Frankenstein (1931)

Why I Love James Whale Part One:

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

The yin to Dracula‘s yang, Universal’s 1931 horror follow-up builds the better beast. James Whale uses the idea of a horror film to build upon everything that had gone before on Tod Browning’s Dracula. While Dracula is notoriously bound to the stage play and deeply lacks in ingenuity, Whale pushed Frankenstein to be something a bit different.

The amount of story action crammed into the terse 71 minutes is a marvel. Especially considering that the majority of scenes therein are so publicly identified with Frankenstein that they have entered our collective consciousness.

The film comes alive in a way Dracula  never does. From the opening scenes of Henry Frankenstein and the hunchbacked Fritz (No, not Igor.) stealing a body from a graveyard, cutting down another body from its hanging post the Gothic atmosphere is fully present and bears down heavily on the people within its influence. These people are immediately noticeable because they seem more like real people than the usual stock cardboard figures typically present in Universal horror. This is all James Whale, because every single one of his films has this remarkable sense of liveliness, even in the draggy bits where the script decrees what must be said. Even the most little of character seems like a real person complete with their own set of wants and desires.

This goes without saying for Henry Frankenstein. In a film that made the Monster a star, it is Colin Clive’s passionate portrayal the overzealous Doctor that really makes the film pulsate with energy. Whenever he utters a single line, it is bristling with authoritative energy and frustration just as if being said by a rich young schoolboy only eager to get on with his experiments. Science has become more than his life’s work, it is his life. By attempting to give his creation life, he will in fact give it back to himself in the process. Clive drives every moment he appears on screen with this insatiable desire to create and pursue his quest of knowledge.  This even comes across in the little moments. For instance look in the opening when Frankenstein and Fritz have to dig up the just buried body. Frankenstein gets a shovel and starts digging furiously right alongside Fritz like an impatient child. It’s this that helps us to keep him in favor with ourselves. Unlike Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein in the later Hammer films of the 50’s and 60’s, Clive’s scientist is more misguided than obsessed with his mad dream. He is not an evil man, but will not be crossed by anyone..or anything for that matter. Instead, he simply wants to make his dream a reality in order to improve the state of mankind and somehow prove himself worth something. That’s not all too bad now is it?

Unfortunately, Fritz steals the wrong brain from the medical university. This criminal brain is put into the Creature and then the operating table is prepared to be lifted into the rafters of the crumbling windmill. In this, the first of the stereotypical mad scientist laboratories it is surprising to see just how sparse the lab is. Sure it may be filled with the bits of fantastic electrical gizmos that became synonymous with Frankenstein, but it is clearly the lair of a former medical student who went off to do his own work in secret. It is also a practical workshop completely befitting of the man working away in it for months.

Henry’s fiancee Elizabeth has grown worried at her lover’s long seclusion to work on his vague “experiment”. She confers with her friend Victor who just also happens to be in love with her. (Why does this always happen in the Universal films? These love triangles only complicate matters because they are never fleshed out.) She asks Victor to consult with Henry’s old university teacher Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan again, playing essentially the same character as in Dracula and The Mummy) to see just what he may be up to. Waldman tells of Henry’s desire to create new life out of the parts of corpses. The three set off to convince Henry to cease his work and come back home.

Of course this just happens to be during the midst of a brewing storm as Henry is preparing to give live to his creation. He allows in his friends and has them sit down in an arrangement that recalls a theater audience watching a performance. And a performance it is. The table is raised and the machines are activated. Lights flash, thunder crashes, electrodes sizzle, and lightning strikes the receptors to lower the table with the covered Creature. All this is mostly done off-screen allowing the audience to create a much more vivid vision of what happens than what is presented. (This reaches a fever pitch when Whale made Bride of Frankenstein four years later.) Everyone gathers around, and Henry sees a hand moving. “It’s alive!” Even more telling and perhaps the truest line in the film, Henry then says in a moment of extreme exhaustion and triumph: “In the name of God, now I know what feels like to be God!” (Which was cut from the initial release and not restored until 1999.)

His creation is held back from us a bit longer. The reveal of Karloff’s Monster is simple: he walks backwards through a door. But his presence is such that you simply have no idea what he will do. Will he attack? Growl? Kill? No, he sits down and tries to reach for the beauty of the sun’s rays.

Karloff does so much with so little. With no dialogue he completely creates this being as a sympathetic creature who never wished to be in existence. What he wants exactly is unknown, but we sense his agonizing frustration at being attacked by everything. When Fritz enters the lab carrying a torch, the Monster is frightened by the fire and is this  mistaken for attack. Waldman, Henry and Fritz manhandle it down into the locked storeroom below and consider what is to be done with it.

Meanwhile, Fritz tortures the Monster with a whip and torch. the Monster is chained and unable to escape the leering hunchback weaving the terrorizing flame. It is of no surprise then when Frankenstein and Waldman hear a terrible scream coming from below. Fritz has been killed by the Monster, and the two scientists decide that it must now be destroyed. Frankenstein prepares a shot that puts the creature to sleep. He then leaves to prepare his wedding, leaving Waldman to dissect and destroy the Creature.

Of course, the monster rises and dispatches Waldman with little resistance. He then begins to roam the countryside in search of nothing in particular. Then in the most controversial moment of the film, the Monster encounters little Maria playing with flowers in the lake…

As they are about to be married, Victor informs Henry that Waldman was found murdered. Henry then realizes that the Monster has escaped and is roaming the countryside. After screams are heard, they realize the Monster is in the house. Henry locks Elizabeth in her room for safety but she is attacked by the Monster who then hastily departs. Maria’s father brings her corpse into the festive village (the way he carries her body makes the arms and legs swing as if she is still joyfully playing in death.)

Everyone is rounded up by Henry and the Burgomaster to go off in search of the Monster with burning torches and pitchforks. Henry and the Monster have their final struggle in an old windmill with the onlooking villagers surrounding the ramshackle structure.

The degree to which Frankenstein trumps the stagy Dracula has to be seen to believe. A mere few months separated the two productions, but Whale’s film is so much more modern in every sense of the word that Dracula seems a good 20 years older.  Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, Whale readily enhances his camera setups with heavy shadow and moody lighting all while embracing the Gothic setting and eschewing ideas to modernize things. Add in his mastery of theater direction, and you have a fully working bond between characters and setting that creates a fully realized world for audiences. Whale always in some way infused his own personal stamp on his films. This blend of thought, idea, creativity, dark humor, folksy charm is readily apparent in his best works and helps elevate them over the works of his contemporaries. Bride of Frankenstein is essentially this personality in cinematic form.

The film was cleaned up and restored for its initial 1999 DVD release under the “Classic Monsters Collection” banner. Unfortunately, the audio was overscrubbed and lacks in detail and fidelity. This was the first time that the Henry’s line “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” was presented since the original 1931 release. Also restored are a few quick shots, such as the needle being shoved into the Creature’s back.

The 2004 Legacy collection fixed the audio detailing and has the same restored video transfer. Included in this set is a fixed Bride of Frankenstein transfer, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein.

The 75th Anniversary release has a few nice extras and a slightly better looking transfer, but it seems to be from the same element. It may be like the 75th Anniversary edition of Dracula where the original transfer was merely digitally manipulated. Overall, it’s really not recommendable for the slight increase in detail. However, there are some new extras and commentaries plus the end credits fade to black as they were intended. (Previous editions have them freeze and then end.)

Try the Legacy Collection, for you not only get the best versions of Frankenstein and Bride, but also the great and very underrated Son of Frankenstein.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film, Film Review, Immortal Films, James Whale, Universal Horror

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