Written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by James Whale
A Universal Picture
Starring: Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein); Boris Karloff (The Monster); Mae Clark (Elizabeth); John Boles (Victor Moritz); Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman); Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein); Dwight Frye (Fritz); Lionel Belmore (the Burgomaster); Marilyn Harris (Maria)
When you want to sit down and talk about classic monster films, there are lots to choose from; one doesn’t even need to stay within the realm of the United States (anyone for Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Noseratu?). Eventually, any such discussion will hone in on the Universal films of the 1930s and, after a bit of dancing around films featuring the wolfman, the mummy and the invisible man (icons that still appear in films up to the present day), the discussion will come down to two monsters, two films, two icons, and that is where all agreement will end.
Dracula or Frankenstein?
In all my years of discussing horror films with other fans, I have found very little consensus between the two camps that favor one film over the other (or perhaps it is one performance over the other). Both films are definite classics, something that cannot be denied by any lover of film, but the reasons for their classic statuses are very different. Dracula (1931) is a showcase for two (not one, as most would say) performances: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula (in the performance that both made and ruined his career) and Dwight Frye as Renfield. The modern vision that we have for these two characters come directly from this film: Lugosi gave the Count his smooth Hungarian accent, intense eyes and cultured demeanor while Frye gave us that wonderful Renfield laugh and equally-intense face. The film also has a romantic/gothic feel that made ladies in the 1930s swoon. Unfortunately (for my taste), that’s all the film has to offer; based on a stage play adaptation of Stoker’s novel (again starring Lugosi), the sets and camera feel stage bound and the rest of the performances are the standard stuff you’d expect to see in any film from this era, stiff-backed actors giving stilted performances that they hope the hidden mics are picking up. As you can tell, I’m not a Dracula man.
Much better is James Whale’s Frankenstein.
With the sole exception of Terrance Fisher’s The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Frankenstein is the best adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel to date (and it sometimes surpasses Curse, depending on my mood). Colin Clive’s gibbering and wailing performance as Henry Frankenstein would set the mold for mad-scientist characters for evermore and give him a kind of immortality (which is good, considering his own life was cut short not long after reprising his signature character in The Bride Of Frankenstein). Clive is a fine actor, and his work with Dwight Fry as his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (not Igor, as some would contend; that character wouldn’t arrive until The Son Of Frankenstein, where he was played by Bela Lugosi) sets the pace and drives the film forward to the creation scene, where the film’s true star finally rears his truly ugly head. We never really get to know what Henry was like before he caught himself a dose of the “Let’s-Make-Us-A-Monster” flu, but we are given a hint of his character after he apparently comes to his senses and recuperates in the arms of his fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clark). Clive may not have the most romantic voice in the history of cinema, but he speaks his lines in earnest when he tells Elizabeth that he wants to do nothing but forget his creation as if it were a nightmare and settle down with her. An unlikely prospect, but then everything in this film skirts happily over the line of realism and, in its own way, is far more realistic than the source novel (where we’re asked to believe that the monster learns to speak perfect English by finding a trunk full of books and listening in on a foreign woman’s daily English lessons. At least Whale had the sense to keep his monster’s utterings to a few mumbles for this film and only a limited vocabulary for the next). It’s difficult to believe that Henry is truly cured of his messianic complex, but the film relieves him of the duty of becoming a mad scientist again in the final act (in The Bride Of Frankenstein he wouldn’t be so lucky). When the monster shows up on Henry’s wedding night and absconds with Elizabeth, his first thought is to his wife and not to somehow making his creation acceptable to society. Maybe he got used to being a God without a creation.
This brings us to the monster, whose apparent death at the hands of Dr. Waldman (Everett Van Sloan) allows Henry to wake from his nightmare. But Henry’s recuperation allows us to spend more time with the man of the hour: Boris Karloff. The makeup on Karloff is truly groundbreaking (and back-breaking, if Karloff’s later health problems are anything to go by); the flattened head, lifeless eyes and neck bolts have never been forgotten, and neither is the moment when he makes his first appearance, walking backwards and facing away from the camera so that he can turn and the camera can jump cut into his horrible face. Women fainted at the premiere and, while familiarity has blunted this particular moment, it’s still incredible. Better still is the time that the monster wanders around the countryside after Dr. Waldman’s plot to destroy the monster ends with the Doctor strangled and the monster free, searching for understanding and possibly even love. What he finds is a little girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris).
