Movies To See Before You Die: “Frankenstein”
Perhaps the most immediate surprise with James Whale’s adaptation of Frankenstein is its immediate use of a framing device; rather than the novel’s explorer Walton, it opens with a master of ceremonies warning the audience that what they are about to see might horrify. With this opening frame, it becomes immediately apparent that this Frankenstein is not intended as the adaptation of a great novel’s adventure, but its own invention for the show. In that form, it becomes a home for Gothic imagery, turn-of-the-century “scientific” production design, and more grim depravity in its characters than the novel even offers.
Actually adapted from a play more directly than from Mary Shelley’s novel, Whale’s Frankenstein introduces a very different narrative, and several new characters – including the dwarf assistant Fritz and Elizabeth’s friend Victor Moritz – and a display of the life-creating process. The narrative begins with Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) digging a grave with his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). He is no longer the gentile Genevese by birth that wooed his fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) but rather a menacing force. Having him deliver lines directly into the camera, even in this opening scene, is unsettling. Throughout, this film uses close-ups to create heightened drama, character recognition, and discomfort in a way I haven’t observed with earlier horror films.
Moving past the period in which Dr. Frankenstein develops his ideas for creating life, the film positions him just has he has obtained the body which he will revive to create his monster. As he has his assistant obtain the brain, Elizabeth assembles friends who will help her stop Frankenstein from his obsession. They arrive as Frankenstein is in his final preparations; undeterred, he gives life to Frankenstein’s monster. After a short time, the monster escapes and begins a spree of murders – Fritz had stolen the brain of a killer.
The dialogue focuses primarily on accelerating Frankenstein and his acquaintances toward his doom. However, brief asides, such as Frankenstein’s discussion of study at university with his old medical professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) offer enough variety so as to make the character relationships feel bodied. Clive is great at managing a room full of characters who ought to be stopping him. It’s believable that they might forget their better nature around him, as he still retains some of the extroverted charms of his upbringing, even when it is visibly clear that he is very far gone.
Perhaps that’s what makes the film work until the monster arrives – the film has done the character work to make these character interactions believable without putting all of that dialogue in the script. Instead, the film finds itself in the company of the monster rather quickly; the scenes at his laboratory are likely the film’s most famous, but they are still stunning. The imposing use of shadows, the detailed production design of the lab, and the wide range of the camera angles keep the film from having the stage-like sense of some earlier horror films. Frankenstein is still clearly a classic film, but it is recognizable as looking “modern” for 1931 – contrast with Flickchart’s #1 film for 1931, Chaplin’s City Lights, which is a lovely and great looking film that looks more akin to the silent comedies of the late 20s than the modern cinematic design of Frankenstein.
The invention of Frankenstein’s monster, in an iconic performance by Boris Karloff, is the film’s greatest cultural legacy; Karloff’s expression by way of moaning and physical acting, and the doctor’s willingness to keep the monster, both prevent Whale’s version of Frankenstein’s monster from ever approaching the verbose, hyper-intellectual demon of the novel. The monster in this film is a lot less ideologically troubling; the doctor is mildly ashamed of the result of his work, but he can very publicly talk about his experiments. As a result, the drama of the film is not based around the idea that Dr. Frankenstein might be caught in his sin, but rather that the monster might cause trouble.
Yet there is still sympathy for the monster, even after the film reveals that Frankenstein has given him the brain of a murderer. One scene roughly midway through the film allows the monster, accepted by a child, to find delight in tossing flowers into the lake. The young girl, Maria (a bit on the nose, as is much of the film) attempts to share with the monster. Karloff in this scene is impressive, showing imitation of delight without making it clear that the monster has any real understanding of what would cause him joy. Once he’s out of flowers, he ignores her pleas and throws the girl in the water. In trying to keep her in the water, he drowns her. Yet the monster has killed before this point, and so it recognizes death when it encounters it; the monster flees, mortified.
This scene exemplifies this film’s efficacy through simplicity. We see only one or two other scenes of the monster attempting to learn, so this one is essential in demonstrating complexity in the portrayal. The monster’s lack of understanding is a confusion for the film, and one that lays a great basis for the latter Bride of Frankenstein, moving so far in the monster’s love for people and education as to give him basic speech. Yet the misunderstanding kindness of the monster is present in this first film. The drama here is simple, making the film accessible to many ages.
As a result, the filmmaking has to create more of the drama, and it delivers. The production design’s quality extends to their villa, some great costumes, and a smart combination of techniques of lighting and cinematography used in romantic films, German surrealist films, and other costume dramas. When the monster’s rampage catches the village’s attention and turns them toward public riot, the cliffs and cloudy skies create an otherworldly geology. With the monster upsetting the laws of man and earth, these men are taken to an extreme dark wasteland, angular and dismal, lit only by foggy moonlight and fiery torches. Boat sailing on dismal boats recall Ugetsu; the rock formations recall the wild, jutting angles of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Whale’s Frankenstein in equal part borrows from the aesthetics of classic horror and defines horror’s future. Using this powerful aesthetic, strong performances, and a tight running time, discovering what you don’t know of Whale’s Frankenstein is only slightly more fun than experiencing that which you already do.