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FRANKENSTEIN (director: James Whale; screenwriters: from the novel by Mary Shelley/John L. Balderston/Edward Faragoh/Garrett Fort/from the play by Peggy Webling; cinematographers: Arthur Edeson/Paul Ivano; editor: Clarence Kolster; music: Bernhard Kaun; cast: Boris Karloff (The Monster), Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor Moritz), Edward Van Sloan (Doctor Waldman), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Marilyn Harris (Maria). Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel the Burgomaster); Runtime: 71; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.; Universal Pictures; 1931)
“…this is the one that became the classic and best known Frankenstein picture.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frankenstein is based on the Gothic horror story written by Mary Shelley in 1818. This is the third film version (the others were in 1910 by the Edison company, in 1915 as Life Without Soul, and the 1920 version in Italy called Il Mostro di Frankenstein). But, this is the one that became the classic and best known Frankenstein picture. Bela Lugosi was scheduled to play the scientist Henry Frankenstein, but Universal was displeased that the serious Hungarian stage actor Bela couldn’t speak English properly and they asked him to take the non-speaking part of the Monster in which they gave him a screen-test. But the studio was not happy with the makeup he chose for the role and Bela, in his vanity, refused to take such a part where he couldn’t be heard. The rest is history, as Boris Karloff got the part when chosen by Universal’s promising young director James Whale (he took the place of Robert Florey). Karloff was a young actor whom he had seen and been impressed with his work in the Los Angeles stage production of The Criminal Code. Jack Pierce was hired to do the makeup for the Monster, and that was a stroke of cinema brilliance–as no one who has seen the film can ever forget the startling look of the quilt-like Monster composed of body parts sewn together from different corpses. Karloff easily surpassed the popularity that Bela achieved in his earlier in the year classic role as Dracula, as his performance became one of the most memorable in movie lore. Whale also substituted Colin Clive for the role that was slated to go to Leslie Howard, and he had Mae Clarke take the role that Bette Davis was slated for. He followed his producer Carl Laemmle Jr’s suggestion that Davis’ future star value might be marred by a role in a horror movie.

Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is a brilliant young scientist, but who also might be mentally unbalanced. He’s the wealthy son of Baron Frankenstein (Kerr), the patriarch of the distinguished German family living in the small Bavarian village of Goldstadt. Henry is possessed with the notion that he can create in the lab a man in his own own image, and has discovered the ultimate ray that brought life into the world. He retreats with his grave-robbing hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to do his secret research in a lab he built in an abandoned old watchtower in the remote German mountain countryside just outside of Goldstadt. After robbing the cemetery corpse of a man just hung, Henry realizes he can’t use that man’s brain. So he has Fritz steal a murderer’s brain (Fritz did not know this) from the lab of Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), at the Goldstadt Medical College, to go with all the other human pieces assembled together from other corpses, as the Monster is at last ready to be created. Henry had abandoned his mentor and the college when they refused to grant him permission to experiment with humans, which is the reason for his secrecy and isolation.

Henry is busy working all the time on his mad scientific dream and is now overjoyed that he can test if he can really bring life to the body he created, but is annoyed that he’s interrupted by visitors: his troubled fiance√© Elizabeth (Clarke), their mutual friend Victor (Boles), and his former mentor Dr. Waldman. They have come to his lab in the middle of the night during a driving rain storm in order to persuade him to stop what he’s doing and come home and prepare for the upcoming wedding. Instead of leaving Henry allows them to watch his experiment, and when it works he cries out as the Monster gives its first sign of life: “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Censorship removed the line that followed: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.” Censorship was also responsible for removing the scene where the Monster kills Fritz by impaling him on a hook, as all the viewer now sees is the dead Fritz hanging from the hook after he antagonized the Monster with a torch.

Henry returns to his father’s home in despair that he’s created a monster who killed his beloved assistant, while Dr. Waldman remains with the Monster to conduct further experiments and plans to attend the big wedding celebration the Baron is throwing in the village for his son. But news breaks that Waldman was killed by the Monster, and in the film’s most frightening scene a little peasant girl named Maria (Harris) befriends the escaped Monster by offering him flowers. But when the flowers are thrown in the lake, the Monster finds such happiness in seeing the pretty flowers float by that in his childish innocence–he throws the little girl in the water who drowns. Later we see the father carry in his arms his dead daughter and he asks the Burgomaster to get the locals to kill the Monster. The final scene is in the windmill, where the locals have the Monster trapped. They precede to burn the place down and the fierce-some killer Monster goes up in a ball of flames, but the Monster has also been shown by Karloff’s magnificently chilling and warm mute performance to be a sympathetic figure due to the facial expressions that show he’s capable of tenderness and the sad feelings expressed that show he’s also a victim.

The beauty of this simplistic fairy-tale story, is in showing the Monster growing up in familiar human terms and only being a monster because society created him. In his innocence he’s like a baby reaching out for the sunlight filtering through the skylight, then he’s the adventurous child throwing flowers into the lake and in his mistaken notion tossing the girl he thinks is also a flower into the lake, and finally he’s misunderstood by the same society who created him and is labeled as a savage killer.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”