Pre Code Hollywood Season: FD Cinematheque
Director: James Whale
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marylin Harris, Ted Billings, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Arleta Duncan
Frankenstein is a 1931 American pre-Code horror monster film from Universal Pictures directed by James Whale and adapted from the play by Peggy Webling (which in turn is based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley), about a scientist and his assistant who dig up corpses to build a man animated by electricity, but his assistant accidentally gives the creature an abnormal, murderer’s brain. The resultant monster is portrayed by Boris Karloff in the film.
The movie stars Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and 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. A hit with both audiences and critics, the film was followed by multiple sequels and has become arguably the most iconic horror film.
1931 Frankenstein film trailer
In a European village, a young scientist, named Henry Frankenstein, and his assistant Fritz, a hunchback, piece together a human body, the parts of which have been collected from various sources. Frankenstein desires to create human life through electrical devices which he has perfected.
Elizabeth, his fiancée, is worried over his peculiar actions. She cannot understand why he secludes himself in an abandoned watch tower, which he has equipped as a laboratory, refusing to see anyone. She and a friend, Victor Moritz, go to Dr. Waldman, Henry’s old medical professor, and ask Waldman’s help in reclaiming the young scientist from his experiments.
Waldman tells them that Frankenstein has been working on creating life. Elizabeth, intent on rescuing Frankenstein, arrives just as Henry is making his final tests. He tells them to watch, claiming to have discovered the ray that brought life into the world. They 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, prompting Frankenstein to shout ‘It’s alive!’.
Through the incompetence of Fritz, a criminal brain was secured for Frankenstein’s experiments instead of the desired normal one. The manufactured monster, despite its grotesque form, initially appears to be a simple, innocent creation. Frankenstein welcomes it into his laboratory and asks his creation to sit, which it does. He then opens up the roof, causing the monster to reach out towards the sunlight. Fritz enters with a flaming torch, which frightens the monster.
Its fright is mistaken by Frankenstein and Waldman as an attempt to attack them, and it is chained in the dungeon. 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 Waldman consider the monster’s fate, they hear a shriek from the dungeon. Frankenstein and Waldman find the monster has strangled Fritz.
The monster lunges at the two but they escape, 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 lunges at Frankenstein as Waldman injects the drug into the creature’s back. The monster falls to the floor unconscious.
Henry leaves to prepare for his wedding while Waldman examines the creature. As he is preparing to vivisect it, the creature awakens and strangles him. It escapes from the tower and wanders through the landscape.
It has a short encounter with a farmer’s young daughter, Maria, who asks him to play a game with her in which they toss flowers into a lake and watch them float. The monster enjoys the game, but when they run out of flowers the monster thinks Maria will float as well, so he throws her into the lake where, to his puzzlement, she drowns. Upset by this outcome, the monster runs away.
With preparations for the wedding completed, Frankenstein is serenely happy with Elizabeth. They are to marry as soon as 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 monster is in the house. When the searchers arrive, they find Elizabeth unconscious on the bed. The monster has escaped.
Maria’s father arrives, carrying his daughter’s body. He says she was murdered, and a band of peasants form a search party to capture the monster, and bring it to justice. In order to search the whole country for the monster, they split into three groups: Ludwig leads the first group into the woods, Frankenstein leads the second group into the mountains, and the Burgomaster leads the third group by the lake.
During the search, Frankenstein becomes separated from the group and is discovered by the monster, who attacks him. The monster knocks Frankenstein unconscious and carries him off to an old mill. The peasants hear his cries and they regroup to follow. They find the monster has climbed to the top, dragging Frankenstein with him. The monster hurls the scientist to the ground. His fall is broken by the vanes of the windmill, saving his life. Some of the villagers hurry him to his home while the rest of the mob set the windmill ablaze, killing the entrapped monster inside.
At Castle Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s father, Baron Frankenstein celebrates the wedding of his recovered son with a toast to a future grandchild.
- Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
- Mae Clarke as Elizabeth Lavenza
- John Boles as Victor Moritz
- Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster
- Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
- Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein
- Dwight Frye as Fritz
- Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomaster
- Marilyn Harris as Little Maria
- Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria’s father
In 1930, Universal Studios had lost $2.2 million in revenues. Within 48 hours of its opening at New York’s Roxy Theatre on February 12, 1931, Dracula starring Bela Lugosi had sold 50,000 tickets, building a momentum that culminated in a $700,000 profit, the largest of Universal’s 1931 releases. As a result, head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. announced immediate plans for more horror films.
