With the release of Dracula, Universal had a hit on it’s hands in 1931 and knew they were on to something. Carl Laemmle Jr., the horror fan who pushed it through, immediately made plans for the next logical follow up: Frankenstein.
Like Dracula, this story had also been around for a very long time and had been adapted on both the stage and screen many times. In 1823 alone there were 5 stage adaptations and starting with the plays, the story started to be altered quite a bit from the 1818 novel to slowly morph into the cinematic version most know better.
In one of these plays, Presumption: The Fate of Frankenstein for instance, the creation sequence first appears having been only vaguely glossed over in Mary Shelly’s original novel. Also in this play, Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz; first appears. That’s right, not Igor. He wouldn’t show up until the Son of Frankenstein which is the third film in the Universal cycle. Also changed drastically, is the monster himself. In the novel he is a very eloquently spoken creature but his change into the mute monster that we see in the movies starts here. Gone too is the elaborate ending from the novel where Victor Frankenstein and his creation have a final showdown in the Arctic in which the doctor finally dies leaving his creation to wander off into the frozen tundra.
The first film version came in 1910 by the Eddison Company (yeah THAT Eddison):
This was followed by Life Without a Soul in 1915 clocking in a t 70 minutes and has been since lost to the mists of time. Only a poster and a few stills have survived:
One more would be made in 1920 from Italy, Monster of Frankenstein which is also now lost:
All of these plays and films would add to the visual look and the “cinematic version” that was about to be solidified by Universal but for their version, the studio would first pony up $20,000 for the rights to Peggy Webling’s 1930 play.
As screenwriters worked feverishly on the script, Lugosi was almost immediately announced as The Monster. Director, Robert Florey was hired but wanted Lugosi to play Dr. Frankenstein, however the studio insisted that he play the creature once again. Lugosi wasn’t keen on this idea either since in Foley’s script the Monster was nothing more than a blind, mute, killing machine. Dialogue was added to persuade him and due to the troubled production at this point, Foley went ahead and shot a make up test with Lugosi as the Monster in order to stay on the project. However, the tests which had Lugosi resembling The Golem from the 1920 film version; were laughable to Leammle.
Meanwhile, Universal was courting a new director, James Whale, who had originally shot all of the dialogue scenes for Howard Huges’ film, Hell’s Angels and was an accomplished actor, set designer and had directed several plays before his start in film. After “co-directing” Hell’s Angels, he would go on to direct Journey’s End (1930) after having done the stage version which became a massive hit. Universal then signed him to a five year contract and after more success with his second feature, Waterloo Bridge (1931); he was given the choice to direct any Universal project he desired. After directing two war films back to back, he chose Frankenstein for how different it was from his previous work.
With that one decision, Florey and Lugosi were off the project and Whale, a true artist; began to shape his own vision for the film. Again, the influence of German Expressionism would have a heavy influence here. Whale watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the script itself references the Metropolis when describing Dr. Frankenstein’s lab which if you look at that film, it’s influence is clearly evident:
Another favorite of Whale’s which seemed to have a big influence on this film was The Cat and the Canary, an early Universal horror film that was also a black comedy of which Frankenstein itself dabbles in and was also made by German Expressionist filmmaker, Paul Leni. Here’s a quick example of the film’s tone:
All of these visual and tonal cues would inform Whale’s vision for the gothic horror film. The opening shot is beautifully art directed as Henry Frankenstein (as named in this version and played by Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), watch over a funeral burial, waiting to exhume the body for their own purposes. The cemetery itself is a series of topsy turvy hills, everything at right angles; hinting at the unstable nature of the story to come and it’s “upending” of natural law. There’s another wonderful moment here as Frankenstein digs up the body and literally tosses dirt in the face of death, a stone sepulcher in the background. It’s a beautifully evocative beginning that sets the tone for everything to come.
