Frankenstein (1931)

One of the curious things about some of horror movie’s most famous creations is how they were done best by early movie practitioners who had to work with a more limited array of effects at their disposal. There has never been a better Dracula interpretation than F W Murnau’s 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu, and there has never been a better version of the Frankenstein story than the two movies made in the 1930s by James Whale, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

James Whale’s first film set the template for future Frankenstein (and indeed science-fiction) movies to such an extent that it is easy to be blasé and patronising about Whale’s handling of film tropes that have been done so often since. After all the film is working within the limitations of make-up design and special effects of its time, and the script is not without its weaknesses, or so its critics might think.

Yet for the person that looks closer, Frankenstein holds up well in all departments. The script has its flaws. I could spend a long time examining them, but I will content myself with one. Why does the scientist need to build a body out of the parts of multiple cadavers, rather than just using one intact corpse? However when we look at the script of later Frankenstein movies, this original one holds up surprisingly well, and it is less hammy and silly than many.

Movie technology may have developed greatly in its use of make-up and effects, but the greatness of a film lies in how it uses those products, not in the products themselves. Ask the average child or adult to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s monster, and what you will most likely get is the monster from James Whale’s Frankenstein – flat-headed, with drooping eyelids, arms outstretched, shuffling gait, and of course the bolt through the neck.

The laboratory from Frankenstein has also become familiar to movie buffs, as it has been imitated countless times – antiquated mechanical devices, electrical arcs and flashing sparks. Indeed electricity is so important to the Frankenstein story that the so-called bolt through the monster’s neck is actually intended to be the place where the electrodes were attached.


Mary Shelley’s book offers no explanation how the monster was brought to life, but the 1931 movie suggested that the answer was electricity, and plenty of future Frankenstein movies show similar scenes of Dr Frankenstein using electrical charges, or raising the body into the heavens to take advantage of a passing storm, as he does in this movie.

While we are correcting misapprehensions, we should point out that Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is neither a doctor nor a baron in this first movie. He is the son of a Baron, and he left medical school when his ‘crazy’ ideas on reviving human bodies became too much. Here we have another trope created by this movie – the mad or half-crazed scientist fanatically pursuing his goals with little concern for ethics or the consequences of his actions.

This scientist is often accompanied by the misshapen or creepy servant, in this case, Fritz (Dwight Frye). The movie often ends with scenes of angry or panicky villagers brandishing torches. One final trope established here and reused in many Frankenstein (and other) movies is the anachronistic use of time and place, where it is impossible to state for certain where and when the action takes place.

For James Whale, Frankenstein breathed new life into his movie career, and helped him to escape typecasting as a director of war movies. Indeed he is nowadays mostly renowned for his four horror/sci-fi films, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House.

The film also represented a new start for another man. After Bela Lugosi did not take up the role of Frankenstein’s monster, it was offered to a 44-year-old actor who might reasonably have assumed that his chance of becoming a major star had passed. Instead Boris Karloff was just beginning his career, and this movie would be the platform to many more major roles.

Like Whale, the genre of horror proved to be Karloff’s saving grace, and he made most of his films in this genre. Added mystery was achieved by suppressing his name from the credits. The actor playing the monster was represented only by a question mark, but this did not stop Karloff becoming one of the most famous names in classic horror movies.

The story bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s book. In place of Romantic and Gothic sensibilities, Whale opted for a straightforward horror movie. It may not seem quite as shocking now, but it was considered necessary for the film to have an introduction spoken by Edward van Sloan offering us a “friendly warning”: “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 is your chance to, uh… Well, we’ve warned you.”

Van Sloan’s introduction is tongue-in-cheek, but the movie mostly lacks the camp and kitsch humour that marked many later Frankenstein movies, including James Whale’s own Bride of Frankenstein. Certainly there is Colin Clive’s high-pitched hysterical voice (“It’s alive!”) and the ugly face of Fritz, the scientist’s twisted henchman, but these elements aside the movie is told in a comparatively straight manner.

This can be seen in the opening credits which depict indistinct and nightmarish images of eyes, a face and hands reaching out. Hands will play an important part in the movie, as a force of creation and also of destruction. They will bring life and death. For Henry Frankenstein, his hands mean life, restoring to existence even that which is dead: “The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

The hands of the monster serve the opposite purpose. They are used to kill that which is alive. There is much emphasis on the monster’s hands. The first sign that monster is alive is when he moves his hand. When the monster glimpses daylight, he holds his hands up towards the sun. Later those hands will be used to kill three people.

After the credits we get a glimpse of the macabre world of the film, one that would have startled audiences at the time. The first scene takes place in a graveyard where a funeral is taking place. We catch a glimpse of the crazy eyes of Fritz before Frankenstein restrains him. Standing close to an image of Death, the two men disinter the new coffin and cut down a hanging body from a gibbet. However they find that the brain of the dead man is useless.

The gruesome atmosphere is maintained when Fritz is next appointed to steal a healthy brain from the classroom of Frankenstein’s old professor, Dr Waldman (Edward van Sloan). The room is veiled in shadows, and a laboratory skeleton startles the nervous Fritz. He is disturbed and drops the normal brain on the floor. Instead he steals an abnormal brain taken from a man “whose life was one of brutality, violence, and murder”, according to Waldman.

We have seen the work that Frankenstein is engaging on. We now get a glimpse of his personal background. We realise that Frankenstein has become a self-isolating figure. His friend and fiancé are worried about him, as he neglects his bride-to-be in favour of his work. Waldman reveals that he had a breach with his former student because Frankenstein demanded more bodies to work on, and had an “insane desire” to bring the dead back to life.

