What I would like to do now is erase every remnant of the word “Frankenstein” in popular culture that has evolved (or reanimated) since the year 1931. This will not be an easy task: James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein is now so influential that most people today cannot understand its immediate impact, because they have seen all the rip-offs and sequels and remakes and spoofs and Halloween candy that borrow so liberally from its macabre images of mad scientists, bolt-necked undead, hunchbacked assistants, and utterly gothic decay. Furthermore, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein is so good in its own right (even better than the original, some claim—including myself) that many modern-day viewers see this one merely as the prologue to that more ambitious film, with 1939’s The Son of Frankenstein as the true sequel to what is really one film split into two halves (none of the other sequels count, so you’re better off viewing them out of context).
Is it possible to view this work, dubbed by Clive Barker as the greatest horror film of all time, as a standalone entity? Do we even bother? Can we separate the history of Frankenstein and consider this film apart from its influence and inspirations? And more to the point: Can we blend our 21st century sensibilities, which allow for a decidedly postmodern reading, with the fresh-eyed faces of audience members who viewed this important film for the first time, when these images were not yet clichés and were instead the work of creative, innovative invention? If we can, let us approach the Monster now assuming that when he is trapped in a burning windmill at the mercy of an angry mob, this is the last time we will ever behold him.
Much has been made of director James Whale’s openly homosexual lifestyle, but scratch that for purposes of this write-up. It is not necessary knowledge for the first of the Universal Frankenstein films, though it is certainly helpful information when viewing the decidedly gay undertones (two men create life) of The Bride of Frankenstein. I suppose he hadn’t quite worked up to that level of boldness yet, other than the obvious idea of a man creating life without the required female biology. It is perhaps easy to believe that when Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) stands before his fiancé (Mae Clarke), his best friend (John Boles) and former university professor (Edward Van Sloan) and defends the sanity of his dangerously progressive ideas, it is really the voice of the director speaking on his own behalf. But then—what do we do with a film that goes on to support Frankenstein’s ultimate guilt for neglecting his beautiful bride for his unhallowed work? Henry is nothing if not a hot-blooded heterosexual man who eventually draws a line to his experiments—albeit too late.
Also forget the high body-count of the all sequels, which placed the Monster on a deadly rampage throughout the Universal back lot. While the Frankenstein films had more killings than any other monster film of their era, we’re surprised to see that the Monster is only responsible for the deaths of three people throughout the entire duration of the original film: Two in self-defense that seem more out of animalistic reflexes than malignant intent, and one that is the result of a childlike misunderstanding. In 1931, we have an innocent beast more sinned against than sinning; it is certainly no coincidence that the Universal Frankenstein Monster has always found favor in the eyes of children, even after the unforgettably disturbing scene in which the Monster stumbles upon a young girl throwing flowers into a lake and, in a naive misinterpretation, decides that she is a flower too. Consider Víctor Erice’s moving The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in which two young sisters living in Franco’s Spain watch the film and decide to embark on a journey to find the real Monster, believing that his undead company is better than the horrors of their reality.
But ah, I’m already doing what I’ve promised not to do, which is bring in later works influenced by this important film. So let’s get back to 1931: For the most part, what we notice in Frankenstein is its almost satirical attitude toward death. Some scenes are so darkly comical that they almost flirt with parody, as scary as they are (it is no coincidence that Whale’s later horror films, including The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, played intentionally for laughs). Audiences initially reacted strongly to five scenes (and still do, for the most part), all of which feature sardonic images of death: The opening passage in the graveyard, the creation sequence, the Monster’s first entrance, the death of Little Maria, and the Monster’s death at the hands of an angry mob. I shall discuss them all in part and indicate their contribution to the characters’ nonchalant approach to the Undiscovered Country. Perhaps this indifference adds to the film’s terror: Audiences knew that Henry Frankenstein meddled with affairs that he should have been intelligent enough to take seriously.
The opening passage is a fantastically eerie episode in the graveyard, in which mourners gather for a funeral. Death lingers with almost apathetic coolness and exists so that humans can belittle its all-encompassing power: Yes, spectators cry as the casket is lowered, but they look as if they are merely going through the expected motions. After they shuffle away, the gravedigger looks bored and detached as he finishes the burial; once the grave is filled in, he lights his pipe and wanders passively away. The only passion in the scene comes from two forbidden onlookers—Henry Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (a delightful Dwight Frye), who crouch behind a couple of tombstones with jittery anticipation. And of course, they’re not particularly interested in death either, except as a handicap to be conquered: Once the gravedigger wanders off, they waste no time emerging from their hiding place with shovels of their own. “He’s only sleeping, waiting to live again,” Henry muses. As they work to steal the body, a statue of the Grim Reaper slouches benignly in the center of the screen, aloofly confirming that Death indeed be not proud. This scene is immediately followed by a straight parody: A medical instructor’s classroom lecture is interrupted when someone accidentally bumps into a cadaver, and the entire class erupts into laughter.