Colin Clive who plays Henry Frankenstein here had worked previously with Whale in both the stage version of Journey’s End and played the same role for the director in the film. He often played tormented alcoholics like he did for Whale in that film, which unfortunately was a reflection of his actual life. He was often seen napping on set and many times was so drunk that he would have to be held upright for over-the-shoulder shots. A talented actor much in demand, he would appear again in the sequel to Frankenstein but suffered his whole life from chronic alcoholism and eventually died from complications of tuberculosis at age 37. His portrayal of Frankenstein here is nuanced and bold, alternating between maddening exultation and a kind of pacifistic pity for the monster once he realizes what he’s created. It’s at once a showy and subtle performance which brings real pathos to the character as well as sympathy for this flawed genius.
Dwight Frye does another larger than life turn here as he did in Dracula as Renfield. This time, he plays a simplistic but sadistic servant and gets to have great little moments of comedy thanks to Whale’s wonderful subtle sense of wit like when he goes to retrieve the brain for the creature and is spooked by a classroom skeleton, causing him to drop the jar and replace it with an abnormal brain that compromises the coming experiment (an original element born from this film) or when he’s climbing up the castle stairs and stops to straighten his socks which suddenly offsets the dread of the atmosphere. Just as he did in Dracula, Frye showcases his wonderfully expressive face, this time conveying a mean spirited, sadistic bent as he taunts the Monster with fire, poking a torch at him until the Monster grabs him and hangs him from the ceiling, a greatly ironic echo of the corpse that Fritz cuts down from the gallows in the beginning of the film.
As Henry prepares his experiment, his family becomes concerned that they haven’t heard from him and decide to investigate. Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) goes to see Frankenstein’s old medical professor, Dr. Waldmen played by another Dracula performer, Edward Van Sloan; Van Helsing himself. Essentially playing the same role, Sloan does an adequate job in a much smaller part here. He would return again with another almost identical role in The Mummy (1932).
Mae Clark as Elizabeth was another of James Whale’s favorite performers. She played the lead role in Waterloo Bridge as the young woman forced into prostitution by the events of World War 1. She would best be remembered as the girl who gets a grapefruit pushed into her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy. She brings a warmth and her usual degree of intelligence to the role of Elizabeth as well as a genuine feeling of terror upon finding the Monster in her room right before the wedding. This was due to the fact that she was really scared by Karloff’s appearance and the actor had to assure her during the scene that it was only him by waving his pinky finger at her in the shot to let her know he was there under all that make up.
The watchtower in which Henry has secluded himself to carry out his experiment is wonderfully gothic and the interior sets are almost abstractly vertical in their design with very high ceilings and narrow walls that lend to a sense of unease and claustrophobia, another great touch by Whale.
The big creation scene is an epic, theatrical affair; literally so. As Elizabeth, Waldmen and Frankenstein’s father arrive right before the experiment, he has them all sit on a platform overlooking the creature as it’s raised into the air just like an audience watching a play, surrounded by the legendary Kenneth Strickfaden props that would be used for years to come, all appearing again in 1974’s Young Frankenstein and even being used for part of the sound design for the Star Wars films after Ben Burt was able to record the sounds of the machines. Strickfaden’s production design is shown off beautifully in the gothic/art deco mash up of old world castles mixed with the modern machines of science. Strickfaden had previously brought his talents to the “science fiction musical” Just Imagine (1930) and would go on to contribute design work to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and War of the Worlds (1953).
It’s in this scene that Henry has his big moment, yelling “It’s alive!” with a mad gleam in his eye. Originally he would also include the lines “It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”. Well, that wouldn’t cut it in 1931 and all the way up until the 80’s that line was censored, finally being restored along with another big, controversial cut.
It’s only later that we get the first glimpse of The Monster in what has to one of the best entrances ever, first slowly walking into the room backwards then turning around as Whale does three quick zoom cuts until the haunted, cadaverous face of Boris Karloff fills the screen. This is a triumph of make up design and performance. The great Jack Pierce designed the now iconic make up along with Karloff’s input. Drooping eyelids were added to the face by Karloff’s suggestion to give him a half-sentient look as if struggling with consciousness. The flat top head was designed to suggest the doctor’s surgical application of the brain being installed. Karloff’s walk was aided by steel struts and weighted boots to give him his trademark shuffle and a jacket way too small because it’s a hand me down from Frankenstein. As a final touch, Karloff removed the dental bridge he wore and sucked in his cheeks which completed the Monsters cadaverous look. In fact, it was Karloff’s long, drawn facial features that first caught Whale’s attention when he saw him in the Universal commissary, immediately seeing how his features resembled the corpse-like creature he and Pierce had envisioned.
