Frankenstein (United States, 1931)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I was a youngster, one of the highlights of my week was watching Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons. The program, a variation of which seems to have aired in nearly every major American TV market, showed a pair of older horror movies (ranging from classics to pure schlock) packaged into a three-hour block with a costumed narrator providing campy introductions. One of the most memorable CDFs presented a teaming of the 1931 version of Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Even at the tender age of seven or eight, I was cinematically savvy enough to recognize that this wasn't any other horror-filled afternoon. Frankenstein did not disappoint then, and, twenty-five years later, it still does not disappoint.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein has a rich and varied history. The story was committed to paper by Mary Shelley in 1818. Within a decade, play interpretations of the gothic drama had begun springing up. In 1910, it was first adapted for the screen in a silent short produced by Thomas Edison, and starring Charles Ogle as the monster. The most famous version is, of course, James Whale's 1931 film, which not only made Boris Karloff into an international star, but fixed an image of the creature in the public's consciousness that the passage of 70 years has not weakened. Since Karloff first donned the 40-plus pound costume and allowed makeup designer Jack Pierce to build layers of cotton and colodian on his face (something he did three times: in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein), dozens of other actors have played the part, including Christopher Lee, Randy Quaid, David Warner, and Robert DeNiro, but none has left close to the same impression. Considering Karloff's impact, it's ironic to consider that Frankenstein was originally developed with the idea of putting Bela Lugosi (a hot property after the success of Dracula) in the monster's boots. The actor demurred after realizing there was no dialogue, and Whale brought in Karloff instead. Lugosi eventually played the role, in 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (the fourth sequel). And Karloff returned briefly to the series in 1944's House of Frankenstein (the fifth sequel), albeit not as the monster.

However, Karloff's contribution is only one reason why the 1931 Frankenstein remains an icon. Whale, the subject of the recent fictionalized biography Gods and Monsters, is the other. Many horror movie makers were hacks, and the lack of inspiration in their work speaks for itself. One needs to look no further than the post-Bride sequels of Frankenstein to see this. Whale, on the other hand, was a meticulous craftsman who viewed filmmaking as an art. For him, the final product wasn't merely a source of disposable entertainment, it was something to be viewed with pride. Every frame of Frankenstein exhibits Whale's attention to detail. While aspects of the production may seem dated to today's audiences, there's an aura of creepiness that no big-budget motion picture has ever been able to duplicate. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, for all of its use of modern technology, lacks the soul that Whale brought to the screen in 1931. Few would argue that the 1994 version is the better one.

Frankenstein is loosely based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Technically speaking, it was adapted from Peggy Webling's play version of the book. Gone are a number of key elements of the written work: the endless arctic chase, the concept of a speaking monster, the friendship with the blind man, and the creature's desire for companionship. All of these (except the snow scenes) were included in Bride of Frankenstein, which, in concert with its predecessor, makes for a relatively complete screen transformation of Shelley's vision (as filtered through Whale's eyes). Readers of the book will notice numerous departures, some of which are radical, but slavish adherence to source material is not always the best approach (even when it's a classic). Taken on its own terms, Frankenstein works exceptionally well.

Even to those who do not consider themselves horror aficionados, the story is well known. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with the concept of creating life. Having left school because the scientists there would not permit him to continue his experiments, he has retreated to an isolated Bavarian castle where he uses bodies stolen from graves to further his work. Then, one dark and stormy night, he succeeds in bringing life to a previously-inanimate parody of humanity, a patchwork quilt of different body parts crudely stitched together. His elation is short lived, however - the creature's animalistic behavior quickly disillusions him, and, after it kills his hunchbacked assistant, he decides to destroy it. With the aid of his former mentor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), Frankenstein concocts a plan to eliminate the monster, but the creature escapes from the castle and begins to roam the nearby countryside.

Whale pulled out all the stops in attempting to frighten (or at least startle) audiences. His use of sound - various thuds, bangs, and assorted odd noises - pushed the envelope of the time and must have been exceptionally effective during the early "talkie" era (City Lights, the Charlie Chaplin silent masterpiece, was released the same year as Frankenstein). Whale also used visuals to unnerve audiences - lightning flashes, ominous shadows, and a grim reaper watching the proceedings in a cemetery. The scene in which Henry finally succeeds in animating the creature is one of the most famous in the history of early cinema - and justifiably so. Seen today, it is still effective. One can only imagine how well it must have worked on audiences unaccustomed to this level of spectacle. The monster's first appearance is equally memorable. Whale carefully builds up to this moment, keeping the creature mostly hidden from the camera until he is ready for the dramatic unveiling.

Despite his prominence, Karloff was not listed in the film's opening credits (which indicate that the monster is played by "?"), although his name does appear on the roster at the end. Even though the actor utters nothing more than occasional groans and grunts and is buried under makeup, there's nevertheless a great deal of subtlety in this performance. (Incidentally, the makeup was designed to allow the actor full facial movement.) Karloff makes the monster both fearsome and tender. In many ways, he is sympathetic - a sad creature who has been rejected by his creator and is left to discover the world's cruelties on his own. The scene with Maria, the little girl by the pond, is a case in point. These two share a gentle bond - she doesn't fear him. His smile is heartbreakingly poignant. When he inadvertently drowns Maria, her death is not the result of any innate savagery on his part, but because he fails to understand that all delicate, beautiful things cannot float. This is certainly one of the film's most effective scenes, and represents some of the best work done by Karloff in his long, uneven career. (It is worth noting that, for a 1937 re-release, the ending of this scene - where the monster throws the girl in the water - was cut so that the film could meet the Hays Code. When the movie became available on video during the 1980s, the scene was restored.)

Karloff's portrayal may have been subtle, but that is not an adjective anyone would use to describe Colin Clive's performance. Clive's over-the-top, theatrical style was typical for the early post-silent era (a case in point: his mad scientist-like screaming of "It's alive! It's alive!"). For the most part, however, even with his flamboyant tendencies, Clive succeeds in developing a complex and sympathetic character, conveying to the audience that Henry is a brilliant man who has become obsessed with an idea. With the exception of the ending, when he is redeemed, Henry Frankenstein is very much a traditional tragic hero. Supporting him are Mae Clarke as Elizabeth, Henry's loving fiancee; John Boles as Victor Moritz; Edward Van Sloan as Waldman, a variation of the Van Helsing part that the actor essayed in Dracula; and Dwight Frye as the doctor's faithful assistant, Fritz (not Igor).

Horror movie fans have always debated the merits of Frankenstein versus Dracula. Both films were, in their own ways, groundbreaking, but, in a head-to-head comparison, Frankenstein stands out as the stronger movie. The absence of Lugosi is more than made up for by Karloff, and Whale's direction displays greater artistry than that of Tod Browning. Both pictures effectively build atmosphere, but there's more depth and potential in Mary Shelley's material than in Bram Stoker's. Universal, in striving to keep both franchises going, brought the two icons together in House of Frankenstein (and threw in the Wolf Man to boot). The result was to inject a heavy element of camp into what had previously been a serious motion picture series. Yet, as much as the later movies diluted the character of the Frankenstein creature, nothing could blunt the impact made by Karloff in the role of the most memorable movie monster of all time.

Frankenstein (United States, 1931)

Run Time: 1:12
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1