With Dracula being a huge hit, Universal Studios decided to see if lightening could strike twice with another monster. As said before, Dracula was a big turning point for using the supernatural elements in a realistic light without using any “it was a dream” twist. Thus, they turned to another famous bit of literature written by Mary Shelley which also had its run in the silent era…
If Dracula was the start of Universal’s monster run, then Frankenstein perfected it. A lot of the technical issues with the famed vampire flick would be fixed and even push the boundaries of what dark fantasy was never brushed upon back then. Think about it for a moment. A movie in 1931 that examines the idea of reanimating a dead body and questioning the aspect of wither it would be done in the view of science or attempting to play God. This was very risky for Universal Studios back then to even take such a macabre subject and much like the doctor’s creation, it was set loose on the public and became a run-away hit.
Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein who plans on stitching together a batch of body parts in seeing if he can attempt the impossible; bring back life to something dead. You can feel the enthusiasm when he’s bringing his experiment to life and enjoy how much he relishes his success when he shouts “It’s alive!” upon seeing the cold hands twitch and move for the first time. There’s a sympathetic side to Henry as he doesn’t question the morale value of his experiment but more of how much lost he is into his work. He has a fiance on board and his friends deeply show concern for his obsession. But later on, you can see the humanity in him when he starts to wonder what good is to bring a creation to life and if its for the will of good or evil.
Now, its here I should address how much the 1931 movie deviates from its novel. The original story by Mary Shelley had Frankenstein (first name Victor, not Henry) be repulsed by his creation causing the unfortunate being to wonder off into the world. The movie, on the other hand, does something different that I feel is better. Henry instead welcomes glory on his creature and is appreciated to see what he can do regardless of his appearance. It was a minor nitpick I had with the novel seeing it would make sense to be more pleased in your accomplishment than worry about how “ugly and hideous” your creation looks.
Speaking of which, Boris Karloff is a perfect for the Frankenstein monster. Supposedly, Bela Lugosi was intended to play the role but turned it down after a series of disastrous make-up tests. Some say he didn’t want to play the Monster because he would be unrecognizable under mounds of make-up but its up for discussion. Regardless, Karloff doesn’t just play the role but really sells it. He doesn’t have any lines outside of grunting but uses a great amount of body language that keeps us
feeling bad for the beast. With an abnormal brain installed, we are aware of what damage he can cause but can’t help ourselves to pity a being with an innocent view. He maybe a monster but sees things in a child-like perspective like when he meets a little girl and she tries to teach him about floating flower petals in the lake. Long story short, it ends in tragedy with the Monster thinking she too can float if a bunch of flowers can. Big mistake. I could go on and talk about how Karloff’s performance swings between an innocent kid to a murderous beast and how iconic it is but I think you get the idea.
Jack Pierce did the make-up work on the iconic look of the Monster. There was never a clear idea of what Mary Shelley intended with her take on the creature so obviously some liberties had to be taken. The flat-top head look is what mostly comes to mind when people like of the Frankenstein Monster. The look itself is such a wonder that its no question why this design is used today. The stitches on the face, the bolts on the neck and of course, the way the hands have a patchwork feel to them. Its a simple yet powerful take,
The other actors do a good job too with Dwight Frye performing a hunchback assistant named Fritz, Edward Van Sloan as Henry’s mentaor Dr. Waldman and Mae Clarke as Elizabeth who acts like the voice of reason. They all do a great performance because of how much they matter to the Frankenstein character. Henry is about as obsessed as ever trying to crack the mystery of life while his friends worry about how much has gone to his head. Even interesting is how Dwight’s Fritz is neither too crazy or too over-the-top. In Dracula, he really had to sell the insanity where else here his performance of Fritz comes off as a quirky character. There’s a moment where he does to answer the door and he stops for a moment to fix his sock. Its a brief but amusing moment considering how a ragged worker wants to be professional to company.
While Frankenstein isn’t a true adaptation of the source material, it does carry a lot of entertainment value and a grand use of set work to keep it enjoyable. I’m amazed to see how much effort went into so much on location shooting and stage work to bring the world to life. From the electronic look of the castle to the rickety and ancient presentation of the windmill at the climax, Frankenstein easily one ups Dracula in the visual department by using a broader use of special effects and scenery. Its not a chilling atmosphere like Dracula but more like an intense adrenaline rush from the creation scene to the very climax when the angry villagers hunt down the Monster.
Its no wonder why it caught on so fast with so much intense action and drama that wasn’t presented in talkies at the time. And of course, like most horror movies of the time, it was the subject of censorship during the Production Code of 1934. At the time, this movie was breaking new ground by questioning exactly how much can be seen or told. A graphic close-up of a syringe getting injected into the Monster was seen as too intense (even though it does explain how the Monster is stopped after killing Fritz) and shots of Fritz torturing the Monster were considered too frightening. But perhaps the most infamous of all is the scene with the little girl by the lake. When it was first released, certain states like Massachusetts and New York felt the second half of the scene was a bit too upsetting by having the Monster toss the little girl into the lake and having her drown upon thinking she can float. But this caused a problem seeing the father would carry her body in the town later on in the film suggesting a worse fate happened off-screen. I wonder what was the better decision here…
Another controversial edit was a line Frankenstein says after he sees his creation come to life by exclaiming, “In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”This was considered too blasphemous and thus the second portion of the line was edited out to include a thunder bolt to censor it. Thankfully, the following scenes where restored to home video but with the “God” line still edited. From what I could gather, the audio to the infamous line was supposedly missing from the master print until later an audio track with the unedited line was found. Thankfully, it was restored to DVD along with the other scenes.
