Due to New York Comic Con, our second installment of this month’s Sunday’s with was delayed. But here we are, on a Monster Mash Monday, with James Whale’s “Frankenstein”.
With the financial and critical success of Dracula, Carl Laemmle Jr. proved to Universal Studios that horror films can and would be very marketable. The studios next venture would again buy the rights to a novel/stage play and in turn, my personal favorite monster movie was born. This is my Sundays with…Frankenstein… on a Monday!
Release Date: November 21, 1931
Run Time: 71 minutes
Starring: Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
“Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” – Henry Frankenstein
Frankenstein is taken in name and origin from the Mary Shelly classic; however the film is more closely related to the John L. Balderston stage play. The film opens up in a grave yard. A solemn family is lowering their deceased loved one into the grave but in the distance two strangers look on. After the ceremony, the grieving family retires and the two strangers, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), start their ghastly goal of digging up the body. The main objective of this morbid behavior is to piece together a body that Frankenstein can then bring to life through electricity. As the doctor’s work is culminating, all he needs now is a human brain. He sends Fritz to the classroom of his old professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), to recover a brain. However in his clumsiness, Fritz drops the “normal” brain and has to quickly replace it with the other brain in the classroom: that of a criminal. All the while, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), Henry’s fiancée, is worried about his mental state. He has moved into seclusion in an abandoned watch tower. Looking for answers she visits Dr. Waldman, where he informs her that Henry is trying to create life. Horrified by this discovery, the two of them, along with her friend Victor, go to the watch tower, where they arrive just in time to see Henry’s experiment begin. The laboratory is filled with sparking electrical equipment as the table holding the corpse rises to an opening. A few minutes later after several crashes of thunder, they lower the body. Slowly the hand of the corpse starts to move, and Henry is overwhelmed with joy as his experiment is a success. However, Henry will soon find out that creating the monster was the easy part. Little time goes by and we see Henry trying to teach the monster, however not much is working. The monster is in turn a new born baby in a strong humongous body. Fritz is often mean to the monster and enjoys scaring him with fire. Henry and Dr. Waldman hear a terrified scream and discover that the monster has killed Fritz. Terrified at the realization of what he created, Henry and Dr. Waldman decide the best thing to do is destroy the creature. Dr. Waldman urges Henry to return home and he will take care of it. As Henry returns and recuperates, the monster strangles Waldman, and escapes the watch tower. Now that the monster is wandering the country side, scared and alone, will he continue to cause harm or will the town be able to stop him first?
Frankenstein is my absolute favorite of the classic monster films, and that is due largely to the monster himself. The monster, to a small extent, really represents the human condition to me. He is created and thrust into a world already in motion. He did not ask to be here, nor did he have any say as to how he appears. As we all know it is scary to have to learn things in a world so big, so naturally we fear them. This sounds a lot like childhood doesn’t it?! The horror here is imagining having to do all that, not as a small and almost harmless child, but as a lumbering man. As a child we receive love and support, and those things help build us into the adults we become. The monster has none of that; he is looked at as an experiment and treated as such. In the film, Henry at least tries to educate the monster, a stark difference from the book in which he runs away from it as soon as he comes alive. With all of these tribulations that we see played out on-screen for the “monster,” it is hard to not sympathize with him. After all, to a very small extent, we endured the same tribulations. The real monster in this story is not the creature, but rather the “authoritative” figure that created him. The film plays with this beautifully by showing the childlike nature of the monster, the horrifying effects of the dangerous experiment, and the failure Henry is.
Frankenstein also deals with the dangers of a culture that is so driven by outward appearance. This, to me at least, has always been the draw of the monster. In book, play, and film we see how the monster is judged because of his scars and appearance. Thinking that he is ugly and thus must be bad, is really driven home in almost every incarnation of the monster there is. From Karloff to DeNiro to Rory Kinnear on Penny Dreadful, no matter how the monster is portrayed, the underlying “ugly” fact is always the cornerstone of the monster’s issues. The scene in which the monster is finally “befriended” by the little girl is absolutely heartbreaking, but in essence is my favorite image in the whole film. The notion that the film is trying to portray is that children are good and can overlook things like appearance. For the first time, the monster is accepted and he smiles. The outcome of this scene is of course heartbreaking, and through the amazing performance of Karloff, we can feel that childlike feeling of nervousness followed by being terrified about what you’ve done.
