(8/10) In a nutshell: James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931) is a far cry from Mary Shelley’s novel, and it is marred by some stiff acting and a low budget. But it is still a visual work of art, and a film that in many ways became the benchmark for American horror sfi-fi pictures for years to come, and the duo of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff as the mad scientist and his monster is part of our cultural legacy.
Frankenstein. 1931, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by Francis Edward Farragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), John Russell (uncredited), based on the play by Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, in turn based on the play Presumption by Richard Brinsley Peake (uncredited), based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 8.0
Tod Browning’s Dracula, featuring a Bela Lugosi that would forever be ingrained in our minds as the dark count of the undead, was Universal’s first horror picture in sound. It was also the film that started the golden age of the studio’s horror franchise. But the ultimate film that would define the genre was Frankenstein. Both films were released in 1931, and gave birth to a torrent of horror – and science fiction – films, that has never fully ran dry. Frankenstein was the film that cemented the dark, expressionist gothic style of future American horror films, it was the film that defined the mad scientist, and of course introduced film history’s most recognizable monster in the form of the heavily made-up Boris Karloff. Today it is often overshadowed by director James Whale’s 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstien (review), that is in many ways a superior film, and a true American classic. It is certainly true that Frankenstein is somewhat hampered by some wooden acting, an illogical and seemingly jumbled script and a fairly tight budget. But the beautiful, suspenseful and innovative visual style of Whale, and the multi-layered and ultimately sympathetic portrait that Whale and Karloff create for the Creature make up for the film’s shortcomings, and it is certainly well deserved of its place among the immortal pieces of art that make up the backbone of much of our cultural heritage.
Before we get to the film itself, let’s have a look at where it comes from. As I’m sure most readers know, the origins of Frankenstein lay with 19th century author Mary Shelley, and her novel Frankenstein, or; the Modern Prometheus (1818), as it was initially released as. Most readers are also probably aware of the fact that the book and he film bear very little resemblence to one another. Whale sometimes gets the blame for simplifying the story, but as a matter of fact, he brought back some of the nuances of Shelley’s writing that had gotten lost along the long and winding road from book to 1931 film.
Shelley herself was right in the middle of the stars of the British Romanticism of the early 19th century. Her boyfriend and later husband was the literary star Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among their best friends were the even bigger star, the scandal-prone Lord Byron, and John Polidori, author of the first English-language vampire novel, The Vampyre (1819, nearly 80 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula). She was the daughter of two noted poets and radicals (William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft), who held firm beliefs in the French Revolution and Enlightenment, something the British Romanticists where sceptical about after the rise of Napoleon’s tyranny. She was well educated, curious and a devourer of books.
She was also a tragic figure, who defined herself through her many personal losses and a feeling of loneliness and alienation. She lost her mother early on, and later a sister and her first child. Her father would never wholly accept her marriage to Shelley. Shelley left his first wife Harriet, a personal friend of Mary, high and dry with two children, to run away with Mary. Percy Shelley also insisted on keeping a second woman as companion, championing the notion of free love, something that Mary tried to embrace without ever really succeeding. Both Harriet and Mary’s sister committed suicide, which weighed heavily on Mary throughout her life.
The loneliness and alienation of the Creature in Frankenstein can be seen as a metaphor for Shelley’s own feelings. Much like her, in the novel he develops a love for literature, art and philosophy. Yes, in the book the ”monster” is a highly intelligent creature with the gift of eloquent speech, prone to citing John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a book which was one of Shelley’s personal favourites. And much like her, he feels shunned, misunderstood, lonely and tragic, and harbours a deep disappointment towards mankind, that has such talents for extraordinary deeds of love and art, but uses its intelligence for greed, vanity and evil.
In the mythology surrounding the book, partly created by Shelley herself, it is stated that the idea came to her at a legendary session at Lake Geneva, where she, Percy, the other girlfriend Claire, and Polidori, where gathered in Milton’s old manor – and they decided to all work on their own horror stories (this was supposedly when Polidori conceived The Vampyre as well). According to Shelley, the creature manifested itself in a dream. Perhaps this is true, but this was also a very popular notion among many of the romantic writers at the time, and a ploy used by many later writers to add drama to their creations – from Bram Stoker and his Dracula to James Cameron and his terminator. (And isn’t The Terminator the essence of the modern Frankenstein?) But considering the multiple philosophical, psychological and moral themes of the book, it is highly unlikely that Shelley hadn’t been developing the idea for quite some time.