Considering the huge amount of success it brought, Universal knew they needed a sequel. However, it would take them four years as the film’s director James Whale felt there was nothing else they could do. But after the success of his work on another Universal Monster hit The Invisible Man, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr felt he was the only one who could deliver such a film. The result was Bride of Frankenstein which James Whales said wouldn’t top the original but turn it into a memorable “hoot.” I honestly disagree seeing how much it easily trumps the original and pushes a lot more on not just the technical work but even elaborate more on the characters as well.
Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein who only wishes to focus on having a normal life and moving away from his dabble in science. Unfortunately, he is roped back in by the demented Doctor Pretorius who hopes to have Henry at his aide to recreate his experiment from the first film. Pretorius goes further to even show a creation of his own by taking dead tissue and making life but in the form of little people in jars. It sounds like a crazy idea by Ernest Thesiger really sells the performance. He doesn’t waste a single frame acting out the mad side and plays off of Henry like a devil on the shoulder. The biggest highlight comes into play later when he is drinking wine in a catacomb with some bones and comes across the Frankenstein monster still alive. Instead of shunning him, he actually welcomes him in and has a drink with him. He doesn’t care about humanity but more about how twisted and dark it is.
Oh, did I forget to mention? The Monster is back, played by Boris Karloff but this time in a bigger role. While the first film was centered on Frankenstein, his Monster takes the spotlight as he wonders the streets in search of understanding. He does come across a blind hermit that teaches him the value of companionship and even the will to speak. This is very crucial as it gives Karloff the opportunity to give the Monster a voice and a personality. No
longer is he an object to fear but really sympathize. One of the hardest scenes is when he gets captured by the villagers and is strung up onto a cross-like object with rope while getting pelted with rocks. This time, you really feel sorry for the Monster and see a soul and personality that was never before present. Also, extra kudos to Jack Pierce who returns to do the make-up and pays close attention to continuity here. In the last movie, the Monster is seen during a fire so Jack gives a “burn victim” look that is unique. We see head clamps that weren’t visible in the first film and even some burn marks. Interestingly enough, throughout the sequel we see the wounds and hair grow back as some form of progression. Its a clever idea.
Bride of Frankenstein follows the second half of the novel where the Creation roams the Earth and after much venture, seeks his creator to make a mate. This is the basis for the second half and if I were to give anything away would ruin any interest. I will not elaborate too much but when the “Bride” is made, we do get to see something interesting. Its one of the most iconic monsters that may have appeared for a short time but still gets easily recognized and is popular today. Ella Lanchester dons the role with a curious bird-like and hypnotic look. She too has the child-like acting that Karloff gave in the previous film but for different reasons. I’d go deeper into why but again, it would ruin the ending.
Even though it is a superior sequel, it still has some problems. Once in a while, some comic relief is tossed in that gets a good chuckle or a brief groan. A good example is Una O’Connor as the maid Minnie who really doesn’t layer anything subtle. When she sees the Monster for the first time, she goes haywire on the reaction. Its funny but at the same time irritating and over-the-top. Even E. E. Clive as the Burgomaster gets a few eye roles. No wonder seeing both actors came from The Invisible Man and deliver the same performance. Dwight Frye also returns as as Pretorius’ assistant named Karl who is demented but feels off to the side at times and underused. Supposedly, his character was meant to have a bigger role with a subplot where he kills his uncle and blames the Monster for it. But I feel this was wisely cut as it doesn’t add too much to the movie seeing how complex it already plays out.
And its no surprise to see it was attacked with censorship; pre-production and post. A line where Pretorius compares the Bible to fairy tales was changed as a scene where the Monster sees a Jesus on a cross figure and tries to “rescue” him was never filmed under objection. Even the opening prologue with Ella Lanchester as Mary Shelley talking about her story was significantly trimmed down. Not because of the dialogue but because it showed a lot of close ups of her and her dress…and the censors rejected to how much of her “cleavage” was present. Talk about strict. Either way, the 15 minutes of cut scenes is considered lost to this day but thankfully the power of the film remains.
Much like the Monster, we too question how accepted we feel by another and strive for the company of another. We sympathize with the Monster much more for how he wants to be something and accepted. Behind that look beats the heart of someone that only wants society to love him like a son. Its this reason only I feel “Bride” is superior but both movies are highly recommended. Sure there was sequel after sequel but I feel the first two are more close together seeing how much gets wrapped up and continued. Its almost like the Godfather movies of its time with Part I setting up the world of Frankenstein and Part II showing more of his creation. What more can I say but see these two for yourself and you’ll know why there will never be another Frankenstein as good as this.