Frankenstein is a 1931 horror film from Universal Pictures directed by James Whale and very loosely based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley as well as the play adapted from it by Peggy Webling. The film stars Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff, and features Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan. The Webling play was adapted by John L. Balderston and the screenplay written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort with uncredited contributions from Robert Florey and John Russell. The make-up artist was Jack Pierce.
Before the film actually begins, Edward Van Sloan steps out in front of a curtain to warn the audience about what they are about to see and to tell them that they still have a chance to leave the theatre, concluding with a sly grin and the words Well, we've warned you.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), an ardent young scientist, and his devoted assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), a hunch-back, piece together a human body, the parts of which have been secretly collected from various sources. Frankenstein's consuming desire is to create human life through various electrical devices which he has perfected.
Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), his fiancée, is worried to distraction over his peculiar actions. She cannot understand why he secludes himself in an abandoned watch tower, which he has equipped as a laboratory, and refuses to see anyone. She and her friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), go to Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), his old medical professor, and ask Dr. Waldman's help in reclaiming the young scientist from his absorbing experiments. Elizabeth, intent on rescuing Frankenstein, arrives just as the eager young medico is making his final tests. They all watch Frankenstein and the hunchback as they raise the dead creature on an operating table, high into the room, toward an opening at the top of the laboratory. Then a terrific crash of thunder—the crackling of Frankenstein's electric machines—and the hand of Frankenstein's monster begins to move.
The manufactured monster (Boris Karloff), a strangely hideous, startling, grotesque, gruesome, inhuman form, is held in a dungeon in the watch tower. Through Fritz's error, a criminal brain was secured for Frankenstein's experiments which supposedly result in the monster knowing only hate, horror and murder. However, when we are first introduced to the 'Monster' it seems that it is not, in fact, a malevolent beast, but a simple, innocent (if scary looking) creation. Frankenstein welcomes it into his laboratory, and asks his creation to sit, which it does. Fritz, however, enters with a flaming torch which frightens the monster. Its fright is mistaken by Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman as an attempt to attack them, and so it is taken to the cellars where it is chained. Thinking that it is not fit for society, and will wreak havoc at any chance, they leave the monster locked up where Fritz antagonizes it with a torch. As Henry and Dr. Waldman consider the fate of the monster they hear an unearthly, terrifying shriek from the dungeon. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman rush in to find the monster has strangled Fritz. The monster makes a lunge at the two but they escape the dungeon, locking the monster inside. Realizing that the creature must be destroyed Henry prepares an injection of a powerful drug and the two conspire to release the monster and inject it as it attacks. When the door is unlocked the creature emerges and lunges at Dr. Frankenstein as Dr. Waldman injects the drug into the creature's back. The monster knocks Dr. Waldman to the floor and has nearly killed Henry when the drug takes effect and he falls to the floor unconscious.
Henry leaves to prepare for his wedding while Dr. Waldman conducts an examination of the unconscious creature. As he is preparing to begin dissecting it the creature awakens and strangles him. It escapes from the tower and wanders through the landscape. It then has a short encounter with a little farmer's daughter, Maria, who asks him to play a game with her where they would throw flowers into the lake so they appeared like little boats. As the monster takes much pleasure in the game and his playmate, it picks up the little girl and throws her into the lake in a playful sort of way and as he becomes aware of the consequences of his careless doing tries to get a hold of her, unsuccessfully. (The portion of the sequence where the monster throws the girl into the pond was censored at the time of the film's original release, but has been restored in modern prints.) The creature then walks off troubled.
With preparations for the wedding completed, Frankenstein is once again himself and serenely happy with Elizabeth. They are to marry as soon as Dr. Waldman arrives. Victor rushes in, saying that the Doctor has been found strangled in his operating room. Frankenstein suspects the monster. A chilling scream convinces him that the friend is in the house. The monster has gained access to Elizabeth's room. When the searchers arrive, they find her unconscious on the bed. The monster has escaped. He is only intent upon destroying Frankenstein.
