What's the Big Deal?: Frankenstein (1931)

Here's a movie that everyone knows -- or thinks they know -- without seeing it. The basic plot of Frankenstein is part of our heritage, a template for countless man-plays-God cautionary tales, and one of the sources for many of our horror story tropes: the mad scientist, the angry villagers with torches, the misunderstood monster, the creepy assistant. But what of the film itself? Is it any good? Does it still matter today, 80 years after its release? Grab a brain off the shelf and let's investigate.

The Praise

Unlike Dracula, which had been released by the same studio several months earlier and had launched the "monster movie" as we know it, Frankenstein was a hit not just at the box office but with critics, too (they'd been positive but lukewarm on Dracula). The New York Times named Frankenstein one of the ten best movies of the year. It was ranked 87th on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 best movies ever made, and 56th on the AFI's list of the most "heart-pounding" movies. The line "It's alive! It's alive!" came in at No. 49 on the AFI's list of the greatest movie quotes, between "Well, nobody's perfect" (Some Like It Hot) and "Houston, we have a problem" (Apollo 13).

The Context

Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818, and has been adapted for other mediums almost constantly ever since. An early stage version, called Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, was successful enough to warrant a second edition of the novel, in 1823, this time with Shelley's name on it. Other theatrical adaptations ensued.

(People have been mistakenly calling the unnamed monster "Frankenstein" almost since the beginning, by the way. Here's a literary compilation from 1908 in which the editor complains, "It is strange to note how well-nigh universally the term 'Frankenstein' is misused, by even intelligent persons, as describing some hideous monster; whereas Frankenstein is the name of the hero and supposed narrator of the story, and not of his terrible creation." In the Internet age, this would be shortened to: "Get your facts straight, idiot!")

When the moving pictures came along, so did Dr. Frankenstein and his tall undead friend. Thomas Edison's studio produced a 16-minute version in 1910 (you can watch it here), and a feature-length adaptation called Life Without Soul, now lost, was released in 1915. An Italian version some 40 minutes in length was made in 1921; it's also lost now. In the late 1920s, a new stage version written by Peggy Webling premiered in England, playing in repertory with the highly successful live version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker wrote his novel 80 years after Shelley wrote hers, yet you can see that the two stories have almost always been linked.

That association was made permanent when Universal Pictures bought the rights to both plays and released the now-iconic movie versions of them in 1931. (We talked about Dracula in a previous column.) The fact that both films were based on stage adaptations rather than on the original novels -- adaptations of adaptations -- is significant because the playwrights made huge changes to the stories that were perpetuated in the movies. Read Shelley's novel and you'll be astonished at how little resemblance it bears to the Frankenstein we're all familiar with. (Well, unless you already read the novel a long time ago, like some kind of "book nerd.")

Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the Universal Pictures founder, was in charge of the studio's productions during this time, and he was the impetus behind Universal's pursuit of the "monster movie" genre. He hired Robert Florey to direct Frankenstein, with Bela Lugosi set to play the monster, then reassigned both to Murders in the Rue Morgue. (Lugosi actually did a screen test in monster makeup while still filming Dracula.) Laemmle handed Frankenstein off to James Whale, a 41-year-old Englishman with a few theatrical and cinematic successes under his belt, who was newly signed to a contract at Universal. Whale cast Colin Clive, whom he'd worked with on his last film, Journey's End (1930), as Dr. Frankenstein, and an unknown named Boris Karloff as the monster.

Naturally, Frankenstein was compared to Dracula, a box-office hit released by the same studio only nine months earlier, and the first major horror film of the sound era. Everyone agreed the newer film was better. The New York Times said it was "far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it Dracula is tame." Variety said it "looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays." Whereas Dracula feels stagey and slow, as if confined by the limitations of sound recording and studio cameras, Frankenstein -- shot only a few months later -- has much more motion and visual inventiveness.

(The New York Times' review of the film notes that "as a concession to the motion picture audience, Frankenstein is not killed, but he is badly injured. Two endings were made for this production, and at the eleventh hour it was decided to put in the one in which Frankenstein lives." Apparently Hollywood in 1931 was not that different from Hollywood in 2011.)

You may have heard that certain parts of the film were censored when it was released. That's partly true. The Motion Picture Production Code, aka the Hays Code, had been introduced in early 1930, but nobody was really enforcing it, and the studios were ignoring it. The only concern the Hays Office had about Frankenstein were "gruesome [scenes] that will certainly bring an audience reaction of horror," to which Universal probably replied, "Well, yeah." The committee didn't demand any cuts.

Censor boards in individual states, on the other hand, had several objections. Foremost was the scene that ends with the monster throwing a little girl into a lake. It isn't done maliciously, but yeah, you kill a child in a movie, you're going to get people's attention, even today. New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania took that part out, along with Dr. Frankenstein's blasphemous line, "Now I know what it feels like to BE God!" The state of Kansas removed even more, and the film was banned outright in several foreign countries. But it played uncut in many parts of the U.S.

