When Universal Studios released Dracula in February 1931, all involved were a bit nervous. The studio’s adaptation of Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s play, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, was a gamble. Was the public ready for a horror movie—and a talkie, no less—intimating that Evil was alive and well in their world? Would people pay to have the moral order of the universe upended as an evening’s entertainment? You bet they would!
Just a few months after Dracula killed at the box office, Universal’s head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr., convinced his dad, studio head Carl Laemmle, to begin production on another horror flick. The property they chose to film was another play based on a classic of horror literature. Peggy Webling’s Frankenstein, a stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was first produced in 1927 and toured with producer Hamilton Deane’s theater company for a couple of years, alternating with a production of Dracula in repertory.
Though Webling’s play wasn’t critically acclaimed, it made perfect sense for Universal to return to the Hamilton Deane well for its next horror project. The studio bought the rights to an unproduced version of Webling’s Frankenstein, re-written for American audiences by John L. Balderston, exactly as had been done for Dracula. Illustrating that the characteristic studio mentality was already in place in the 1930s, Universal copied the blueprint of its previous hit as closely as possible, hoping for another success, and this reasoning proved to be sound when, upon its November 1931 release, Frankenstein grossed even higher than Dracula.
Of course, Béla Lugosi was a major part of that lucky horror blueprint and, as such, was originally considered for the role of Frankenstein’s monster. But it seems his makeup and screen tests were considered laughable by the powers that be, which suited Lugosi just fine. He’d hoped to play Dr. Frankenstein and was insulted at the idea of portraying a groaning, grimacing “scarecrow.” His opinion would change after the flick’s triumph. (Lugosi finally got his chance to play the creature in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.) While the search continued for a suitable monster, the director’s chair was filled by James Whale, a veteran of the British theater scene.
Whale was a former World War I prisoner of war who first made a name for himself on the stage as a designer and a director, both in England and on Broadway. He traveled to Hollywood in 1929 to work as dialogue director on Hell’s Angels, the troubled Howard Hughes movie that was converted to a talking picture after being filmed silent. He then made his way to Chicago to direct a stage production of Journey’s End, a war drama he’d already had considerable success with on both sides of the Atlantic. When it was shot as a film a few months later, Whale was the natural choice for director. Upon release, the movie did so well that Universal immediately signed Whale to a five-year deal. Following his hit with Waterloo Bridge, another war film, Whale was considered a golden boy and Universal offered him his choice of projects. When Whale chose a horror property in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed, he had no idea he’d make movie history.
After assuming the reins of Frankenstein, Whale’s first task was to cast an actor for the crucial part of Frankenstein’s creature. Several actors were tested for the part, including a young John Carradine, but Whale eventually settled on Boris Karloff, who had been knocking around the world of Canadian theater for more than a decade before settling in Hollywood. With the introduction of talking pictures, Karloff had become a popular supporting player due to his distinctive, mellifluous voice—how ironic that Karloff was allowed to do little more than grunt in the role that made him a legend.
Universal’s film of Frankenstein has little in common with its literary source material. Onscreen, the novel’s failed medical student Victor Frankenstein becomes Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is consumed with the Big Questions of the Universe. Though, truthfully, when Henry ruminates on creation and metaphysics, he sounds more like a stoned college freshman than a renegade scientist bent on violating the laws of nature. But bent he is. So, Henry and his assistant, the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye), go about their business to the exclusion of all else, which has Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) in a tizzy. She and family friend Victor try to talk sense to him, but it’s no use. Not even Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, can get convince him of the madness of his goal.
After Fritz obtains a brain—damaged, naturally—Henry reanimates the body he’s sewn together from the parts of corpses. Henry is duly thrilled once his infernal creation is alive, but isn’t so happy once the creature goes on a murderous rampage, killing Dr. Waldman and Fritz. Soon, the monster is roaming the countryside like a lost puppy. In one the film’s most infamous scenes, he meets a little girl named Maria, who shows him kindness despite his frightening features and teaches him a game involving flowers and water whose rules he misinterprets to disastrous results. It’s all downhill from there for Dr. Frankenstein’s unfortunate spawn, who never asked to be brought into such a cruel and unforgiving world. Before long, the local villagers have formed angry torch-bearing mobs to search for the monster, who absconds with Henry to a local windmill that is set ablaze by the villagers. It seems like the end for all involved, but the principals manage to hang on for a few more sequels.
Although made only months later, Frankenstein is a much more modern film than Dracula, its Universal predecessor in horror. Where Dracula was a stagy melodrama accompanied by striking imagery, Frankenstein is a veritable action flick, full of terror, murder and blasphemy that was shocking for its time and heavily censored. Sure, it has its creaky moments—especially Mae Clarke’s amateurish turn as Elizabeth—but overall, Whale delivered an accomplished film that has gone on to become a pop culture touchstone full of memorable moments, such as the creation scene with its crashing thunder, flashing lightning and arcing Tesla coils. Colin Clive’s famous reading of the line “It’s alive” has been parodied countless times, as has the scene by the lake with Little Maria. And while Clive’s portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein as the archetypal mad scientist is accomplished, it’s Karloff’s practically mute performance as the monster that truly propelled Frankenstein to greatness.
The brilliance of Karloff’s interpretation is in its restraint and stillness. He plays the monster as a newborn child, innocent and confused by the actions of his creator and the world around him. Without uttering a single word, Karloff manages to invoke pity and sympathy for the creature, even though his features are totally obscured by Jack P. Pierce’s iconic makeup.
Pierce, with guidance from Whale, created what has now become commonly accepted as the classic look of Frankenstein’s monster: the flat head, the jagged scar on the forehead, the electrode bolts in the neck. A true collaborator, Karloff requested a layer of wax be applied to his eyelids to obtain a dead-eyed appearance and even removed his bridge work to achieve the monster’s sunken cheeks. The result was a visage disturbing enough to cause Carl Laemmle to order Karloff’s head be covered with a veil when he walked to the set, out of fear that the sight of the actor in full makeup would frighten any women nearby.
The basic conceit of Shelley’s novel, that there are some abilities man is not meant to possess—underscored in the book’s subtitle The Modern Prometheus—is alive and well in the movie. Like Dracula before it, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale, but this time the lesson is more philosophical than carnal: “Man should not play God.” Some critics have seen the treatment the monster receives as symbolic of the way gays and lesbians have been persecuted by society. While it’s true that Whale was one of the first men to live an openly gay lifestyle in Hollywood, I don’t believe this to be an apt interpretation. Personally, when I watch Frankenstein, I see a treatise on unplanned pregnancy. Before the monster’s birth, Henry is as eager to do the deed as two horny teens in the back seat of dad’s car. When presented with a hulking, seven-foot-tall bouncing baby boy, he realizes he’s not ready for parenthood. But, hey, in another 100 years, Frankenstein may be hailed as prescient for predicting the coming robot revolution. And that’s the genius of these old horror films. They mean different things to different generations.
Whatever the future holds, Frankenstein has definitely held up through the years. It’s generally considered to be one the great films of any genre—the American Film Institute ranked it as 87th on its list of greatest American movies. James Whale might have perfected the creature feature with his darkly humorous 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, but in 1931, he gave birth to a wonderful, horrible monster that will never die. It’s alive indeed…