Leading an enraged band of peasants, Frankenstein searches the surrounding country for the monster. He becomes separated from the band and is discovered by the monster, who attacks him. As the standoff between the creator and his creation begins, Frankenstein tries to intimidate the monster with his torch, but it does not cower as it did before and manages to knock it out of his hands. After a struggle, the monster knocks Frankenstein unconscious and carries him off to the old mill. The peasants hear his cries and follow. Finally reaching the mill, they find the monster has climbed to the very top, dragging Frankenstein with him. In a burst of rage, he hurls the young scientist to the ground. His fall, broken by the vanes of the windmill, saves him from instant death. Some of the villagers hurry him to his home while the others remain to burn the mill and destroy the entrapped monster.
Later, back at Frankenstein Castle, Frankenstein's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) celebrates the wedding of his recovered son with a toast to a future grandchild.
Differences between film and book
There are more differences between the movie and book than there are similarities. This is because the movie is largely based on the 1920s play accredited to Peggy Webling rather than the original Shelley text.
The most specific alteration is in his original experiment, rather than the explicit rejection by Frankenstein of his creature of the novel, it is explored more directly and exactly.
This tolerance of the creature as a man would largely be revoked by Universal in their later films in which the creature was to be marketed as a specific villain and not to be empathized with by the audience. In all Universal films starting with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, every time the creature is referred to directly in-story, he is specifically named as "The Frankenstein Monster" or simply "the Monster" and never again in-story as just "Frankenstein" in order to emaphize the fact that he is a manufactured being and an inherently evil one.
Another notable difference between the book and film is the articulation of the monster's speech. In Shelley's book, the creature taught himself to read with books of classic literature such as Milton's Paradise Lost. The creature learns to speak clearly in what appears in the novel as Early Modern English, because of the texts he has found to learn from while in hiding. In the 1931 film, the creature is completely mute except for grunts and growls. In the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, the original creature learns some basic speech but is very limited in his dialog, speaking with rough grammar and still preferring at times to express himself gutturally. By the third film, Son of Frankenstein, the creature is again rendered inarticulate.
In Mary Shelley's original novel, the creature's savage behavior is his conscious decision against his maltreatment and neglect because of his inhuman appearance, whereas in the 1931 film adaptation states that his condition is largely due to the effect made by Frankenstein's assistant Fritz (played by character actor Dwight Frye, who also played Renfield in Dracula with Bela Lugosi), who has provided a defective brain to be used for the creature. This suggestion that the monster's brutal behavior was inevitable arguably dilutes the novel's social criticism and depiction of developing consciousness. However, there are times despite such a defect, the creature responds to kindness as done to him in the scene with Maria, the little girl at the lakeside.
The deformed (hunchbacked) assistants of the first two films are not characters derived from the novel. In the original text, Frankenstein creates his monster in solitude without servants.
In the novel, how Frankenstein builds the creature is only obscurely described, references being made to a long slow process born from a combination of new scientific principles and ancient alchemical lore. Whereas the movies precisely depict the methodology by which their version of the monster is created, showing Frankenstein robbing graves of the recently dead and using the organs and body parts to reconstruct a new human body. This process culminates with the harnessing of a lightning bolt to awaken the creature, a scene famously depicted with great spectacle in the 1931 film. Despite their at best limited presence in the original novel, the idea of the patchwork body of dead flesh and massive discharges of electricity being key to the genesis of the monster have become commonly associated with the Frankenstein story.
In the novel, Frankenstein's name is Victor, not Henry (Henry Clerval was the name of Victor's best friend) and he is not a doctor, but rather a college student. Elizabeth is murdered by the Monster on her wedding night. The Monster also murders Henry Clerval and Victor's young brother William. Victor's father dies heartbroken after Elizabeth's murder and Victor begins his pursuit of the monster, which eventually leads to his death from an illness aboard a boat en route to the North Pole. The Monster, finding Victor dead, vows to travel to the Pole and commit suicide, although it is not revealed if he does so.
- Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
- Mae Clarke as Elizabeth
- John Boles as Victor Moritz
- Boris Karloff as The Monster
- Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Waldman
- Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein
- Dwight Frye as Fritz
- Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomaster
- Marilyn Harris as Little Maria
The film begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a "friendly warning" before the opening credits:
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.
In the opening credits, Karloff is unbilled, with only a question mark being used in place of his name. This is a nod to the first stage adaptation when the monster was billed only as a question mark .Universal had not revealed in advance who was playing the monster, and had not released any pictures of the monster in order to conceal his appearance. Karloff's name is revealed in the closing credits, which otherwise duplicate the credits from the opening under the principle that "A Good Cast is Worth Repeating".
There was controversy around this point originally, as some part of the management of Universal built up the suspense of who was playing the creature to gather interest in the film as Bela Lugosi was still largely thought to be performing the role of the creature up until the time of the film's release. Some papers were erroneously still listing Lugosi as the performer. Some were coming to see if Lugosi had changed his mind and recanted to star in the film despite some published statements to the contrary, most notably the still famous "electric beam eyes" poster which still credited Lugosi as the monster and showed the creature without the now famous flat head, neck-bolt makeup (created by Universal Studios make-up artist Jack Pierce. Pierce also created Lon Chaney's Wolf Man make-up and Karloff's Mummy make-up as well). Others state it was because the film would cause the ruin of the performer in the role and wanted to minimize said actor's liability, for the original film went against the censor boards of the day, which resulted in some portions of the film starring actor as the monster being removed from the film, the most noted removal was the drowning scene of the little girl, Maria. These removed scenes have since been restored to the film releases as shown in the recent DVD releases of the original Universal films.
Bela Lugosi was originally set to star as the monster. After several disastrous make-up tests, the Dracula star left the project. Although this is often regarded as one of the worst decisions of Lugosi's career, in actuality the part that Lugosi was offered was not the same character that Karloff eventually played. The character in the Florey script was simply a killing machine without a touch of human interest or pathos, reportedly causing Lugosi to complain "I'm an actor not a scarecrow!" However, the decision may not have been Lugosi's in any case, since recent evidence suggests that he was kicked off the project, along with director Robert Florey. Ironically, Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline and only after Lon Chaney, Jr. complained bitterly about the possibility of him doing double work through trick photography to appear as both the Wolfman and the Monster in the film for about the same pay rate. Chaney had already appeared as the Monster in the previous Frankenstein film Ghost of Frankenstein, directly succeeding Boris Karloff in the role.
As was the custom at the time, only the main cast and crew were listed in the credits. Additionally, however, a number of other actors who worked on the project were or became familiar to fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria's father.
Jack Pierce was the makeup artist who designed the now-iconic "flat head" look for Karloff's monster, although Whale's contribution in the form of sketches remains a controversy, and who was actually responsible for the idea of the look will probably always be a mystery.
Kenneth Strickfaden designed the electrical effects used in the "creation scene." So successful were they that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as "Strickfadens." It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the then-aged Nikola Tesla himself.
According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff in the electrical "birth" scene as Karloff was deathly afraid of being electrocuted from the live voltage on the stage.
There is no musical soundtrack in the film, except for the opening and closing credits.
Awards and honors
In 1991, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".
This film was #27 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #87
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes #49
- "It's alive! It's alive!"
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills #56
Sequels and parodies
Frankenstein was followed by a string of sequels, beginning with The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is considered by some to be the best film of the series — partly because the creature actually talks in this film, and is shown not to be animalistic or inherently evil, as in the scene of the blind hermit, referring back to the novel's portrayal of the creature to be a human being in the most important ways, despite being created rather than born. Elsa Lanchester plays Frankenstein's bride. A recreation of the filming of this movie is shown in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters.
