This week’s Saturday pizza and bad movie offering is a film about as classic as they come. The clip you’ve probably seen of Boris Karloff’s (as the monster) fingers twitching while Colin Clive, as Henry Frankenstein, dances around crying, “It’s alive!” is from this movie. The scene is imitated and parodied so often it’s easy to forget where it got started.
The movie opens with a stage curtain—as if this were a play—parting. Out steps Edward Van Sloan (who will later appear as Dr. Waldman) and says to the audience:
How do you do? [Producer] Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to, uh, well––we warned you.
The viewer next sees a family in mourning burying a loved one. They’re being watched by a young man (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye). They wait until the family departs. Once the coast is clear, they unearth the buried coffin. For good measure, the young man, a scientist by the name of Henry Frankenstein, orders his assistant to cut down the hanged body of a criminal. The two roll the cart with their prizes to the laboratory in a castle.
Henry plans to stitch together bits and pieces of various dead bodies and reanimate the corpse. He sends Fritz to the university classroom of his old professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The good doctor is lecturing with a demonstration on two brains: a normal and an abnormal brain. After class is dismissed, Fritz slips in and picks up the jar with the normal brain. Unfortunately, he drops it, sending brain matter and glass all over the floor. He takes the remaining abnormal brain instead.
Back home, his beloved fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), receives a disturbing letter from Henry, telling her that his work must come first, even before her. She worries and confides her concern to old friend Victor Moritz (John Boles). Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) thinks his son Henry is putting her off because there’s another woman. They decide to go, knowing Henry won’t be happy to see them.
They arrive on a stormy night, the kind that produces lightning enough to animate corpses. Yeah, the timing could have been better.
Frankenstein originally came out before the Hayes Code, more properly the Motion Picture Production Code, came into effect. There were several scenes and bits of dialogue that were later subject to censorship. For example, when Henry first animates the creature, he cries, “In the name of God? Now I know what it feels like to be God!” This was considered blasphemous, and in most places, the thunder grew pointedly louder when he spoke. Also, a scene where the monster accidentally drowns a little girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), is cut short. Most modern copies restore the censored scenes.
The monster never becomes articulate, but he is not a brute beast. He expresses joy and wonder at seeing sunlight, turning destructive only when he’s abused. Fritz taunts him with a lit torch, frightening him. When the monster later seeks Henry Frankenstein’s death out of revenge, the audience can understand his motivation. The monster meets his own end (I trust I give nothing away), caught under a heavy beam in a burning windmill. It is a tragedy if a necessity. The townspeople are out for blood after the death of little Maria.
Henry Frankenstein’s sin is tampering with things human beings are not meant to know. He thinks he’s become akin to a god. (I don’t suppose I’m the only woman who watched the scene and thought, Dude, there’s an easier way to create life, ya know…). Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein sins in abandoning his creation, not in its creation per se. The monster is then thrust upon the world as an outcast. The revenge the creature exacts is terrible and complete. Hollywood cannot accept that, of course. There has to be a happy ending.
The movie set a lot of precedents—the castle on the hill with the lightning, the look of the monster (which is still copyrighted by Universal Studios), the elaborate electrical gadgets used to reanimate the corpse, to name a few. (Shelley’s book is deliberately vague on the method of reanimation).
The big draw is Henry Frankenstein’s twisted obsession with reanimating a corpse that he’s sewn together. A little nutty? He’s put off his wedding to the lovely Elizabeth, who cares for him when she has a good argument for moving on. For a moment, it seems like the nutty idea might work. Boris Karloff, without lines, portrays the wonder and delight of any creature might on seeing the world for the first time until he is betrayed.
This is a classic film that has stood the test of time. There is some melodrama, but any horror fan or fan of the weird will enjoy this. I did. I’ve seen it before. I enjoyed watching it this time, and I hope to see it again.
Unfortunately, I could not find it for free download.
Title: Frankenstein (1931)
John L. Balderston (based upon the composition by)
Mary Shelley (from the novel by)
Peggy Webling (adapted from the play by)
Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
Mae Clarke as Elizabeth
Boris Karloff as The Monster
John Boles as Victor Moritz
Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Waldman
Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein
Length: 1 hour, 10 minutes