Friday, October 10, 2014

Stubs - Frankenstein


Frankenstein (1931) Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan. Directed by James Whale. Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. Screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edwards Faragoh. Based on the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London, 1818), and the composition of John L. Balderston from the play Frankenstein by Peggy Webling (England, 1927). Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S.  Black and White, Horror.

Following the success of Dracula (1931), Universal released a film that would be even bigger, Frankenstein. Like Dracula, this film, too, was based on a play, this one by Peggy Webling, which was based on a book of the same name by Mary Shelley, first published anonymously in 1818. It was written as part of a competition between Mary; her future husband and poet Percy; and their friends Lord Byron, also a poet; and English writer and physician John Polidori. After thinking for days, Mary had a dream about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made; her dream later evolved into the story within the novel.

And like Dracula, the novel was turned into a play. Hamilton Deane, who had found success with his play, Dracula, hired Peggy Webling, a British writer, to adapt Shelley’s novel. The play was first produced in Preston, Lancashire in 1927 and toured in repertory with Dracula for two years. Ms. Webling made some revisions before the play opened in London in 1930, where it played only 72 performances. Webling’s play was not reviewed well by the London press, The Times calling it as “flimsy as a bird cage.”

As the Shelley novel was in the public domain, Universal Pictures bought the rights to an unproduced American adaptation written by John L. Balderston, the same writer who had written the American Dracula play upon which that movie was based. Balderston apparently didn’t think much of Webling’s play, calling it “illiterate” and “inconceivably crude.” But Balderston apparently did like the $20,000 Universal paid him and the 1% of the gross earnings he was paid.

(Also like Dracula, Universal wasn’t the first company to make a film based on Frankenstein. That honor went to the Edison Company, which made a 16 minute adaptation of the story in 1910. An early horror film, Life Without Soul (1915), directed by Joseph W. Smiley, was also based on the Shelley story. There was also an Italian film called Il Mostro di Frakestein (1920) directed by Eugenio Testa.)

Coming on the heels of Dracula, Bela Lugosi was the first choice to play Dr. Frankenstein in the movie, but he was considered unsuitable for the role. After that he was demoted, as it were, to playing the Monster. The idea was to keep his now famous name on the billing block. Again, that didn’t work out either. Apparently the make-up tests were disastrous and Lugosi left the project. This is often thought to have been a bad decision on Lugosi’s part, but the monster part he was offered was very different from the role played by Boris Karloff.

In fact, he may have been kicked off the project when James Whale arrived at Universal and asked for the project. The Laemmles had given him free rein to choose his projects and he took over the movie. Out went original director, Robert Florey, best known at the time as the director of the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929), and Lugosi with him. They would be given the project Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) as a sort of consolation.

Whale, who had been a stage director, was best known for a play set during World War I, Journey’s End, starring a young Colin Clive in the lead role. It ran for two years at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London before being brought stateside where it played on Broadway for more than a year. The success of the play brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He was hired by Paramount to be the dialogue director on The Love Doctor (1929), after which his contract was allowed to expire. After that he directed dialogue scenes for Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930), helping to transform the silent feature into a talkie.

He was signed to a five year contract by Universal and his first film was Waterloo Bridge (1931), which starred Mae Clarke as a prostitute in World War I London. After that he was given his choice of projects and took Frankenstein, partly because it wasn’t a war story. He rewrote the script and cast Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Clarke as his fiancĂ©e, Elizabeth and an unknown actor for the role of the monster, Boris Karloff.
The British-born Karloff had been in movies since the teens, but in small roles and often uncredited. He was often cast as a villain. He got his first bit of recognition for The Criminal Code (1931), in which he reprised a role he’d played on stage. And he played a key supporting role in Five Star Final (1931) as a reporter. The film would be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, but appearing in Frankenstein would make him a star.

