An obsessed scientist seeks to create a human life form from various exhumed corpses.
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What did the audience expect to see during the first screening of Frankenstein on November 21st, 1931? How did the readers of Mary Shelley’s novel of Frankenstein published in 1818 react? The film opens with a warning from actor Everett Van Sloan about what they are about to see. You have been warned he says. His intro is very creepy and we haven’t even seen the movie yet! The Frankenstein monster became an iconic image in the pantheon of movie monsters. Countless sequels and parodies sprung from this original feature.
In 1931 James Whale was offered his choice of film properties that Universal owned. Whale chose Frankenstein. Whale cast Colin Clive, who he had worked with before (as Henry Frankenstein), and an unknown actor named Boris Karloff as the monster. The film was a hit with critics and audiences. Whale is best remembered for his horror films The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But he also directed Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Show Boat (1936) both critically acclaimed.
Colin Clive’s acting is hilariously overwrought. Clive is excellent throughout the famous creation scene where the lab is ablaze with Tesla coils, other electrical equipment and a convenient lighting and thunder storm. Clive is intense and maniacal declaring, “It’s alive, it’s alive.” He is the first memorable mad scientist playing Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star. Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in Camberwell, London, England in 1887. Karloff had made many silent films in Hollywood, but had to take manual labor jobs to pay the bills. Karloff is best known and beloved for his horror roles. Karloff was an accomplished theatre and film actor with 199 film and television credits. He is also the narrator and voice of the Grinch, in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
On the surface Frankenstein can be seen a shocking horror film that is only out to thrill and scare the audience. When we first see the monster, he walks into the room backwards and turns around going from medium shot to close up on his face for optimum impact. Symbolic is the creatures entrance as a newborn, yet it looks like a grown up. The makeup design is amazing. Some audience members fainted and screamed at first glance of the monster. Universal, the distributor had a hit.
Universal choose to portray the monster as a villain, but Boris Karloff’s monster is a misunderstood innocent creature. Yes, he is gruesome, having been made from grave robbed dead bodies. It also doesn’t help that Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) steals a criminal’s brain for the experiment, not the creatures fault. Karloff creates a sympathetic creature that we met at its birth or in its adolescent years. Tormented by Fritz, the creature reacts with violence, which is appropriate as he is attacked. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a lousy creator and father to his creation. Frankenstein is obsessed with proving his theory that he can create life and doesn’t stop to think about the consequences and his own responsibility to the creature he makes. God!
Jack Pierce is credited with the iconic makeup worn by Karloff. The look is horrific and it makes sense. The Electrodes on the neck to reanimate the stitched together body are there for a purpose. Hooded eyes that look dead, sunken cheeks and a scarred flat head finish this original creation. The makeup took four hours to apply by hand. Karloff’s face was also painted with green grease paint to give the effect of looking pale on black and white film. Pierce also created the makeup design for The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941).
This horror classic is great on so many levels. Dwight Frye’s character Fritz is treacherous and yet funny. The brain stealing scene makes me laugh every time. But the film belongs to Karloff’s beautiful pathos filled performance. His scene with the little girl Maria is heartbreaking. We are supposed to be on the side of the townspeople when they hunt the monster, but I’m not. The Monster’s terrifying screams at the end upset me and I feel for the sad lonely creature that has been forgotten and abandoned. Karloff’s performance and Whale’s sensitive direction is why this film is honored and remembered.