Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, John Boles, Dwight Frye
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus was written in 1818 by seventeen year old, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. In the summer of 1816, Shelley spent her time at Lake Diodati in Geneva, Switzerland with her husband, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori, along with Mary Shelley's sister, Claire. They all suggested that they have a contest and see who could write the best ghost story. Mary's story involved electrodynamics, galvanism and the artificial creation of life. This was a summer filled with drugs, sex and hysteria. It was in this strange, drug-hazed, orgiastic state that the overpowering monster was born.
After the success of Universal's Dracula(1931), it was decided that the follow-up would be another gothic classic, that being, Shelley's Frankenstein. The film was originally developed by French filmmaker, Robert Florey, who was a student of German expressionism and had made many interesting experimental films, though his only claim to fame at the time was directing the Marx brother's first comedy, The Coconuts(1929). Bela Lugosi, who was being billed as the "new Lon Chaney" was being groomed for the role of the Monster.
The actor known for his dashing good looks and melodic speaking voice, balked at the part's lack of dialouge and thought the role was beneath him. A screen test was prepared with Lugosi and fellow Dracula co-stars, Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye. It was a depiction of the creation scene and was directed by Florey on still standing sets from Dracula. The screen test was not well recieved, and according to producer Carl Laemmle Jr., the test made him "laugh like a hyena." Unfortunately, no footage or stills exist of this legendary test sequence, but it was remembered as being very different from what made it to the screen. The Monster was apparently "broad wigged and had clay like skin", according to Edward Van Sloan, who revealed details about the test scene to Forrest J. Ackerman shortly before his passing in the early 1960s.
James Whale was an up and coming director that had earned alot of industry praise for his war dramas, particularly, Journey's End(1930). The studio gave him free reign over any project he wanted to make and out of over 40 available assignments, he chose Frankenstein, because it gave him a chance to do something different and make something like the German films from the 20s that he had admired so greatly. So, Florey was out and soon so was Lugosi, both director and actor recieving, Muders in the Rue Morgue(1932) as a consolation prize.
Whale reshaped Florey's script dramatically, which orginally depicted the Monster as a killing machine and Frankenstein as both apathetic and sadistic. Some of Florey's additions wil make it to the screen, including the criminal brain inserted into the Monster and the windmill finale. The new script was a much more sympathetic affair and Whale cast his film accordingly. He got Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, who had previously worked with Whale on Journey's End. He also cast Mae Clarke, from Whale's Waterloo Bridge(1930) as Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiance. Edward Van Sloan was appropiately cast as Professor Waldman, in the type of role he was famous for and that he would repeat again in The Mummy(1932). Dwight Frye, unforgettable as the insect eating Renfield in Dracula, would play the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz. The role of the Monster was left to a relatively unknown, 43 year old, character actor that Whale had noticed in the Universal commisary. His name was Boris Karloff and along with the combined talents of Whale, makeup artist, Jack Pierce and several others in the company, they were about to embark on a project that would immortalize them in cinema history.
Frankenstein opens with a curtain speech, given by Edward Van Sloan, who warns the audience about the film. He informs us that it may shock or terrify us and smiles and leaves after delivering the warning. A creepy score roars in and the title credits come up with a series of spinning eyes and the cast list is revealed with the role of the Monster, left with a "?", as the identity of Karloff was left a surprise until the film's conclusion.
A funeral is being held in a foresaken cemetary with only the sounds of mourning and sobbing heard on the soundtrack, because there will be no music score in Frankenstein. Two men overlook the funeral from behind a fence, wild eyed and anxious. A gravedigger fills in the grave and as soon as he exits, the two men appear from their hiding spot and begin to dig up the grave. They are Henry Frankenstein(Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz(Dwight Frye). They lift the coffin out, while Henry intones to the camera, "he's just resting, waiting for a new life to come!'
