Back in my review of Tod Browning's Dracula, I said it was one of the two most important early talking horror films. The other one, released at the end of 1931, was Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. If Dracula was the real start of Hollywood's first horror run in the 1930's, Frankenstein was the logical next step that defined it and made it a mainstay. This was another film that I saw on that life-changing weekend in October of 1998 when I was eleven years old. Along with The Wolf Man, Frankenstein became the Universal horror film that I saw the most and because of this, it's my favorite of the bunch and furthermore, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Like Dracula, this is without a doubt one of the most influential movies ever made, perhaps even more so than that film. Many people know the story of Frankenstein solely from this film, not from Mary Shelly's novel. Whenever you think of the mad scientist creating the monster in a laboratory, with all sorts of electrical devices, Tesla coils sparking, loud, humming generators, and the monster lying on a gurney with a sheet over him, you're thinking of the pivotal scene from this film. That scene is the prototypical laboratory that we've seen in countless other films, TV shows, and cartoons. Also, the idea of the monster having a brain put into his head and then being brought to life by lightning is straight from this film, not from the novel, which left the monster's creation very vague. To be quite honest, this film was based mainly on a loose 1920's stage version of the novel rather than the book itself. Some purists may find this disconcerting but I think it shows the material's ability to transcend generations and adaptations throughout the years.
Of course, the biggest influence this film has more than anything else is the look of the monster, played by the great Boris Karloff and whose iconic design was the work of makeup legend Jack Pierce. Even if you're never seen the movies, it's unlikely you can hear the name Frankenstein and think of the tall, flat-headed monster with bolts in his neck, stitches on various parts of his body, wearing dark clothing with big boots and grunting and growling. I know I knew that was what the monster looked like long before I saw the film. But what makes the monster a really great character and not just memorable due solely to his look is Karloff's performance. From the moment you first see him when he walks into the room where Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman are, he's apparently confused about where he is or maybe even what he is but he doesn't come across as threatening. He obeys Frankenstein like a young child would his father and this entire scene is a great example of Karloff's prowess at silent acting. The part where Frankenstein opens the shutter on the ceiling and the monster notices the light and tries to touch it shows his childlike innocence. When the light is shut out, the monster then turns to Frankenstein and makes a motion with his hand, like he wants his "father" to embrace him. When Frankenstein simply tells him to sit back down, he does so but continues to make those hand movements. Even if you're not sure exactly what he wants, you can see that the monster wants affection.
Only when Fritz, the hunchbacked assistant, bursts in with a torch does the monster turn violent but it's out of fear of the torch, not malevolence. He gets up and backs away, swiping at the air and moaning in fear but even though Frankenstein tells Fritz to get away, he gets too close and the monster attacks because he's afraid. They're forced to lock in the dungeon and now the monster doesn't trust anyone because he's been threatened, punched in the back by Waldman, and now chained. That's the only reason why he kills Fritz and tries to do so to Frankenstein and Waldman. Of course, we can assume that another reason why the monster is violent is due to the abnormal brain that was mistakenly sewn into his skull. Which brings up something else: is the soul and personality of that criminal coming through the monster and if so, does that mean that he wasn't really a bad man but just a frightened and confused one who only knew how to react with violence? Or does the monster have his own soul and doesn't want to hurt anyone but can't keep these violent thoughts from coming through when he's frightened or angry? Something to ponder.
Other than the creation scene, the movie's most iconic scene is the one between the monster and little Maria, the young girl he encounters by the lake. He's fascinated by her the moment he sees her and she's the first person who hasn't treated him with revulsion, contempt, or fear other than Frankenstein initially. When she hands him one of the flowers, the smile that comes across his face is pure happiness and his childlike laughs of delight when they throw the flowers into the lake and watch them float can't help but make you feel happy for him. But, unfortunately, he naively throws the girl into the lake, expecting her to float, and when she drowns, the look on his face is proof that he knows he's done something wrong. He may not completely understand it but he no doubt probably feels horrible that he has accidentally killed the only person who was nice to him. (Ironically, when the censors cut the part where the monster throws Maria into the lake, they ended up making him seem sinister. By cutting just as he's reaching for her, it caused many to wonder what he did to her.)
