Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff
As any child could tell you, Frankenstein is one of the great horror classics, a story that has been told and retold more times than can easily be counted, but nonetheless Universal in 1931 felt the need to add a preface in the style of Ed Wood or William Castle. 'It deals with the two great mysteries of creation, life and death,' says Edward Van Sloan, preparing us for the horror that is to come. There's plenty of it, beginning with wailing women at a funeral and the mad scientist of the title telling a hunchback to keep out of sight behind a tomb until the gravedigger has filled in the grave, so that they can uncover it again. 'He's just resting,' says Henry Frankenstein of the corpse, 'waiting for a new life to come.'
Colin Clive is a great Henry Frankenstein, the son of the Baron here, who spends most of the time in his white surgeon's gown and manic features. Dwight Frye shines almost as brightly as Fritz the hunchback, a beast of a man who only needs circumstance to prompt him to demonstrate just how base his nature really is. He's Frankenstein's assistant, one who is more than willing to stoop as low as his master in emptying graves, this body being merely one of many because Herr Frankenstein is collecting parts for his creation from many corpses. The last thing he needs is a brain, a quality brain not a useless one like that belonging to the hanged man they pass on the way home.
If we didn't have any hints that things were going to eventually go wrong, it's hammered home here. Fritz picks up the brain from the Goldstadt Medical College, where Dr Waldman lectures on the differences between a normal brain and an abnormal criminal brain. He even has them in well labelled jars in case we weren't paying attention. Unfortunately Fritz drops the normal brain so takes the abnormal one instead, the one with a history 'of brutality, of violence, of murder.' Who would notice the difference? Oh, if he had only known! Naturally he doesn't tell his master, who completes his creation and waits for nature to be in place for his grand experiment. Sure enough it soon arrives. 'This storm will be magnificent,' he tells Fritz, 'all the electrical secrets of Heaven and this time we're ready.'
Having watched the 1926 version of The Magician within the week, it's obvious how much the abandoned old watchtower near Goldstadt that he's using as his laboratory owes its design to the previous film. It's one of the huge and ominous sets used for this film, some of which were recycled from The Cat and the Canary four years earlier. They look great, both indoors and outside in the countryside and the mountains, but the painted backgrounds sometimes have folds in them that are impossible not to notice even on a big screen TV let alone a theatre screen. Most eyes were probably concentrating on the monster though, especially given how well he's been hidden for the longest time.
After the wild success of Universal's Dracula earlier the same year, audiences were anxious to see who would play the character of Frankenstein's Monster and even the opening credits list the actor responsible as merely a question mark. Henry Frankenstein teases us a few times by pulling back the sheet that covers his creature only to show that the head is bandaged or by asking his guests to look at it but not showing us at the same time. No advance pictures had been made available and many assumed that they would see Bela Lugosi in the role. He had made a twenty minute test reel on the Dracula sets though the footage is considered lost, but he turned down the part because it was not a speaking role and possibly because the depth of the character at the time was not apparent. The script had changed by the time it got to Boris Karloff, as had the director, Robert Florey making way for James Whale.
In the end film, the creature actually has more innocent humanity than most of the leads. Henry Frankenstein told his fiancée Elizabeth about his experiments only on the day they got engaged, and having wandered off to his abandoned watchtower took four months to write to her, explaining that, 'My work must come first, even before you.' His former professor, Dr Waldman, is at once in awe of Henry's skills and in fear of his sanity. He explains to Elizabeth that his work in the fields of chemical galvanism and electrobiology far outstrips what they've done at the university but believes that his quest to destroy and recreate life has been advanced to the point of abject danger. It's quaint to hear a scientist suggest that the natural progression of research is dangerous insanity, but such were the times.