A struggling actor who sporadically worked in silent films upon arriving in Hollywood, he would have to take many manual labor jobs digging ditches and working construction in between gigs. He was just in the middle of playing the role of a ruthless gangster in The Criminal Code (1931) when Whale spotted him. The performance he gives in this film is astonishing, layering the silent, lumbering beast with a child-like innocence and sympathy though his anguish at being created in the first place. There are moments of wonderful poignancy where in one instance, the Monster reaches up to the light coming through the watchtowers ceiling, marveling at his first glimpse of daylight only to be undercut by sadness as the light fades. It’s an almost metaphysical moment with subtle, spiritual undertones. Karloff fills his performance with touches like this.
One of the biggest moments comes in the other scene cut for decades over it’s controversy. After being locked in chains, tortured by Fritz with fire and finally being drugged, he’s able to escape after catching Dr. Waldmen by surprise, killing him. He escapes into the countryside and comes across a little girl throwing daisies into a lake to watch them float. Being too young to be afraid of the Monster, she befriends him and Karloff imbues the creature with a wonderful child-like innocence as he watches the girl play. You really get a sense that he’s not so much a monster as a newborn. Just like a child who doesn’t fully comprehend the world around him, he picks up the girl and throws her into the lake to see her float like the flowers but instead she drowns and the Monster’s joyous delight turns to horrified fear at what he’s done, the regret and confusion fully conveyed in Karloff’s performance. Karloff himself objected to this scene but Whale insisted knowing full well the importance of this moment. I see his point. It’s the catalyst that sets the third act into motion but also conveys that yes, this is a monster but a different kind. One that does horrific things through misunderstanding and the pain of an existence that he more and more doesn’t want. It’s a wonderful, important moment and it’s a shame that for almost 50 years, it went unseen.
What’s ironic and often happens with removing scenes for censorship reasons, is that it makes the implication of what you don’t see even more horrific and that’s definitely what happens in this case. By removing this sequence, we immediately pick up with a great, sustained tracking shot through the European village of the townspeople celebrating some sort of festival and the girl’s father carrying her limp body through the crowd. Without the pervious scene, you are left to wonder if the Monster killed the child with his bare hands or possibly did something even more unspeakable.
The village itself was a staple in many Universal movies, having just been built previously for all Quiet On The Western Front (1930) but would become synonymous with the Frankenstein movies, appearing in all of them. It also highlights one of the more interesting things about the film. Nowhere, is the time or place of the setting made clear. The clothes of the characters could possibly be from the previous century. Nowhere do you see a car or telephone and the country this is suppossed to take place in is never revealed or made explicit other than the existence of a “Burgomaster” and the vaguely Germanic dress of the locals. This gives the film a strangely nebulous quality that keeps it’s gothic origins intact.
The finale is an amalgam of horror film imagery that would become legendary for the next 80 years. A mob of angry villagers, a chase through the mountain passes and that final showdown between creation and creator in the old windmill which looks like something straight out of medieval Europe. Again Whale injects the final moments between the two with great direction where the monster stares down his creator through the turning gears of the windmill attic. You can see in that moment that the Monster fully understands who the bringer of all of his torment is and what he has wrought by giving him life. In turn, Henry realizes there’s no reasoning with the Monster and attempts to run away.
The Monster throws him from the roof of the old windmill but his fall is broken by the windmill’s vanes, saving his life as the villagers burn the mill, taking the monster with it. This was a last minute change to give the film a more upbeat ending with Henry surviving and it’s fairly obvious from the implicit violence from the Monster’s final attack on him.
In the end, Whale made one of the greatest horror films ever conceived and gave Universal an even bigger hit than Dracula, even when going $30,000 over budget from it’s initial $291,129 price tag. It would pull in over 1 million, twice the take of Dracula and Carl Laemmle Sr. who once again doubted his son’s choice of projects would say after it’s success, “Well, he showed me. He showed us all.”
Yes, he sure did.