It took a lot of guts for Whale to include the scene by the lake with Maria (possibly too much guts as the scene was censored for many years). When the monster first arrives by the lake, she isn’t frightened of him (Maria is braver than most of the members of that first audience, although unwisely as it turns out). She leads him to the edge of the lake and starts playing with him, throwing flowers into the water so they float. Karloff’s performance during this scene is worth all the bad grade-Z pictures he would say yes to during the rest of his life; he smiles, grunts in fascination and actually shivers with excitement. But then the last flower is thrown and the monster, child-like in his understanding, doesn’t want the fun to end. He choose the next pretty thing he can find, Maria, and throws her into the lake. But Maria’s no flower. At this point, Whale hedged his bets and shot Maria’s drowning in a way that the censors would’ve approved of: Karloff’s massive body blocks her from view and all that can be heard is her sputtering. Confused, the monster runs off in panic.
The monster has a brain of a criminal (stolen accidently by Fritz) and Dr. Waldman’s theory is that it is physically different from a normal brain; in his own opinion, no good could’ve come out of any creature attempting to think with it (Henry chooses to disregard that theory, although he may be just saving face after realizing that something in his meticulous experiment has gone wrong). The question of good brain/bad brain doesn’t appear in Shelley’s novel; it is an addition of the adaptations that led to this film (Frankenstein was also a stage play before this film was produced) and may be an attempt to explain Henry’s failure and the monster’s murderous impulses (although his scene with little Maria, despite her death, can hardly be thought of as murderous). It would stand to reason, at least to an audience of the times, that a preserved, normal and undamaged brain could have produced a better man, and therein lays the tragedy of the film: just think what the monster could’ve been if not for that one mistake. It still would’ve been as hideous as yesterday’s sin but it could’ve recited the Major-General song without a stumble. Instead, the monster is a barely conscious being, unable to understand light, flowers and most of the words said to him.
This may be the direction that Whale wanted his audience to go in, but I don’t think modern audiences can watch the film that way anymore. Henry’s experiment fails because it’s got to fail, pure and simple. He has usurped the power of God and, with only a man’s intellect, cannot possibly understand the full implications as to what is has wrought on the world (“At last, I know what it’s like to be God,” he screams in the film’s pivotal creation scene, a line that was, for years, obscured by a thunderclap by censors who thought the film was going too far). As a God, Henry is an unattractive blithering ass, smug when he’s calmly discussing his “successes” and raving at all other times. Only when he decides to give up his experiments (which seems a trifle unmotivated, the megalomaniacal Henry Frankenstein wouldn’t let a little thing like a few strangled people get in his way) does Henry mellow and become the man who can marry Elizabeth (we can finally see what she sees in him). Henry is far more attractive as a man than as a God, and so he creates something just as flawed and as unattractive as he was in his raving stages. It was not the brain that was bad, but the creator who infused life on it.
And so it is easier to forgive the monster as it decides to take revenge on his creator by kidnapping Elizabeth. It is confused, hunted and only knows the hatred for the man who put him in this mess in the first place. Or maybe the creature sees in Elizabeth the same kind of beauty he noted in little Maria. But Elizabeth doesn’t ask the monster to play with her when he enters her bedroom. She, like everybody else, screams and this leads us to the chase and the windmill where the monster apparently meets his fate (no one knew there was going to be a sequel). As the monster wails inside the burning windmill, I’m not certain how we’re supposed to feel; the happy couple are safe, but do they deserve to be? And what about the monster? Can anything that he experienced in his second life be considered fair? Was he not abandoned almost as soon as he was created?
Frankenstein was a product of its era and has many moments that ring false today: there is overacting and inappropriate comic relief all the way through, there is a village of Austrians speaking with American accents, and a rather obvious, floppy-limbed dummy stunt-doubles for Henry when the monster tosses him from the windmill. But there is also that shot of Maria’s stunned and grief-stricken father, carrying her drowned body down the street in full view of both the townsfolk and the camera (they censored her drowning but allowed this?). It is just one of many moments that transcends the silliness that often passed for filmmaking in the 1930s. And another is Boris Karloff, with no dialog and better off for it: his sad moan and even sadder eyes convey all there is to know about this poor abandoned creature who did not ask to be created and must now deal with the consequences all on his own. As wonderful as James Whale was in crafting this film and its sequel, Frankenstein is an actor’s film, and that actor was credited only as “?” during the credits. It would not be long before the world would get to know the name of Boris Karloff.