They cart the casket away and approach the body of a hanged man at a crossroads. Fritz nervously cuts the swaying body down, but the neck is broken and another brain is needed. Dr. Waldman(Edward Van Sloan) is giving a lecture on the function of the human brain and compares two types, the normal and abnormal, which is decsribed as that of a criminal. When the lecture ends, Fritz sneaks into the University and goes to steal the brain. He is startled and drops the good brain and accidently steals the abnormal one, instead.
Frankenstein's fiance, Elizabeth(Mae Clark) is concerned about her lover, who has been absent for a long time. His friend, Victor(John Boles) is equally anxious to discover what he has been up to and they decide to enlist the aid of Professor Waldman, who had been Frankenstein's mentor to bring him to his senses and back home.
Next we see an incredible shot of a watchtower on a dark and stormy night. It is the workshop of Frankenstein and he is busy preparing for his ultimate experiment. Preparations are almost ready, when Elizabeth, Victor and Dr. Waldman arrive. He tries to be gentle with Elizabeth and pleads with her to leave, but she refuses and he welcomes them upstairs to observe his experiment. Frankenstein reveals how he has discovered a ray beyond that of even the ultraviolet, the very ray that first brought life into this world. He explains how he had fashioned together a man with his won hands and is about to turn the ray on his creation. In one of the most unforgettable moments in cinema history, Frankenstein and Fritz turn on the elctrical machines(courtesy of special effects master, Kenneth Strickfden) and lift Frankenstein's creation up the heavens as lightning strikes it again and again and upon lowering, a hand twitches and Frankenstein, overcome with joy, shouts that, "It's alive! It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!"
Frankenstein's father(Frederic Kerr) has been growing impatient with his son, as his wedding to Elizabeth has been postponed for too long and believes that he is seeing another woman. He decides to vist his son, even after protests from Victor and Elizabeth that he has been very busy with his work. Frankenstein is happy of his success as he remains in the watchtower with Waldman and Fritz. Waldman believes that only evil will come of this creation and reveals to him that a criminal brain was stolen. Frankenstein remarks that it is only a piece of dead tissue and not to worry. Then, the Monster makes his first appearance. For the first time, the world's most beloved Monster and the most famous movie makeup arrive on the screen, slowly backing into a room and turning around to reveal in three rapid close-ups, the face of Frankenstein's Monster(Boris Karloff). It's a brilliant piece of editing by Whale and was repeated again to desired effect in The Old Dark House(1932) and The Invisible Man(1933). The Monster steps towards Frankenstein, who tells it to sit down, as Frankenstein opens up the skylight and reveals the sun to the Monster for the first time. It is amazed and stands up, trying to grasp it, like a child. Frankenstein closes the roof and the Monster places his hands out for comfort and sits down again. Everything seems alright, until Fritz arrives with a torch to torment the Monster, shoving it in his face and causing the Monster to go beserk, before he has to be subdued and chained in the dungeon of the watchtower.
The wedding is being held in the village, admist much celebrating and dancing. Everything is lovely and serene, yet Elizabeth still feels that something dreadful may occur. It does. Dr. Waldman is found murdered and the Monster is on the loose. Searching for him, after hearing his growls in the house, Frankenstein locks Elizabeth in her room. The Monster enters through her window and frightens her and leaves her in a faint, Frankenstein arrives finding her in shock. The drowned body of Maria is carried into the village by her father and he demands justice. A lynch party is formed and soon they march off for the hills to find the Monster and destroy him.
The villagers hunt the Monster through the wonderfully vast and eerie landscapes of the Universal soundstages, tracking the Monster. Henry is separated from the party and ends up facing the Monster who recognizes his creator and attacks him and knocks him unconscious, carrying him away to a windmill, where the mob has heard the cries for help and follow. Henry and the Monster fight each other atop the old windmill, before the Monster throws his creator off and to the crowd below, though he is miraculously, alive. The mob gets unruly and decides to burn the mill down and set fire to it with their torches, causing the Monster to go in a panic, running and screaming, trapped inside the inferno, which eventually consumes him. Back at the Frankenstein home, Henry is being nursed back to health by Elizabeth as his father toasts to the future, "A son to the house of Frankenstein!"
