appear in but isn’t much of a focal point, as Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Larry Talbot takes over this film.
The film follows Talbot, who comes to life in his tomb after being disturbed by grave robbers. Coming to the realization that he cannot die, he seeks out the legendary Dr. Frankenstein in hopes that he can find a way to euthanize him by scientific means.
Dwight Frye from Frankenstein and Dracula shows up in this film in a minor role. Bela Lugosi returns again but this time as Frankenstein’s monster.
This film is awesome and it feels like a true sequel to The Wolf Man, as opposed to just a crossover film. It is much less of a sideshow attraction than the films that followed it: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.
Werewolf of London (1935):
Release Date: May 13th, 1935 Directed by: Stuart Walker Written by: Robert Harris, John Colton Music by: Karl Hajos Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Spring Byington, Clark Williams, Lawrence Grant
Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes
This is not part of The Wolf Man storyline and is its own film. In fact, it came out before the Lon Chaney Jr. masterpiece. The Wolf Man’s adventures continue in the films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which I already reviewed in my pieces about the Frankenstein and Dracula series of films.
Getting into this film, it is well done and the special effects are great. This was Universal’s first werewolf film and this was a good early version of the effects they would employ in later werewolf films.
This film works all on its own and in fact, is considered a classic in its own right, regardless of The Wolf Man being more popular and launching its own mini-franchise.
I love this movie. It is real good classic Victorian horror and it has a lycanthrope in it. What’s not to love?
She-Wolf of London (1946):
Release Date: May 17th, 1946 Directed by: Jean Yarbrough Written by: George Bricker Music by: William Lava Cast: June Lockhart, Don Porter
Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes
As a stand alone film, this thing is pretty good. As a horror film, it is pretty bad.
The marketing for this film was all wrong. With the title of this film, it was trying to tap into the previously released Werewolf of London. However, don’t watch this expecting some werewolf action. What you get is a mystery film with some suspense and a not so ingenious plot.
The acting of June Lockhart and Don Porter was top notch but it didn’t save this film from being poorly marketed and being represented as something it is not. I say all this so that if someone is to watch it, they don’t go into it expecting the Universal Monster supernatural horror formula.
One more Universal Monsters review is coming. Next up will be the Creature From the Black Lagoon series.
I decided to rewatch all of the old Universal Monsters films. I wanted to rank them all for a list (which I already posted) but while I was watching them, I figured that I’d review them too.
The Frankenstein series is the first one I have watched this go around and it starts with two films that are arguably the best out of all the Universal Monsters films.
Well, let me just get into the reviews.
Release Date: November 21st, 1931 Directed by: James Whale Written by: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Robert Florey, John Russell Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Bernard Kaun Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
Frankenstein is pretty damned close to a masterpiece. It was directed by James Whale, who was a legend most known for this film and its first sequel but had a catalog that reached outside of horror and encompassed many styles and genres. Unfortunately, most of his work is unknown today and has fallen into obscurity, but I was lucky enough to have a friend that showed me some of his other work.
This film also introduced us to Boris Karloff and his interpretation of the monster, which has gone on to become the definitive version of the character, as people today are still most familiar with Karloff’s makeup and overall visual style and behavior.
The film sets the tone that would be well represented and maintained throughout the other Frankenstein films. It borrows heavily in style from the silent German Expressionist films of the early 1920s – most notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Granted, this was a bit of a modernization and a more realistic interpretation of that style, but it does carry that same sort of German Expressionist vibe into a new decade and presents it to a new audience on another continent.
The acting by Boris Karloff as the monster is spectacular. The real gems of this film however are Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his sidekick Fritz played by horror icon Dwight Frye (who also played Renfield in Universal’s 1931 Dracula film).
This film is perfection for its time but it was eclipsed by its first sequel, which I will review now.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935):
Release Date: April 22nd, 1935 (Los Angeles Premiere) Directed by: James Whale Written by: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Franz Waxman Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Ernest Thesiger
Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes
How do you take a legendary film, which was already legendary just four years after its release, and attempt to top it? Well, you stick to the formula and style that made the original successful and you up the ante without compromising the original vision. Bride of Frankenstein is a great answer to the popular question, “Name one sequel better than the original.”
First of all, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive are back. The film is missing Dwight Frye as Fritz (he plays a less dynamic character in this one) but it gains much more with the additions of Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the title character of the film. Lanchester does double duty however, as she also portrays original Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the opening scene of the film.
This movie takes the tone and style of the original and magnifies it. James Whale created a beautiful world in his original film and expands on its magnificence in this chapter. Bride of Frankenstein should be required viewing for any film studies class, as well as any real art class (in addition to some of the German Expressionist films it is certainly an homage to).
This film is unique, especially for its time, in that it is a true sequel that goes beyond just the material it is based on. It revisits Shelley’s concept in a new way and expands on it. While purists may not consider it true to the nature, tone and overall point of Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, it explores uncharted territory nonetheless and does so with gusto and style and although being limited in scope and the production value of the era it was created in, it is a near flawless companion piece to the ideas of the original tale – one of the greatest novels ever written.
Son of Frankenstein (1939):
Release Date: January 13th, 1939 Directed by: Rowland V. Lee Written by: Wyllis Cooper Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Frank Skinner Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes
So what do you do when you lose Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and the awesome additions of Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester? Well, you bring back Boris Karloff as the monster and you bring in horror legends Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. And being frank, this is one of my favorite Basil Rathbone performances of all-time.