A visit to the abandoned watch tower where Frankenstein is working does not reassure them. They arrive at the lonely tower in the driving rain, but the scientist only reluctantly agrees to see them. He snaps at them, and tries to send them away. Only Waldman remains behind to help Frankenstein and Fritz. Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and the family friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) stay with Henry’s father, the Baron (Frederick Kerr). He too is concerned that his son refuses to get in touch with them, and the date of Henry’s wedding with Elizabeth is deferred indefinitely.

By now we understand what Frankenstein is working on. He wishes to reanimate a body made from dead cadavers, and thereby triumph over death. Life and death are frequent themes in horror. One might almost argue that the history of horror stories is about the battle by the living to escape the cold hand of death.

To Frankenstein, the body of the monster is just resting, waiting for new life to come. Indeed his experiments are successful, and the body is indeed revived. It takes half an hour of the movie’s short running time before we finally get to see Frankenstein’s new creation. He has kept the monster in darkness, and now he finally brings the creature into the light.

It is a carefully-shot scene designed to slowly satisfy the audience’s curiosity. The monster enters backwards before turning towards us. A series of quick camera shots follow, each one closer to the monster till we can see his face. The monster can only roar and has no speech, but he follows simple instructions. In a moment of pathos, he reaches for the light. However he is soon frightened by Fritz’s torch, and the panic-stricken monster has to be subdued.

Frankenstein soon has cause to rue the results of his work. He has little idea what to do with a creature that seems barely human, and which is dangerous. The monster is kept chained, where it is tormented with whips and fire by the sadistic Fritz. Frankenstein’s disillusionment is complete when he learns from Waldman that the brain is abnormal, and when the monster retaliates and kills his tormentor, Fritz.

It is almost as if Frankenstein wakes up from a dream and remembers Elizabeth. He leaves Waldman to destroy the monster, and begins to make plans for his wedding. However he cannot escape the consequences of his actions so easily. The monster kills Waldron and escapes.

This leads on to one of the most famous scenes in Frankenstein. The monster stumbles upon a young girl who is playing by a lake. She is not frightened by the monster’s appearance, and even invites him to join her in throwing flowers into the water. This is the first and only time in the movie that the monster will see a friendly face, and he responds amiably.


Unfortunately the monster’s innocence causes the scene to end in tragedy. Enchanted by the sight of the floating flowers, the monster throws the girl into the water thinking that she will float too. When she sinks to the bottom, the monster flees in distress. It is always shocking to see a child being killed onscreen, and lamentably the scene was cut from the movie for many years, thereby making it look as if the monster had deliberately killed the girl.

Meanwhile the festivities are beginning in advance for Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth, but his plans will once more be cut short. Elizabeth is already having premonitions of danger. These prove to be justified when the father of the drowned girl brings her body into town, and the monster briefly threatens the bride-to-be.

This leads the townsfolk to hunt down the monster. Eventually he is traced to an old mill, and there is a final confrontation between Frankenstein and his creation. The monster throws Frankenstein from the top of the mill, and the townsfolk burn the mill down, presumably killing the monster, though we do not get to see a body.

James Whale intended for Frankenstein to die at the end of the movie, and there are a number of plot elements that have been set up to prepare us for this event, such as Elizabeth’s premonitions and the presence of a friend who is in love with Elizabeth to whom Frankenstein insists that he is leaving Elizabeth in his care.

However a happy ending is instead tacked on to the movie, with Frankenstein surviving the fall, and the Baron giving a toast to the possibility of the wedded couple having a son. This ending is inartistic, as it allows Frankenstein to  avoid facing the full consequences of his actions. However in retrospect the ending was fortunate, as it paved the way for a sequel. Indeed numerous sequels followed, but only one with Henry Frankenstein.

It might be too much to call Frankenstein the real monster of the movie. He is not an especially bad man. However it is true that the blame for the murders that take place in the film lies with him. The monster is essentially a pathetic and innocent creature, a victim almost. The monster is violent and murderous, but with no understanding of his actions.

By contrast, Frankenstein behaves like an abusive parent. He has sired the child, but he does not take on the full responsibilities towards the monster that a father should. He has brought the monster to life against his will with little forethought about what would happen, and with no provisions for helping the new-born creature to understand and adapt to his environment. He allows the monster to be chained up and abused, and only refers to the monster as ‘it’, never regarding his creation as being remotely human.

Indeed there are a number of religious references to the blasphemy of Frankenstein’s actions.  In his introduction, Edward van Sloan says that Frankenstein “sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God”. In the sequel Mary Shelley comments about her story: “The publishers did not see that my purpose was to write a moral lesson. The punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.”

Frankenstein too uses the language of god. After restoring the creature to life he triumphantly proclaims, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” This line of dialogue was also cut by the censors, incidentally. We do not need to take these statements too literally as expressing a religious message. Whale himself was not religious, and it is more likely that he uses this metaphor to reflect the overweening nature of Frankenstein’s hubris.

The scientist has some well-meaning intentions for furthering human knowledge, but his fanaticism for his work has made him a little crazy, however much he denies it. He has lost sight of the fact that science should have ethics. He has set himself up too high, and now he must fall.

The ascending ambitions and descending failure of the main character is reflected in the movie’s visual imagery. We often see shots of cameras placed above or below characters. The camera often rises and falls. People are often seen looking up or down, or climbing and going down stairs.

The first talkie version remains one of the very best movies concerning the Frankenstein monster. It set up so many of the clichés of horror for years to come that it is hard to recognise just how fresh the story once was. It was a fortunate day indeed when James Whale took the risk of making a production outside of his previous experience, and gave the world this instantly popular monster movie.


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