The next sequel, 1939's Son of Frankenstein, was made, like all those that followed, without Whale or Clive (who had died in 1937), and featured Karloff's last full film performance as the Monster. Karloff would return to the wearing the makeup and role of the Monster one last time in the TV show Route 66 in the early 1960s, but most discredit that appearance. The Monster is no longer wearing his trademark "too small jacket" but is now wearing a furry vest/coat (which will mysteriously transform back into the too small jacket in the next following film, 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein when the creature climbs out of the sulfur pit without changing the vest off), and the sets and lighting have a decidedly expressionistic tone. Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh delivers his famous line: "One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots." The film also features Donnie Dunagan (who voiced [[Disney's Bambi) as Wolf Frankenstein's young son, Peter.
Many of the subsequent films which featured Frankenstein's monster demote the creature to a robotic henchman in someone else's plots, such as in its final Universal film appearance in the deliberately farcical Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948. In that film, Lugosi's Dracula plans to "dumb down the monster" in order to prevent the creature from any possible resistance to Dracula by transplanting Costello's brain into the creature. Mel Brooks's comedy Young Frankenstein parodied elements of the first three Universal Frankenstein movies.
Within Universal's Frankenstein films, the Frankenstein creature would largely be kept in the idea of a mostly mindless monster who is always rampaging and running amok murdering people, until the recreated Universal film company's 2004 film Van Helsing where the Frankenstein creature would return to the idea of being more human.
The popular 1960's TV show, The Munsters, depicts the family's father Herman as Frankenstein's monster, who married a vampire's daughter. The make-up for Herman is based on the make-up of Boris Karloff.
Doctor Frankenstein's assistant
Although Doctor Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant is often referred to as "Igor" in descriptions of the films, this is incorrect. In both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein has an assistant who is played both times by Dwight Frye who is crippled. In the original 1931 film the character is named "Fritz" who is directly hunchbacked and walks with the aid of a small cane. In Bride of Frankenstein, Frye plays "Karl" a murderer who stands upright but has a lumbering metal brace on both legs that can be heard clicking loudly with every step. Both characters would be killed by Karloff's monster in film. It was not until Son of Frankenstein that a character called "Ygor" first appears (here, he was played by Bela Lugosi and revised by Lugosi in the Ghost of Frankenstein after his apparent murder in Son of Frankenstein). This character — a deranged blacksmith whose neck and back are broken and twisted due to a botched hanging — befriends the monster and later helps Doctor Wolf von Frankenstein, lending to the "hunchbacked assistant" called "Igor" commonly associated with Frankenstein in pop culture. The Igor character and its pronunciation would be specifically addressed finally in the parody Young Frankenstein whereby the Igor character specifically classifies the proper pronunciation of his family name as "EYE-gore" against the popular pronunciation of "EE-gore".
- This film was banned in Kansas for its portrayal of "cruelty and tended to debase morals".
- During the early stages of preproduction on the biopic Walk the Line, director James Mangold interviewed the biopic's subject Johnny Cash. Cash told Mangold that his favorite film was Frankenstein. Cash explained that the idea of a gentle figure being mistaken for a monster spoke to him at a personal level.
- The world's most valuable movie poster is the full color 1931 Frankenstein 6-sheet which is currently owned by Stephen Fishler, a NY poster collector. It is the only copy known to exist.
- In the 1996 TV film Doctor Who, during the mortuary/regeneration scene, a mortuary assistant is shown watching the film. More specifically, the monster's reactions to its first moments of life, is paralleled in the Doctor's regeneration after he is pronounced dead.
- The movie is prominently featured in, and a major plot element in the Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive
- In the movie Weird Science the movie is shown along with a similar resurrection sequence.
- In the 2008 film Hancock, Will Smith's character Hancock is said to have seen this movie.
- Frankenstein at Wikipedia
- Frankenstein at Creative Screenwriting
- Frankenstein at Universal Frankenstein Films
- Frankenstein at All Movie Guide (AMG)
- Frankenstein at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)