Frankenstein opens on an eerie, atmospheric note at a hillside funeral that looks like a set piece for the German Expressionist film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919). Whale, in fact, screened Caligari as well as "The Golem" (1922) and "Metropolis" (1927) to refresh his memory of German Expressionism, a notable influence on the striking look of his Frankenstein.
Assisted by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye), probably the most famous mentally deficient sidekick in horror cinema, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) can be seen in the film's opening waiting for the funeral to end so that he can dig a freshly buried corpse out of its final resting place before skulking back to his gothic lab. That night Dr. Frankenstein sends Fritz to a local university to carry out the final step in his reanimation project -- to steal a brain to use in their experiment crafted from stitched-together corpses. But Fritz mistakenly selects an "abnormal" criminal brain, which when placed in the creature unleashes terror on their small Bavarian village.
The scene where the Monster inadvertently drowns a village girl Maria (Marilyn Harris) was deemed too shocking and deleted from the film upon its original release, though it was later reinstated. Mindful of the macabre aspects of its production, Universal also added a prologue to the film, spoken by Edward Van Sloan (who also provided an epilogue, now lost, to 1931's Dracula) was also added, to warn viewers of the shocking nature of what lay ahead.
Though Frankenstein had been made into other film versions, including a 1910 Edison Company production, a 1915 version called "Life Without Soul" and the Italian "Master of Frankenstein" in 1920, none of them offered as memorable a movie monster as the one created by Boris Karloff. And though a flurry of movies were inspired by Whale's penultimate horror film: "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), "Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) and many others, none has yet matched the original power of a film which broke important ground in two regards: in its representation of a scientist who tampers with power reserved for God and of a monster who is not entirely evil, but has sympathetic qualities too.
Tod Browning's Dracula, released 10 months prior to Frankenstein, had a significant impact on Whale's film. Dwight Frye, as Fritz, had also played Dracula's half-wit assistant Renfield in Browning's production of Bram Stoker's novel and that film's Van Helsing - Edward Van Sloan - was recast in Frankenstein as Dr. Waldman. And Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula was so memorable and successful in that film he was initially cast to play the Monster in "Frankenstein." Lugosi, however, was said to be outraged by the prospect of playing such a one-dimensional half-wit, preferring the role of Dr. Frankenstein.
Nevertheless, he attempted to play the monster but his interpretation was deemed too sensitive and understated. Though Shelley's 1816 novel had featured a sympathetic monster, Universal wanted a more sinister creature so they hired 43-year-old B-movie veteran Boris Karloff to play the role and the actor worked hard with Universal's makeup artist Jack Pierce to insure that their malevolent creation would be unforgettable.
Pierce, who also created the look of Bela Lugosi's Dracula, researched the look of the Monster for three months. Pierce studied anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminal history, criminology, burial customs and electrodynamics, before he even began the grueling daily 5 hour make-up application (followed by two hours of make-up removal) to create Frankenstein.
As part of creating this innovative movie monster, Karloff was also given boots to increase his height to seven feet six inches. The boots weighed a cumbersome 30 pounds, and were combined with steel struts on Karloff's legs to give the reanimated beast his signature lurching walk, part nightmare, part toddler. Ultimately, this Monster created by Karloff, Pierce and Whale did have poignance and played upon viewers' sympathies, causing some to see the Monster as a stand-in for the troubled director himself, who also yearned for understanding.
The struggle of bringing this monster to life on the screen was considerable and caused Karloff to lose 20 pounds over the six weeks it took to film Frankenstein. The strain of carrying Dr. Frankenstein to the summit of a windmill at the film's climax was so great, in fact, that Karloff required hospitalization for back problems.
Though Karloff's performance went unappreciated by the Universal Studios executives, which even excluded the actor from the movie's premiere, Karloff sufficiently impressed his movie audiences. Many viewers were reportedly so terrified by his appearance they fled from the theater in fear. Karloff called the Monster his favorite film role and film history has tended to agree with him -- the actor was identified with the part until the day he died.
In addition to its classic status in the annals of movie making, Whale's Frankenstein was an enormous financial success. Made for only $250,000, the film returned $12 million upon its release.
The production history surrounding Frankenstein is as fascinating as the film itself. Bette Davis was initially considered for the role of the delicate Elizabeth, but Whale -- probably rightly -- believed that Davis was too aggressive to play an ethereal horror movie victim. Instead, Mae Clarke was tapped for the role, an actress best remembered as the dame who gets a face full of grapefruit from James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). Davis wouldn't get a memorable horror role until "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" in the 1960s.
Though referred to simply as "the Monster" in Shelley's novel, it is one of the quirks of history that this movie monster's name was so often confused with his symbolic father and creator, Dr. Frankenstein. But in Karloff's hands, the Monster turned out to be a greater star than the titular scientist who created him and ever since the name Frankenstein is synonymous with the monster, not the doctor.
Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr. for Universal, Screenplay: Garrett Fort and Francis Faragoh; based on John Balderston's adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (betcha didn't know her middle name)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson, Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Music: David Broekman
Cast: Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Dwight Frye (Fritz, the Dwarf), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein).
Showing on Turner Classic Movies occasionally
The above article from 2003 by Felicia Feaster can be seen on the Turner Classic Movies website at TurnerClassicMovies.com
According to Ripley's Believe It Or Not, after Mary Shelley's poet husband died, she had his heart put in a jar which she kept on her writing desk. She originally self-published Frankenstein as a three-volume fake text book, which didn't sell well. A publisher offered to buy it if she turned it into a one-volume novel with dialogue and a storyline, which she did.