Frankenstein (1931) is the definitive take on the man who created a monster. Based on Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel has been called the earliest science fiction story ever written. Although she didn’t always get the credit she deserved, Shelley proved women could horrorify just as well as men. Shelley was inspired by themes of renewed life. One of the most common misconceptions is that Frankenstein refers to the Monster. It actually refers to his creator Dr. Frankenstein.
The Modern Prometheus refers to the Greek Titan who created man. Unlike his fellow monsters, the unnamed creature isn’t a stock monster. Every portrayal needs a mad scientist who brings life to a reanimated corpse. Frankenstein has been adapted and parodied a countless number of times. After the success of Dracula, Universal released Frankenstein the same year. It has been my favorite Universal monster movie since childhood. The story was easy to follow and I really connected with the misunderstood monster. Frankenstein is an enduring classic that’s just as scary now as it was back then…
Frankenstein (1931) took just as many creative liberties as Dracula (1931). Mary Shelley’s original book is quite different than the story we’re used to. Dr. Victor Frankenstein uses ambiguous scientific methods to bring life to a body that he constructs himself. Frankenstein shuns the hideous creature and he wanders the land until a blind man teaches him to act more human. Despite his well-meaning nature, the creature swears revenge on all those who wronged him. A 1927 play and other early adaptations maintain the original narrative. Really it’s the 1931 film that made Frankenstein what it is today. The story is so shocking that Edward Van Sloan warns the audience about what they’re about to witness.
The first change is renaming Dr. Frankenstein Henry instead of Victor. I’m not sure why since the name Victor is simply given to a close friend. Another more iconic change is Frankenstein fashioning a body out of corpses that he steals from graveyards. Colin Clive perfectly captures Dr. Frankenstein as a mad scientist who tows the line between brilliance and insanity. After proving himself as Renfield, Dwight Frye became the earliest depiction of a hunchback assistant. This character is named Fritz since Igor wasn’t fully developed until much later. Fritz accidentally steals an abnormal brain from Frankenstein’s former professor Dr. Waldman. After taking on Dracula as Van Helsing, Van Sloan inadvertently gave life to another monster.
Dr. Waldman, Victor, and Henry’s lovely fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza bear witness to his creation over concern for his sanity. Castle Frankenstein is just as iconic as Castle Dracula. Frankenstein’s laboratory is filled with tesla coils hooked up to a body given life when it’s struck by lightning. With the faintest movement, Dr. Frankenstein shouts one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “It’s alive!” Followed by another declaration that I always found a little blasphemous. Frankenstein will always be the most famous example of man meddling with nature. Bela Lugosi initially wanted the role of Dr. Frankenstein, but he was originally cast as the monster instead. Until he was replaced by an initially uncredited Boris Karloff.
As soon as he makes his silent introduction, the world forever associated Frankenstein’s Monster with a flat top, prominent brow, stitched together skin, and bolts in his neck. Karloff is also made to look enormous with large boots and a loose fitting black coat. His green skin didn’t become part of the look until later adaptations. Replacement director James Whale uses black & white to great effect. The cinematography is both haunting and spectacular. The Monster only grunts when confronted with fire. His biggest fear and the closest thing he has to a weakness. Dr. Waldman presents Frankenstein with the notion that the abnormal brain of a criminal can only create a monster. Even though the Monster only kills when Fritz torments him. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Monster as he cries out while chained up. Elizabeth and Frankenstein’s father talk sense into Henry who orders Waldman to destroy his creation. When he breaks free, the Monster wanders the wilderness as his creator prepares to be married.
Frankenstein is another classic horror movie that was censored upon release. The biggest reason being the infamous scene with Maria. The Monster innocently plays with the little girl by tossing flowers into the water. When they run out, he unintentionally drowns her. The scene is just as disturbing as when I saw it as a kid. More traumatizing is Maria’s father carrying her lifeless body through a joyful celebration. When the village learns about the Monster, they form an angry mob armed with torches. Henry goes searching for the Monster who confronts his bride Elizabeth. Mae Clarke is excellent as both a concerned fiancée and a genuinely terrified damsel. The Monster is chased by the mob until he comes face to face with his creator. They fight at an abandoned windmill that catches on fire. In the end, the Monster’s fate is left unknown, but Dr. Frankenstein survives. Frankenstein gave the Monster life better than any film since.
Followed by: Bride of Frankenstein