Without making this into a literary essay, one should at least point out the main themes of the book. The book is less interested in the Creature, and more interested in Frankenstein himself, who like a modern Prometheus seeks to bring the secret of fire – or in Victor Frankenstein’s case, the secret of life – to humanity. Forsaking his family, his parents, future wife Elizabeth, child and best friend, he isolates himeslf in his obsession in creating his New Man, pieced together by raw materials gathered from charnel houses, medical laboratories and morgues. But as soon as the creature is ”born”, he rejects it in disgust and horror. Instead of being ushered into its new life by a father, the creature is thrust naked and frightful into the world, where it starts out as a benevolent helper, only to turn into a dark avenger once it has been harassed shunned, assaulted, hunted like an animal and cast out. Once Frankenstein’s child is killed by the Creature, the family’s innocent and beloved servant Justine is hanged as the main suspect because Frankenstein is too afraid to reveal his dark secret. Even in her death, he in his egotism thinks that he is worse off because of his heavy secret.
Shelley paints an utterly unsympathetic picture of the arrogant, egocentric Frankenstein – and in particular the way he abandons both his real family and his ”son”, the Creature, as soon as the act of creation is over. Here Shelley puts forth some strong criticism of the male unwillingness to 1) acknowledge the female wonders and pains of childbirth and 2) take their responsibilities as fathers – something she herself had seen very closely among friends and family.
The creature threatens Frankenstein’s and Elizabeth’s life, demanding that Frankenstein create a female companion for him – which Victor agrees to – only to ultimately destroy it, again betraying his ”son”. In revenge the creature kills his best friend, Henry Clerval, for which Victor is blamed and imprisoned, and when he is released the creature ultimately kills Elizabeth. In grief over all his losses, Frankenstein’s father also dies, leaving Victor as lonely as the Creature itself. Frankenstein then follows the Creature to the Arctic, but ultimately does not succeed in killing it. In the end, as far as the reader knows, both are alive.
The story is more about Victor Frankenstein, his pride, passion, egotism and hubris, his neglect for family and friends and his ultimate cowardliness, than about the so called monster. The Creature is rather a picture of mankind – a mirror so to speak of the human being, so capable of love, warmth, and refinement, but driven by the world and his/her own human needs and emotions to do terrible things, to use the fire of Prometheus for death and destruction rather than light and warmth. The book is very much a potent criticism of what many of the romantics saw as the naive view of the ”scientific human” – or the good human – championed by the Enlightenment. Although Shelley and her peers were not anti-science, as one might believe from the film adaptation, they were highly sceptical of the view of hard science as the answer to society’s problems. The human being is an emotional being first, and rational second, was the essence. Shelley would later return to the topic of humanism gone astray despite all the best intentions in her apocalyptic epic The Last Man (1826). But despite some religious imagery, Shelley didn’t bring ”the domain of God where Man is not supposed to meddle” into the mix. She was raised by atheists, after all, and was by all accounts, if not an atheist, then at least a sceptic. She was more worried about humankind stepping out of its own intellectual and emotional boundaries than into God’s. As a matter of fact, when dealing with religious themes, she was not writing a warning about science and the boundaries of God, but rather using the story as a metaphor for the wretched human, supposedly created in the image of God. Consider John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where God is named ”the Victor” – Frankenstein’s first name. She even includes a few lines from Paradise Lost: ”Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From Darkness to promote me?” Clearly, here is humanity speaking with the voice of the Creature – to its maker, God, in the form of Frankenstein.
And atop of all this, the novel was also a pioneering experiment in narrative elements. The whole book is told as ”a story within a story”, and begins with a lengthy exposition about a Captain Walton, and is told in epistolary form as letters between him and his sister. Walton is an adventurer and explorer setting out to conquer the Arctic – a man very much like Frankenstein, leaving his beloved sister at home to risk his life for the feat of being the first man to explore the mystery of the North Pole. In the Arctic he first sees a glimpse of the Creature, and then picks up the half-dead Victor Frankenstein, chasing the Creature over the icy terrain. In his letters Walton then retells the story as it is told to him by Frankenstein – who in turn tells a large part of the story as it has been told to him by the creature. Much of the story is not action or horror at all, but long philosophical discussions on art, beauty, moral, good and evil, and humanity. It is a complex philosophical and social discussion with multiple layers and ideas – many of which are completely lost or even turned upside-down in later adaptations.