The script would go through a lot of hands and revisions. The original outline was written by Florey and Garrett Fort (who had penned the screenplay for Dracula), who worked on it from May 15 to June 20, 1931. When Whale was brought in, their script was revised by John Russell in July 1931. Russell is credited with introducing the plot device about normal and criminal brains. Francis Edwards Faragoh replaced Russell and completed his script by August 12, 1931. Faragoh is credited with giving speech to Fritz, softening the monster’s brutality and adding humor. Faragoh and Fort would receive screen credit for their work; Florey and Russell would not.

The Hays Office expressed concerns to Universal about "gruesome [scenes] that will certainly bring an audience reaction of horror,” in a letter dated August 18, 1931. Specifically, the Hays Office urged the studio to use care in handling certain scenes, both which involved depicting hangings.

The movie went into production on August 24 and shooting exceeded both schedule and budget predictions with a final cost of $291,129. The film wrapped on October 3rd and went into release on November 21, 1931. Remember, this is back when Hollywood studios put out a film a week.

In a prologue, an announcer (Edward Van Sloan) steps from behind a curtain. At the bequest of Carl Laemmle, he is there to warn the audience of the horrifying nature of the film they are about to see. If you don’t think you can take it, this is your chance to leave the theater.

The audience gets a warning about the contents of the
film they are about to watch from Edward Van Sloan.

Perhaps fitting for a movie about life and death, it opens with a funeral. Who is being buried is not important and we’re never told. Watching with great expectation are Fritz (Dwight Frye), a hunchback, and Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a young scientist. As soon as the gravedigger (William Dyer) is finished with his task, they move in to dig up the freshly buried body. Henry is almost romantic about it claiming that the corpse is waiting for a new life.

Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), dig up a freshly buried corpse.

As they wheel the casket back to his makeshift lab, in an old watch tower, they come across a man from a gibbet. Fritz seems excited about the body still being there, but he’s not that excited about having to climb up and cut the body down. The corpse’s neck has been broken, so Henry announces that the brain is no good and that a new one must be found.

Fritz gets to climb up and cut down the hanged man.

At Goldstadt Medical College, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) is finishing up a lecture on, conveniently enough, the differences between a normal brain and an abnormal, dysfunctional, criminal brain. The two brains are clearly marked in jars for the students to look at, which apparently none do. After the room clears, Fritz sneaks in to steal the normal brain. But when he’s startled and drops the jar with the normal brain, he goes back and retrieves the dysfunctional one.

Clearly marked bad brain. Do not use.

Meanwhile, in Henry's nearby hometown, Victor Moritz (John Boles) visits Elizabeth (Mae Clark). Victor is Henry’s best friend, but is in love with Mae, who is engaged to Henry. She reads to Victor a strange note she’s received from Henry, who writes that his experiments preclude her from joining him.

The love triangle that never develops. Elizabeth (Mae Clark)
turns to Victor (John Boles), Henry's best friend, for advice.

Victor will do anything for Elizabeth and tells her he’ll go see Dr. Waldman, Henry’s former professor at the medical school. Elizabeth insists on going, too. Waldman explains to them that Henry had left the college to pursue a mad dream of destroying and recreating human life. Elizabeth asks Waldman to go to talk to Henry. While he initially refuses, he quickly capitulates. Together the three go to Henry's laboratory.

Before they arrive, Henry and Fritz are putting the final touches on their experiment, preparing to use the power of lightning, there is a fierce rainstorm raging, to charge their electrical mechanisms and give life to a body Henry had pieced together.

Getting ready to hoist the lifeless body up into the lightning.

Henry is upset when the three arrive and won’t let them in. But Elizabeth has a power to persuade men and he agrees to let them in. When Victor calls him mad, he lets them observe to prove he’s sane. He explains his scientific theories to Waldman, telling him that there is a light source that gives life and that he’ll use it to bring his creation to life.

They watch as Henry raises the table the body is on up to the top of the roof so it can be bombarded by the lightning. Henry cries “It’s alive” when the monster moves his fingers.