The creation sequence, which set the standard for all archetypal mad scientists’ laboratories, is difficult to view today without recognizing later campy imitations; nevertheless, it retains the hideous mockery of death found in the opening scene. The Monster is born on a dark and stormy night in a dark castle that Dr. Caligari could be renting out; Whale shoots it with intentionally twisted angles that confirm its reliance on Lang and his expressionist, surrealist peers. And while Mary Shelley’s book suggests a bit of black magic thrown into the mix for the Monster’s awakening (as was confirmed by the 1910 silent version), this cinematic template grounds the deed entirely in science: Frankenstein cites ultra-violet rays found in a thunderstorm as the spark of life and raises his lifeless creation into a hole on the roof to catch some of the electrical rain. Most people feel like the climax of this scene comes when, after the Monster is lowered again, his scarred hand begins to move and Frankenstein manically screams, “It’s alive!” But as terrifying and unforgettable as that moment might be, reflect on Henry’s next line—considered so blasphemous that only the recently restored versions contain it: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” This line reveals the heart of this great scene: The Divine Creator is now not the only master of the secrets of life and death. This knowledge is what drives Henry Frankenstein and what leads him to his creation. Death has been overcome by a shrill-voiced Englishman.
But has it really? The next unforgettable moment comes with the first true entrance of the Monster, played definitively by Boris Karloff. Much has already been written about the childlike innocence of his performance, the terrifying naivety; I shall leave you to such essays from more enlightened scholars. I’ll just confirm that the Monster’s entrance through a large door is the stuff of legend: We get a full shot of his backside as he lurches backwards; after hesitating, he slowly turns around to the audience’s full view, including a terrifying close-up of his undead, hideous face. I suspect that Whale shoots this way specifically to alarm his audience with suspenseful buildup to the first full look at the Monster’s heavy, unresponsive eyes. And with this close-up, we realize that Frankenstein has not cheated God at all, but has fashioned a mere parody of life. The Monster has been kept in darkness up to this point; when Frankenstein opens a hatchway to light, the beast reaches pleadingly for its rays. Many viewers haven’t noticed that the door in the ceiling now bearing sunlight is the same one into which the Monster was raised when he first felt the spark of life. So he’s not really reaching to the sun, but to the place of his creation. Is he longing for the time that he was still lifeless?
Much has also been written of the drowning of the girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris). The Monster escapes from Frankenstein’s laboratory and stumbles upon her as she throws flowers in a lake. You know the rest. It is telling that the first person in the film not to be terrified by the Monster is a little girl, who never even blinks at his otherworldly presence. She responds to his innocent intentions in turn, and it builds up to a horrifying, tragic finale that seals the fates of both Maria and the Monster. James Whale shoots this sequence as a tribute to the Monster’s inexperience and never questions his curious and well-intentioned motives—watch his horror as the little girl sinks and he stumbles away terrified and helpless. This scene is not frightening because the Monster has done something evil, but because he cannot comprehend his error until it is too late. He has made a fatal mistake that any witness could instantly forgive, if not condone. Of course, there were no witnesses, and this is what destroys him.
Which leads to the inevitable burning windmill, to where the villagers with torches and pitchforks pursue the Monster. He is finally trapped inside its highest floor and almost certainly perishes from its flames. Karloff plays the Monster here as the terrified child that he is, never truly understanding why this crowd so angrily wishes his immediate demise. He screams wretchedly as he burns to death, his hands still reaching, pleading toward the light. Certainly the Monster’s guilt is never proven in any sort of fair trial; nor does the crowd ever stop to wonder if they found the right man. He is different, he is ugly, and he therefore must be destroyed. The Monster is not brought to justice, but is the victim of a violent lynching by raving villagers (as I write these words, it occurs to me that Whale’s isolation as an openly gay man might resonate here more with the Monster than with Henry). His death is as unfair as his creation, and he has been murdered by the same irresponsible spirit that created him. As the Creature laments to his creator in Shelley’s novel, “How dare you thus sport with life!”
These five scenes, which really make up the bulk of this 70-minute film, created so many horror conventions that Frankenstein played as a marvelous celebration of nightmarish imagination to audiences of 1931. Some might have been old enough to be familiar with 1910’s Frankenstein or perhaps 1915’s Life without Soul, but these films were not established enough in popular culture to have bled any influence onto Universal’s vision. This was the original Frankenstein for just about everyone—and undoubtedly for those not familiar with Shelley’s work, this is where the myth began.
As these scenes created conventions, the film surrounding them perhaps relies too heavily on pre-established clichés: The beautiful bride is placed in peril, the Van Helsing-like professor (played by the man who indeed was Van Helsing in Universal’s inferior Dracula, released the same year) warns Frankenstein of the evils of his ways, a bumbling father is played for laughs, a conventional ending is provided in which all things are made Right and Frankenstein does not have to face his crimes. But what we remember about Frankenstein is the legendary stuff that truly matters: The stormy nights, the gothic castle, Karloff’s Monster, the hunchbacked assistant, the bravura creation. With these images contained in a single film and viewed apart from the franchise, we see the terrifying warning of those who could stare at death and not feel instantly humbled. We have a feeling that no one has understood this lesson by the end of the film—certainly not Henry or the bloodthirsty villagers. The exception might be the poor, shrieking Monster, who never needed reminding in the first place.
Colin Clive: Henry Frankenstein
Boris Karloff: The Monster
John Boles: Victor Moritz
Mae Clarke: Elizabeth
Edward Van Sloan: Dr. Waldman
Dwight Frye: Fritz
Marilyn Harris: Little Maria
A Universal Picture release of a Carl Laemmle Jr. production. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston; based on a play by Peggy Webling and suggested by the novel by Mary Shelley. No M.P.A.A. rating; contains sequences that might be frightening to young viewers. Running time: 70 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: November 21, 1931.
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