In 1934, Hollywood got serious about the Production Code, and any earlier film being re-released had to pass muster. It was at this point that Frankenstein was edited in such a way that all copies shown in America were affected. The doctor's blasphemous line was gone; so was a close-up of a needle being injected. Some of the assistant's gleeful torturing of the monster was removed, which made the monster's revenge on him seem crueler and less justified. The scene with the monster and the little girl was edited to end with him reaching his hand out to her -- which, again, makes the monster seem even worse, since now we're left to imagine what heinous things he might have done to her. All of these cuts were restored in the 1980s and '90s, and all DVD versions are complete.

The Movie

An obsessed scientist named Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is hard at work stitching together parts of various dead bodies in the hopes of creating a new life. His hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), does much of the dirty work. Thanks to our friend lightning, the creature (Boris Karloff) does indeed come to life, and almost immediately becomes a major headache for the local townsfolk.

What it Influenced

Between this and Dracula, Universal Pictures was now firmly in the horror business, with an emphasis on monsters. It gave the struggling studio an identity, as well as an influx of cash. The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man (1941) rounded out the studio's stable of ghoulish creatures, along with four direct sequels to Frankenstein: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and House of Frankenstein (1944). Oh, and don't forget mashups like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Dracula (1945, featuring several monsters), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

And those are just the Frankenstein titles from Universal! Dr. Frankenstein and/or his monster are at the center of more than a dozen other movies made since then, almost all of them owing much more to Universal's 1931 version than to Shelley's novel. Parodies and homages like TV's Herman Munster are too numerous to mention. The popular image of Frankenstein's monster as a green-skinned fellow with "bolts" in his neck (they're actually electrodes, used to bring him to life) comes directly from the film. (Why do we think of him as green when the films were in black-and-white? Because Karloff's makeup was green -- it looked appropriately ashen and ghastly in black-and-white -- and behind-the-scenes production photos, shot in color, were circulated. In the novel, the monster is described as more of a sickly yellow.)

Karloff and Whale worked together again on Bride of Frankenstein, which employs many of the same devices that we see in sequels today, including the repetition of a catchphrase ("It's alive!"), a revisionist history of what happened previously (the monster wasn't killed after all -- oh, and there's another scientist besides Frankenstein!), and a general lightening of the mood. (Have you noticed that horror franchises seem to get campier as they progress?) Karloff only made one more Frankenstein movie after that, and Whale went on to other films, but both were associated with this franchise for the rest of their lives. The 1998 biopic Gods and Monsters stars Ian McKellen as Whale and takes its title from a line in Bride of Frankenstein.

What to Look For

The opening credits indicate the film is based on the novel by "Mrs. Percy B. Shelley," while The Monster is played by "?" (Boris Karloff's name does appear in the closing credits.) By the time the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, was made, things had shifted quite a bit: now The Monster is played by "Karloff" -- he went from being a nobody to being so famous that only his last name was needed.

Karloff's makeup was the work of Universal's Jack Pierce, hands down the best makeup artist of his day and the man responsible for most of Universal's iconic monsters. He collaborated with Whale on the design (there's some dispute over who was responsible for which elements) and spent four hours each day applying it to Karloff's head. Most of the film's special effects don't exactly hold up 80 years later, and the movie probably wouldn't scare anyone today the way it did then. But the monster's face -- that iconic, indelible, unforgettable image -- is still pretty ghastly. You can imagine how it freaked people out in 1931.

Also notable are the parts of Frankenstein lore that AREN'T found in this movie. There's no Igor, for example; the hunchbacked assistant is named Fritz. And what of the monster's famous declarations of "Fire bad!" and "Friend good!"? Not here. He doesn't learn to speak until Bride of Frankenstein (and then is speechless again in Son of Frankenstein). In Shelley's novel, the monster speaks eloquently and articulately, and learns to read besides. You know the stereotype about how Hollywood always dumbs down its literary adaptations? That isn't new.

What's the Big Deal?

There isn't much about Frankenstein that would startle or disturb a modern viewer. Too much about society, entertainment, and the way we like to be scared has changed in the last eight decades. But the movie remains significant because it was one of the first links in the evolutionary chain that got us to where we are now. Every hulking, silent monster from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Jason Voorhees can trace its roots back to Boris Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's creation. No, Frankenstein isn't scary today. But the movies that ARE scary today wouldn't be without it.

Further Reading

The contemporary reviews are highly amusing in their now-archaic manner of describing horror films. Here they are in Variety, The New York Times, and Box Office Magazine.

Turner Classic Movies has some cool tidbits on the film, including more details on the shifting directors and writers. For all things Frankenstein, and in particular the Universal films, you'll find everything you want to know here.

Related columns: What's the Big Deal?: Dracula (1931); What's the Big Deal?: Nosferatu (1922); What's the Big Deal?: Metropolis (1927).

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