Equally as iconic as the monster is Colin Clive's performance as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Who can forget his classic line, :"It's alive! It's alive!", or his appearance in the white laboratory suit? James Whale and Clive undoubtedly had no idea at the time that this would become THE mad scientist performance. However, I don't think Frankenstein is insane in this film and I've heard that both Whale and Clive didn't think so either. He's just overambitious and wants to prove that he can go beyond God. Sure, he resorts to grave-robbery to gather the body parts necessary and becomes so excited when the monster comes to life that he yells, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!", (a line that was deemed so blasphemous at the time that it was cut and not restored until the 1990's), but his demeanor changes when things start to go wrong. When Waldman informs him that Fritz accidentally stole the brain of a criminal, the look on Frankenstein's face and the way he glances at the door (probably thinking of the monster) does show some concern for the ramifications and that despite his efforts to make sure the experiment was as safe and perfect as possible, he's failed. He, of course, brushes it off, no doubt in the delusional thinking we all do in that if you don't think about the problem, it'll go away. Of course, once the monster is locked downstairs in the dungeon and Frankenstein finally sees what he's created, his demeanor changes to shame as he tells Fritz to just leave it alone. And when Fritz is killed by the monster, he feels regret. He didn't want anybody to be harmed and that no doubt leads him to hunt down his own creation when what he's done is revealed.
Frankenstein also clearly loves his fiance Elizabeth, played by Mae Clarke, but doesn't have his priorities straight at the beginning when his letter tells her that his work must come first even before her. But once his family gets him away from his work, he realizes how much he loves her again and vows to marry. That's no doubt another reason why he decides to destroy the monster: to keep his loved one safe. As for Clarke's performance, she may not be very deep but she's very loving and devoted to Frankenstein, even though he does seem mad. She's worried about his health when he's preoccupied with his work and knows that there's something not right about it. She cares about HIM, not his work and knows when it's taking its toll on him. She also apparently has enough sense (call it woman's intuition or what have you) to know even after Frankenstein leaves his work that something still isn't right and their life together may be threatened by some outside force she can't put her finger on (i.e. the monster). All in all, Clarke may not have been the best actor but she does pull it off rather well.
The other cast members range from iconic in their own right to pretty forgettable. John Boles probably has the most thankless role in the film as Victor, Elizabeth's friend and passive rival towards Frankenstein for her affections. (Victor, ironically, was Frankenstein's first name in the novel and most other adaptations of the story.) He honestly doesn't have much to do except support both Elizabeth and Frankenstein, even though he clearly has feelings for Elizabeth himself. The only real thing of substance he says is at the beginning when he meets Elizabeth and they discuss Frankenstein's erratic behavior lately. Afterward, when Elizabeth says she's fond of him, he says, :"I wish you were." Elizabeth doesn't like the implication and Victor immediately drops it, which does seem to suggest that even though he does love her, he knows his bounds and makes him seem like a decent guy if nothing else. As I said, Boles doesn't have much to do other than that and I don't know if he was a good actor or not. Hell, after Frankenstein tells him to keep Elizabeth company while he searches for the monster, he disappears and is never mentioned again, not even in the sequel.
Edward Van Sloan, back from Dracula, plays Dr. Waldman, Frankenstein's former college mentor. Unlike Prof. Van Helsing, Van Sloan as Waldman as a rather cynical character. When Elizabeth and Victor question him about Frankenstein, there's some contempt present as he talks about his pupil's aspirations and the kind of man he eventually became. He only goes with them to the laboratory because Elizabeth asked him to, not because he cares about his former student. Before the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein informs Waldman that he has gone beyond what he taught him at school and Waldman's reactions are smug disbelief, not believing in the slightest that Frankenstein has done so. But once the monster is brought to life, Waldman becomes convinced that it can only lead to disaster and tries to warn Frankenstein. As soon as the monster begins to react violently, he presses Frankenstein even further to destroy him. Waldman is good enough to tell Frankenstein that the records of the experiment will be preserved and that he will painlessly kill the monster. Unfortunately for Waldman, the monster wakes up right before he can dissect him and strangles him. I don't think Van Sloan's performance here is as good as Van Helsing but as always with him, it is still done quite well.
