Universal’s second blockbuster monster hit of 1931 was “Frankenstein” which made a film star out of Boris Karloff in the way “Dracula” did Bela Lugosi. The physical appearance of the monster, the burning windmill, have all become iconic now.
The film is noted in the opening credits to be taken from a novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelley, as if she were some society dowager writing short stories for “The Saturday Evening Post.” The audience is not informed that this is a classic of English literature, and it is not treated as such, as both the films “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” were based more on the play adaptations than the original novels.
The film opens with a gentleman master of ceremonies introducing the film, and warning us, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel you do not care to subject yourselves to such a strain, well, we warned you.”
Well, now, them’s fighting words and of course not only are we going to stay for the feature, we’re going to take it darned seriously.
Colin Clive plays Dr. Frankenstein, a highly strung scientific genius who lives for his work, at the expense of his friends, his fiancée Elizabeth, played by Mae Clark, and his curmudgeonly father. John Boles plays Victor, who in a role similar to David Manners’ role in “Dracula,” has the less glamorous supporting role as the friend and all around good guy.
Our old friend David Frye appears in this film as well, as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz. Fritz is hunchbacked, subservient, and not overly intelligent. Fritz does a lot less scenery chewing than the crazed Renfield of “Dracula,” but Mr. Frye now seems locked into spending his considerable talent on horror films.
The film begins with Frankenstein and Fritz (sounds like a law firm), robbing a grave. Dr. Frankenstein has cobbled together a body from different body parts, and now needs a brain. The hanged man they find will not do because his neck has been broken, (well, yeah) and so Fritz heads off to the lab of Dr. Frankenstein’s mentor, where there are brains conveniently in jars, to get one.
There are two brains, one labeled “normal” and one “abnormal,” which the lecturer tells his students is the brain of a criminal. One wonders if there is a bit of eugenics of that period involved here. In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the creature is not born evil.
Dr. Frankenstein’s secret laboratory is a cavernous stone castle full of beakers and electrical coils. He is a brilliant megalomaniac who wants to create life from scratch. Getting married to Elizabeth and creating life the old fashioned way doesn’t seem to appeal to him. As he prepares to complete his experiment during a terrific thunderstorm, his mentor, his fiancée, and John Boles crash the party. Mr. Clive’s exasperated, “Of all times for anybody to come!” is almost comic. We’ve all felt the same way at one time or another about unexpected guests.
In a few moments, the inert body of the monster will be hoisted to the skylight to absorb the electricity of the storm outside, Mr. Clive gets to shriek his classic words, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we get soon get a monster on the loose.
We hear the heavy footsteps of the creature, and are introduced to the monster in an extreme, but brief close-up, on his drooping lids, his morose expression, the bolts in the neck. The really high forehead and the really flat head. His sleeves are too short. He obeys simple commands, and cannot speak. There is less horror than sympathy for this creature, whom even his creator calls “it” and not “he.”
When the monster kills Fritz, the completely unstrung Dr. Frankenstein is led back home by the dependable Mr. Boles, while his mentor, Dr. Waldman, prepares to destroy the monster. No such luck, and monster heads for the foggy hills. Waldman was played by Edward Van Sloan, who we last saw as Professor Van Helsing in “Dracula.” He also plays the MC at the beginning of this film.
We see jubilant preparations being made in town for long-awaited wedding of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth, which his curmudgeonly father, played with comic irascibility by Frederick Kerr, has been whining for all along. Curiously, none of the citizens of this German village speaks with a German accent. They all sound like a mix between London’s East End, and somewhere in Missouri.
A poignant scene between the monster and his new friend, a little girl who wants to play with him and hasn’t the sense to run away from very big strangers with flat heads, turns tragic when he accidentally kills her. Horrified by what has happened, the monster runs away, more agitated than before, and wrecks the boudoir of Elizabeth, dressed in her wedding gown. Soon all the people with torches and clubs are after him. Evidently nobody owns a gun. Dr. Frankenstein changes from his formal wedding attire and puts on a pair of Jodhpurs, so you know he means business.
Eventually there is a showdown between creator and creation on the stony heights of an impressive set, and the monster knocks Dr. Frankenstein silly, dragging him to the windmill, where of course, the villagers set fire to it. This film has a bit more graphic horror than “Dracula” in the sense that we see the monster throw the little girl into the lake, and we see him throw Dr. Frankenstein’s limp body from the windmill, and we see the flames encircle him as he shrieks in terror. It is as if Universal is starting to push the envelope a bit.
The film ends with a recovering Dr. Frankenstein supposedly having learned his lesson, but quite tellingly, matinee idol John Boles does not get the girl in this film, as David Manners was allowed to in “Dracula.” Both these men were stars who were relegated to these minor roles probably to jump-start the hoped-for popularity of these films. Both films were financial successes, leading to new stars being created, to the point where the handsome leading men were no longer needed to attract an audience.
One note on Boris Karloff’s work in this film, though he does little more than pantomime and grunt, what Karloff endured to create this character is remarkable. The makeup, devised by Jack P. Pierce, took 3½ hours to apply. The costume weighed nearly 70 pounds, and each shoe weighed about 21 pounds. No wonder his footsteps always sounded heavy.