A visually stunning and thrilling cornerstone of horror films
“Frankenstein” is arguably the most famous and significant horror film ever made. Its enormous success gave birth to a film genre, its style set the tone for future horror films, and it features the most iconic monster in cinema history. It was also the h ighest-grossing film of 1931. As if that wasn’t enough, “Frankenstein” is visually beautiful and sublime, and holds up gloriously ninety years later. The American Film Institute (AFI) voted it the 87th greatest American movie of all time and the 56th most thrilling. Countless versions have been made of “Frankenstein”, but this one is the one to see. It contains a mesmerizing magic that keeps it grippingly fresh.
After a brief prologue warning about the horrifying film we are about to see, “Frankenstein” opens with a group of mourners at a gravesite. Scientist “Henry Frankenstein” and his assistant “Fritz” are hiding while watching the service, waiting for the casket to be buried and everyone to depart. Once alone, “Frankenstein” and “Fritz” proceed to remove the casket from the ground, and we learn “Frankenstein” is gathering body parts from fresh cadavers to piece together a man to whom he will give life. His life-giving obsession has the two working day and night in an abandoned watchtower-turned-laboratory, which has delayed his marriage to his fiancée, “Elizabeth”. “Frankenstein” finally accomplishes his goal, giving life to a frightful, giant-sized, yet childlike outcast known as “The Monster”. Innocent, confused, rejected, and alone in a world he doesn’t understand, “The Monster” turns from peaceful to hostile.
Rather than containing the gruesome, gory realism seen in most of today’s horror films, “Frankenstein” is more nightmarish fairytale. This scary story presents philosophical questions about life and death, humanity and science, and man playing God. In a short speech to his mentor, “Frankenstein” sums it up nicely:
“Have you never wanted to do anything dangerous? Where should we be if nobody
tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you ever wanted to look beyond the clouds
and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes a 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
The story of “Frankenstein” originated in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus”. I should point out that many people think “Frankenstein” is the name of the monster, but in her novel and this film, “Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist. The creature has no name and is referred to as “The Monster” or “It” in the film. In the last three centuries, Shelley's novel was loosely adapted for the stage over a dozen times. A 1927 British play adaptation by Peggy Webling (altered from Shelley's book) was the basis for this film, and characters and plot points were again altered for this film version.
Universal Studios made this film as a follow-up to their tremendously successful “Dracula”, released earlier that year. Both films were produced by the twenty-one year old head of production at Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr., and both financially saved the ailing studio during the worst years of the Great Depression. These films struck a chord with audience’s anxieties about death, conformity, safety, and the unknown. Though there were prior horror films, the resounding success of “Frankenstein” (on the heels of “Dracula”) began the horror film as a viable, profitable genre. Establishing themselves as the #1 studio for horror films, Universal continued their monster movie trend with 1932's “The Mummy” and 1933's “The Invisible Man”. They produced sequels and spinoffs to all these films, later adding "The Wolf Man" and "The Creature from the Black Lagoon” to their roster of moneymaking mutants.
The true force behind “Frankenstein” is its incredibly skilled director James Whale. He managed to create a horror film that is scary, provocative, suspenseful, and even humorous at times. He had the perfect vision, hired the right people, and kept the film consistent and unfolding at a rapid pace. Whale was not the first choice as director. Leammle originally hired Robert Florey to direct and Bela Lugosi (star of “Dracula”) as “The Monster”. With Whale newly under contract to Universal, Leammle let him choose his next film and he chose “Frankenstein”. Florey was out, and Whale made the film his own, replacing Lugosi with Boris Karloff, casting Colin Clive as “Frankenstein”, and Mae Clarke as “Elizabeth”.
