As it turns out, I could’ve done Frankenstein as my final vintage horror film of October, since what I thought were two 1921 horror films turned out to be horribly mistitled. But since I never immediately take down the Monster template and love Halloween so much, why not save the final film for early November?
Released 21 November 1931, this was the fourth film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. (It was like nails on a chalkboard to see her seriously credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” in the opening credits! She published under her own name, not her husband’s name with the title Mrs. in front!) However, the film was more based on a 1927 play by Peggy Webling.
James Whale directed, and Carl Laemmle, Jr. produced. The film stars Colin Clive as Henry (not Victor) Frankenstein; Mae Clarke (who took the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy) as his fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza; Dwight Frye as hunchbacked assistant Fritz; Edward van Sloan as Dr. Waldman; John Boles as friend Victor Moritz; and, last but not least, Boris Karloff (né William Henry Pratt) as the Monster. I like how there’s a question mark for the Monster’s actor in the opening cast list.
Universal Pictures had lost $2.2 million in revenues in 1930, but was rescued by the runaway hit Dracula in February 1931. Hence, Carl Laemmle, Jr., announced plans for more horror films. He knew a cash cow when he saw one.
There were five sequels:
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (with Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Monster)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (with Béla Lugosi as the Monster)
House of Frankenstein (1944) (with Glenn Strange as the Monster and Karloff as a mad scientist)
Henry Frankenstein, a young scientist obsessed with the idea of creating life, has holed himself away in his lab in an abandoned watchtower with his assistant Fritz. Towards this most lofty goal, they dig up dead bodies and abscond with various body parts. One of these body parts is a brain Fritz grabs from the lecture hall of Henry’s old medical professor, Dr. Waldman.
Alas, he drops the healthy brain, and unrealizingly takes a criminal’s so-called “abnormal” brain in its place. As a modern viewer, and given the attitudes of the era, I have to wonder just why a criminal’s brain was automatically portrayed as “abnormal.” Was the deceased mentally ill, gay, left-handed, an anarchist? And what exactly was his crime?
Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth is extremely concerned about what’s going on, and goes to his friend Victor for help. They in turn get Dr. Waldman to come with them to confront Henry about his bizarre behavior and hermitism. The three of them set off, and arrive during a terrible storm. Henry refuses to admit them at first, but finally relents.
Henry tells them to watch as he brings his creation to life. The moment is creeping ever closer, as soon as the strongest lightning strikes. Henry’s creation is moved from an operating table towards an opening near the roof, and when the booming thunder rings out, his ambition is finally realized.
The Monster is a simple, obedient, easy-going creature, until Fritz scares him with a lit torch. Henry and Dr. Waldman mistake his innocent fright for a dangerous attempted attack, and have him chained up. They abandon the Monster to his chains and Fritz’s sadistic torture with the torch.
The Monster snaps under Fritz’s torture, and lashes out. After he attacks Fritz, he goes after Henry and Dr. Waldman, but they escape, and make plans to have him put down. First, Henry mixes a drug to be injected into the monster as soon as he’s released and tries to attack again. Once the Monster is unconscious, Henry departs for his wedding and leaves Dr. Waldman in charge of the euthanasia.
The Monster awakes as Dr. Waldman is preparing to dissect him, and isn’t exactly happy. After attacking Dr. Waldman, he goes in search of his creator. Along the way, he has an encounter with a little girl named Maria, a farmer’s daughter. He’s so innocent and gentle, taking a childlike delight in throwing flowers into the water. In fact, he’s a bit too innocent, and doesn’t realize not all things float.
His next stop is Henry’s house, where he goes after Elizabeth. Victor also brings the news that the Monster has attacked Dr. Waldman and escaped. By the time Elizabeth is found, the Monster has escaped again, and a mob of vigilantes set out on a search party, split three ways.
Henry becomes separated from the others during the search, leading to one final confrontation with the Monster.
I really enjoyed this film, though at only 71 minutes, it felt a bit rushed and underdeveloped in spots. I wanted to see the Monster wreaking more havoc, and to get more of a window into his psychological and emotional state (i.e., truer to the book than the play). But judged for what it is and not what it’s not, I’d rate it 4.5 stars.