Dwight Frye follows up his character of Renfield in Dracula with an equally memorable and unusual character as Fritz, the hunchbacked assistant. Like many other things in this film, Frye's performance would set the standard for all misshapen assistants in mad doctor movies. Many people call him Igor, which has become standard for hunchback assistants, but a character named "Ygor" wouldn't appear until The Son of Frankenstein, the third film in this franchise. In this film, Frye's character may not be the most complex character but he does what he can with it and it is brilliant. Fritz is quite loyal to Frankenstein, even seeming to share his master's enthusiasm for the experiment. One wonders if Frankenstein pays him well or if he just likes having something to do. Of course, it's Fritz's fault that the wrong brain made it into the monster's skull. Some sources have said it's because he can't read but I think it's more due to him panicking after he drops the good brain and grabs whatever he can. Fritz is quite funny when he walks down the stairs to answer the door for Elizabeth, Victor, and Waldman, muttering under his breath, single-mindedly telling them to leave even when they say who it is, and even stopping to pull up his sock on his way back up. However, Fritz is also revealed to have a sadistic side when he continues to torment the monster with a torch and even strikes a whip at him at one point. But, Fritz ultimately pays for his cruelty with his life. The death scream that Frye gives off is really horrific.
Frederic Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, the father, comes across as a blowhard bully who wants his son to live up to his standards and not mess with all that scientific nonsense. He finds science so uninteresting that he feels that Frankenstein has have to found another woman rather than spending all his time in a laboratory. He acts like a major douchebag towards the poor burgomaster, who's only doing his job when he comes to ask when the wedding between Frankenstein and Elizabeth will take place. When the burgomaster says that Henry Frankenstein is the very image of his father, the Baron grumbles, "Heaven forbid," which says he doesn't want any comparison to his son when he's doing his experiments. And yet, as jerky as he acts in his first scene, I don't hate the Baron. In fact, I think he's funny in how he acts so full of hot air. The way he acts when he can't open the door to the watchtower where the laboratory is always cracks me up and I like the story he tells about his grandmother not letting his grandfather drink the vintage wine. However, he's still a snob because he tells a butler to give the servants some champagne instead of the wine because he says it's wasted on them. But when he finds his son fainted in his room in the watchtower, he quickly rushes to his aid, which I do think shows that he really does care about his son.
The only other character that stands out to be me is one that isn't even listed: Ludwig, Maria's father, played by Francis Ford (whose name was changed to Hans for some reason in The Bride of Frankenstein). His role is brief but his interactions with Maria before he goes off and leaves her alone (which isn't very good parenting, if you think about it) shows love. And when he carries his daughter's limp body to the burgomaster, his heartbroken way of talking is touching. That leads to me Herr Vogel, the burgomaster, whose role is also small but I like the way he calls Ludwig a poor man when he sees his dead child. His energy when the mob is formed to hunt the monster is another touch I like.
