Many of the great motion pictures of the 1930s have faded away in the memories of the public, either because they are simply not watched anymore (how many readers here have seen Grand Hotel?), or because the films themselves have not stood up well to the tests of time. Fans of the recent Indiana Jones-inspired remakes of The Mummy may have trouble watching the original classic Universal monster movie: even though Boris Karloff gives a wonderfully haunting performance as the ancient Egyptian sorcerer Imhotep come to life, it still suffers from the now-dated production values of that time – especially the long periods of painful silence that render portions of the film dead and lifeless, because Universal (and the Hollywood studios as a whole) had not yet learned how to place a musical score over a "talking picture." But there was one motion picture released in 1931 that rose above this, and became a landmark of film horror that still shines today: Frankenstein, directed by the legendary James Whale.
Of the many Universal horror films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood (including classic silent horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera), Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein still stand tall as icons of the cinema, not just of horror but cinema history itself. Other famous movie monsters were immortalized on the movie lot, including Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man (the 1933 version by Whale made a star of Claude Rains), but it is Frankenstein that we first think of when we think of Universal horror movies…and, especially, when we think of Whale the director. While he directed a number of pictures for Universal throughout the 1930s, this movie (and even more so in its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein) bears his particular stamp: exquisite sets, each scene full of energy and excitement, campy but not quite over-the-top performances by wonderfully talented actors, and a keen, morbid sense of humor that sets his movies apart from other horror films of the day. The humor in these films is very subtle and largely symbolic: while a casual viewer certainly appreciates Henry Frankenstein’s obsession (and macabre taste) as he and Fritz the dwarf dig up a freshly-buried body, it is on further viewings that we notice that the pair are tossing the dirt from the grave onto a conveniently-placed gargoyle of the Grim Reaper…in effect, they are throwing dirt in the face of Death himself.
One remarkable aspect of the 1931 film is rarely mentioned: the expert use of sound to enhance the greatest moments of the story. Hollywood was still going through the painful transition from silent to sound when Frankenstein was released. Tod Browning’s smash hit Dracula is badly dated because of this – as it is little more than a filming of the stage play, there are long periods of complete silence during important scenes, such as the close-ups of Bela Lugosi giving the audience Dracula’s hypnotic stare. Frankenstein, on the other hand, uses background sound to enhance the great visuals: as the Monster is brought to life, thunder crashes and booms throughout Henry Frankenstein’s lab, nearly drowning out his voice as he cries out, "Now what I know what it feels like to be God!" (In fact, that particular line was censored from many prints over the years, and this is covered up by having the thunder overwhelm his words completely.) Likewise, one of the great images of the movie is the scene when the peasant father carries his dead daughter into town, interrupting the celebration of Henry’s wedding. The sight of him walking into the town square, his lifeless little girl cradled in his arms, while the wedding bells chime and ring loudly gives great, tragic feeling to this moment. And of course, there is the climactic chase and the burning of the mill, with the shouts of the hysterical mob ("Burn the mill!") and the roar of the flames as the Monster meets his (apparent) demise. These are all moments of true cinema, and these scenes still impact the viewer today with a power rarely matched, or even approached, by the many remakes and sequels to Frankenstein.
In so many ways, Frankenstein is cited as a textbook example of many moments in cinema history – from the art direction (German Expressionism took hold in the Universal films of the 1930s, and this can be seen in the elaborately designed Frankenstein lab, with lines in the floorboards and stone walls criss-crossing the frame) to censorship. Of the all the horror films that came from Hollywood in the 1930s, the censorship imposed on Frankenstein is well-known – even to the point that Universal chairman Carl Laemmle had Whale add that teaser to the beginning, in which Edward Van Sloan walks out from behind the "stage curtain" and warns the audience that the story they were about to see would horrify them, and if they still wanted to watch…"well…we warned you!" Two crucial scenes from the movie are legendary for having been lost, then recovered decades later: the moment in which Dr. Waldman injects the Monster with a syringe; and the scene where the Monster playfully tosses the young girl into the lake, only to flee in terror when she drowns. The cutting out of this scene actually made the Monster seem malevolent and evil, instead of innocent: in the excised prints, the audience saw the Monster reach for the little girl, and then the camera cuts away. Some interpretations of this scene actually suggested that the Monster was assaulting or molesting her, when the full scene shows that he was simply playing a game with her.
And then we come to the unforgettable, sympathetic portrayal of the Monster by Boris Karloff. It was this movie that made Karloff a film star with a single-word name – just as we know Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ahnold, and Humphrey Bogart as Bogie, so too do we know the name of Karloff. And the praise given to Karloff for his role is well-deserved: it was his role that gave the Monster a soul, one that made us care for him and feel sorry for him. However, the other major players in the cast shine as well, and here we can give Whale credit for guiding them. His best films (including this one) let his actors give wonderfully hammy, over-the-top performances; yet not so campy as to be ridiculously unbelievable. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) chews his lines and spits out, '"Crazy, am I? We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not!" We enjoy Dr. Waldman (Van Sloan) rolling his R’s as he says, "You have created a monster and it will DESTROY you!," and especially the cartoony Baron Frankenstein’s deep voice as he rumbles, "Anything the Burgermeister has to say can’t possibly be of the slightest importance!"; and yet we still take them seriously, so that we know that the Baron cares deeply for his son, and he is in earnest when he gives the toast that lays the curse upon his family name for generations (and multiple movie sequels) to come: "…a son to the house of Frankenstein!"
Frankenstein is one of many Hollywood movies that took enormous creative liberties with its script: while key scenes from the book remain in the film (especially when the Monster is brought to life), nearly the entire story after the Monster comes to life is entirely different from Mary Shelly’s original tale. I’ve never read any of the stage productions of Frankenstein that were performed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries – and they were numerous – but I would suspect that much of the basic plot is probably borrowed more from the stage plays than the novel. But the great visual images are unquestionably the work of James Whale, and it is his contribution to the film that makes it a true classic of the cinema. Four years after Frankenstein, Universal was finally able to convince Whale to do a sequel to the movie…and this resulted in one of those rare miracles of motion pictures, the unforgettable Bride of Frankenstein. Rare indeed is the sequel that equals or surpasses the original, especially when the original is a classic that towers in the cinema world. Fortunately for us all, Frankenstein is one such classic. If you’re a novice to the great black-and-white classics of the silver screen, and you want to see one movie that is not only deserving of its reputation as a classic, but also remains powerfully moving, exciting, and entertaining even to the jaded audiences of today, then this is the movie for you. Once you’ve seen the original Frankenstein, you’ll know that – with one single exception – ALL of the many remakes and sequels pale in comparison.