Universal Monsters in review: Frankenstein (1931)
While Dracula (1931) may have been the first, the granddaddy of the Universal Monster pictures, it was Frankenstein who set the monstrous industry into a golden era of bringing frightful stage plays into the silver screen. And likewise became the highlight of eccentric director James Whales’ career. I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “But Tommy, wasn’t one of Whales best pictures Journey’s End (1930), a full year before Frank made the big screen.” And yes. I would agree. Journey’s End was a fantastic war drama depicting the lives of British soldiers as they fought in trench warfare during the Great War and equally important as one of the first talkies. Be-that-as-it-may, it was Frankenstein to which the director really shined. And perhaps one could argue, it was his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein to which we could pin as his masterpiece. But that review will have to wait for another day. Today, the lovely Dawn Cano will be taking us on a little journey into the macabre heart of Frankenstein, to whomever said heart may belong, we’ll have to discover on our own. Perhaps we’ll find pain. Perhaps we’ll find fear. Perhaps we’ll find something about ourselves in those melodramatic haunting eyes of Boris Karloff. Let us discover together.
Frankenstein: A Real Tug on the Heartstrings
By: Dawn Cano
Released in 1931 and based on the 1818 novel by the same name, Frankenstein was directed by James Whale, and stars Boris Karloff, Collin Clive, Mae Clarke, and Dwight Frye. It tells the story of Dr. Henry Frankenstein who, along with his assistant Fritz, sets out to create human life by piecing together body parts from the recently deceased.
Of course, all bodies need a brain, and after unsuccessfully trying to acquire one from the graveyard, Dr. Frankenstein sends Fritz into a medical laboratory to steal a brain. Fritz grabs a healthy, normal brain and drops it, leaving the only alternative to be the unhealthy, or abnormal brain that once belonged to a violent criminal.
After acquiring the brain, the doctor gets to work on his experiment. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, worries for his sanity because he’s locked himself in an abandoned watchtower and refuses to leave until he completes his work. She and her friends, Victor Moritz and Dr. Waldman, head to the watchtower to rescue the doctor before his experiment drives him mad.
Frankenstein is fairly annoyed that his fiancee arrived to interrupt his work, but soon ushers the trio into his laboratory to prove once and for all that he can create life, and that he’s not crazy. When they enter the room, they see a dead man lying on a hospital table and during a thunderstorm, Frankenstein and Fritz raise the bed up to the roof of the watchtower, where it is struck by lightning. The two lower the bed and soon, the dead man’s hand begins moving. It is then we hear one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “It’s alive!”
Frankenstein’s “monster” (I hate that term but use it in this article for the sake of argument) initially comes across as a docile creature until we see his violent reaction to fire. Frankenstein uses fire to control the beast and Fritz antagonizes the monster until finally, he can’t take anymore and strangles the assistant. Knowing then that Frankenstein’s monster is dangerous and must be destroyed, Henry and Dr. Waldman decide to humanely end his life. Waldman puts the monster to sleep and prepares to dissect him, and Henry goes off to get married.
Waldman is ready to dissect Frankenstein’s creation, but the monster awakens, strangles the doctor and escapes. He comes across a little girl named Maria, who invites him to play. The pair throw flowers into the lake, watching them float, and when the monster runs out of flowers, he tosses the girl into the water to see if she floats too. She doesn’t, and drowns. Later, we see the girl’s father walking through the center of town carrying his dead child. Everyone knows the monster is to blame and several hundred residents form groups to find and either kill him, or bring him back alive. As Dr. Frankenstein leads one of the search parties, he comes across his creation. The monster knocks him out and carries him to the top of an old mill. Out of fear and anger, the monster throws his creator off the top of the mill and luckily, Frankenstein’s fall is broken by the windmill’s vanes, which is the only thing that saves his life. The villagers set fire to the windmill, seemingly killing Frankenstein’s monster.
In 1931, Frankenstein was released on the cusp of Dracula‘s success, at a time when Universal struggled to pay its bills, so the studio needed this film to be as successful as Dracula. When filming began for Frankenstein, French director Robert Florey was set to direct, with Bela Lugosi cast as Frankenstein’s monster. Through some unknown twist of fate, (many rumors have circulated as to why these two left the project, but nothing solid was ever confirmed) James Whale, known for his sense of humor and often blasphemous take on things, took the helm and cast the relatively unknown Boris Karloff in the role of the monster. Lugosi eventually got his chance to play Frankenstein’s monster in the 1943 film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. That film was a feeble attempt to revitalize his failing career, but he was no Karloff, and the film was a flop.
By far, the best casting choice for this film, excluding Karloff of course, is that of Collin Clive in the role of Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein clearly teeters on the edge of creativity and madness in this film, and Clive absolutely nails his performance. Not only does the audience feel the madness slowly creeping up on the good doctor, they also feel his need to do something dangerous and to take chances, which is something many of us wish we had the guts to do.