Whale’s stunning direction has a German Expressionist influence as evident by his innovative composition, extreme camera angles, high contrast lighting, and use of shadows. He ingeniously introduces “The Monster” using sound, shadows, and close-ups for maximum suspense and shock. One of the most famous scenes in all of cinema is when “Frankenstein” brings “The Monster” to life. The explosions, flashes, and visuals of “The Monster” being lifted on a bed towards an electrical storm are unforgettable, and Whale’s choice of camera angles, edits, and points of view keep the viewer as excited and jittery as “Frankenstein” himself. It is an extraordinary sequence. The laboratory has also become iconic for its jolting apparatuses designed by high voltage and electrical special effects expert Kenneth Strickfaden. For it, he created spectacular electrical gadgets that sparked, lit up, and made noise, including a giant Tesla coil. That laboratory has influenced the design of just about every horror film lab that followed. The creation scene also contains iconic dialogue. “It’s alive! It’s alive!”, which “Frankenstein” exclaims as “The Monster” begins to move. It was ranked by AFI as the 49th greatest movie quote of all-time. In his euphoria, “Frankenstein” continues to say, “In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”, but that part was edited out of the film by censors when shown in many US states.
English born James Whale had a brief but memorable directing career. After odd jobs as an artist, with the arrival of World War I, he enlisted in the military, becoming a second lieutenant, captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans. In the POW camps he became involved with their theatrical productions, and after the war he continued in theater, eventually making his way to London (acting, designing, and directing). Whale had a breakthrough directing and designing the 1928 play, “Journey’s End”, and in 1929 he directed it on Broadway. Hollywood took notice and Whale was given a short-lived contact at Paramount Studios. Howard Hughes hired him to direct the talking sequences in his classic film, “Hell's Angels” (which made Jean Harlow a sensation), and in 1930 he was hired to direct the British-American film version of “Journey’s End”, which was also a success. He then signed with Universal and directed “Waterloo Bridge” in early 1931, starring Mae Clarke, which became another critical and commercial success. It cemented a favorable relationship for him with Carl Laemmle Jr., and studio founder and head Carl Laemmle (Sr.). Whale chose “Frankenstein” for his third directorial venture, and continued to direct one to three films a year for the studio, including 1933's highly successful horror film, “The Invisible Man”. Whale directed a sequel to “Frankenstein” in 1935 titled “The Bride of Frankenstein”, adding humor and camp into the mix, and that film is also recognized as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Whale’s last film with the Laemmles was the highly regarded 1936 musical “Show Boat”. That same year there was a corporate takeover at Universal, and the Laemmles were replaced by Charles R. Rogers. Because of censorship issues with Whale’s 1937 film "The Road Back”, friction came between him and Rogers, and Whale was delegated to B pictures. The last feature film he directed was 1941’s “They Dare Not Love” before deciding to retire. Of the twenty features he directed, other notable films include "The Old Dark House", "The Great Garrick", "The Man in the Iron Mask", "Kiss Before the Mirror", and "Remember Last Night”. After retiring, he directed two short films, painted, and occasionally directed theater. Whale never married, was openly gay, and had a relationship with movie producer David Lewis from 1930 to 1952. In 1956, James Whale suffered a series of strokes, depression, and mood swings, and in 1957, at the age of 67, he drowned himself in his swimming pool, leaving a suicide note behind for Lewis (with whom he was still friendly). The last years of Whale’s life were the basis of the 1998 film “Gods and Monsters” starring Sir Ian McKellen as Whale.