Now this film is the start of the decline in the series but it doesn’t mean that this film and the ones after it were crap. Quite the contrary, these films are still great and play well today as classic horror masterpieces. The problem is that after the James Whale films, it was hard for Universal to replicate his quality and ability to weave a timeless tale visually – conveying emotion through the sets, the lighting, the make-up and the subtle nuances he brought forth in directing such an elite group of talent in those first two films.
Basil Rathbone owns the screen in this film as the very likable son of Henry Frankenstein named Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi is beyond fantastic as the now iconic Ygor, who wants nothing more than to control the monster in an effort to exact revenge on the townsfolk who wronged him.
I really loved the set design in this film. The use of lights and shadow brought me back to the old German Expressionist vibe even more so than James Whale’s application of the style. The style was done in a more primal and straightforward way here, which lost the lushness and complexity of Whale’s films but gained in the more obscure and supernatural atmosphere that they created. The Frankenstein house, through lighting techniques on the set was able to be inviting and haunting all at the same time. The strange non-symmetrical architecture inside, especially the staircase and its ominous shadows, were a sight to behold. You never feel quite safe or comfortable with these sets. While I prefer Whale’s refined style, this film is visually more unsettling.
Ultimately, this film is also another gem in Universal’s Monster catalog. Then again, this is from an era where they had to try really hard to produce a bad film.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942):
Release Date: March 13th, 1942 Directed by: Erle C. Kenton Written by: Scott Darling, Eric Taylor Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Hans J. Salter Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers
Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes
Boris Karloff sat this one out. So who did Universal get to play the monster? Well, they went to Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney – the man who starred in several classic Universal horror films of the 1920s. Chaney Jr. had also already played the title character in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which was released just before this film. This movie also reunited Chaney Jr. with Bela Lugosi, who also had a part in The Wolf Man. Lugosi again played Ygor, whose streak of sinister villainy was not yet over.
This film introduces us to another Frankenstein son, this time Ludwig Frankenstein – played by Cedric Hardwicke. This film also gives us the uber-talented Ralph Bellamy.
I find this film to be the weakest of the series. I still love it but it seems to be more of a rehash of the previous film with a few minor changes. The most interesting thing really is that Ygor controls the monster with a special horn he plays.
The style is still consistent but at this point it is also becoming a bit of a caricature to itself and maybe a detriment. Either that or the formula and this franchise has ran its course regardless of this still being an enjoyable piece of film history. You definitely get the vibe that this is where the franchise was just being used to milk money from pockets instead of being more concentrated on making great films like the ones that preceded it.
House of Frankenstein (1944):
Release Date: December 15th, 1944 (New York City Premiere) Directed by: Erle C. Kenton Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Curt Siodmak Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker Music by: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, Glenn Strange
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
How does one jump the shark before that was even a term Hollywood knew anything about? Well, you jam pack as many monsters and stars into one film as you possibly can because if you own the rights to a bunch of monsters, why not have them duke it out in a free-for-all? And honestly, at this point in the Universal Monsters timeline, across all their multiple horror franchises, this pretty much had to happen in order to keep things fresh and interesting.
Boris Karloff returns but this time he is a mad scientist with a hunchback assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, who is brilliant in this film, as you really pull for him and then find yourself somewhat distraught after he goes over the edge in the end.
Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as the Wolf Man, John Carradine shows up as Count Dracula (a role he would also play in House of Dracula a year later).
This film plays like an anthology piece, where the first half of the film follows the Dracula story and the second half follows the Wolf Man story while Frankenstein is mostly on a table the whole film and doesn’t do much. It isn’t as epic as the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man confrontation between the two characters, which was released the year prior to this (and will be reviewed when I cover The Wolf Man series of films in an upcoming post).
I like this film, even though this is where things just got silly.
More Universal Monsters reviews are coming. Next up will be the Dracula series.
Release Date: December 28th, 1935 (USA) Directed by: Michael Curtiz Written by: Casey Robinson Based on:Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini Music by: Erich Wolfgang Korngold Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander
Cosmopolitan Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures, 119 Minutes
Captain Blood is quite possibly the most important swashbuckling film in history. It is what really ignited the genre and turned it into a guaranteed money maker for years to come. It also launched the career of the great Errol Flynn, as it was his first, of many, leading roles. The film opened the door for his co-stars Basil Rathbone, who would have a legendary career, and Olivia de Havilland, who would win an Oscar for To Each His Own.
Directed by the quite accomplished Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce and a ton of other great films, Captain Blood might be the ultimate epic of his voluminous and impressive catalog.
The movie follows Dr. Peter Blood. It starts as he is arrested unjustly for treason while tending to an injured soldier of a rebellion. The story then follows his trial, his being sold into slavery in Jamaica, his escape and ultimately his metamorphosis into Captain Blood, leader of a band of pirates. A lot happens in the picture and thus, it moves along at a quick pace and fills its two hours nicely.
Flynn does a superb job as the uber cool and incredibly smooth Peter Blood. Basil Rathbone is tremendous as his ally then bitter rival, in what is one of my all-time favorite Rathbone roles. I honestly wish he had more screen time or even a spin-off film. However, spin-offs weren’t too common in 1935. Olivia de Havilland is alluring as the leading lady and even though her motivations aren’t the clearest, you feel as if she is a kind and genuine person despite being involved with slave owners and a corrupt government.
The cinematography, for its time, is beautiful. Often times, lesser-made swashbuckling films come off as too dark and grainy. Captain Blood was well lit and visually, came off as crisp and clean.
If you are into swashbuckling movies but haven’t given this a watch, you really need to. I’d rather be absorbed in this than another Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movie.