November 21, 1931
Mary Shelley, adapted by Peggy Webling for the stage, screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein
Mae Clark as Elizabeth
Boris Karloff as The Monster
John Boles as Victor Moritz
Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
Dwight Frye as Fritz
As the expression goes, if only I had a nickel for every time I have heard the above line quoted. This line is just one of the many iconic things that came from this wonderful film. LikeDracula before it, this film brought us many of the clichés that we associate with horror; The mad scientist in his hilltop laboratory with his hunchbacked assistant, the thunderstorm sound effects that would be heard in films for decades to come and on nearly every Halloween sound effects CD I’ve ever purchased, and of course, the classic line.
The film opens with an out of character monologue from Edward Van Sloan warning the viewer of the horrors to come. The credit cards roll and then we open on a dismal and eerie cemetery. The funeral is virtually silent with the terrific atmospheric setting including sounds of mourners and a priest mumbling a prayer. The casket is lowered into the ground and after the mourners exit, the grave digger begins filling the grave. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin is chilling.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz (played by the brilliant Dwight Frye) emerge from behind a headstone after the grave digger leaves and dig up the coffin. Another equally moody scene follows a few minutes later with the two men cutting down a hanged man from the gallows. However, the brain is useless.
Meanwhile, back at Frankenstein Manor, we see a very concerned Elizabeth, who is visited by a friend, Victor Moritz. Elizabeth expresses her concern for Henry, who she hasn’t seen in months, and they decide to enlist the help of Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman. They visit Dr. Waldman and he agrees to help them find Henry.
With no good brain to use, Fritz is sent out to find another. He breaks in to Dr. Waldman’s laboratory and finds two brains, a normal brain and a criminal brain. In a slightly comedic scene, Fritz selects the normal brain but drops it when a loud crash scares him. He grabs the criminal brain and leaves.
On the proverbial dark and stormy night, Elizabeth, Victor and Fritz arrive at the abandoned watchtower laboratory. Frankenstein lets them in to witness the final experiment. The body is raised to the ceiling and all the electrical equipment is engaged. A brilliant pyrotechnic show follows, and the body is brought back down. Slowly, the hand moves and Frankenstein, overcome with joy, delivers the famous line.
The creation sequence is a highlight of the film and a masterpiece of special effects work for its time. The footage would be recycled throughout all of Universal’s Frankenstein films.
The scene where The Monster is revealed is a piece of cinematic masterpiece by James Whale. Henry and Dr. Waldman are discussing the wonders of science when the Monster enters with his back to the camera. He slowly turns and is revealed in a series of ever tightening close up. The iconic make up by Jack Pierce is truly his masterpiece, and how we all today think of the Frankenstein Monster.
A beautiful scene follows where the Monster is exposed to the sunlight for the first time. He slowly reaches up towards the light. Karloff’s acting in this film is superb, his best performance of his career as it is all pantomime. However, Fritz shows up with a torch. The Monster is afraid of fire, and a fight ensues.
This film is very violent for its day. Many cuts were made to the film, but the violence was one of the many reasons for the film’s success. The fights are very realistic, and never excessive, more like Greco-Roman wrestling matches. Fritz delights in torturing the Monster, but he gets a little too close and the Monster gets him. Henry and Waldman drug the Monster in another violent scene.
Henry leaves to marry Elizabeth, and the Monster escapes, killing Dr. Waldman. The Monster comes across a little girl named Maria playing beside a pond, throwing flowers into the water, making little boats out of them. The Monster is delighted by this game and when he runs out of flowers he throws Maria in. Instantly realizing what he has done, he tries to save her, but is unsuccessful. He runs away in terror.
The scene was cut and/or trimmed from the original release for being too graphic. However, the scene is a beautiful one. The Monster’s child-like glee is heartwarming, and his horror at drowning the little girl stirs sympathy, adding a human side to the character.
The climax of the film is fantastic, even with the lack of a musical score, as creator faces creation. Superb acting and stunt work from Karloff and Clive combines with good pacing all the way to the end of the film, unlike the anti-climatic ending of Dracula. The scenes in the burning mill are exciting and the Monster throwing Henry from the top of the windmill, though clearly a dummy, is a great climax.
The film was much more successful than Dracula, and ushered in the “Golden Age” of horror. Though it owes more to the Peggy Webling stage play than Shelley’s novel, this film certainly gave horror the boost it needed to become a cornerstone genre of film making.
Director James Whale would go on to display his genius in three more horror films for Universal,The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and the Bride of Frankenstein. He never wanted to be dubbed a “horror director,” but his horror films are some of his best work.
There would be many sequels to this film, even after Karloff abandoned the role after the third film. Karloff became a star after the release of Frankenstein, and had to have back surgery from the rigors of the makeup and costume.
This film is a true classic and one that no horror fan can go without seeing.