#318) Frankenstein (1931)

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#318) Frankenstein (1931)

OR “Oh Henry!”

Directed by James Whale

Written by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh. Based on the novel by Mary Shelley, the play by Peggy Webling, and the composition by John L. Balderston.

Class of 1991

No original trailer, but here’s one from the re-release.

The Plot: Scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has gone nearly insane trying to create a human life by reanimating a body comprised of several stitched-together corpses. When his assistant Igor Fritz (Dwight Frye) accidentally steals the brain of a criminal, Frankenstein’s creation (Boris Karloff) becomes a hulking, violent creature. Aided by his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and his judgmental father the Baron (Frederick Kerr), Henry must stop the monster from wrecking havoc on the nearby village, and then the nearby villagers from wrecking havoc on the monster.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls “Frankenstein” no less than “the definitive film of its genre” and praises director James Whale and makeup designer Jack Pierce. An essay by critic Richard T. Jameson is an overview of this film and its sequel.

But Does It Really?: Oh of course. There are scarier films and more terrifying monsters, but “Frankenstein” is in a league of its own. James Whale orchestrates an effectively foreboding mood throughout, and like Lugosi’s “Dracula”, Boris Karloff is giving the definitive interpretation of the Frankenstein creature. While not as shocking as it was in 1931, “Frankenstein” is an untouchable iconic moment in American film history, and the standard-bearer of horror movies to come.

Shout Outs: The Bavarian village used in the film is a set built specifically for “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Frankenstein” was made back when movies didn’t have musical underscoring, for fear that audiences wouldn’t understand where the music was coming from. I guess Hollywood assumed the movie-going public was the same bunch of morons who thought that train was coming right towards them.

Take a Shot: Yes, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the creature. BUT, while not explicitly stated in the film, this adaptation is based on the 1927 British stage version by Peggy Webling (and its unproduced American adaptation by John L. Balderston) which gives the name Frankenstein to the doctor AND the creature. And thus the confusion begins.

Seriously, Oscars?: Not a single nomination for “Frankenstein”. In fact, none of the 37 feature films Universal released during the eligibility period were nominated at the Oscars. If only Best Makeup had been a thing back then.

Other notes

  • The beginning of the film is an introduction by Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman here, Dr. Van Helsing in “Dracula”) warning that the film may be too terrifying for some. It’s a nice touch to the film’s spooky quality.
  • The Monster is credited simply as “?” Karloff doesn’t receive proper credit until the “A good cast is worth repeating” ending.
  • Speaking of weird credits, Mary Shelley is credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley”. Even 100 years after their deaths, Percy was the better known of the two. Mary didn’t start getting her due until the late 1980s when her first biography was published.
  • Frankenstein’s name in the novel was Victor, but this film changes it to Henry, as Victor was deemed too “severe and unfriendly” to American audiences. The name Victor is instead given to Henry and Elizabeth’s very boring friend.
  • Kudos to cinematographer Arthur Edeson and production designer Herman Rosse; this film has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere to it. The “Young Frankenstein” team did their homework.
  • Wait, the assistant’s name is Fritz? Not Igor? Apparently, Ygor wouldn’t show up until 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein”, as played by Bela Lugosi.
  • If the creature is made from dead bodies, why is it green? Jack Pierce applied grayish-green greasepaint to Karloff so that the monster would appear gray on camera. Frankenstein didn’t start becoming full on green until sometime in the mid-80s, perhaps to avoid Universal’s copyright on the design.
  • Right after exclaiming, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Henry proclaims, “Now I know what it’s like to be God!” This line was deemed offensive in the Code-era and was censored in subsequent re-releases.
  • Ah yes, the Bavarian village where everyone is either English or American.
  • What can I say about Boris Karloff? His monster is a confused child trying to make sense of the world. He’s an innocent surround by people who want him dead simply because he’s different. You feel for this creature right from the start.
  • Apparently the studios hadn’t perfected the camera dolly in 1931; the film’s tracking shots are quite bumpy.
  • If nothing else, the creature figured out how to solve a problem like Maria. The sequence of the monster accidentally killing the little girl was so unsettling in 1931 that it was trimmed shortly after the film’s first run, not to be seen again for over 50 years.
  • Wow, this town is easily swayed into mob mentality. I haven’t seen this many upset white men since that Gillette commercial.
  • My admiration to everyone on that set who did stuntwork near the open flame torches. That could not have been fun.
  • Well, that’s a very clear-cut ending, leaving absolutely no room for a sequel.

Legacy

  • “Frankenstein” was a hit, and talks of a sequel began immediately. Script delays (caused in part by James Whale’s perfectionism) led to a four-year gap between films, but “The Bride of Frankenstein” was worth the wait, and is considered one of the best sequels ever made.
  • After “Bride”, the law of diminishing returns set in with the remaining sequels, and soon Frankenstein joined the ranks of interchangeable Universal monsters in such films as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”.
  • When you think of Frankenstein, you think of the flattop, electrode-wearing Frankenstein of this movie, which is a testament to the work of Karloff and Jack Pierce.
  • As previously stated, “Young Frankenstein” is a thoroughly accurate recreation of this film’s aesthetic. I laughed during several scenes of “Frankenstein” thinking of its “Young Frankenstein” counterpart.
  • Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster definitely takes a thing or two from Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the monster.
  • In addition to the Universal-sanctioned follow-ups, there have been hundreds of “Frankenstein” adaptations over the years. Notable versions through the years include the Christopher Lee Hammer entries, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” (both the short and its remake), and Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” with Robert De Niro using sense memory to play the undead.
  • And thank goodness, we have been spared the Dark Universe take on Frankenstein, which would have been Javier Bardem apparently.

Further Viewing: The 1910 Edison version of “Frankenstein”, which was recently restored by the Library of Congress and – I’m calling it now – will make the 2019 National Film Registry inductees. (2019 update: It didn’t. Double or nothing before 2024.)

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