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Non-Review Review: Frankenstein (1931)

We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.

James Whale’s Frankenstein tends to be overshadowed by its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, as perhaps the definitive take on the mad scientist and his creepy, tragic monster. While the script for Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein is occasionally a bit too loose for its own good, it’s still a stunning piece of classic monster movie cinema. I had the pleasure of watching the recent blu ray release of the film, and it looks just as good now as it ever did.

“It’s aliiiive!”

There’s a lot of pulpy charm to Frankenstein, from the opening scene, featuring a delightfully cheeky introduction warning viewers of the perils that lie ahead. The credits seem in on the joke, making a point to credit “?” as “the Monster.” It’s a credit to Karloff that he came to personify the monster so effectively that his own credit seemed almost redundant. There’s something delightfully macabre, gothic and gonzo about the way that Whale tells the story – a high-energy approach to the story that runs along without a second’s pause or hesitation.

Horror movie aficionados know that it was Whale’s Frankenstein that introduced electricity to the creature’s origin. Shelley’s original novel had been somewhat vague on the science used by Victor to bring his creation to life. Here, the scientist – renamed Henry, for some reason – claims to have discover a strange new “ray” that gives life, even higher on the scale than “ultra-violet.” It’s a really weird scene that tries to go into the pseudo-science a bit too heavily, and an illustration of the script’s problems, but it’s saved by Whale’s fantastic direction.

In grave danger…

(That said, I do have a fondness for the way the movie relies on pseudo-neuroscience to rationalise the creature’s dysfunction. Waldman is teaching a class on neuroscience, and has brought two examples. One is the brain of a normal person, “And here, the abnormal brain of the typical criminal. Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobe as compared to that of the normal brain.” It calls to mind other dodgy beliefs about how the brain works, with theories like phrenology popular during the nineteenth century.

Given that the creature was unlikely to end up well-adjusted no matter what, and seems to have little personality inherited from the brain’s former owner, it reads more as a commentary on some of the attitudes and prejudices that were popular at the time. Perhaps the use of the criminal’s brain didn’t affect the creature at all, but it did influence the attitude of those around him, and the way that treated him. In that light, it seems like a rather smart touch – a commentary on how sometimes folklore can masquerade as science, and the damage that these old superstitions can do. Believing that the creature was always going to be a sinister monster, Frankenstein and Waldman treat it as such, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.)

Reaching for the stars…

There’s a reason that the scene has become so iconic, despite the fact the particulars are hazy in the collective popular memory. Everybody remembers Frankenstein shouting “It’s alive!”, even if they never saw the scene. Everybody is familiar with Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, even if most people think he’s called “Igor”, rather than “Fritz.” The lightning was such a perfect addition to the creature’s origin that even Kenneth Branagh’s much more serious and dour take on the novel felt obligated to include it.

A lot of Whale’s Frankenstein has become so instantly recognisable through pop culture osmosis, that it’s strange to watch the movie itself again. The production was quite troubled on its way to the screen, passing hands several times. Bela Lugosi had been considered to play the monster in one early draft, where the creature was more of a remorseless killing machine. Early publicity posters for the movie revealed that the creature’s high forehead and neck bolts were a relatively late addition to the design.

He’s quite handy with science…

One can get a sense of the movie’s troubled production history in watching the final cut. The script seems to be a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster itself, cobbled together from multiple drafts and incorporating different ideas at strange intervals. In particular, the film can’t seem to decide what it makes of the mad scientist responsible for creating the monster. Frankenstein really has no motivation for his work, save hubris.

He’s not so much a character for the first half of the film, but a mad scientist archetype who exists to create a monster to drive the plot. “Herr Frankenstein is a most brilliant young man, yet so erratic,” Doctor Waldman confesses of his former pupil. “He troubles me.” Explaining Frankenstein’s departure from the university Waldman explains, “You know, his researches in the field of chemical galvanism and electrobiology were far in advance of our theories here at the university. In fact, they had reached a most advanced stage. They were becoming dangerous. Herr Frankenstein is greatly changed.”

