I thought I’d talk briefly about two movies – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and TOWER OF LONDON – the Baz made for Universal between November 1938 and October 1939. The quotations are courtesy of Cinegeek.
In contrast to many of the episodes and events we’ve been looking at here, this seems to have been quite a busy and fun time for him. In fact it was in many ways his creative peek, or at least his most prolific period as a movie actor.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was filmed almost alongside THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, and Basil must have gone straight into HOUND from completing SON just after Christmas 1938. TOWER OF LONDON started filming August 1939, a month after THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES wrapped, and somehow he had also found time to fit in the dreadful RIO in between.
Both the Universal films we are looking at were directed by the slightly eccentric Rowland V. Lee, who was apparently prone to writing his scripts as he filmed, and who drove his bosses at Universal mad by consistently failing to give them a finished text they could budget for. Why they kept employing him I’m not sure. Maybe they liked him. Maybe he was curiously persuasive. Like Orson Welles, without the corrosive ego.
And – it has to be admitted – much of the talent.
Lee had a bit of a repertory company he tended to re-use in his films. Karloff was in both SON and TOWER, so was Donnie Dunagan, four-year-old acting prodigy extraordinaire. Barbara O’Neil was in TOWER and another ouvrage of Lee’s called THE SUN NEVER SETS, which also starred Rathbone and Lionel Atwill.
It seems to have been a reasonably friendly sort of gang. Everyone liked Lee; Karloff and Basil were already friends; Atwill and Basil knew each other from theatre in New York. Were they friends? Dunagan implies Rathbone cooled towards Atwill when – during the filming of SoF – he found out Atwill had sexually propositioned the little boy when his mother left him unattended. If that’s true then Atwill wasn’t a nice man at all, and was guilty of more than just doing embarrassing orgies in his own home. Dunagan however spoke with incredible warmth about Karloff and Rathbone, both of whom he seems to have admired and loved, and he had immensely fond memories of both the films he was in with them.
It’s painfully obvious when you watch Rathbone in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN that he has little respect for the movie and is basically playing it in a state of hysterical disbelief. You can almost see him thinking “I might have to be in this crap but they can’t make me take it seriously,” and he tears around the place like Basil Fawlty on a bad day, getting steadily more manic and implausible (“Will you have a DRINK? or wouldya like to play DAAHTS?”).
In their shared scenes he and Atwill seem to be trying to outdo each other in shameless parody. So much so that when Gene Wilder and Kenneth Mars try to send up this movie in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN they end up looking only slightly more insane than the original. I’m willing to bet Atwill was making up a lot of those moves with his fake arm on the spur of the moment. You can almost see him daring BR to lose it completely.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about. For all I know they may send Deanna Durbin in to bat for Boris in the ninth!” – Basil Rathbone
…”I did like him. He was so charming and very lovable sometimes. But he didn’t really want to be in [SON OF FRANKENSTEIN]; he didn’t particularly like horror movies, you see. And it affected the atmosphere on the set. I think he was bored and compensated for it by playing, as they say these days, over the top. Pinky Atwill as well. They were terrible, working off one another. And Basil would come to do the scenes with me in this frantic keyed up state, fighting to keep a straight face. It was a riot really…” Boris Karloff
“…Karloff in a bald wig talking to the axes on the wall about the beauty of death. I think he has a raven somewhere, and talks to that too. I have a box full of dollies and I say cruel things to them when no one is looking. It’s all very serious and historically accurate as you can tell…” – Basil Rathbone
“…I played the Duke of Clarence, Basil played Richard III, and Boris played the executioner (Mord). We had this scene where Basil and I had to drink for the kingdom of England. Rowland Lee, who directed the picture didn’t like the dialogue, so he had us improvise a virtually silent drinking scene, and we drank pints while the cameras rolled on. It was only watered down Coca-Cola, but pretty disgusting.
Well over in one corner was a huge vat of Malmsey wine, in which I was to be drowned. Boris and Basil, knowing I was new to the business, thought it was great fun to tease me and throw everything they could into that vat of wine. You know, cigarette butts, anything they could find to dirty it up, because they knew at the end of the scene I had to get into it! There was a handrail at the bottom of it, so I could dive down and hang onto it. I had to stay under for a full ten counts, and then when I came up the lid was still down (laughs). Then I heard all this crashing and I was yanked out by my hair. Apparently the lid had stuck and they couldn’t get it off.
Well, when I came out I got a round of applause from the crew, but was disappointed not to see Boris and Basil. Then a few minutes later they re-appeared and congratulated me on playing the scene so well for a newcomer, and then presented me with a case of Coca-Cola!…” – Vincent Price