Frankenstein (1931)

by Paul on October 16, 2012

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Frankenstein (1931) is the most popular and one of the most critically acclaimed of the “Universal Horror Films”, and for good reason. It is a brilliantly crafted film from one of the most intense and terrifying novels of all time. Everyone knowsFrankenstein the story of the obsessed Doctor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his desperate attempts to create life, and yet it remains by many, a misunderstood story. Today when people think of Frankenstein they remember Boris Karloff as a murdering monster, created for the singular purpose of destruction. In fact many youngsters think that Frankenstein is the monster, instead of the doctor, and they picture him unintelligent and green. The “Monster” didn’t set out to be a killer and thanks in part to the numerous sequels (excluding Bride Of Frankenstein in 1935) and parodies, he is seen today as a murderous thug.

Director James Whale was not the first choice to make Frankenstein, but he was the right choice. Producer Carl Laemmie Jr. wanted to make Frankenstein with a German feel, similar to The Golem (1920) and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920). FrankensteinAs with Whale’s other films, The Bride Of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man (1933), German expressionism is an obvious and heavy influence. The tower where Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and John (John Boles) visit Dr. Frankenstein is the most uninviting place I have ever seen. It seems to be a leftover set from one of the German films in the early 1920’s. The staircase alone makes anyone feel uncomfortable and desperate for escape. Dr. Frankenstein’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), humorously comments on the tower as he climbs the staircase. German expressionism gives the feeling of despair, and therefore became the perfect influence for the horror films that Laemmie set out to create. Frankenstein is certainly a scarier movie because of this German influence.

As I watch Frankenstein I am blown away by the impressive make-up work by Jack Pierce. The Monster has this extremely foreboding look that is pure genius in its design and application. There has been much controversy over theFrankenstein years in regards to who is entitled to the “credit” for this design, but I am willing to give the credit to anyone (and everyone) associated with this picture. What they were able to create with Boris Karloff is monumental and should always be praised as one of the greatest make-up accomplishments in the history of film.

Something else that Frankenstein has that so many other horror films have been missing is the marvelous acting from the entire cast. Especially Colin Clive, who didn’t spend his career making horror films. His three collaborations with James Whale were the only three horror films he made, yet they are also the roles for which he is remembered today. His performance deserves more credit than it receives. He is often over shadowed by Karloff (both figuratively and literally), but in reality it is Clive that is forced to play Frankensteinthe insane doctor believably enough to fill the scenes that don’t have Karloff. The Monster never speaks, and is only in a little over half the film anyway. If Clive doesn’t sell his obsession, and then later his regret, this movie would become slow and uninteresting.

Every aspect of Frankenstein seems to have been given lengthy attention, and in the end Carl Laemmie Jr. and James Whale have created not only the perfect horror film, but also the perfect movie. As memorable and lasting as Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and the German set designs are, these are only a small sampling of the lasting images I have from this film. The climactic windmill scene is a beautiful shot, as is the chase scene leading up to the windmill. However, it is the long shot of the father of the drowned girl walking along the street during the wedding party that will always remain with me. The pain on the father’s face as he walks toward Frankenstein’s house, and then the faces and demeanor of the onlookers as he passes them with dead child in his arms, isFrankenstein an image that is not easy to get over.

Due to the changing times, several cuts were made from Frankenstein in 1934, with the induction of the Production Code. Many scenes and even a line of dialogue (“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) were removed from Frankenstein completely. It wasn’t until 1999 that we were able to see this masterpiece in its original version once again.

When Mary Shelly began writing Frankenstein in 1816, I am certain she had no idea how popular and important her story would become to the world. She was spending a few months with some friends and Frankensteinhusband in Switzerland and they all started a friendly competition of writing ghost stories. Mary’s escalated into more than that, and with the encouragement of her husband, “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” became her first novel, at the age of 21. Her story has continued to inspire and scare people for almost 200 years. I would say she won the “ghost story” competition in the end.

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