The wondrous look and moody, dark atmosphere in “Frankenstein” set the standard by which subsequent horror film would be judged. Its stone walls, staircase, cavernous laboratory, and dilapidated windmill create an unnerving ambience. Whale enlisted art director Charles D. Hall to design the film’s style. Like Whale, he had a penchant for German Expressionist cinema, and you can see some tilted sets and forced perspectives throughout. Hall is not a name easily recognized, but his work and influence is known worldwide. Born in England, Charles D. Hall had a love and talent for art and a desire to study architecture. After his family moved to the US, he began painting sets at Universal in 1912, becoming the studio’s chief art director by 1923. In his stay at Universal (which lasted until 1938), he served as art director on many horror films, including the silent classics “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, "The Phantom of the Opera”, and "The Cat and the Canary”, as well as the sound classics “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Bride of Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man”, ”The Black Cat", "The Vampire Bat", and "Murders in the Rue Morgue”. With these films, Hall created a visual style that still permeates horror films today. While working at Universal, Hall was also made chief art director for Charlie Chaplin Studios in the mid-1920s, art directing such classics as “The Gold Rush”, "The Kid", "City Lights”, “The Circus”, and "Modern Times” (including the design of the iconic giant cogs in which Charlie Chaplin gets caught). After Hall left Universal, he moved to Hal Roach Studios where he worked on the films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Hall primarily worked on television in the 1950s, retiring before the decade’s end. Among the many other classics he art directed are "The Man Who Laughs", "All Quiet on the Western Front”, "The Last Warning”, "The Flying Saucer”, ”Imitation of Life", and "My Man Godfrey". He worked on seven films with Whale. Hall was nominated for two Best Art Direction Academy Awards (for “Merrily We Live” in 1938 and “Captain Fury" in 1939). Charles D. Hall died in 1970 at the age of 81.
The man who captured the stunning sets with inventive camera angles is none other than cinematographer Arthur Edeson. Like the others, his work elevates this film. Even in the very first shot of the mourners by the gravesite, his high contrast lighting and striking composition heightens a mournfully, moody atmosphere. He too was heavily influenced by German Expressionist cinema. He shot two more films with Whale (“The Old Dark House” and “The Invisible Man”). A major force in cinematography and one of its pioneers, Arthur Edeson's career spanned 1914 through 1948, and in 1919 he was one of the founders of the American Society of Cinematographers. He shot many silent classics including “Robin Hood”, "The Three Musketeers”, “The Thief of Bagdad”, and “The Lost World”, and sound classics such as "Casablanca", "The Maltese Falcon", "Sergeant York", "Mutiny on the Bounty", "They Drive by Night", and his final film, "The Fighting O'Flynn" in 1948. He filmed “In Old Arizona”, which was the first sound film to be shot outside a studio, and for it earned one of three Best Cinematography Academy Award nominations in his career (the other two were for “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Casablanca”). He retired in 1949. Arthur Edeson died in 1970 at the age of 78.
Starring in the title role is Colin Clive as “Henry Frankenstein”, the man who plays God. Clive’s nuanced and truthful performance is crucial as to why this film works. As a half-crazed, over-zealous scientist, he connects the fantastical (represented by “The Monster”) and the real (represented by everyone else), having one foot in each realm. A treacherous role to say the least, played impeccably well.
Colin Clive was born in born in Saint-Malo, France to English parents. After attending college in England, he enrolled in a Military Academy. He injured his knee in a horse riding accident, disqualifying him from military service, so he turned to acting. He began appearing on the London stage in the mid-1920s, and in 1929 was cast as the lead in “Journey’s End” (replacing Laurence Olivier), directed by Whale. When Whale was chosen to direct the film version of the play, he cast Clive to reprise his starring role. It was Clive’s film debut. Whale insisted on casting Clive as “Frankenstein”, which became Clive's second film. He reprised the role of “Frankenstein” in “The Bride of Frankenstein”, and both films are the ones for which he is best remembered. He worked again with Whale in "One More River” in 1934. A popular lead and second leading man, Clive made only eighteen films in his brief career, including "Christopher Strong" opposite Katharine Hepburn, "The Girl from 10th Avenue" opposite Bette Davis, and his final film, Anatole Litvak's "The Woman I Love" in 1937. He also appeared in theater (including Broadway) and some radio. He was married twice, and there are many reports he was bisexual. Known to be a tormented soul, Colin Clive was an alcoholic, which contributed to his early death from tuberculosis in 1937 at the age of 37.
Mae Clarke plays “Elizabeth Lavenza”, the fiancée of “Frankenstein”. Though she is the lead female in the film, her part is relatively small, as the film’s focus is truly on “Frankenstein” and “The Monster”. She is given a few good moments, such as her first scene when she tells her friend “Victor” her concern over “Frankenstein”. Universal was considering a newly signed actress named Bette Davis but changed their minds, thinking Davis lacked sex appeal. Clarke had starred in Whale’s previous film, “Waterloo Bridge”, and he insisted she play “Elizabeth”. She also starred in Whale’s next film, "The Impatient Maiden” in 1932.