So – how did this multifaceted story about the eloquent and soft-spoken, philosophical, tragic Creature and his neglecting ”father”, mired in his own hubris and pride, turn into the 70 minutes long film about a mad scientist, his hunchbacked assistant Fritz stealing abnormal brains, lightning and electrical storms, IT’S ALIVE, and chaining a mute, lumbering Karloff with electrodes in his neck in a castle dungeon, ending with a religious platitude about ”things men should not interfere with”?
Despite generally negative or mixed reviews upon the book’s release in 1818, it slowly grew in the public’s mind, and 1923 saw the popularity blow out of proportion with a string of hugely successful theatre adaptations. The first one was Richard Brinsley Peake’s play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which more or less served as a blueprint for most later plays, and just a month later came a play called The Demon of Switzerland by Henry M. Milner, reworked by himself into The Man and the Monster in 1926. These two early plays are in fact seminal for the 1931 film, although they were made over 100 years earlier. (Thanks to Shelley scholar Steven Earl Forry for making his stuff available online.)
In fact, many of the changes that have been attributed to either James Whale or to the writer of the 1927 play that the film is based upon, Peggy Webling, were present already in the 1823 play Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein by Peake, staged in London. Here are some of the changes that Peake made:
- Removal of the complex narrative structure.
- Removal of all backstory for Frankenstein.
- Removal of most of the philosophical discussion.
- Turning Frankenstein from a student of chemistry into a ”mad scientist”.
- Heavy emphasis on the romantic melodrama.
- Making the monster a mute brute.
- The monster is created off-stage.
- The introduction of the exclamatory cry ”It lives! It lives!” (It’s alive! Frank shouts in the film.)
- The introduction of the servant Fritz as a comic relief character.
- The notion that Frankenstein is ”raising the devil” and meddling in God’s business.
- The play ends with both Frankenstein and the monster dying in an avalanche.
- Adding songs.
The play does retain some of the story of the family that the monster helps in the book (absent in the film), but combines it with a totally new story of a long lost love of Frankenstein called Agatha. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is made into Frankenstein’s sister and betrothed to Clerval, rather Frankenstein’s adopted sister and later wife.
Then of course there is the ”why?” Why did the hack writer Richard Brinsley Peake make such huge alterations to the popular story of Frankenstein? There are many reasons. One, of course, is that the novel itself is impossible to make into a straight dramatic adaptation. Another reason was the fact that the book was widely seen as an attack on religion, or at least as immoral. Such things could certainly be dealt with if the author was a canonized figure like Voltaire, but when dealing with a new story by an unknown author, and such a gruesome subject matter, it is quite understandable that the theatre might want to guard itself against too much criticism from religious circles. But thirdly, and most importantly, this had to do with a rather interesting patent system for dramatic presentation dating back to the 17th century. This stated that only the so-called royal theatres could perform ”legitimate drama”, such as comedies and dramatic tragedies; Shakespeare and so forth. The other playhouses were allotted certain genres that were to be performed at certain seasons – these genres were ”illegitimate drama” such as melodrama, burlesque, pantomime, puppet theatre, musical entertainments, and spectacles. The English Opera House, where Presumption was played, had a license to show musical farces and ballad operas during the summer months. After reading the script of Presumption, I am still not entirely sure into which of these categories the play falls …
Nevertheless, Presumption was a huge hit. It ran for 27 nights for a potential audience of 55 000 people, although one can perhaps suppose that it wasn’t sold out every night. Mary Shelley herself attended one of the shows, and according to her letters she seems first and foremost to have been very surprised at the popularity of the show: ”lo and behold! I was famous!” she writes. Despite the huge changes to the story, she also writes that ”I was much amused, and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience” – although she does add that the story ”was not well managed”.
