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Revisiting James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931)

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The great Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster.

The great Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster.

Frankenstein (1931)

  • Director: James Whale

In 1931, two movies were made by Universal Pictures that created the genre of the horror movie. The first was Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. It made a boatload of money—a $700,000 profit at the height of the Depression—so of course the studio wanted to make more movies like it. So, they made Frankenstein.

The original intent was to cast Lugosi as the monster since he was now a bankable movie star. However, Lugosi didn't like the character. In the original version of the script, the monster was imagined as a savage killing machine and not the sympathetic creature we ended up getting.

James Whale Discovers Boris Karloff

Lugosi passed, and the original director was taken off the project because the studio promised James Whale any property he wanted—and he wanted Frankenstein. Whale reworked the script, and also found Boris Karloff.

Thus, while Bela Lugosi lost his chance to be the king of the monster movies, the world was gifted with the talents of Mr. Karloff. He went above and beyond for Frankenstein, enduring physical torment to play the creature. Whale also insisted on Colin Clive, whose Henry Frankenstein basically invented every mad scientist trope we've had ever since.

Frankenstein Is About the Monster Within

Frankenstein is a short movie, and pretty bare bones when one considers its massive cultural impact. I assume everyone is familiar with the story, but if somehow you are not it concerns a doctor who wants to create life from death. He steals corpses to create a man, who he brings to life using electricity. The creature then goes wild, killing the doctor's assistant, his mentor, and a little girl, as well as injuring (but not killing) the doctor's fiancée.

The doctor leads the town on a hunt of the monster. The monster throws Dr. Frankenstein off a windmill—remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster—and the townsfolk retaliate by burning down the windmill with the monster inside.

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Frankenstein Better Than Dracula

Frankenstein is much better than Dracula in my opinion. The monster is not quite what you expect, showing a delicate side in some scenes. Dr. Frankenstein is unhinged in the best way. There's a reason he became a trope. And the little girl Maria is completely adorable; her death has a real impact.

For what it's worth, I think the censored version of Maria's death scene is more impactful. Cutting away when the monster moves in for the kill leaves so much to the imagination. However, by actually seeing the monster toss her in the lake, it looks fake enough that it kind of takes me out of the scene.

Dwight Frye is a good Fritz, but he was better in Dracula. That may be due to the character he plays, as I was happy to see the monster get his revenge on the hunchback.

DIY Moviemaking Adds to Charm

While the sets are obviously sets, they are so artistically done that they enhance the movie rather than detract. There is one backdrop that looks wrinkled and has very obvious paint brush strokes on it. Fritz's dead body seemingly evaporates at one point. None of these things are enough to ruin the movie, though. If anything, they add to the charm.

Also adding to the charm is the introduction, in which the audience is given the chance to leave before they get too frightened. (William Castle was obviously taking notes.) Like Dracula, Frankenstein has no score, which is odd for modern audiences. But overall, the movie is still very enjoyable, and is one of the few movies to have a sequel better than the original (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935).

That will be a future post. In the meantime, if you haven't seen Frankenstein, it is well worth watching. If you have seen it, it's worth watching again.

Boris Karloff (left) and director James Whale on set of "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935).

Boris Karloff (left) and director James Whale on set of "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935).

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad

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