In 1818 a young aristocrat named Mary Shelley was inspired by a summers night of ghost story readings by a group of friends, to write what may be the greatest horror story in history. Her short story, entitled “Frankenstein”, about a scientist named Victor Frankenstein and his attempts to generate new life from dead tissue has inspired novels, plays, TV series and countless movie adaptations. Her monster, however, was a far different creature than the famous interpretation by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal adaptation of Frankenstein that everyone is familiar with. Karloff’s monster was a slow mute who acted out violently from fear and confusion. Shelley’s monster was both intelligent and articulate. His violent behavior stemmed from the internal anguish over how it had been created. This monster was more than capable of confronting his creator intellectually with his pain and suffering. Ultimately the Karloff version was more cinematically impressive than a direct interpretation of Shelly’s monster could have been. Who would have been afraid of an intellectual monster? Shellye’s novel worked as a written horror tale, but as a film it wouldn’t have carried the same impact.
In 1926 Willis O’Brien wanted to follow the success of his feature “The Lost World” with a stop-motion adaptation of Frankenstein. This, however, was just a fleeting fascination with O’Brien who soon began work on another monster classic called “King Kong.” The famed special effects wizard did however write a script for another film that would feature both monsters entitled “King Kong vs. Frankenstein”. He peddled the script around several studios that opted to pass on the project. Ultimately Universal kept control of the script and had it on the shelf for several decades before they sold it to the famed Toho film company in Japan who intern turned it into King Kong vs. Godzilla. Reportedly O’Brien wept when he learned the news.
A few years later Universal purchased the rights to Shelley’s novel a set out to bring it to the big screen. Initially French director Robert Florey directed two reels worth of test footage with Bela Lugosi as The Monster. Universal however was not impressed with any of the work so the project was scrapped.
Universal didn’t give up on the idea of a cinematic version of Frankenstein. English director James Whale had come to Hollywood to direct a film based on R.C. Sherriff’s World War I play entitled “Journey’s End.” Whale was also a scenery designer and a commercial artist. Universal felt that “Frankenstein” needed to be a visual heavy film, the director’s artistic skills would be a perfect match, so they handed him the project. As it would turn out “Frankenstein” would always be remembered for its visuals and is always regarded as the most artistic of all the classic horror films produced by Universal.
Boris Karloff arrived in Hollywood in 1917 and began a career as a bit player in several films before James Whale spotted him in the Universal commissary eating lunch. His silent portrayal as the monster in “Frankenstein” would catapult him to the “A” list of Hollywood horror actors. In real life however Karloff was anything but a monster. He was always noted as being a gentle, kind man who loved to entertain children.
When Universal released “Frankenstein” in 1931 the film was a very unique piece to watch. The film has always been regarded as a black and white classic when it was nothing of the sort. When audiences originally saw the film in theatres the daylight scenes were in amber, the night in pale blue, the eerie scenes in green and the fiery climax in red. Universal also thought it was necessary to hype the film up a bit. As if the film wasn’t scary enough on its own the studio found it in their best interest to park an ambulance out in front of many theatres and to keep two nurses on hand in the lobby to raise the chill factor. They even went as far as to place an actress in the audience during every showing who would, at the scariest moment in the film, scream, jump out of her seat, and run up the aisle and out of the theatre. Too bad we don’t see theatrics like that anymore.
The brilliant scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive)(changed from Shelley’s Victor) has been spending more time in his castle laboratory than he has with his lovely fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clark). Henry as it would seem has become obsessed with creating life through artificial means. Together with his servant Fritz (not Igor) they begin robbing graves to gather pieces that they can use in the experiment. Unknown to the scientist his servant has retrieved the brain of a criminal instead of an intellectual as he was ordered, a mistake that would prove fatal.
Frankenstein brings his creation to life by harnessing the power of an electrical storm to power his generators. The seven-foot-tall creature only twitched at first, but as more power was supplied the monster gained the strength to rise from the table. “ITS ALIVE!”
The monster becomes an object for Frankenstein’s servant Fritz to torment. This ends up being something that the dwarf would regret when he becomes the confused creatures first victim. Frankenstein becomes worried that the being he has created is purely evil so he enlists his friend Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to dispose of the abomination. The monster, however, has other plans and strangles Waldman and escapes the castle.
Once out in the countryside The Monster discovers a young girl on the banks of a small lake tossing flowers into the water. The young girl isn’t afraid of the ominous figure and they both begin to play. The scene turns tragic however when after all the flowers are exhausted The Monster throws the girl into the water to see if she too would float. It is important to note that this particular scene was cut from the original print of the film because the censors believed it was too violent. What was left, however, proved to be more frightening. What the audiences saw were the two at play then the film cut to the scene of the young girls body being dragged from the lake. Without the explanation of what really happened it was left to the audience to assume that The Monster murdered her with cruel intent. The imagination always conjures up the most violent of scenarios.
The townspeople become enraged at the discovery of the young girl’s dead body and set out to destroy The Monster. Frankenstein too joins in the search a he becomes the first to spot his creation. The two begin to wrestle and The Monster quickly overpowers the scientist and carries him off to an old mill with the townspeople in chase. Once inside the The Monster carries his creator to the roof while the villagers set the structure ablaze. Another fight breaks out between Frankenstein and his creation. This time The Monster raises his creator above his head and hurls him to the ground below. The structure soon gives way and The Monster never emerges from the flaming heap. Henry Frankenstein manages to survive the ordeal and marry Elizabeth in a happy ending.
Of course we all know that all good monsters never truly perish and movie goers would have a chance to watch Frankenstein and his monster several more times over the decades.
Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein
Mae Clarke as Elizabeth
John Boles as Victor Moritz
Boris Karloff as The Monster
Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein
Dwight Frye as Fritz
Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel
Marilyn Harris as Little Maria