So popular was the play that it immediately gave birth to a number of spin-offs and satires all over London. Such were Humgumption; or, Dr. Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton, Presumption and the Blue Demon, and Frankin-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay. Quite a few plays were also written in France, as the novel had been translated into French. A more straightforward version was Henry M. Miller’s The Man and the Monster; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1926), which was partly inspired by the French (very free) adaptation Le Monstre et le magicien, and partly by the Peake play. It does include a rather odd subplot concerning a prince, a love story seemingly unrelated to Frankenstein, and a band of gypsies. But it is important as far as the film is concerned, as it is the first play to show the awakening of the Creature. The stage direction in the play describes the monster covered by a cloth, as in the film, rising slowly and rigidly, as in many later film adaptations, to meet its maker face to face. It also seems to be the first play to depict the angry mob chasing Frankenstein over the mountains, and it also has a scene where the monster is captured – also not present in the book, but present in the film. It has the monster dying by falling into a volcano. In the film the monster dies by having a burning windmill collapse over it. The play doesn’t feature Fritz, but Frankenstein does have an errand boy.
Mary Shelley is famously vague about the actual creation of the creature – in fact she has Victor Frankenstein being deliberately vague so that coming generations might not walk in his footsteps. What little Shelley reveals concerns Frankenstein taking his primary inspiration from an old book of secret arts (also not specified). Shelley has him reading up on alchemists like Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa – all brilliant scientists who also dabbled heavily in the occult, magic and alchemy. At least two of them described how to create a homonculus, or little man. Early plays like Presumtion also turns Frankenstein into a full-blown alchemist. Some sources claim that there is no basis in the book for the film’s heavy reliance on electricity – which is only partly true. Frankenstein’s ultimate inspiration for re-creating the powers of nature is lightning striking a tree during his youth. Shelley mentions Frankenstein’s interest in the work of Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, who used ”galvanism” or electrical stimulation to make dead bodies of animals and humans move, as if alive. During his fleeting description of his experiment Frankenstein says he tries to induce ”a spark of life” into his creation.
Again – electricity was not added to the mix by the filmmakers – although they did turn it up to eleven. In the first American stage adaptation of the play, The Last Laugh (1915), by Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard, alchemy is replaced by electricity.
Lastly we come to the play that Universal Studios bought the rights to for 20 000 dollars – Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre by British playwright Peggy Webling, a huge success in London. As the play is not in the public domain I have not found a readily available version online, but from what I have gathered it is something of a mix between Presumption and the 1931 film – and is described as a ”drawing room melodrama”. According to cinema scholar John Howard Reid, the program of the original 1927 production actually named both the novel and Peake’s 1823 play as inspirations for Webling’s version – which would explain the many similarities. The two major contributions by Webling seem to be – first: the scene with the Creature and the little girl Maria by the lake, where the Creature accidentally drowns Maria because he wants to see her float like a flower, and second: the unexplained name change, where Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein and Henry Clerval becomes Victor Moritz. But it doesn’t end here. Webling’s play was reworked for staging in the US by John L. Balderston in 1930. His main contribution was probably to add pyrotechnics to the creation scene, which must have partly inspired the filmmakers to do the grand electrical firework they did.
The 1931 version of the film was not the first adaptation. The story had been made into films at least three times before, by the Edison Studios in 1910 (review), starring Charles Ogle, in 1915 as Life Without a Soul (lost film) and in 1920 in Italy as Il Mostro di Frankenstein (lost film).
And thus we finally get to the film itself, please forgive the long post, I got a bit carried away. BUT WAIT! It still does not end there. No, the film was not originally going to be made by James Whale, nor would it star Boris Karloff. Originally the film was slated to be directed by the French director Robert Florey, known for his experiments with expressionist avant-garde – but best known for making the 1929 Marx Brothers film Cocoanuts. He was brought on to rewrite the theatrical script along with John Russell after the huge success that Universal had with Dracula. Originally Dracula star Bela Lugosi was supposed to play Dr. Henry Frankenstein, but ultimately the studio thought he wasn’t right for the role. He was then offered to play the monster, and even did a screen test in make-up, but turned down the role as he didn’t want to play the mute simple brute. This has later been considered the mistake of his life, but to his credit it should be pointed out that Florey’s monster was very different from Whale’s monster. ”I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!” Lugosi is quoted as having said.
According to Mike Segretto at Psychobabble, who has read Florey’s script, it is broadly the same script as appears on screen. The big difference seems to be the characters of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature. And he also penned the absurd and completely unnessecary scene of Fritz stealing the abnormal brain.