Of course these give us some of the best scenes, Colin Clive being perfect for the role and James Whale thankfully sticking to his choice rather than pursuing the studio's idea of using Leslie Howard. 'Crazy am I?' he asks his uninvited guests who turn up on the night of his grand experiment, Elizabeth, their friend Victor Moritz and Dr Waldman. 'You'll see whether I'm crazy or not,' he says, looking rather crazy, and invites them in to see his experiment. He raises the body up to the heavens, into that magnificent storm, then brings it back down to watch its hands move. 'It's alive!' he memorably repeats in a gibbering mantra. 'Now I know what it feels like to be God!' This is a truly magical scene that was promptly mangled because of concerns over its blasphemous content, especially after the film was reissued during the era of the Production Code. Thankfully we have the full film to relish today, but this line wasn't fully restored until 1999.
It's far from the only great scene because we're promptly treated to a few. 'Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous?' Frankenstein asks Dr Waldman, who has now seen the reality of his experiments. 'Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light?' There's so much depth in these discussions that has resonated down the years into so many other science fiction stories and films. Where is the boundary beyond which we should not go? We're still arguing that one today over stem cells, which in their own way accomplish much of what Frankenstein aimed at. Waldman's response is simple: 'You have created a monster and it will destroy you.'
It's over half an hour before we see that monster and it's only a 70 minute film. He stumbles backwards into the room, only to turn and display Boris Karloff in the memorable make up created by Jack Pierce. This creature is very unlike the character in the original Mary Shelley novel (though this is really based more on the later play by Peggy Webling), ironically the only real similarity being the fact that it was yellow in colour, something we can't see given that it's a black and white film. All those images with the flat head and the electrodes in the neck that you know well stem from Pierce's make up design for this film. The creature can't speak, he leans at ungainly angles weighed down by heavy boots and he's simply awe inspiring. Yet even through the thick make up it's Karloff's eyes that are the real gems, eyes that tell who the creature really is, longing for the light and pleading when it's gone.
Abnormal brain or not, it's Fritz that brings out the monster, who begins to rage only when Fritz rushes in to the room with a huge torch. Sure enough the vicious little hunchback soon takes delight in tormenting the creature, with fire and a whip. It isn't surprising to find that horrific screams emanating from the cellar turn out to be a dying Fritz that the creature has strung up, hanged by his own whip, the first victim for Frankenstein's Monster. Who knows how many have followed, in this film, in what has become nine Universal sequels beginning with 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, the seven entries in the Hammer series that started with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and many others.
Even today the most memorable may well be little Maria, who the creature discovers here by a lake after her father leaves to check his traps. Just like the seven year old actress who played her, Marilyn Harris, she isn't scared of the monster at all and simply wants to play with him. 'See how mine floats,' she says as she throws a flower into the lake. Once he's out of flowers, he picks her up and throws her in too, thinking that she'll float as well. The whole scene is amazingly innocent but remains one of the most controversial scenes in all of cinema. Both Karloff and Harris are wonderful and this cements the misunderstood nature of the character, building its depth superbly. Karloff isn't actually in this film too much, the early Universal horror holding true to the principle of only showing the monster when they had to, but he's magnetic throughout.
There are flaws here. The camerawork is a little shaky on occasion, especially when moving through the town. The folds in the great backgrounds to the sets get more noticeable as the film runs on because we end up in the mountains against a background of sky. Everything is Germanic, from the costumes to the dances, let alone the names, but for some reason Frederick Kerr plays Baron Frankenstein like an Englishman. What he does here isn't far removed from what Nigel Bruce did as Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. The influence of The Magician is obvious, when you watch the two together, but only in some of the sets.
Yet this remains one of the most iconic and imitated films of all time. Mary Shelley's novel is timeless but this is a very free adaptation and brings its own elements to the mythos. The make up is new here as are the performances by people as notable as Dwight Frye and Colin Clive, let alone Boris Karloff who finally found stardom in Hollywood at the age of 44 after twelve years in supporting roles in silents, serials and early sound films. After solid work in the silents, It's ironic that his greatest success came in a sound film in which he didn't speak. From here he didn't look back, making over 150 films of varying quality but in which he is rarely anything but the best thing in them.