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(1896–1980). American director.

Directed: A Rural Cinderella (short) (1921); A Haunted House (short) (1922); Island of Lost Souls (1932); You're Telling Me (1934); The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); House of Frankenstein (1944); House of Dracula (1945); The Cat Creeps (1946).
It is strange that director Erle C. Kenton has so long evaded my scrutiny, since at least four of his films are obligatory viewing for any dedicated science fiction or horror fan. But there are interesting reasons for the oversight that merit some exploration, all of them related to the word "obligatory."

For one thing, the available evidence suggests that Kenton felt obliged to direct horror films, solely because his studio was assigning him to do so, when he would rather be doing comedies. (After all, he had started his career as an actor and gagman for Mack Sennett, and his later accomplishments in that area would include a W. C. Fields film of mild genre interest, You're Telling Me, featuring Fields as a dissolute inventor, and three of the films that helped to establish Bud Abbott and Lou Costello as major stars.) And as it happens, evaluating his best horror film, Island of Lost Souls, one might argue that the film has an impact not because it is particularly horrifying (it isn't), but because it so often teeters on the edge of comedy—especially in the over-the-top performance of Charles Laughton, and the rituals of the furry-faced actors reciting their laws. Indeed, the film could be viewed as a predecessor to the Planet of the Apes films, which were similarly effective in blending portentous drama with comedy involving actors dressed up like animals.

But Kenton, like many people, had trouble getting along with Costello, so he was shifted to another of Universal's film series, the Frankenstein movies, which were still being produced solely because the studio felt obliged to make them. For despite the departure of the talents that had made them artistically successful, director James WHALE and star Boris KARLOFF, no company can abandon a franchise that is still capable of attracting audiences, so writers like Curt SIODMAK had to work overtime to devise ways to keep the story going at all costs. The first of these later films, Kenton's The Ghost of Frankenstein, is not entirely unwatchable, despite the inert performance of Lon CHANEY, Jr. as the Frankenstein monster, because Bela LUGOSI effectively takes over the movie, playing the hunchback Igor with a comedic energy that again might be attributed to Kenton's influence. But when plot contrivances eliminated Igor to instead cast Lugosi as the monster in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)—a directing chore that Kenton avoided—the series lost its last interesting performer, and the next two films essentially abandoned any effort to maintain continuity with the earlier movies and instead employed desperately convoluted stories that might have been more palatable had they been played for comedy. However, with the emptily posturing John CARRADINE as Dracula, the inept Chaney as the Wolf Man, and the hapless Glenn STRANGE as the monster, Kenton was stuck with actors who were performing only because they felt obliged to, with predictably dire results, although House of Frankenstein did include Karloff in a perfunctory mad scientist role that gave him little to do. So yes, as installments in a significant film series, we are obliged to watch House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, but if you are like me, you will have no desire to ever watch them again.

Given his experiences with horror films and Abbott and Costello, Kenton might have seemed the ideal choice to helm Universal's final Frankenstein film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), but after a forgettable haunted-house mystery, The Cat Creeps, Kenton only made a few more minor films, drifted into directing episodes of television series, and finally retired in 1960. For no compelling reason, one feels obliged to remember him.

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