Which brings us to British director James Whale. Whale had a huge success in London with his direction of the World War I play Journey’s End in 1928. Seen as a great potential, he was snatched up by Hollywood producers in 1930. He did ”dialouge directing” on two pictures, and was then allowed to direct a film version of Journey’s End in 1930 – which became a critical and commercial success in both Britain and the States. The young British actor Colin Clive played the lead in both the stage production and the film. Universal’s boss Carl Laemmle Jr, seeing the potential in Whale, reached out, and to sweeten the deal, allowed Whale to have his pick at directing any project he wanted at the studio. Whale chose Frankenstein, which meant that Florey was out, after already having had problems with the producers. Under the supervision of Whale, the script was rewritten by Francis Edward Farragoh and Garrett Fort, who added more human features to the monster, making him a tragic character, rather than the mechanical killing machine in Florey’s script. They also completely rewrote the character of Henry Frankenstein, who Florey had written as a smug sadist who tortured the monster. Whale wanted to turn him into a dreamer, adding the famous line: ”Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.” Whale also added just a hint of his witty humour, present to a much larger extent in Bride of Frankenstein.
For the monster, as we know, Whale chose the 44 year old British actor Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Pratt), who had slummed around Canada and Hollywood doing extra work and bit parts, and taking odd jobs to make ends meet for over two decades. Karloff immediately started working with Whale to flesh out the character of the monster, as the two agreed on the need for the creature to become sympathetic without losing its menacing edge. Karloff was very reluctant about throwing little Maria into the lake, as he thought the action was too violent – he wanted the creature to gently put her in the water. The two also came up with the iconic scene of the monster reaching for the light when it is first unveiled. The third link in the creation was make-up legend Jack Pierce, who claimed to have studied ”anatomy, surgery, ancient burial rites and decomposition” for three months before designing the monster, starting from drawings made by Whale. Pierce reasoned that the design should be crude, as Frankenstein wasn’t a medical doctor. From his medical research he gathered that the simplest way to remove and replace a brain would be to cut the cranium open like a lid, hinge it, replace the brain, and then clamp the head shut. The crude metal clamps gave him the idea of the flat box-like head, which also added height to the monster. The effect was further enhanced by the 5 kg boots that Karloff had to wear. Karloff was actually not especially tall at 180 centimetres – average height. It was Karloff’s idea to put putty on the eyelids to give the creature a vacant, half-dreaming expression.
The design of the creature was markedly different from the one Bela Lugosi had designed for himself. Production stills show Lugosi in make-up that closely resembles German actor/director Paul Wegener’s Golem from the 1916 film and the 1920 remake The Golem. The Golem is an old Jewish legend from Central Europe about an alchemist creating an artificial man from clay. But the golem, designed to protect the city from invasion, turns out to be a half-wit that misunderstands the commands it is given, ultimately makes the situation worse, and turns on its maker. The legend was first written down in the 16th century. It was without doubt one inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel, as she must have heard it told when researching her book as she and Percy travelled through Germany, where the legend has strong roots. (Trivia: Castle Frankenstein is actually situated in Odenwald in Germany, not far from Gernsheim, where the Shelleys stayed during a trip on the river Rhine in 1814. In the 17th century the castle was home to the alchemist Johann Dippel. Dippel claimed to have invented ”the elixir of life” and is reported to have made anatomical experiments on dead bodies in the castle. Although Shelley never mentions Dippel nor the castle in her journals, they are widely believed to have influenced the novel.) The film The Golem, in turn, wound up influencing the 1931 film Frankenstein. Even though the make-up changed, the way Karloff walks and moves in the film could be almost directly copied from Wegener’s performance in Der Golem.
Although Bela Lugosi was out, Whale inherited the two other stars that would become staples in Universal’s horror films; Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye, from Dracula. Van Sloan more or less reprised his role as the all-knowing expert, beautifully rendered with his stiff manner and vaguely European accent. He just changes the name of his character from Professor van Helsing to Dr. Waldmann. Dwight Frye was one of the joys of Dracula as the possessed fly eater Renfield. Here he shoulders the role of the hunchback Fritz, effy about cutting down hanged men from the gallows, but who shows no remorse in torturing the captured creature, that takes its gruesome revenge in the end by throwing Fritz off the castle walls. Mae Clarke as Elizabeth is alright, but both a bit vacant and hammy, and John Boles as Victor Moritz is stiff as a plank. Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father Baron Frankenstein brings most of the humour to the film as a pompous and oafish unofficial head of the little Swiss town where the film is set. Marilyn Harris is adorable as little Maria. She returns in Bride of Frankenstein. Legend has it that James Whale was not satisfied with the first take of Karloff throwing Harris into the lake. He said that Harris would get anything she liked if she would do the take again. She asked for a dozen hard boiled eggs. Whale provided her with two dozen. Her mother was a bit disappointed in Harris’ meagre wish.