Cast in the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, Mae Clarke gives a stellar performance as a strong woman who can stand on her own (a rarity at the time), but one who is also afraid for the man she loves. I think this role would have been wasted on anyone else.
Whale felt that because of the strong horror elements in Frankenstein, the movie needed a little comic relief, so he cast Dwight Frye as Fritz and Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein. The director incorporated subtle comedy in this film to break up the horror and give audiences a break from the most terrifying scenes ever shown at the time.
To 1931 audiences, Dracula was frightening. However, when Universal released Frankenstein later that year, it was considered so scary, it actually started with a warning, one that told people what they were about to witness. The message was delivered by Dr. Waldman himself, Edward van Sloan:
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle (the producer) feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.”
And there it is, the moral lesson Frankenstein left in the mind of its audience. Man shouldn’t “play God.” The 1930s saw a strong resurgence of religion not only in America, but all across the world. Church attendance was way up as the world pulled itself up by its boot straps and tried to recover from the Great Depression. Frankenstein not only made people question if playing with life and death was the morally right thing to do, it also subtly questioned the existence of God. (“Now I know what it’s like to BE God!”) Today, with things like cloning becoming more commonplace and atheism on the rise, playing God doesn’t seem quite so shocking or terrible as it must have 85 years ago. At that time, imagine how horrifying it must have been to see the doctor robbing the graveyard of fresh corpses, or watching a dead body come back to life. Frankenstein was well ahead of its time in the subjects it tackled.
What I really want to talk about here, which is by far the best part of Frankenstein, at least for me, is its emotion. First we have the doctor, who wanted so badly to be remembered for something, he would do whatever it took to gain notoriety. History would always remember him as the man who brought the dead back to life. First and foremost, he was a dreamer, and his dream almost tore him apart. Clive does an outstanding job making the audience feel scared for the doctor when it seems his sanity was on the line, and happy for him when he finally succeeds, even when what he was doing was so wrong.
As outstanding as Clive’s performance is, the real emotion in this film doesn’t come from the doctor. It comes from the “monster” himself. One particular scene comes to mind, and those of you who have watched the film will (hopefully) agree with me. When Dr. Frankenstein learns the monster is afraid of fire, he opens up the roof of the watchtower, allowing the sunlight to come streaming through so he can gauge the monster’s reaction. Frankenstein’s creation smiles, lifting his head and hands toward the light. It is a beautiful scene and although Karloff has no speaking lines, so much comes through in that one moment. People have often speculated about this particular moment, and I’ve seen folks guess that maybe the monster’s behavior was supposed to represent autism. Another fan theory is that maybe the man whose brain the monster inherited came from someone destined to go to Hell, and the sun represented Heaven, a place the deceased never thought he’d get to see. Either way, it’s a gorgeous, highly-emotional scene.
After the monster escapes, he finds his way to the lake and meets Maria, the little girl he later drowns. The two of them are sitting on the bank of the lake throwing flowers into the water, watching them float. The monster’s face during this moment is a mask of pure joyful innocence, and the only reason he throws the girl into the water is because he runs out of flowers and wants to keep playing. There is no malice in his action and he obviously realizes he did something wrong because as soon as Maria hits the water, he runs away. Again, Karloff expresses an abundance of emotion in this short scene without ever saying a word. The end of Frankenstein shows the monster carrying his creator to the top of the windmill. The fear and confusion the monster feels is palpable and despite everything he’s done, you can’t help but feel very sad for him that his short life ends so violently.
These are the reasons why I dislike calling Dr. Frankenstein’s creation a “monster.” He was never a monster at all. He was something created out of body parts, brought to life and left to his own devices, and all of these things took place against his will. Fritz did nothing but torment him with fire until he eventually snapped, because he didn’t know any other way to make him stop. The doctor provided no guidance, no teachings of the difference between right and wrong, and mistakenly thought that this new person would automatically know how to think and behave, even after he found out the brain he used was abnormal. Without guidance, how could anyone expect him to automatically know what to do?
Another thing Frankenstein got right was the sets. Remember, the year is 1931, so cinematography and set design were still fairly new. Some scenes, like the scene where the monster is running away from the mobs are obviously fake. (take a look at the clouds) but some, like the one where Maria’s father walks through the center of town carrying his dead daughter are absolutely breathtaking for their time.
Riding on the success of the first film, more than 70 movies featuring Frankenstein’s monster eventually followed, and each had varying degrees of success. Some of the more popular Frankenstein films include Bride of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein. No matter how successful these films are, none will match the vision, creativity, or raw emotion presented in the first Frankenstein.*
Frankenstein gets a very solid 5/5 from me.
A horror fan from an early age, Dawn Cano loves everything about the genre and has just begun her journey into the world of horror writing. When not pounding away at the keyboard, she can be found reviewing books and movies for The Ginger Nuts of Horror and wasting time on Facebook. Dawn has also started what will no doubt be a fantastic career as a storyteller. You can find her books, including Sleep Deprived and Bucket List, *Warning: Some Scenes May Disturb for both of these wonderfully gruesome tales.