“It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”
Oh, I’d better like this one. I need a good film to reinvigorate me after two disappointing Dracula movies. Thankfully, Frankenstein (1931), directed by the great James Whale and starring horror icon Boris Karloff, has answered my prayers with a powerful story that is enhanced by its Gothic atmosphere and a strong directorial style.
After the monster hit that was Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) raked in giant profits for Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, Jr. was set on making more horror films. This time he turned to Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein for inspiration.
Shelley’s book isn’t as long or as epic as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s dense and does feature some big scenes. A faithful adaption probably wasn’t possible within Universal’s budget, nor within the time-frame of a 70 minute film.
Co-writer Garret Fort, the same man who scripted Browning’s Dracula, was partially inspired by a lauded 1927 play by writer Peggy Webling and an unproduced adaption by John L. Bladerston. Balderston, you may remember, also penned the Broadway version of the Dracula play I mentioned a few days ago. Thus, the Frankenstein movie we ended up with is scaled down from the book and only loosely based on its famous story, though many themes remain intact.
Our tale begins as Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is conducting mysterious experiments in an abandoned tower located outside a European village. Aiding Henry…actually, yeah. I have to address something. In the book, Frankenstein’s first name was Victor and his best friend’s name was Henry. I think the names were switched for the film because Victor didn’t sound like a good name for a romantic lead.
Anyway, Henry is aided by Fritz, a hunchback assistant played by Dracula actor Dwight Frye in a similarly crazed role. Henry’s fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and his best friend Victor (John Boles), are concerned about Frankenstein, who has told them next to nothing about what he’s up to. The two travel up to the tower with Henry’s old medical professor, Dr. Waldman (played by Edward Van Sloan in a stern, authoritative, moral role similar to Van Helsing).
Henry is intent on emulating God and creating life of his own through the dead corpses he stole from graves, the hangman’s noose and anywhere else he could manage. His three friends arrive just in time to see these experiments come to fruition. A creature (played by Boris Karloff) is brought to life.
The Monster turns out to be more than Henry bargained for as it turns out Fritz grabbed an abnormal brain – that of a violent criminal – instead of the normal brain Henry wanted. Egged on by the sadistic Fritz, who mercilessly whips him and pushes flaming torches in his face, the Creature quickly becomes violent and may cause trouble for Henry and his bride to be. But the childlike Creature has a gentler side that wants nothing to do with the violence being inflicted on and around him.
Director James Whale was brought in to direct Frankenstein after the initial director, Robert Florey, failed to work out. Whale was a man of the London stage who had already directed two highly acclaimed and successful films in Hollywood.
Journey’s End (which he also directed on the English stage in 1928) and Waterloo Bridge were both World War I dramas, the former starring Colin Clive and Dracula star David Manners and the latter featuring Mae Clark in the lead role. A science fiction horror film may not have been the obvious next choice for Whale, but thank God he did it.
Whale’s direction is confident where Browning’s in Dracula was not. This probably has something to do with Whale, having come from the stage, being practiced in directing dialogue. But I think it stems from a greater reason than just that.
Mae Clark and others said in later years that Whale was involved in every area of production. He was up on the boom crane tower, he’d be in the sound room, he sketched ideas for the eventual Monster makeup, and he put his own personal taste into the designs of not just Frankenstein’s lab but “normal” sets, as well.
The movie reeks of Whale and has a definite style. The dark, moody graveyards; old, half-forgotten buildings; and the film’s use of light and shadow create a wonderful Gothic mood, probably partially inspired by the silent, German Expressionist classics like Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It’s a nice change from the almost generic direction in most of Dracula.
Of course, Whale was aided in creating the look of the film by old Florey designs, the ideas of makeup artist Jack Pierce, and the wonderful laboratory equipment from Kenneth Strickfaden that gives Frankenstein’s lab a terrifically weird, old-fashioned but yet slightly advanced science fiction vibe.
This tight control and careful attention to detail gives the film a better look and feel throughout than Dracula. There are scenes set in normal looking environments: moments when we’re given just a simple dialogue scene with Elizabeth and Victor or she and Henry in an average sitting room. This was done intentionally, so as not to overwhelm the audience with too many scenes of the Gothic and macabre.
Admittedly, these drastic changes in the look in mood can be jarring on some viewings. But Whale’s constant feeding in of his own tastes – his fascination with floral arrangements and his tendency to take the camera right through walls as actors go from one set to another – keeps those normal scenes from feeling sterile and uninspired.
We have a pretty darn good cast this time around. Frye is playing it up with another crazy performance. He, unfortunately, doesn’t have as much to do this time around and his part isn’t as nuanced as Renfield in Dracula. He’s still a consummate player who’s always able to catch your eye and hold your attention with his strange quirks and character traits.
Colin Clive made a habit throughout his short film career of playing characters that mirrored his own inner torment. He was a chronic alcoholic and had a Jekyll (when sober) and Hyde (when drinking) personality. Whale, having worked with him on the stage and screen versions of Journey’s End, handled the actor with care.
Clive turned out a tragic, multi-layered performance. It’s a touch theatrical, a bit mad but also subtle and sympathetic. You understand Frankenstein’s goals to do something great. He wants to conquer perhaps the greatest hurtle of all: death. He doesn’t see the arrogance in this until after he’s gone half-insane with his work and the Monster is on the loose.
Even before he learns his mistakes, we understand and feel for him because his desire to do something magnificent isn’t unlike some of our own grand life goals, though I hope yours don’t include robbing graves and reanimating corpses.
But of course where would we be without the real star of the show, the Monster. Karloff was not the first choice to play Frankenstein’s creation. Laemmle initially went after Bela Lugosi for the role.
Yes, Lugosi was originally intended to play the Creature And why not? After Dracula went down so well with audiences and critics, Lugosi was becoming hugely popular and being billed as “The New Lon Chaney.” It’s understandable that Universal wanted to capitalize on Lugosi’s newfound stardom by having him appear in another, and possibly a slew more, of horror films.
The problem with Lugosi was the actor himself. He thought he was too handsome and too popular to play a mute character with layers of makeup obscuring his face. Universal tried to make it work, however. It made up a poster with Lugosi’s name on it and there were even makeup tests.
No footage or photos of these tests survive, but eyewitness accounts say it was similar to the makeup done for the 1915 German horror film The Golem. The makeup apparently looked ridiculous on Lugosi, who soon dropped out of the project.
Thankfully, Whale came across Karloff in the Universal commissary one day and offered him the part. Karloff, an actor who had already appeared in 75 films before Frankenstein, quickly accepted.
The Monster in the movie is less intelligent and sophisticated than the articulate character in the novel. As with Dracula, this film defined the public’s perception of the Monster as a non-verbal, childlike creature with a flat head and bolts sticking out of his neck. But what those who have not seen the movie may not realize is how Karloff goes so far beyond just a lumbering, growling brute.
The Creature is slow and awkward in his movements and, in this film anyway, unable to speak. Later actors would portray the Monster as robotic, unemotional and with as much depth as a dried up lakebed. Karloff gives the Monster real character and pathos.
There are two keys to the performance. One, Karloff treats it seriously and without the air of vain, superiority of Lugosi. Yeah, his face was covered in thick makeup that made him unrecognizable, but he saw the role for what it was – a great part.
Two, Karloff made the Creature innocent and childlike. It’s not quite in tune with the book, but it makes sense for a character newly brought into the world. He doesn’t fully understand the world and he can accidentally do horrible things a result, such as when he runs across a little girl tossing flowers into a lake. Unafraid, she befriends the Creature, who joins in with the flower tossing. But, as is always the case with the Monster, things end tragically.
He may have an inherent innocence but the monster is still capable of being menacing and frightening. After his encounter with the little girl, the Creature stumbles through the area before falling upon Frankenstein’s house. Henry and Elizabeth are soon to be married there. Frankenstein and Victor learn that the Monster is in the vicinity and lock Elizabeth in a room to keep her safe.
Unbeknownst to them, the Creature gets in through a window. With Elizabeth’s back to him, the Creature stares at her with his almost dead eyes and his abnormal posture, his neck hunched down but his body remaining as tall and dominating as ever.
The Monster slowly lumbers towards her, reaching out to do God knows what. She eventually notices him, moves towards the door and goes into a fit of realistic and slightly chilling hysterics. It’s a simple and old-fashioned scare but shockingly effective.
These scenes, along with the iconic creation scene and a fabulous monologue from Henry before we see the Monster for the first time, are what help give this film its power.
The only thing I would say hurts Frankenstein is its somewhat awkward pacing. There’s a good lead-up to the Monster, but things go from good to bad too quickly. Within the span of a small handful of minutes, Henry goes from having confidence in his creation to fear.
This is in keeping with the novel, sort of, but it didn’t quite work in the movie. It felt like there should’ve been more to the second act. But don’t let that minor quibble stop you from seeing what is still a powerful film.
This was hardly the first time Shelley’s novel had been brought to the silver screen, but the 1931 film was the first to grab hold of audiences and take America by storm. Starring in the highest grossing film of that year, Karloff was now not only a star but being called “The New, New Lon Chaney.” The rest of his career would be defined by horror films.
One of his most memorable would take 1930s viewers across the world to Egypt, where Karloff would play a far more ancient and dangerous creature. Come back tomorrow for the unearthing of The Mummy.