The visual style of the film had already been set by Florey before Whale took over, and since both were huge fans of German expressionism, in particular films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), The Golem (1916, 1920) and Nosferatu (1922), Whale used many of the designs that Florey had created, and also stuck to some of the camera shots already planned by the previous director. The expressionist legacy is especially well seen in the slanted, off-kiltered designs of Frankenstein’s castle, an incredibly tall, narrow set with winding staircases, huge, wooden doors and dark, damp stonemasonry, hiding the legendary electrical laboratory designed by Kenneth Strickfaden. Much of the equipment had made its debut in the awful sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (review) the year before. Boris Karloff got burned by a spark from the arc generator during the creation scene, and after that refused to go near it. This led to Strickfaden himself doubling for Karloff as the monster lying on the table in a few shots. The equipment was then used for all Universal’s Frankenstein films, as well as in a number of other horror sci-fi movies. Similar props where later dubbed as ”Strickfadens”.
The opening of the film sets the tone, with a theatrically obvious backdrop for a cemetery, where mourners are crying at a funeral. A beautiful tracking shot sweeps across the dark cemetery, passing withered trees and a giant, leaning cross, settling on Frankenstein and Fritz in hiding, watching the undertaker fill the grave with dirt. Immediately Whale displays the expressionist, almost surreal style of design, reminiscent of Dr Caligari, and the macabre subject matter of the film. He also shows why he was such a sought after director in the early thirties, with his care-free, mobile camera, as if completely disregarding the big problem of the early sound films, namely the impractical sound recording equipment that rendered so many of the films of the era static and clunky. Compared to the stuffy chamber drama of Dracula, Frankenstein is a feast of dynamism and movement. The lighting of the film is sublime, creating stark contrast, brooding shadows and suspense. The film is cunningly paced, building suspense and momentum. It’s as if Whale would set himself the challenge to make his film just as visually inventive as the last, great silent films. Sound is simply a problem to be overcome, and would not be allowed to interfere with the visual elegance.
Wisely Whale reveals his monster slowly and gradually. At first it is only a shape under a cloth, and little by little we see a massive body wrapped in bandages – a mystery to marvel at. A naked hand falls out from underneath the covers, nearly frightening Fritz (and presumably the 1931 audience) to death. Colin Clive’s manic energy comes to its rights in the superbly edited creation scene, which also highlights one of the strengths of the film that is often forgotten – the sound design. So much emphasis is laid on the visuals, that little has been said about the fact that the film is a festival of sound. It’s easy to forget that the film has no music apart from the opening and end credits. Instead Whale relies on masterful soundscapes – from the crying relatives in the beginning, the thud of the shovel and earth. In the creation scene it’s not only Clive’s hysterical madness and the superb sets and electric flickering that creates a sense of wonder. Our eardrums are filled with noise – the whirring and crackling of the machinery, the mechanical clang of the body of the monster being hoisted to the heavens, the howling of the wind, the sturm und drang of the raging storm – Clive calling out orders, Frye yes mastering back. It’s sublime, masterful. And then the climax, Colin Clive’s triumphant cry: ”It’s alive! It’s alive! Oh in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to BE God!”
Aficionados love to heap praise on the acting feat of Boris Karloff, who has rightly been praised for his portrayal of the monster. And it is a boon that it was he and not the hammy Lugosi who got the part. But if truth be said – Karloff is the type of character that clearly shows that you don’t necessarily need to be a very good actor to deliver a stunning performance – sometimes it is enough to be a charismatic actor aided by good direction. What ultimately sets the role apart is that Karloff never plays a monster, rather he plays a victim, and does so with such love and sympathy for the role that it is impossible not to get a bit teary. But in fact James Whale is just as much to be praised for the way he treats the monster and directs the actor, with the aid of Jack Pierce’s make-up, the lighting, the camera angles and the editing.
