Boris Karloff - The Monster
Colin Clive - Henry Frankenstein
Edward Van Sloan - Dr. Waldman
Dwight Frye - Fritz
Mae Clarke - Elizabeth
John Boles - Victor Moritz
James Whale - Director
Carl Laemmle Jr. - Producer
Francis Faragoh - Screenwriter
Arthur Edeson - Cinematographer
Jack P. Pierce - Make Up
Bernhard Kaun - Music Cues
Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, had been filmed three times in the silent era: in 1910 by the Edison company; in 1915 as Life Without Soul; and in Italy in 1920 as The Monster of Frankenstein. Intriguingly, the cast originally lined up for the first sound version featured Bela Lugosi, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. At that point the director was to be Robert Florey, who had selected the novel from several subjects suggested by Universal's story editor Richard Schayer as possible follow-ups to Dracula (1931).
The idea was for Lugosi to play the scientist but Universal objected, so Howard became Henry Frankenstein (with Davis as his fiancee), and tests were shot by Paul Ivano on the Dracula sets with Lugosi as the monster. The studio were unhappy with the makeup Lugosi had devised for himself and Lugosi was unhappy because the monster was a non-speaking role; and the project, complete with Florey's storyline (he contributed, most notably, the twist whereby the monster is given a madman's brain and the ending in the windmill) was inherited by Universal's up-and-coming director James Whale.
Whale promptly substituted Colin Clive for Howard, brought in the little-known Boris Karloff (whom he had seen in the Los Angeles stage production of The Criminal Code and in the gangster movie Graft, (1931), and gave the task of creating a suitable makeup for the monster to Jack Pierce. Davis had by then vanished from the cast and was replaced by Mae Clarke, since the Laemmles felt that her star potential might be marred by an appearance in a horror movie. The rest, as they say, is history.
Frankenstein took up where Dracula left off, and not just with confidence in its horrors. The first film ended with Edward Van Sloan stepping out of character and screen to deliver a sinister epilogue on the vampire. As the second film began he was back with a prologue: "How do you do. Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. 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 even shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to . . . Well, we've warned you!"
Although it is still sometimes reported that the scene in which the monster is shown throwing the little girl into the lake was cut from release prints because preview audiences found it too harrowing, actually it was removed at Kartoff's insistence. He felt that the scene as shot betrayed the character he had created: where Karloff had wanted to place the child in the water, Whale made him throw her in. Censorship was responsible for the removal of the scene in which the monster is seen killing the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) by impaling him on a hook. Most prints are also shorn of Clive's exulting line when he cries, after the famous "It's alive! It's alive!" as the monster gives its first sign of life, "In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God." Originally left intact, this line was censored out (leaving a jump cut) when the film was re-released.
Although one of the most celebrated and influential movies ever made--it even sparked off a horror revival when shown on American TV in 1957--it does not by any means represent Whale's best work. Whale's delight in the eccentricities of human behavior, in outcast monsters and other grotesques whom he encourages to take the plot by the scruff of the neck and make free of it to create self-contained little farces of their own, is much better served by the quirkish humors of The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and above all, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The stark, solid, impressively stylish film--obviously influenced by the sculptural/architectural massiveness of Paul Wegener's The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)--stalks through its plot with immense solemnity; Baron Frankenstein (Clive) and his feverish dreams of creating life; his success when his grave-robbing hunchback assistant (Frye) steals a murderer's brain to go with the patchwork quilt of human fragments; his despair when the man he creates becomes a monster. Karloff gives one of the great performances of all time as the monster whose mutation from candor to chill savagery is mirrored only through his limpid eyes.
The film's great imaginative coup is to show the monster "growing up" in all too human terms. First he is the innocent baby, reaching up to grasp the sunlight that filters through the skylight. Then the joyous child, playing at throwing flowers into the lake with a little girl whom he fondly imagines to be another flower to float. And finally, as he finds himself progressively misjudged by the society that created him, the savage killer as whom he has been typecast. Illuminated by Karloff's performance, the film has a weird, fairytale beauty not matched until Jean Cocteau made Beauty and the Beast (1946). But its importance lies in the fact that its monster is put forward at least ambivalently as hero, inducing a note of discreet but profound eroticism to the genre as well as an indication that it was perfectly capable of challenging--even undermining--social conventions.
--PHIL HARDY, ed. from The Encyclopedia of
Horror Films, 1986
A selection of Frankenstein related films.
Find Frankenstein on eBay.com
A selection of Frankenstein in books.
A History of Horror
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