As one would imagine, upon release Frankenstein was filled with controversy. The most obvious was the main plot point of creating life through science. In today’s time the use of science in birth is the norm, however in the 1930s this idea was not only scoffed at but also thought of as blasphemous by the large religious sector of the country. The statement that I used was also a high point of contention as it was seen as wrong and blasphemous to not only compare oneself to God, but then to state that you were God! The film makers foresaw this problem and once again used Edward Van Sloan to perform a “curtain scene” before the film began which warned the audience of what they were going to see. Another point of controversy was the scene in which the monster throws the girl into the water. In many markets such as New York and Massachusetts, it was viewed as obscene. In certain markets the scene was even removed. Frankenstein was a “pre-code” film, meaning it was released between the silent era and the films made after 1934. The films in between these periods did not have a “ratings” board that decided what was suitable to be shown on film, so sexuality, violence, and other such topics were fair game, and scenes including them did not have to be removed. However after 1934, the scene with the drowning girl had to be removed for any re-release of Frankenstein. The scene was thought to be lost until it was discovered in the 1980’s, and has once again been included in the film.
From a technical stand point, the Frankenstein crew learned from some of the miscues of Dracula. This is especially noticeable during the scenes in the watch tower. Arthur Edeson headed the cinematography and instituted the use of sweeping shots that followed the characters from place to place. This took the Karl Freund technique and enhanced it. The watch tower set is full of these scenes as we follow the characters through the stairwells with one continuous shot through the walls. Another crucial decision was the casting of the monster. Following the success of Dracula, the studio wanted Lugosi to play the monster. The original script for the film had the monster as more of a killing machine and was less sympathetic. Lugosi showed little interest in the project and soon left. After Whale came on and rewrote the script, Karloff was cast as the monster and history was made. Lugosi and Whale would work together a few years later on Murders in the Rue Morgue, and he would eventually play the monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. Aside from the incredible acting in the film, it is the makeup by Jack Pierce that not only gave the monster his infamous look but also terrified audiences. Pierce worked and learned from the master himself, Lon Chaney, and utilized many of the secreted techniques in the universal monster movies he would later work on. Both Karloff and Pierce worked together to bring the monster to life, with Pierce utilizing cotton, gum, and grease paint. Karloff added the finishing touches of the “sunken in” face by removing a dental plate in his mouth to give his appearance a more corpse like look. The end result is probably the most iconic creature make up in cinema history.
Boris Karloff led the cast. He blended the childlike heartbreak with the vicious ferocity that makes the monster the monster. Colin Clive as Henry channeled the single-minded frenzy of someone realizing their dream, and perfectly counteracts that with the horrifying realization of what he has done. Mae Clark has little screen time but when she is onscreen, she is captivating. Her beauty mixed with the overwhelming care and concern she has for her fiancée makes her very enduring. Edward Van Sloan is again very effective in his grizzled supporting role, and we can begin to see his typecasting taking hold. And of course there is Dwight Frye. He is not a big part of this movie but again he rocks it, giving the role an over-the-top aspect that just goes to support my theory that he is the most underappreciated actor in these films.
Following in the footsteps of Dracula, Frankenstein was a success both financially and critically. It thrust Boris Karloff into another stratosphere of success, and solidified the power of the Universal monster movie. Frankenstein spun numerous sequels and remakes and remains one of the most enduring movie monsters of all time. In 1991, it was selected by the United Sates Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” It is as close to perfect as a horror film can be, and that’s not just my opinion, as it is one of the few films given a 100 rating by Rotten Tomatoes. This film is an absolute classic that can be viewed over and over again.