Colin Clive was chosen by Whale becasue of his brooding character, high strung, ”pitched for a nervous breakdown”, but with a romantic quality, according to the director. He adds a notion of alienation and bitterness, as mirrored in his creation. Give him a set-piece, a thunderstorm, a motivation and a monologue and he is ”wonderfully, vividly larger than life”, as another reviewer put it. Clive’s performance is notable inasmuch as it definitely cemented the character of the mad scientist – expressive, brooding, haughty and maniacal. But the groundwork and the blueprint had already been laid down by in cinema legend Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927, review) by German star actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the creator of the film’s memorable android. Whale was a huge fan of Metropolis and Lang.
But despite the praise, the film is not without its flaws. As mentioned earlier, the acting is patchy. Despite his qualities, Clive was not used to film acting, which clearly shows in any scenes involving romance and subtle feelings – where he all but shouts at poor Elizabeth as if to make sure that everyone in the back seats are able to hear him. His performance in these scenes are still wonderfully, vividly larger than life, but unfortunately in the wrong context. Furthermore, the script looks a bit like it was re-written from another script that was adapted from a play that was adapted from another play that was adapted from a third play that bore very little resemblance to the book it was based on, and now someone actually read the book and tried to adapt the text back to its original source, but still keep the film under 70 minutes. There is really no logic or continuity to the thing, and we are never really sure about the time frame. It is supposed to all happen during a single night and day, but it feels like a bit too much action happens for such a short timeframe, considering how much we move from location to location, prepare weddings, visit professors, steal bodies and brains, etc. The scenes just sort of follow each other without much bridging in between. It’s not that the action is hard to follow, since the story is boiled down to bare simplicity, but it’s feels a bit like we are Star Trek-beaming from one scene to the other. And because all the important scenes are cut down to their most essential minimum, the film feels much longer that 70 minutes, especially the melodramatic scenes seem to go on forever, without much bearing on the plot. For example, there is the strange adding of a secondary romantic plot, where Victor is also in love with Elizabeth, expressed in a single line, and then completely forgotten in the rest of the film. Curiously enough, this was a feature that would be added to a whole slew of these mad scientist movies – for some reason the filmmakers seemed to think it necessary to add a romantic rival to the scientist. Perhaps this was so that the scientist could be killed off in the end, but we would still have sort of a happy ending. But if anyone has a good explanation to this, please leave a comment below. And as a matter of fact. Henry Frankenstein was not killed off in this film – the studio wanted him to survive – presumably for a sequel, so Whale filmed a short epilogue with Henry recovering in his bedroom. The reason why we never see him in this scene – only the father and some girls – is that Colin Clive was already on a boat on his way back to England.
Wow, this turned into a long post. This is the part where I usually write a lengthy bit about the filmmakers and actors, their other sci-fi films, and so forth, but I think I will keep this one short, and return to our heroes, Whale, Clive, Frye and Karloff, in The Bride of Frankenstein. For now, just a few notes on some of the other people involved.
Carl Laemmle Jr. Was the son of German émigré Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. Despite Laemmle Junior’s short career (1931-1936) as head of Universal, he is today regarded as a Hollywood legend, primarily for ushering in the golden age of the Universal horror films, starting with Dracula and Frankenstein. He was kicked out in 1936 for spending too much money on unsuccessful films, and never worked in the movie business again.
Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi who were kicked off the project were given Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) as a ”consolation prize”. Despite being only a moderate success, the film is widely seen as one of the more artistically accomplished and thoughtful of Universal’s horror franchise films. Lugosi would, of course, continue his fame in the horror business, and returned to Frankenstein as the deformed Ygor, assistant to Dr. Frankenstein, in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) – and would play the monster in the 1943 picture Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (review), when his career had already been in steady decline for a number of years. Lugosi and Karloff would later act together in 8 different films. Karloff became hugely successful, while Lugosi was struggling to get by, for a number or reasons. Often it was claimed that he had a hard time getting good roles because of his thick Hungarian accent. But another important factor was that Universal already had their top billing star in Karloff. Lugosi had played Dracula for a very small salary, and continued to work for peanuts, a fact that studios used mercilessly by taking advantage of his poverty. Despite popular belief, Lugosi didn’t hate Karloff, although their relationship was mostly professional, and they were never close friends. He did, in later years as his mental health deteriorated, seem to harbour a deep bitterness about Karloff’s fame and his own misfortune. Just prior to his death he famously hallucinated that Karloff was in his house, and out to kill him. Relatives have stated that during his healthy years Lugosi never said a bad word about Boris Karloff, and respected him both as an actor and as a colleague. Karloff himself often spoke very highly of Lugosi, and lamented the way the studios treated him.
