Frankenstein’s Hunchbacks

It’s been suggested to me that, with Halloween fast approaching, this would be a good time to do for Doctor Frankenstein’s hunchbacked lab assistants what I did earlier for mummy-masters. Why not, eh?

To begin with, in Mary Shelley’s novel, young Victor Frankenstein works alone. When the novel finally made it to the screen there had been, as Dr. Pretorius would phrase it, “developments.” For one thing, Victor was now Henry, and he had a sidekick, a talkative hunchback named Fritz. As portrayed by character actor Dwight Fyre, Fritz is every bit the equal of his earlier triumph as Count Dracula’s fly-eating minion Renfield. The sequence is which he makes his way down a winding flight of stairs with the aid of custom-fitted mini-cane, hurling insults and imprecations at the visitors who dared to disturb Frankenstein’s solitude is a gem. Fritz is a decent enough hand in the lab, but he makes one of great mistakes in movie lore when he panics and smashes the jar containing the normal brain that Frankenstein had sent him to steal from his former teacher’s laboratory. Rather than owning up to his error, he substitutes the remaining abnormal brain. (Henry must not have been a very alert student or he might have noticed the oddities in that “normal” brain.) Fritz has a greater failing in that his also a sadist and his delight at tormenting Frankenstein’s creation with a lit torch proves to be his undoing.

Fyre was so good as Fritz that he got an encore of sorts as Karl, one of two grave-robbers in the employ of Frankenstein’s new co-creator, Dr. Pretorius in the “Frankenstein” sequel “Bride of Frankenstein.” Karl doesn’t appear to be a hunchback, but he’s hardly a thing of beauty and Fyre’s performance tends to get swallowed up by the baroque richness of the plot and the other fine character actors. Of course it didn’t help Fyre’s cause that two of his best scenes were removed from the finished film. As it stands, Karloff’s hurling Fyre from the top of Frankenstein’s tower laboratory seems like an unmotivated piece of malice, whereas if the cut scenes had been left in, it would have been viewed as a richly deserved end for a murderous psychopath, far more bestial than the monster who slays him.

No one was going to upstage Ygor, the hunchbacked blacksmith who assists Basil Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein in “Son of Frankenstein.” Ygor was portrayed by Bela Lugosi in full scene-chewing mode. He’s actually the most interesting of the hunchbacked assistants. Originally presented as a grave-robber who provided Wolf’s father with raw materials–what ever happened to poor Fritz?–he was caught and sentenced to hang. But alas the job was botched and Ygor survived living but with a grotesquely broken neck. “Ygor has bone in throat,” Lugosi comments jocosely, tapping on the unsightly bulge for emphasis. Unlike Fritz and Karl, Ygor is a true friend to the friendless monster. He looks after him, plays comforting music for him on his pipe and in return, the monster kills off, one by one, the villagers who sentenced Ygor to hang. At the film’s start, the monster is comatose, having been struck by a bolt of lighting during one of his “hunting trips” with Ygor. The crafty blacksmith agrees to assist Frankenstein in restoring the monster to consciousness. Wolf wants to operate on that abnormal brain to prove to all the world that his disgraced father was a great man. Ygor wants the monster restored to health to finish off his vendetta. Once the monster is restored to him, Frankenstein himself will be expendable. Fortunately Wolf isn’t the pushover that Ygor thought him to be and he shoots his treacherous assistant before his assistant can brain him with a hammer. In one of the great moments of Karloff’s acting, we see the monster truly bereft at the loss of his evil “friend.”

But who can keep a good evil hunchback down? In “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” Ygor looking pretty fit for a man shot multiple times at close range, manages to free the monster from the sulfur pit that Wolf had tumbled him into at the climax of “Son of Frankenstein,” and they go off in search of Frankenstein’s other son–Wolf having returned to America with his charming blonde wife and obnoxious little boy. This poor sap is Ludwig Frankenstein and he runs an eminent clinic in the Mittel-European never-never land of Vasaria. Ludwig’s an O.K. guy ’til his father’s spirit appears to him and asks him to complete his great work and clear the family name. But Ludwig has more than the devious Ygor to contend with, he also has a jealous, disloyal assistant, played to perfection by Lionel Atwill, who agrees to a sinister plan. One of Frankenstein’s other assistants having been killed, Ludwig plans to implant that gentle doctor’s brain in the monster’s skull. But Ygor, dying as the result of an earlier altercation with the restive monster, wants his brain used. Wow–what a plan, Ygor’s evil brain in the monster’s powerful, undying body–why, he’ll be the Strongman of Vasaria in no time! Unfortunately, neither Ygor nor the shifty Dr. Bohmer appear to know much about blood types, the result being that the Ygor/monster combo is a blind juggernaut who manages to fire up poor Ludwig’s lab consuming Ludwig, Bohmer and himself. (Until the next film.)

Henry Frankenstein apparently had a large family, and his daughter, Baroness Ilsa turns up for “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man.” Yes, she actually does meet the wolf-man, or at least Larry Talbot. Although Dwight Fyre turned up in the cast as an outraged citizen of Vasaria, there was no hunchback on call. Incidentally, as you may remember from the previous outing, the monster is now supposed to be blind. He’s also supposed to talk just like Bela Lugosi, but all of that was dropped, no doubt leaving viewers to wonder why the monster, ironically played by Lugosi–at least for the close-ups–was so damn clumsy in this film.

“House of Frankenstein” was Universal’s first all-star Monster Rally film. So of course there had to be a hunchback, and it was J. Carrol Naish’s Daniel, an escapee from a prison for the criminally insane and the devoted helpmeet of Boris Karloff’s really insane Dr. Gustav Niemann. Ultimately, they have a falling out over a comely gypsy wench who prefers Lon Chaney Jr.’s hairless Larry Talbot to poor hunched-up Daniel. When Niemann reneges on his promise to give Daniel the body of an Adonis, and the girl dies at hairy Talbot’s hands, Daniel simply has to express his displeasure by breaking Niemann’s back. This in turn upsets the newly-revived monster who tosses Daniel out a window–a very high window.

By “House of Dracula,” they just needed a hunchbacked assistant, so they gave Onslow Stevens’ doctor a pretty, hunchbacked nurse.

The tradition of the hunchbacked assistant was briefly, but gloriously resurrected in Hammer Films’ “Revenge of Frankenstein” by Oscar Quitak who played Karl, a prison guard who agrees to help Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein escape the guillotine in exchange for–yep–the body of an Adonis. Karl is a much handier fellow to have around than any of the other assistants. Not only does he shove a clueless prison padre under the blade in Cushing’s place, he later obligingly murders a grave-robber who had the effrontery to try digging up the Baron’s corpse, and he tends to the lab animals–even the cannibalistic chimpanzee. But Cushing’s Frankenstein is no more honorable than Karloff’s Niemann. He gives Karl a fine new body (Michael Gwynn), but then intends to take him on a tour of medical conferences as a living proof of Frankenstein’s genius. (No doubt the butchered padre will be forgotten.) When Karl rebels at this “future” and tries destroying his preserved hunchbacked body–the “Before” to his new “After”–he is caught and horribly beaten by Frankenstein’s drunken servant. The newly-implanted brain is damaged and Karl’s tragic past begins to repeat itself with an horrific new twist.

Lastly, when Mel Brooks mounted his loving parody-salute to the classic Universal horror films in “Young Frankenstein,” a hunchbacked assistant was definitely in order, so we got the inspired lunacy of Marty Feldman’s Igor–that’s “Eye-gore”–Brooks even remembered Fritz’s tiny cane from the 1931 original!

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