"It's alive." Frankenstein's experiment works.

Later, Victor and Elizabeth attempt to pacify Henry's doubting and doddering father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), who is only interested in his son's wedding, even though he’s not happy to entertain the Burgomaster (Lionel Belmore), the chief magistrate of the village, who comes to inquire of the date and to let him know the villagers are ready. (I’ve read somewhere that this part of the story takes place in Nyon, Switzerland. This is never made clear in the movie, though judging by the villagers’ costumes there is a definite Bavarian feel to the place.)

Henry's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr).

Back at the laboratory, Henry asks Waldman to give the monster a little more time; he is, after all, getting used to a new brain. Waldman informs Henry that the monster has a criminal’s brain. The Monster is tormented by Fritz who uses a whip to keep the Monster in line. Fritz seems to really enjoy the torturing. When he torments him with fire, the monster breaks his restraints and hangs Fritz.

Dr. Frankenstein  insists to Dr. Waldman (Sloan) that he give the Monster a little more time.

When Henry tries to retrieve his dead assistant’s body, the Monster won’t let him near it and Waldman and Henry barely escape the monster’s cell. Waldman and Henry manage to sedate the monster just as the Baron and Elizabeth approach the lab. They hide the Monster in his cell.


The Monster (Boris Karloff), who has been kept in the dark, reacts to seeing the sun for the first time.

Henry is exhausted and collapses when he sees Elizabeth. Henry is taken home to recover and Waldman promises to destroy the monster for him. Henry isn’t happy about the outcome, but understands it is what must be done.

Henry is tended to by family and friends.

Instead of just killing the monster outright, Waldman plans to dissect the monster to see what makes him tick. He thinks he’s injected the monster with enough to kill it, but he’s wrong. While he stands over the body, the monster reaches up and grabs him, killing him by strangulation.

The Monster plays with Little Maria (Marilyn Harris), but things quickly get out of hand.

As Henry recovers with Elizabeth by his side, neither knows that the Monster has been set loose. A girl, Little Maria (Marilyn Harris), is left alone by her father. She wants someone to play with her and when the Monster appears, she is not frightened, but rather excited to have a playmate. She shows him how to make daisies float like boats in the nearby lake. The Monster likes this and when the flowers run out, he looks for something else to throw in the water. Little Maria is close by and he throws her in and drowns her when she tries to fight back. The Monster seems genuinely frightened by the murder and runs off.

When they run out of flowers, the Monster throws Little Maria into the lake.

As the village dances and celebrates as a prelude to the wedding, the Monster invades the Frankenstein home. Trying to protect her, Henry locks Elizabeth in her room and she can’t escape when the Monster comes in through the window. What he does to her is left to the imagination, but it is clear that he molests her.
Meanwhile, Maria’s father Ludwig (Michael Mark) carries her lifeless body through the village to the doorstep of the Burgomaster. The village forms into an angry search party and, led by Henry, go looking for his creation. 

The Monster comes after Elizabeth on her wedding day.

They trap the Monster in an abandoned windmill. Henry and the monster engage in a struggle while the mob sets the mill on fire with their torches. The Monster throws Henry to the ground before being engulfed by the flames.

With the Monster trapped in the windmill, the villagers set it on fire.

The film ends with the baron celebrating the wedding of his recovered son and Elizabeth with a toast to a future grandchild.

When it was first released, Frankenstein was a big hit. By the June of next year, the film had earned a reported $1.4 million in rentals. In 1943, Universal reported it had earned a profit of $708,871. The film also received critical acclaim, being named on the New York Times “10 Best” films of 1931.

The film did meet with some censorship, as state censorship agencies made minor cuts from the film before they would allow it to be released. As an example, censors in Kansas cut a close-up shot of a hypodermic needle injection, when Waldman first subdues the Monster, and the scene in which Maria is carried in her father's arms. Quebec censors rejected the film in its entirety and petitioned Universal to either resubmit the film with a foreword or preface to indicate that the picture was a dream, or end the picture at the windmill scene and make a number of other cuts.

The film was also banned outright in Northern Ireland, Sweden and Italy in 1932 and in Czechoslovakia in 1935.

When Universal wanted to re-release the film in 1937, the Hays Office demanded certain edits, including the elimination of dialogue in which the name of "God" is used, the shortening of the scene in which "Fritz" torments the monster with a lighted torch and the cutting out of the scene in which the monster tosses Maria into the water. In 1986, three reportedly “lost” segments, including a shot of the monster drowning Maria, were discovered and added back for home video release by Universal. All the additional scenes only added about two minutes to the run time of the film.

Frankenstein is the best known work for its “leading” man, Colin Clive. Clive was an English-born actor, whose first film in Hollywood was James Whale’s Journey’s End. In the film he played an alcoholic, something that he suffered from in real life as well. Despite his marriage to actress Jeannie de Casalis, there were rumors that it was a lavender marriage; he was gay and Jeannie a lesbian. Whale’s longtime companion, David Lewis, flatly stated that Clive was not gay. Clive appeared in less than twenty films, none of which would be as famous as Frankenstein. He would die young from complications of tuberculosis in 1937 at the age of 37.

Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein.

Mae Clarke would have a much longer career. She had appeared in films since Big Time (1929) and was already famous, after a fashion, before she made Frankenstein. Clarke was the woman who had the grapefruit smashed in her face by Cagney in Public Enemy (1931) earlier in the year. That same year, she would also play Molly Malloy in the first film adaptation of The Front Page (1931) which was nominated for Best Picture. She also appeared in Waterloo Bridge (1931), Penthouse (1933) and Lady Killer (1933). She would continue to act into the 1950’s, but in smaller parts, appearing uncredited, for example, in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Mae Clark as Elizabeth.

John Boles, who plays Victor, is a Texas-born actor who appeared on the Broadway stage before appearing in a trio of silent films in 1924. He appeared in Gloria Swanson’s The Love of Sunya (1927), which was a big success at the time. Boles, who was a singer, went on to appear in sound films, including musicals for Warner Bros., The Desert Song (1929); RKO, Rio Rita (1929) and back at Warner Bros, The Song of the West (1930); The King of Jazz (1930); Captain of the Guard (1930) and One Heavenly Night (1931). After Frankenstein, Boles would star with Shirley Temple in Curly Top (1935) and with Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1943).  He would retire from stage and screen in 1952 at the age of 57.

John Boles as Victor.

But the actor who would become a star because of the film was Boris Karloff, who became famous as the Monster, and had a long career appearing in horror films, including The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) to name a few. In latter films, he is sometimes billed simply as KARLOFF. But he also had roles outside the genre, appearing in Scarface (1932) and in John Ford’s Lost Patrol (1934). He played James Lee Wong in a series of Mr. Wong mysteries and had a substantial role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). He would also be known to several generations for his voice work in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), the adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book.

Boris Karloff out of make up.

Frankenstein would prove to be so popular that Universal would produce a whole series of films, what they would now call a franchise. First up was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in which Elsa Lanchester plays the Bride. Like the original film, The Bride was also directed by James Whale and starred both Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as Frankenstein. Clive’s death did not stop the sequels.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) followed, introducing the character of Ygor, an assistant to Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone). Ygor, who would appear in this film and in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), was played by Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame. In the later film, Lon Chaney, Jr. played the monster instead of Boris Karloff.

The cross-over sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) presented a problem, since Lon Chaney, Jr. played the Wolf Man as well. Lugosi was cast as the monster. Karloff returned to the role of the monster in House of Frankenstein (1944) with Chaney, Jr. again appearing as the Wolf Man and John Carradine appearing as Dracula. The monster would appear again in House of Dracula (1945) with Glenn Strange in the role, Carradine as Dracula and Chaney, Jr., again as the Wolf Man.

Other versions of Shelley's novel include The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) produced in England in 1957 and directed by Terence Young; a 1973 made-for-television version, Frankenstein: The True Story, directed by Jack Smight; and Mel Brooks' 1974 spoof of the early Universal films, Young Frankenstein. The opening sequence of the 2004 Universal production Van Helsing, directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Hugh Jackman and Shuler Hensley as the monster, was a replication of a sequence in the 1931 film of Frankenstein bringing his monster to life.

There have been other attempts at telling the story, too many to mention here. Some notables: Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) both have elements of the Frankenstein myth, though they take them different places. Warhol’s scientist wants to rule the world and Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror was his own needs the monster will satisfy.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the Gene Wilder-Mel Brook collaboration, Young Frankenstein (1974), which is sort of a sequel spoof of the 1931 classic. The film shows a respect for the original, using some of the same sets and props Whale used and was shot in black and white. Wilder plays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein and Peter Boyle plays the Monster in this modern comedy classic.

One of the things I noticed about the film was the little bits of humor that are sprinkled through the beginning of the film. Dwight Frye’s Fritz is like a big kid at first and his bits of dialogue and reactions are childish and almost innocent. Later, Fritz turns cruel as he seems to really enjoy the control over the creature. Again, like a child not knowing how to handle authority. Of course, he pays the price for mistreating the Monster.

Boris Karloff brings a certain humanity to the Monster. The way he yearns for sunlight and how things can fascinate him, make him seem like a giant child in the beginning. When the Monster kills Maria, you get a real sense that it was accidental. The darker urges of the dysfunctional brain took over at the moment and play turned to murder. From then on, the Monster would no longer be an innocent, but would be a terror. Again, no one comes out and says it, but I get the sense he sexually assaults or tries to assault Elizabeth. There seems to be no other reason to seek her out; he doesn’t kill her or take her as a hostage.

There is a real sense of science for the sake of science in the film. The special effects: the electricity jumping between poles, the sparks and the real sense that everything is on the verge of catching fire, are good, but they don’t seem to have a real purpose other than looking cool. And I love the business of the film; we see Dr. Frankenstein putting on headphones to listen to the storm (?) and mixing chemicals together in a beaker which he puts down and walks away from. We never see it used; but that’s what scientists do, isn’t it?

Science for the sake of science: Dr. Frankenstein listening to the lightning?

The film also shows some influence of German Expressionism in Hollywood. Not only in subject matter, the expressionist movement seemed perfect for the horror genre: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Phantom (1922), with its stylized backgrounds and use of shadows. You can see these replicated in the sets used for the Doctor's watchtower, with its asymmetrical winding stone staircase and especially in the layout of the cell where the Monster is kept.


Fritz torturing the Monster in his cell. Note the shape of the room,
the window in the background and the use of shadows.

I can see why this was big at the time. The film is well made, the acting is pretty good and the special effects were definitely unique and iconic. Frankenstein is less melodramatic than Dracula, but you get the real sense they are contemporary tales. The villagers in this film dress pretty, much like the villagers warning Renfield to turn back.

As far as frightening goes, Frankenstein has some moments, but I’m beginning to think horror, like comedy, might have an expiration date. Tastes change and I won’t be the first person to theorize we’ve become more desensitized thanks to television, films and the internet. It takes a lot to really scare someone these days. Back in its day there weren’t dozens of shows dealing with the dead and the undead and there was definitely a whole generation who had never seen anything like this on screen at the time.

Still, this is one of the iconic films of its time and in the history of cinema. Frankenstein’s Monster is the archetype for horror creatures. If on those terms alone, the film should be seen. Perhaps it will even horrify you as Sloan warns at the beginning, but Frankenstein deserves to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Based on the novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by ... frankensteincostume.blogspot.com

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