Robert Florey remained a respected director in Hollywood, although never reaching the heights of commercial or critical success as some of his contemporaries. He continued to champion German expressionism in Tinseltown, mostly in B-films, which many critics see as his best work. The first of Universal’s three Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is often described as an ”American Dr. Caligari”. He is remembered today for the 1937 film Daughter of Shanghai, notable for casting two Asian-American actors in lead roles in time when white actors where still widely used to play Asian characters. The film starred Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Asian-American star, and Philip Ahn.
John L. Balderston, who revised Peggy Webling’s play, had earlier worked on the revision of the play that Dracula was based on. He later took up screenwriting, mainly contributing to Universal’s horror films in the early days, but later he worked on high profile films like The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939) and Gaslight (1944). He was nominated for an Oscar twice. In sci-fi he is remembered for writing for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review), and for his 1932 play Red Planet, that was turned into the film Red Planet Mars in 1952 (review).
Cinematographer Arthur Edeson was a Hollywood legend who worked on silent film classics such as Robin Hood (1922), The Mark of Zorro (1924) and The Lost World (1925, review). He had previously made Waterloo Bridge (1931) with James Whale, and continued to work with him on The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933, review). He later filmed such legendary films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). He was nominated for three Oscars, but never won.
Mae Clarke and John Boles had previously worked with Whale on Waterloo Bridge (1931). Clarke had just months earlier created one of the most memorable scenes in cinema, when James Cagney pushed half a grapefruit in her face in Public Enemy. In his AFI acceptance speech, Cagney said: ”Mae, I’m glad we didn’t use the omelet that was called for in an earlier script, as I’m sure you are”. In 1949 she was the female lead in the semi-sci-fi serial King of the Rocket Men.
Edward van Sloan was a theatre actor who played the role of Professor van Helsing in a 1927 production of Dracula, opposite Bela Lugosi, and later reprised the role in his second film appearance in 1931 (the first was in 1916). After Frankenstein he appeared in yet another similar role in the Karloff vehicle The Mummy (1932), and continued to play doctors, professors and distinguished, learned men – and occasionally mad scientists – in a string of horror and mystery films. Some of them also touched on sci-fi, such as Air Hawks (1934) and Before I Hang (1940, again with Karloff). He had a brief appearance in the 1933 musical sci-fi comedy It’s Great to be Alive, and appeared in two sci-fi serials: The Phantom Creeps (1939) and Captain America (1944). He had a small role in the famous disaster film Deluge (1933), known for its impressive miniature shots of New York being hit by a tsunami, later recreated in The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In 1936 he was the only actor from the original Dracula film to return to Dracula’s Daughter. In a twist of fate, he ended up working with Robert Florey in the 1935 drama film The Woman in Red. Despite van Sloan’s foreign-sounding name and his distinct intonation and often exaggerated vaguely European accent, he was born in Minnesota, but did have German ancestry. He appeared in 87 films up until 1950 – including a number of traditional dramas.
Lionel Belmore who plays the puffy burgomaster returned to horror/sci-fi films numerous times in minor or minute roles, among others in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). He did also have a string of roles in more prestigious films. Michael Mark (as Ludwig, a minor character) is an interesting character as he was used in four of Universal’s Frankenstein films in minor roles – each time a different one, and kept popping up in small roles in 120 films during his career, many of them horror and sci-fi. Interestingly enough, he appeared in three sci-fis during the golden age in the fifties – The Return of the Fly (1953), Phantom from Space (1953, review) and the much lambasted B-film The Wasp Woman (1959).
Frankenstein. 1931, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by Francis Edward Farragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), John Russell (uncredited), based on the play by Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, in turn based on the play Presumption by Richard Brinsley Peake (uncredited), based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Editing: Clarence Kolster, Maurice Pivar. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Music: Bernard Kaun, Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Set designer: Herman Rosse. Special effects: Kenneth Strickfaden, John P. Fulton. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal.