by HELEN GEIB
Universal Studio’s 1931 Frankenstein is and isn’t the first feature film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It isn’t in the sense that it was based on an intermediary adaptation for the stage that fundamentally altered the story and characters. More faithful screen adaptations would follow, but the Frankenstein’s monster of the unfaithful first film remains the “Frankenstein” monster of popular renown.
Boris Karloff was an experienced but unknown actor when he was cast as the monster, the role that famously made him a star. The studio played up the mystery casting in the publicity and even the film itself, putting a “?” where his name belonged in the opening credits (the cast list is repeated with Karloff’s name at the end). This fun bit of showmanship doubles as an appropriate character introduction.
The monster isn’t brought to life until the film’s mid-point, yet his person is at the forefront of the proceedings right from the opening scene of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz’s practiced nighttime grave-robbing. The film skillfully builds suspense through scenes of body part collection- including the much parodied brain in a jar- and obscured glimpses of the monster: the unmoving form at the center of the laboratory; a stitched-together forearm and hand fallen out from the under its covering sheet; a head swaddled in bandages.
Karloff owns the movie from the reveal. It is a still-astonishing, still-devastating performance. The monster is pre-verbal, his means of communication painfully limited to unintelligible grunts and cries (he would later learn to speak in the 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein). Karloff must act almost entirely through his gestures and expressions.
Aided by the exceptional monster make-up, they are magnificently expressive. The monster’s shambling, lumbering gait and uncoordinated movements betray his physical origins in multiple bodies. More than uncoordinated; constituent pieces work in positive opposition to each other, like the hands held at contradictory angles as the monster forces his unnatural body to take one lurching step after another. The scene with the little girl by the lake is deservedly legendary. The monster’s barely comprehended, newly experienced emotions, washing over him in terribly rapid succession is a wordless encapsulation of the tragedy. Karloff’s performance makes the monster a newborn in the abused body of a man.
The film as a whole is paradoxically weaker after the monster takes the stage. Where it built slowly and effectively to the narrative turning point of the monster’s bringing-to-life, the story is rushed and truncated in its second half; what remains of the barely 70-minute running time inadequate to the demands of the plot.
The structural problems are joined by intellectual muddleheadedness. It’s easy to imagine several possible causes, starting with weaknesses in the playwright’s re-conceptualization of Shelley’s monster. There may have been censorship fears; well-founded if there were, given that several state censorship boards required significant cuts. The particular problems in the film’s treatment of Frankenstein and his monster suggest producer timidity as to what audiences would accept in their hero.
That hero is the doctor, not the creation; or at least, the film considers the doctor its hero (witness the love story with Mae Clarke’s blindly devoted fiancee and the final “happy couple/happy ending” fadeout). The film gives him a pass when it comes to the moral implications of his scientific so-called triumph. Admittedly he suffers physically at the monster’s hands, but he’s never shown to intellectually or emotionally confront the consequences of his act. Perversely, taking a hindsight view of the ending as explicitly written to set up a sequel makes it a more satisfying conclusion: in this reading, Frankenstein’s protestations of remorse ring hollow because they are, not because the film punted on its major themes.
The insistence on the monster’s brain as “abnormal” is in the same key. It contributes nothing to our understanding of the monster. Its only purpose is to relieve Frankenstein- ignorant of the brain mix-up- of responsibility for the monster’s terrible deeds.
The visual filmmaking owes a clear debt to silent-era German Expressionism. The opening sequence in the graveyard has not lost its Expressionist power. The setting could never be mistaken for a real place: situated on a sloping hillside, the gravestones, crosses, and even mourners stand at unnatural, opposing angles to the ground and each other; the graveside service in the black of night; Frankenstein and Fritz looking on with unholy anticipation behind the iron bars of the fence. The decrepit tower where Frankenstein has his laboratory is a place of unnatural Expressionist dimensions, sloping walls, slit windows, and long shadows. The marvelous laboratory set is a proud descendant of Metropolis’ Rotwang’s laboratory, most gloriously at the moment Frankenstein harnesses the energy of the electrical storm.
Director James Whale’s (again, Expressionist) mobile camera is hugely effective and for an early sound film, unexpected and noteworthy. Karloff’s performance and Whale’s direction are a potent combination. Yet, although Karloff is Frankenstein’s greatest asset, the monster is present only in the consequences of his unwitting destructiveness in the film’s most powerful sequence. It is the sequel to the child’s drowning. The bereaved father walks down the village main street with his daughter’s body in his arms. The village is celebrating Frankenstein’s wedding with music, dancing, and drinking. A long tracking shot keeps pace with the father’s automaton-like steps. As he passes by groups of villagers, each neighbor in turn registers shock and horror; the father remains oblivious, locked in his grief. The festive music, source music played by the village band, continues almost until he reaches the town square, adding to the almost unbearable horror felt by the audience.
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