Mae Clarke began her career performing in nightclubs as a dancer at the age of thirteen. She moved to New York and roomed with then unknown Barbara Stanwyck. One thing led to another, and within a few years she was touring in vaudeville. Her film career began in 1929 with “Big Time”, and 1931 became big time for her: she gave a praiseworthy supporting performance in “The Front Page” (on which the classic comedy “His Girl Friday” is based); appeared in the classic gangster film “The Public Enemy”; signed with Universal; starred in “Waterloo Bridge”; and appeared in “Frankenstein”. While perhaps her best career performance is in “Waterloo Bridge”, Clarke is best remembered for “Frankenstein” and her iconic scene in “The Public Enemy” in which James Cagney shoves a grapefruit in her face. In 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown followed by a serious car accident (leaving her face scarred), and a second nervous breakdown. It affected her career, and she began appearing mostly in B pictures. Her best-known role during this period was as the female lead in the 1948 science-fiction serial “King of the Rocket Men” (serials were shorts shown week to week before feature films, with continuing plots - a sort of soap opera). In the 1950s and 60s, Clarke mostly appeared in cameo and uncredited bit parts in some major films (including as “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, and “Pat and Mike”), and began appearing on television (with stand-out appearances on “The Loretta Young Show”). Her other notable films include "Three Wise Girls”, "The House of a Thousand Candles”, "Lady Killer”, and "Daredevils of the Clouds”. Clarke retired in 1970 and turned to painting. She was reportedly the inspiration for the character of "Lorelei Lee" in Anita Loos' bestselling 1925 novel, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (played by Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film version). She was married and divorced three times, including her first marriage to actor Lew Brice who was the brother of Fanny Brice. Mae Clarke died in 1992 at the age of 81.
Though he doesn’t get top billing, and is listed as “?” in the opening credits, the person most associated with “Frankenstein” is actor Boris Karloff, who plays “The Monster”. To this day Karloff’s name is synonymous with “Frankenstein”. His poignant portrayal of a creature shunned and not prepared for this world is transcendent. This is a monster filled with humanity, powerlessness, and frustration – an outsider longing to belong. “The Monster” begins his life calmly as he peacefully reaches for the warmth of the sunlight, only to find himself becoming hostile from being taunted, misunderstood, and rejected by almost everyone. He is gentle and sweet in the famous scene by the lake with the little girl, and frighteningly violent as he pursues “Frankenstein". As we watch him harden, Karloff manages to maintain kindness and vulnerability. Karloff worked for weeks with make-up man Jack Pierce to perfect the look of “The Monster”, and endured four hours of make-up application each day before shooting, and additional hours to remove it. His costume (which included heavy boots and struts to stiffen his legs) weighed forty-eight pounds, influencing the way he moved and walked. Even with a giant square head, heavy eyelids, and facial scars, Pierce’s brilliant make-up (which incorporated techniques never used before) allows for Karloff’s emotions and expressions to radiate from his eyes. It is so well done, this make-up became the visual archetype for “Frankenstein”. It’s important to remember that audiences at the time weren’t exposed to the thousands of monster images we see today, and no one had any idea of what “The Monster” would look or act like. So seeing “The Monster” in 1931 was quite a frightening shock. His image and the film brought chills, screams, and nightmares to its first audiences, with some reports that people fled the theaters in terror. The face of “The Monster” has become one of the most famous faces in the world, entering into the zeitgeist.