The director of Frankenstein, James Whale, was a guy who was years ahead of his time, even in his very lifestyle, being openly gay in Hollywood in the 1930's. Whereas Tod Browning in Dracula, as much as I praised his direction for that film, didn't seem to know how to work in sound, Whale stretched the medium to its limits at the time. The crackling thunder, the sounds of the machines, the pounding of the dirt as it's pushed onto the coffin at the beginning, the monster's grunting, etc. Whale wasn't afraid to let his film literally speak for itself. Also, Whale employs a lot of camera movement, some of which is quite unique for the time. The most striking one is the four closeups at the beginning of one scene before an establishing shot. Another is the very long tracking shot that follows Ludwig carrying Maria's body throughout the village and you can see each villager stop celebrating when they see him. At some points, Whale pushes the camera past the edge of the wall. This may not seem like a smart thing to do but Whale came from the theater so it's more than likely just his inability to shake his old love. Whale also wasn't afraid to expose audiences to things they hadn't experienced yet like the aforementioned pounding dirt, the closeups of the feet of a cadaver, the closeup of a shoot needle being jammed into the monster's back and so forth. This is stuff you wouldn't even think about nowadays but in 1931, this made a lot of people really uncomfortable. The only trademark of Whale's that is missing is his dark sense of humor, which he would develop in his next horror film, The Old Dark House. This film is fairly straight in that respect, probably due to Whale having not found his footing in making these types of movies at the time.
Like Dracula, Frankenstein has no music except for the opening title sequence and the closing cast list. But unlike Dracula, there's hardly a quiet moment. As I said, there's sound everywhere. One that's very apparent is at the beginning when you can hear the church-bell chiming in the distance during and after the burial. I've listed all the other groundbreaking sounds that are present in the film but like I said, it shows how far ahead of the time Whale was.
There are some curious continuity errors within the film. One is when Victor tells Frankenstein that Dr. Waldman has been murdered. The question is who found his body? Nobody seems to go up to that watchtower. During the first scene with Baron Frankenstein, he calls the building Frankenstein does his experiments in a windmill instead of a watchtower. I think this is due to a change in the script because the building that the monster meets his "demise" in is clearly a windmill. Undoubtedly, some settings were switched. Also, Ludwig says that Maria was murdered. How does he know that since he didn't see it? Again, this is due to a change from an earlier script where Maria's mother was in the house and saw everything happen from the window. Maria's mother doesn't appear at all in this movie although she does appear briefly in the sequel. Honestly, I never thought about any of these until someone pointed them out but they don't hurt the film for me because that would just be nitpicking.
This leads to me a scene that while it still doesn't bother me, it does make me think a bit more. After hearing of Waldman's death, Frankenstein locks Elizabeth in her room to keep her safe. (Why didn't he just tell her to stay in the room rather than lock her in, which ultimately ends up harming her?) Anyway, he and the others hear the monster growling and search every corner of the house but can't find him. I've never understood this scene. No matter where they search, the monster's growls never become more faint or get louder. Is he able to throw his voice or do they just suck at trying to find him? It's just odd. Anyway, the monster sneaks into Elizabeth's room through the window and attacks her. Why would he just sneak into one random room, having no idea who's in there? Furthermore, he acts rather threateningly towards Elizabeth and seems to hurt her, which makes him seem a lot more wantonly violent and sinister than he has been up to this point. Still, that could be the criminal brain talking. And we don't see what happened so maybe he didn't hurt her and Elizabeth just fainted and knocked something over, causing the crashing sound we hear before Frankenstein and the others can get into the room. Again, this doesn't hurt the movie for me but it is something I ponder.
One thing that is often regarded as continuity errors are the mix of 18th century and 1930's style culture, clothing, and technology and the vagueness as to where in Europe this is taking place. At first glance, this may seem like a goof but James Whale did this intentionally to make the movie timeless. He didn't want it to feel of any particular time or country. While later versions of the story like the Hammer films would give it a more solid time period, this one is kind of in a fantasy world but I think that is in it's favor. In fact, many of Universal's horror films did so. It helps to make them feel more storybook, which I feel really helps them in their context.
Plotholes and continuity errors aside, Frankenstein is definitely one of the best horror movies of the 20th century. Its influence is unquestionable but it's also simply a really good, well made movie. Boris Karloff's stardom, despite his not even being credited at the beginning or even being invited to the film's premiere(!), began with this film and throughout his life, he never forgot that. The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, would not come for another four years but it would prove to be well worth the wait and would not only become a classic in its own right but would become to many, one of the few sequels that not only measures up to the original but tops it.