Preparing to meet his maker…

He uses the adjective “changed”, and yet we never get an idea of what in particular changed. Did he suffer a personal loss? His mother is absent from the film, did she die and motivate his obsession with death? The closest we come to getting a motivation for Frankenstein comes in a small scene in the middle of the film, but it’s framed in the most generic terms possible:

Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody 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? But if you talk like that… people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things – what eternity is, for example – I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

None of the human characters in Frankenstein seem especially consistent, and there’s a sense that the script was never really a unified whole. Fritz conspires with his master to raise an animated corpse, robbing graves and stealing brains – but is the most appalled of the human characters when he sees the result. Doctor Waldman seems far more human and compassionate than Henry, more bound by conventional medical ethics. However, he bumps himself several notches up the monster’s kill list when he notes in his diary, “Will perform dissection at once.”

A man, or a monster?

That the movie works at all is a credit to Whale, who really constructs this wonderful ethereal atmosphere. The opening scene, featuring Henry and Fritz robbing graves, is especially creepily beautiful. There’s a fantastically unnerving shot of the two collecting a body from the gallows, the feet swinging limply in the wind. Much like Dracula, the movie’s production design is absolutely amazing. Herman Rosse’s set designs are absolutely beautiful, and they still look impressive today. There’s a reason that so many of the adaptations that followed used Frankenstein as their creative touchstone.

The monster himself is also the other major strength the movie has. The script consciously portrays the creature as inherently tragic, but Karloff’s performance is astounding. Like Legusi as Dracula, Karloff is able to find a sense of tragedy in this strangest of beasts – this most alien of forms. He does so silently, and under a host of make-up. I never thought Karloff ever quite got the credit that he deserved as a dramatic actor, and it’s impossible to find a take on the creature that isn’t heavily influenced by his portrayal.

He gives me the creeps…

Without any great sympathy for Frankenstein himself, Frankenstein rather shrewdly invites the audience to pity the creature. We realise that he has some shred of humanity long before the rest of the cast, as he reaches in vain towards the light. Our ability to understand that makes the chains, the whips and the fire all the more unbearable, because we know that the creature must feel pain, even if he can’t articulate it properly.

Karloff allows the monster to express himself through a series of grunts and groans, low animalistic noises. It’s to Karloff’s credit that they afford him a full range of emotion, even if the human characters seem oblivious to it. He whimpers like a scolded dog, he hisses like a frightened cat. There’s a sense that he at least feels those sorts of primal emotions, even if he hasn’t yet mastered complex thought. It’s that portrayal that keeps him sympathetic even after he accidentally drowns a young girl playing by the river.

Childish understanding…

Ironically, the creature who longs to be human remains much easier to sympathise with than the man who would be God. “In the name of God,” Frankenstein declares, “know I know what it’s like to be God!” Frankenstein gives the title character the short end of the stick in terms of characterisation, denying him anything approaching complex motivation, and portraying him as reckless and arrogant, but without suggesting that he has deeper issues at play. Even his best friend, Victor, comments, “Henry, you’re inhuman, you’re crazy!”

Henry abuses his manservant Fritz, but he seems to be engaged in this experiment for the sheer insanity of as much as for anything else. When Fritz gets nervous, Henry doesn’t try to console him or engage him. “If this storm develops as I hope,” he boasts, “you will have plenty to be afraid of before the night’s over.” It hardly seems like the right thing to say to a character concerned about the morality of your work. When the experiment is completed, he’s shown to be indifferent to its result. Waldman protests, “This creature of yours should be kept under guard.”Frankenstein doesn’t seem too bothered.

Not quite a run-of-the-mill night…

Perhaps, though, this lack of interest in Frankenstein himself is the point. Mary Shelley’s original story was more fixated on the creator than the creation. However, with James Whale’s adaptation, the monster becomes the focus of the story. In fact, many people consider “Frankenstein” to be the name of the creature itself, rather than the name of its creator. I think that idea can trace its roots back to this adaptation, to the story where the focus (and the heart) was more sorely on the monster than the man.

There was more humanity in him.

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2 Responses

  1. One of my favourite films (and its sequel) and it led on to the wonderful Young Frankenstein homage. Both beautiful films…

    • They are, aren’t they? And they defined the characters for generations of kids who haven’t even seen the films.

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