Frankenstein

Year: 1931

Production: Universal

Director: James Whale

Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles,Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye

Screenwriter: Garrett Fort, Robert Florey, Francis Edward Faragoh

Based on an adaptation by Robert Florey and John L. Balderston of the play by Peggy Webling, based in turn on Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley

70 minutes; B/W


This remains the most famous of the Frankenstein films, although it was not the the first. (The Edison Company made a 16min version in 1910; it was directed by J. Searle Dawley and starred Charles Ogle as the Monster. A second version, also US, was the 70min Life without Soul in 1915, directed by Joseph W. Smiley.) Dr Frankenstein is a scientist who builds an artificial man by using parts from stolen bodies. He succeeds, with the aid of an electrical storm, in bringing the creature to life but, because his assistant has provided the brain of a criminal rather than that of a "normal" man (a clumsy plot device which has nothing to do with Shelley's novel), the creation proves difficult to control. Eventually the Frankenstein monster escapes, accidentally kills a small girl, and is pursued and apparently slain by angry villagers (originally the Monster killed Frankenstein, too, but the studio substituted a happy ending).

The film remains a semi-classic today. With his atmospheric lighting, smooth tracking shots and numerous low-angle shots that were never obtrusive but made effective use of the high-ceilinged sets - particularly Frankenstein's laboratory - Whale succeeded in making a horror film of some grandeur, with an undertone of ironic humor. Much of the credit must go to Karloff for his fine (unspeaking) performance as the pathetic Monster, considerably helped by Jack Pierce's famous make-up; Karloff's success here doomed him to horror roles for the rest of his life.

There have been numerous sequels and remakes. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by Whale, is the best film he ever made. A book about versions of the story is Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (1990) by Steven Earl Forry.

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"It is one of the strangest stories ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation, life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may even shock you. It might even horrify you..." These words, spoken by Sloan in the character of the tutor to Clive's Frankenstein, form the prologue to Whale's classic version of Mary Shelley's novel. The novel had been filmed before (most notably in 1910 as Frankenstein and in 1915 as Life Without Soul) and would later be the source of countless (and all too often witless) films. None, however, wiih the sole exception of Terence Fisher's quartet of films for Hammer that began with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and ended with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) have either the power or poetry of Whale's film.

Made in the wake of the enormously successful Dracula (1931), Universal initially cast Bela Lugosi (the star of Dracula) in the role of the monster. Promotional posters with Lugosi's name were distributed and the first adaptation of Peggy Webling's play, by John Balderston, wiih a much more romantic conception of the monster, was clearly written with Lugosi in mind. But after test footage of Lugosi was shot this romantic view of the monster (one truer to Mary Shelley's novel) was rejected in favor of a more threatening and macabre monster. Along with Lugosi, the film's original director, Robert Florey, dropped out to be replaced by Whale whose strong sense of the macabre and ability to create a stylized nightmare world (the result of "a baroque form of expressionism" as one critic put it) was central to the film's success.

An Englishman, Whale was called to Hollywood to make Journey's End (1930) which he'd directed on the London stage. However, unlike the flood of stage directors who were imported by Hollywood's moguls in the wake of the coming of sound, Whale was no mere specialist in the problems of diction and matters of enunciation. Although his concept of the cinema was essentially theatrical, in contrast to the "invisible" style of classic American directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks, Whale put that theatricality to work in the service of the camera. The result, in Frankenstein and even more so in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), is films that are unique in the American cinema for their peculiar, almost European, blend of cinematic and theatrical virtues, seen in the lighting effects, tableaux and characterization.

Whale's other major contribution to the film lay in the selection of Karloff (whose career was henceforth stunted by his association with horror films) to play the monster. Together with Whale and makeup artist Jack B. Pierce (who worked on all the Universal Frankenstein films, except the last, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948), Karloff, his height raised by wearing asphalt-spreader's boots and his head "squared off" by putty and makeup, produced a lumbering figure struggling to achieve the humanity promised by his creator, Clive's Frankenstein. It is this mix of pathos and terror - as seen in the classic scene where the monster meets a little girl by the water's edge - that makes the film so enduring. Moreover, though Whale's conception of the film was clearly influenced by Der Golem (1920), which Whale screened before making Frankensiein, both in matters of content - the monster's encounter with the little girl being clearly "borrowed" from the earlier film - and stylistically, the ironic, comic touches, the distinguishing feature of all his work, are clearly Whale's.

Ii is this sense of irony (in place of the gothic romanticism that Fisher would bring to the subiect) that infects the whole film, making possible the bravura effects and preventing the stylized world and its inhabitants from collapsing into melodrama. At the same time, this irony limits the film's potential. In contrast to Rouben Mamoulian (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1932) and Karl Freund (Mad Love, 1935) who proceed by stripping the veneer of civilization from their central characters, Whale plays more of a game with both his characters and Mary Shelley's ideas (which he virtually abandons). The result is a more successful "entertainment" (and one which could be repeated and repeated, as Universal did with their numerous sequels) but a film that is never quite as rich, resonant or ferocious as it might seem.

The plot features Clive as Baron Frankenstein who dreams of creating life and, with the assistance of Frye's hunchback dwarf. steals bodies from a cemetery in furtherance of his experiments. He finally succeeds (in probably the best sequence in the film with the help of Kenneih Strickfaden's marvellous electrical contraptions which would be aped in countless 30s serials) only for the monster, mistakenly given "a criminal brain", to strangle the sadistic Frye. Like Mary Shelley's hero, Clive then turns his back on his creation only to have it escape and eventually return, pursued by the local villagers, and be burnt to death in Clive's laboratory after Clive has narrowly escaped death at the hands of the monster.

The film's importance rests less on the awkward shuffling of the characters through the story from effect to effect than on Whale's orchestration of those effects. Its success (made for only $250,000, it grossed over $25 million), following that of Dracula set in motion the horror cycle of the 30s and later, when it was sold to tv in 1957, a new wave of horror movies. A sequel followed in 1935, Bride of Frankenstein.

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