Frankenstein begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a brief caution before the opening credits:
How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a friendly word of 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!!
Immediately, following his success in Dracula, Bela Lugosi had hoped to play Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s original film concept, but the actor was expected by Carl Laemmle, Jr. to be the Monster (a common move for a contract player in a film studio at the time) to keep his famous name on the bill.
After several disastrous make-up tests (said to resemble that of Paul Wegener in The Golem), 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 was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!” Florey later wrote that “the Hungarian actor didn’t show himself very enthusiastic for the role and didn’t want to play it.”
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 when the newly arrived James Whale asked for the property. Whale had been imported from England by the Laemmles and given a free hand as to his choice of projects at Universal.
He was immediately attracted to Frankenstein and greatly revised the script and conceptualization of the project, which had troubled the management. Florey and Lugosi were given the Murders in the Rue Morgue film, as a consolation.
Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline (in the original shooting script the Monster spoke, cancelling Lugosi’s initial objection to the part, but his filmed dialogue sequences were cut prior to release, along with the premise that the Monster was blind, which was the way Lugosi had played it).
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 Bürgermeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria’s father. Kerr died a year and a half later.
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 inventor Nikola Tesla himself. According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff during the creation scene, as Karloff was afraid of being burned by sparks being thrown off the arcing electrical equipment simulating lightning.
Although he was partially covered by a surgical drape, Karloff’s abdomen was otherwise exposed during the scene and the high-voltage arc “scissors” threw white-hot bits of metal when they were used to create flashes.
Pre-Code era scenes and censorship history
The scene in which the monster throws the little girl into the lake and accidentally drowns her has long been controversial. Upon its original 1931 release, the second part of this scene was cut by state censorship boards in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Those states also objected to a line they considered blasphemous, one that occurred during Frankenstein’s exuberance when he first learns that his creature is alive. The original line was: “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Kansas requested the cutting of 32 scenes, which, if removed, would have halved the length of the film.
Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee sent censor representative Joseph Breen to urge them to reconsider. Eventually, an edited version was released in Kansas. The shot of Maria being thrown into the lake was rediscovered during the 1980s in the collection of the British National Film Archive. Modern copies incorporate it.
Mordaunt Hall gave Frankenstein a very positive review and said that the film “aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.” “[T]here is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it Dracula is tame and, incidentally, Dracula was produced by the same firm”.
Variety reported that it “Looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays,” and described Karloff’s performance as “a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism.” Its review also singled out the look of the film as uniquely praiseworthy, calling the photography “splendid” and the lighting “the last word in ingenuity, since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker was less enthused, calling the film only a “moderate success” and writing that “The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster and there lie the thrills of the picture, but the general fantasy lacks the vitality which that little Mrs. P.B. Shelley was able to give her book.”
Frankenstein has continued to receive acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. It holds a 100% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 1991, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. In 2004, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.
Frankenstein also received recognition from the American Film Institute. It was named the 87th greatest movie of all time on 100 Years… 100 Movies. The line “It’s alive! It’s alive!” was ranked as the 49th greatest movie quote in American cinema. The film was on the ballot for several of AFI’s 100 series lists, including AFI’s 10 Top 10 for the sci-fi category, 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), and twice on 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains for both Dr. Henry Frankenstein and the Monster in the villains category.
The film was ranked number 56 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills, a list of America’s most heart-pounding movies. It was also ranked number 27 on Bravo‘s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Additionally, the Chicago Film Critics Association named it the 14th scariest film ever made.
The film was a big hit. In June 1932 the film had earned reported rentals of $1.4 million. In 1943 Universal reported it had earned a profit of $708,871. By 1953 all the Frankenstein films earned an estimated profit of $13 million.
The next sequel, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, was made, like all those that followed, without Whale or Clive (who had died in 1937). This film featured Karloff’s last full film performance as the Monster.
