If anyone ever wonders what an Art Director has to contribute a film, I suggest that they watch the first four installments of Universal’s Frankenstein series.
For the 1931 original, director James Whale achieved a look of stark simplicity. His art director, Charles D. Hall created an ancestral home for the Frankenstein clan set in the middle of town and not terribly-dissimilar in appearance to any other 1930s set representing a comfortable upper-middle class home–a mansion, perhaps, but a modest one.
For the 1935 sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” Whale, again working with Hall, stood things on their head. No longer a comfy town-house, the Frankensteins now abide in a castle, complete with drawbridge, vaulted halls and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows. Whale wanted the look of a sumptuous dark fairy-tale and Hall delivered.
The third film of the series, “Son of Frankenstein,” had a new director, Rowland V. Lee, and Lee had a new art director, Jack Otterson. In this outing the Frankensteins still reside in a castle apart from the town that bears the family name, but this castle is far from the realm of fairy-tale romance. “When the house is filled with dread / Place the bedsteads head-to-head” runs the cut-from-whole-cloth folk poem in this one, and Otterson certainly created a Castle Frankenstein filled with dread. When Wolf von Frankenstein first glimpses his new home he exclaims “Why it’s almost Medieval!” Yes, Medieval by way of UFA. The shadows of German Expressionism hang heavily over this sequel, and it’s all to the good.
Let’s detour for a moment to another key set in the Frankenstein saga–Henry Frankenstein’s laboratory. In the original “Frankenstein,” Hall designed a dank, deserted Medieval stone watchtower, set in the middle of nowhere, and for the sequel it remained largely unchanged. But at film’s climax, the enraged monster pulls a level that “will blow us all to atoms,” and the tower is reduced to a crumbled pile of masonry by multiple explosions. This would never do as the set to a sequel, so Lee and Otterson gave us a new laboratory that looked a bit like a chopped-off observatory. They also decided to re-locate it. No longer set in the middle of nowhere, the lab, minus its roof, is just across a ravine from the castle itself–the better to accommodate all the running back-and-forth between the sets as called for in the script. Most of Kenneth Strickfaddens’s impressive lab instruments have vanished, and the lab itself now sits atop a handy pit of boiling sulfur.
“The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942) marks the point at which Universal threw-in-the-towel on its Frankenstein franchise. There wasn’t even an attempt made to disguise the fact that this was a B-movie. Its cheapness shows in its depiction of Castle Frankenstein. Seen only briefly at the start of the film before being blown apart by the villagers–a somewhat graceless act, since Wolf had deeded the castle and its lands to the village before departing for America–it was either a miniature or a matte-painting and either way, it looked more like Castle Dracula as seen at the close of “Dracula’s Daughter” than anything designed by either Hall or Otterson. Interestingly enough, Otterson served as the art director for “The Ghost of Frankenstein” as well, but this time he spent most of his time designing Ludwig Frankenstein’s home in Visaria–which looked a lot like the set for the interiors of any 1940’s American mansion.