- Director: James Whale
- Writers: Screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, Story by John L. Balderston and Richard Schayer, based on the novel by Mary Shelley and the stage play by Peggy Webling
- Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, and Dwight Frye
- Accolades: AFI 1997 Top 100 list (#87),
- Where to: Stream with subscription on Peacock Premium, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Of the movies we’ve watched here recently, Frankenstein feels at once among the most iconic and the most dated, even moreso than much earlier movies. I watch Frankenstein in 2020 and am floored by how much of the movie is devoted to things that have absolutely nothing to do with the famous monster. The decision to cut from the climactic burning windmill to Dr. Frankenstein’s weird dad (Frederick Kerr) stealing the booze and toasting happily to “the House of Frankenstein” seems truly bizarre. Yet at the time, the criticism that the movie received centered entirely on what we would call the “horror elements” going too far. One reviewer noted that he “would never forgive the filmmakers” for making him watch a movie in which a little girl dies, and, in a move no reviewer today would replicate, called for that scene to be cut, despite the fact that the third act of the movie would make no sense otherwise.
It is also hard, today, to see past the groundbreaking monster makeup and the mad scientist apparatus, and appreciate how shocking they must have been in their day. The scene of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) lifting a body to the heavens, as lightning and electricity crackles, is thrilling even today, but you have to realize that this wasn’t a cliche, this was all the vision of these particular filmmakers. Though obviously influenced by the Voltaic experiments of her day, Mary Shelley never says explicitly that the Monster gains its life from electricity, much less imagined the Doctor’s laboratory as seen in this movie. Legend has it that the set designer went and got actual Tesla coils from Nikola Tesla himself. Most of the audience would never have seen or imagined them before.
While the movie reduces Shelley’s bible-quoting Creature to a hulking, wordless Monster, it retains the basic power of her creation, which is that the “villain” of the story is essentially an innocent, rejected by his creator and persecuted by villagers who do not understand him. He fights back against tormentors who see him as inhuman, and doesn’t understand that if he throws the little girl into the water she won’t float like the flowers. I’ve been watching a lot of It’s Me or the Dog lately, and that show posits, essentially, that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. This movie’s view of the Monster is like one of those “bad” dogs. He reacts because he’s forced to. At the end, we hear the Monster’s pained screams as he (we assume) burns to death in the windmill, and it sounds like an animal.
After the smash hit of Dracula earlier in the year, Universal rushed the next monster movie it could find into production. Frankenstein was originally supposed to star Bela Lugosi, too, but he dropped out after discovering that he was supposed to play the Monster and not the Doctor, not wanting to play a character that doesn’t speak. That proved to be a boon for the career and legacy of Boris Karloff, an English actor who had been around in small parts for many years. I was surprised to find, in hearing him in other roles, that Karloff in fact had a posh, upper-class English accent. His original name was “William Pratt,” but when he first started acting in the 1910s he changed his name to the most exotic thing he could think of in order to avoid “bringing shame to his family.” He played the Monster in two more immediate sequels, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, then returned to the part very occasionally over the following decades. His Monster is a deeply sad character, and Karloff communicates extreme pathos in what must have felt like a completely ridiculous situation. We completely understand him despite five hours’ worth of thick make-up and platform shoes that weighed thirteen pounds each. I really do think it to be one of the great performances in all of the movies.
Another contributor who clearly empathizes with the Monster’s plight is the movie’s director James Whale. He was an out-of-the-closet gay man in 1920s & 30s Hollywood, something basically unheard of at the time. He seems to instinctively understand what it feels like to be persecuted for something you didn’t choose, though whether he consciously intended this message to come through is something that has been much debated over the years. His camera moves spectacularly, and there are numerous shots in this movie that I would find impressive in a 2020 movie, much less in 1931. This is the same year that Chaplin’s City Lights came out, but from a camerawork perspective, Frankenstein is lightyears ahead. Whale went on to direct Bride of Frankenstein, which many feel is better than the original, along with a series of other monster movies (and the movie version of the musical Show Boat) before retiring. He unfortunately committed suicide in 1957, after battling depression for many years. A fictionalized version of his later days is the center of the novel Father of Frankenstein, which was turned into the movie Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellan as Whale and Brendan Fraser as his gardener.
If only the rest of the movie lived up to its greatest elements, but much of it has dated badly. Many of the performances are not only wooden, they are done in flat American accents, despite the period German setting. On the one hand, I have been arguing for years that there’s no reason for people in countries and times where no one would have spoken English to speak English with either an English or a foreign-accented accent. There’s no reason to not to go all the way and have them just talk like regular people today would. And yet, this movie would seem to be evidence for the opposite point of view, because when the maid comes in and intones, “Herr Baron, the Burgomeister is here to see you,” in a Midwestern American accent, it is extremely silly.
This is, however, probably a personal problem. A bigger deal is the fact that the movie doesn’t seem nearly as interested in its Monster as you’d expect. There are too many characters, and they are, for the most part, not particularly well acted. This movie speeds by in well under 90 minutes, yet it spends more than half of that limited run time with nonsense like Dr. Frankenstein’s wedding and his fiancee (Mae Clarke). This is the very early days of the horror movie, and its inventing itself as it goes along. Whale seems to understand how to play suspense in a way that, say, Murnau either did not understand or did not have the technological capability to produce nine years earlier in Nosferatu, as in the infamous girl-drowning scene, where we know something bad’s about to happen and we’re just waiting and waiting, or in the scene where the Monster is first revealed, when we hear his footsteps before the characters do, and then even after they do we’re left to wait for the big reveal. However, the movie has far less a sense of overall pacing, or of what it can ask of its audience.
And maybe it was right, maybe the 1931 audience couldn’t have taken having the thriller element pushed any further than it already is here. Contemporary reports make much of members of the audiences rushing out of the theater in terror, then creeping back in because they couldn’t look away, then rushing out again, or of women shrieking and fainting. The Irish film board approved the film for release only with a caveat that it was not meant for “children and nervous people,” which I think should still be a rating category today. The opening of the movie seems completely hilarious to us in 2020. Edward Van Sloan (who plays Dr. Waldman in the movie) steps out from behind a curtain to provide “a word of friendly warning” about how terrifying the movie is, and that this is the audience’s last chance to step out before it starts. This is obvious showmanship, but one gets the sense it wasn’t actually meant to be tongue in cheek. Frankenstein scared the pants off people in 1931. It definitely won’t do the same in 2020, but it’s still worth a look.