The Ghost of Frankenstein was released in 1942. The movie features Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster, taking over from Boris Karloff, who played the role in the first three films of the series, and Bela Lugosi in his second appearance as the demented Ygor.
The fifth installment, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in 1943, directed by Roy William Neill, and starring Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster. This is also the sequel to The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man.
Karloff returned to the series, but not the role, in the 1944 followup, House of Frankenstein, which also featured Chaney, and adds Dracula, played by John Carradine, and a Hunchback for good measure. 1945’s House of Dracula continued the theme of combining Universal’s three most popular monsters.
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).
- Karloff would return to the wearing of the makeup and to the role of the monster one last time in a 1962 episode of the TV show Route 66.
- The popular 1960s TV show, The Munsters, depicts the family’s father Herman as Frankenstein’s monster, who married Count Dracula‘s daughter. The make-up for Herman is based on the make-up of Boris Karloff.
- Frankenstein appears in Mad Monster Party?, a Rankin/Bass Productions Halloween special, where Dr. Boris von Frankenstein (voiced by Karloff) invites various classic monsters to a reunion at his castle with intentions to destroy them all.
- Mel Brooks‘s comedy Young Frankenstein parodied elements of the first three Universal Frankenstein movies. Brooks also recreated the movie into a musical of the same name.
- A live-action parody film, Frankenweenie, depicting Victor Frankenstein as a modern American boy and his deceased pet dog as the monster, was made by Tim Burton in 1984. Burton remade it as a full-length animated film in 2012.
Although Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is often referred to as “Igor” in descriptions of the films, he is not so called in the earliest films. In both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, 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 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 their respective films.
It was not until Son of Frankenstein (1939) that a character called “Ygor” first appears (here played by Bela Lugosi and revived by Lugosi in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein after his apparent murder in the earlier film). This character — a deranged blacksmith whose neck was broken and twisted due to a botched hanging — befriends the monster and later helps Dr. Wolf Frankenstein, leading to the “hunchbacked assistant” called “Igor” commonly associated with Frankenstein in pop culture.
Frye also appears in later films in the series, such as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
Guillermo del Toro had expressed interest in directing the reboot film for Universal. Del Toro said his Frankenstein would be a faithful “Miltonian tragedy”, citing Frank Darabont‘s “near perfect” script, which evolved into Kenneth Branagh‘s Frankenstein. Del Toro said of his vision, “What I’m trying to do is take the myth and do something with
Del Toro said of his vision, “What I’m trying to do is take the myth and do something with it, but combining elements of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein without making it just a classical myth of the monster. The best moments in my mind of
The best moments in my mind of Frankenstein, of the novel, are yet to be filmed […] The only guy that has ever nailed for me the emptiness, not the tragic, not the Miltonian dimension of the monster, but the emptiness is Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, where he really looks like something obscenely alive. Boris Karloff has the tragedy element nailed down but there are so many versions, including that great screenplay by Frank Darabont that was ultimately not really filmed.”
He has also cited Bernie Wrightson‘s illustrations as inspiration, and said the film will not focus on the monster’s creation, but be an adventure film featuring the character. Del Toro said he would like Wrightson to design his version of the creature. The film will also focus on the religious aspects of Shelley’s tale. In June 2009, del Toro stated that production on Frankenstein was not likely to begin for at least four years. Despite this, he has already cast frequent collaborator
Despite this, he has already cast frequent collaborator Doug Jones in the role of Frankenstein’s monster. In an interview with Sci Fi Wire, Jones stated that he learned of the news the same day as everybody else; that “Guillermo did say to the press that he’s already cast me as his monster, but we’ve yet to talk about it. But in his mind, if that’s what he’s decided, then it’s done … It would be a dream come true.” The film will be a period piece.
In June of 2017, producer/director Alex Kurtzman revealed that Frankenstein is one of the films that will have an installment in the Dark Universe.Javier Bardem is cast to portray the titular character.
- List of films with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a film review aggregator website
- Boris Karloff filmography
- List of films featuring Frankenstein’s monster
- Frankenstein in popular culture
- Gothic film – Notable films
- Pre-Code Hollywood
- Universal Monsters
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The Universal production of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is taking shape under the knowing guidance of James Whale. Boris Karloff and not Bela Lugosi is the final choice to play the monster.
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