Universal’s 1931 production of “Frankenstein” opens with a preamble from actor Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a brief cautionary announcement before the opening credits ‘How do you do? Mr Carl Laemmle [the movie’s producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a friendly word of warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to uh, well, – we warned you!’
It’s a cute touch and so iconic it was homaged not once, but twice by “The Simpsons” for the very first “Treehouse Of Horror” and then again in “Treehouse Of Horror V”. The warnings for the audience’s safety would become an oft-used marketing trope, especially for the B-movies of the forties and fifties, but it’s just one amongst an array of memorable imagery that James Whale’s “Frankenstein” would bequeath to the world of entertainment.
Based on the novel by Mary Shelly, here somewhat misogynistically credited as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley, “Frankenstein” tells the story of scientist Professor Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a man mocked and dismissed by his peers who becomes obsessed with the notion of creating life. Using cadavers, body parts and a stolen brain, he assembles a creature into which he manages to breathe life, with terrible consequences.
In many ways, “Frankenstein” was a tremendously brave film to make for a major studio in the 1930s. Although it was produced pre-Code, it deals with a number of contentious subjects and it’s probably due to its subject matter rather than the horrors of the story that the producers felt it wise to try and put a disclaimer in front of the picture. The movie opens with a scene of grave robbing and the story of a man defiantly seeking to usurp God could have easily been construed as deeply blasphemous, indeed the famous line of dialogue ‘Now I know what it’s like to be God!’ had to be edited out when the film was re-released after the Hays Code of censorship guidelines were implemented in 1934. The controversial and heart-breaking scene of the creature and little Maria by the lake was also cut short by censors at the time and remained lost for several decades until rediscovered in the archives of the British National Film Archives and restored to the film we can see today. It’s quite possibly the finest scene of the movie and acts as the catalyst for the final calamity to unfold – it’s hard to imagine the film working as well as it does without it.
It’s lauded by many as the best adaptation of Shelley’s work to date and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways, it’s not really a horror film, it’s a macabre tragedy and the creature, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, along with everyone he inadvertently harms, is the unhappy victim of ‘Henry’ Frankenstein’s ambition. It’s no wonder the character became the poster boy for mad scientific hubris. Even Ian Malcolm’s famous line from “Jurassic Park” – ‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ – is a direct call back to Frankenstein and his creations.
Watching “Frankenstein” now, it reminded me a lot of when I watched “Citizen Kane” for the first time, very, very (shamefully) late in movie buff life. Like Orson Welle’s epic, James Whale’s realisation of the gothic science fiction of “Frankenstein” has been homaged, referenced, spoofed and copied so frequently and comprehensively that I felt like I had actually watched the film before. The one surprise, given its now close association with the character, is the absence of Igor. Frankenstein does have an assistant, but his name is Fritz (played by Dwight Frye) but it would be more than a decade later that Frankenstein’s loyal and archetypically hunchbacked sidekick would really coalesce into being.
The performance of the entire cast is very good but there’s no denying that the film is made indelible by the terrific performance of breakout star Boris Karloff. In what could easily have been a goofy, superficial monster role, he turns in a performance of tremendous physicality, the movements awkward and compromised by the assemblage of body parts, and a personality by turns childlike, wondrous, enraged and fearful. The image of a torch-wielding mob bearing down to destroy something or someone different and differently abled carries added piquancy now and helps to illuminate Karloff’s performance by delivering the movie’s most relatable and complex character. It’s quite remarkable that by the end, when the film delivers its ‘happy ending’ and Henry Frankenstein recuperates with his new bride and his father looks forward to them having children, it feels bitter and unjust.
Of course, the monster’s status as a tragic anti-hero wouldn’t survive far into the many sequels and reinterpretations and he would eventually become known more as a lumbering, violent monster but thanks to the success of this movie, his trademark flattened head and bolted-on neck would remain in the public consciousness forever more.