English born Boris Karloff moved to Canada in his early twenties and after some odd jobs, began acting in the theater. He eventually made his way to Hollywood and began appearing in silent films starting with "The Lightning Raider” in 1919. Karloff often played villains, Arabs, Indians, and other ethnic characters, and his first major role was in "The Hope Diamond Mystery" in 1920. He fluctuated between bit parts and supporting roles, and after appearing in approximately seventy-five films, Whale cast the unknown Karloff in “Frankenstein” (either because he noticed Karloff in the 1931 film “Graft” or in Universal’s commissary - not sure which story is accurate). The enormous success of “Frankenstein” made Karloff a star and icon. He worked again with Whale in two more horror films, 1932's “The Old Dark House” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” in which he reprised his role as “The Monster”. He played “The Monster” in another “Frankenstein” sequel, “Son of Frankenstein” in 1939, directed by Rowland V. Lee. His appearance in “The Mummy” in 1932 firmly establish Karloff as a horror film star, and he continued to appear in horror films throughout his career, including "The Black Cat ", "The Raven", "The Walking Dead”, "The Body Snatcher", "The Black Room", "The Man Who Changed His Mind", and “Targets”. Karloff also appeared on Broadway, most notably in 1956's “The Lark”, for which he earned a Tony Award nomination, and 1941’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” in which he played a homicidal gangster who is constantly mistaken for Boris Karloff (Raymond Massey played the part in the 1944 film version). He recorded several spoken word albums for children, including narrating Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat that Walked by Herself”, for which he earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording for Children. That led to his narrating and voicing the part of "The Grinch” in the classic 1966 holiday animated Dr. Seuss TV special, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (though Karloff did not sing in the show). For the soundtrack, he won a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children. He appeared in just over 200 films and TV shows, and though he appeared in other types of films, he didn’t didn't mind being typecast in horror films and was thrilled at being associated with “The Monster”. Though he often played mean and scary characters, he was known to be a kind and gentle man. He was married six times. Boris Karloff died in 1969 at the age of 81.
Part of the fun of “Frankenstein” is watching the performance of Dwight Frye as “Fritz”, “Frankenstein’s” assistant. Sporting a hunchback and being a little mentally slow, he strays away from the norm just enough to be colorfully interesting. Frye isn’t given a lot of meat in his part, yet just from the apprehension he shows when cutting down a body from a hangman’s post, his nervous fear when stealing a brain, or his energetic fervor while tormenting “The Monster”, you can tell this is one talented actor. He previously appeared as the half-crazed “Renfield" in “Dracula”, and was pretty much typecast into playing odd or mentally disturbed characters.
Dwight Frye began his career in the theater and made his Broadway debut in 1922. By the end of the decade he appeared in over a dozen shows, and was chosen as one of the ten best legitimate actors on Broadway. He appeared in some silent short films in 1918, but truly began his film career with some uncredited roles starting in 1926. His film career became quite frustrating. In addition to being typecast, his roles were often trimmed (or even removed) in the editing room. On-screen Frye was never allowed to show the versatility he displayed on stage, where he had appeared in comedies, dramas, and musicals. He was cast in several more “Frankenstein” films, including “The Bride of Frankenstein” (in which much of his part ended up on the cutting room floor), “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”, and “Son of Frankenstein” (in which his part was completely cut from the film). Of his 60+ film credits, other notable films include "The Vampire Bat", "The Invisible Man", the 1931 version of "The Maltese Falcon", and "The Crime of Dr. Crespi", for which he received critical praise. He was married once until his death. Dwight Frye died from a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 44.
“Frankenstein” was so successful it spawned countless sequels, spinoffs, remakes, and spoofs in films, TV, radio, theater, songs, comics, and novels. It’s been turned into satire, comedies, dramas, and musicals, including Mel Brooks' hilarious classic 1974 comedy “Young Frankenstein”, which directly spoofs this film as well as “The Bride of Frankenstein”, and used the same exact, original laboratory props used in this film. “Frankenstein” made an indelible mark in cinema and the world’s consciousness. A true sign of how beloved this film is, an original movie poster for the film sold in 1993 for a then-record breaking $198,000, and a larger sized original “Frankenstein” movie poster sold in 2015 for a whopping $358,500.
This week’s recommended classic is fun, thrilling, groundbreaking, and filled with excitement and surprises. So turn out the lights and enjoy, “Frankenstein”!
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