Colin Clive portrays the greatest mad doctor of the movies as Henry Frankenstein, both determined and passionate and ultimately tormented and sympathetic. He really appears to believe in his work and while we may not understand the passion that fuels him, we can feel it in his performance. Clive is able to make Frankenstein into a three-dimensional character, showing genuine warmth and tenderness to his fiance and compassion for his family, but his work drives him to a point of insanity, which has been wildly imitated in the creation scene as he gloats over his work and feels like God. His handsome features and neurotic personality, both onscreen and off, combined to create a character that is probably closest in design and attitude to Shelley's modern Prometheus.
Billed as a question mark and not even invited to the premiere, Boris Karloff delivers the most unforgettable performance in a horror film, rivalled only by the great Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera(1925). In his star making role, Karloff creates a part that is equal parts both terror and pathos. The genius makeup design by Jack Pierce, would become the way the world would forever see Mary Shelley's immortal Monster. Karloff had to act under forty pounds of maekup and costume, performing in the brutal summer heat of August, 1931. Karloff suffered greatly for his role, having to undergo spinal fusion surgery at film's close, due to the demands of the part. Karloff's sensitivity that he brought to the part was unique and is what made it one of the great screen performances. His Monster, always searching for compassion and being denied such is brilliantly handled. His introduction is a masterful moment, as is his reaching for the sunlight, almost as some have suggested, to ask God for a soul. His mistreatment at the hands of Fritz and eventually, teh society at large is what forms the rue horror of the movie and his performance. The depiction of a potentially noble and sweet natured creature being transformed by cruelty and indiffernce into a Monster has never been equalled. It's a great pity that one of Karloff's great screen moments, his interlude with Maria by the pond, was all but lost and re-edited in such a manner that the effect was worsened when it was re-released, the now abrupt cut of Karloff reaching for the girl and skipping to her father carrying her limp and disheavled figure, now resembling some sort of off-screen molestation! Happily when it was restored, audiences realized what an innocent and tragic scene it was, as the child like Monster discovers a friend and makes a terrible mistake that ultimately, seals his fate. Wordless and eloquent, Karloff's Monster is a creature of poignancy and power, never to be forgotten by the audiences of 1931 and any that would see it in the ensuing eighty years since it's theatrical release!
Frankenstein was a box-office smash when it was released. Made for 100,000 dollars, the film made over 43 times(!) it's original cost on initial release, becoming Universal studio's biggest moneymaker for decades. Frankenstein was the first film that set out to be a Horror film and laid the groundwork for nearly all that followed in the next few decades, in the process becoming a cultural icon, even more famous, dare I say, thasn Shelley's own narrative. This was the birth of the American horror film and would lead a path of greatness for the next six years of an absolutely unbeatable and prosperous era of movie terror that will never be topped. Followed by seven sequels, including The Bride of Frankenstein(1935), which many critics consider as the finest horror film ever made, also directed by Whale and starring Karloff and Clive. Frankenstein is the definitive monster movie, it's influence and magic still being felt as the years roll on. The tale of the young scientist obsessed with discovering the secrets of life and it's consequences, proving timeless. A masterpiece by any definition and certainly within the ten best of the genre and among the greatest in any genre. Frankenstein is the reason I have always had sympathy and affection for monsters and why I write about them still, after being exposed to this for the first time when I was only four years old. Far beyond nostalgia, this film has influenced and impressed me consistently since I first saw it so many many years before and it remains my all-time favorite motion picture. Clive proclaims upon the birth of his immortal Monster, "It's alive!" and after all these years, it still is, forever to inspire the hearts and minds of both filmmakers and filmgoers.