And mucho thanks once again to the nice people running the Regal Charles Towne Square 18, as well as the super people with Fathom Events/TCM, for getting me in to see this event: a double-feature of restored versions of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein”, up on the big screen where they belonged.
Nice crowd at the theater for this event; respectfully clapping and attentive. The sort of crowd one likes to be sharing a theater with (here’s a hint: you go see classy films you end up sitting with classy people).
Of course I’d seen “Frankenstein” before, but it was something of a roundabout trip. The vagaries of 60s late-night television being what it was, the first film with the Frankenstein Monster that I ever saw was 1948’s “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (which was also where I first saw Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and Lon Chanel Jr. as the Wolf Man). Over the years I’d be experiencing the various Hammer incarnations, as well as the later Universal features, before finally getting an opportunity to see the 1931 classic.
And this, of course, was a remastered edition and on a proper theater screen.
Well, right off the bat, I want to point out that there are some drawbacks to remastering classic films. When you’re watching a sixth-generation copy at 11:52 PM on an itty-bitty UHF television screen you nod and smile with no problems at all. When you’re seeing a crystal-clear copy on a large movie screen, and it becomes undoubtedly evident that the stormy sky in the background is actually a painted canvas curtain (visible wrinkles and all), it tends to become a bit distracting.
(Yes, I know it’s a special effect. But it doesn’t help to have one’s nose rubbed into it.)
But the big question is whether or not Whale’s “Frankenstein” is frightening from the perspective of eighty-one years?
Well pumpkins . . . there are no easy answers. But that’s one of the reasons I’m here: to discuss the issue.
I have to say, on the outset, that there hasn’t been a single film dealing with the Frankenstein Monster which has frightened me (and I’m including the blood-soaked Hammer versions in this opinion). For that matter, I found nothing particularly frightening about Mary Shelley’s source novel (all these years and my favorite part of the book is still the letters written by Robert Walton to his married sister). Putting my opinionated cents onto the table I don’t really consider Shelley’s story to be horror. Imaginative, yes. Ambitious, certainly. But horrifying? I’m likely to be more frightened by what I’d find in my breakfast cereal than what I’ll read within the pages of Shelley’s book.
(Qualifying statement here: the most visually terrifying version of the Frankenstein story, in my opinion, has been the artwork which Bernie Wrightson produced for his renowned illustrated rendition of the original novel. The most entertaining take on the story, to my way of thinking, has been Michael Bishop’s 1994 novel “Brittle Innings”.)
It’s of course a classic bit of artistic folklore that Shelley developed her novel out of a contribution to a series of “ghost stories” written by a group of people (including her future husband and Lord Byron) at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. It’s not my intention to wax overly literary here (as you sigh in relief. Go on, you know you want to), but the point I wish to make is that I’ve always found Shelley’s work to be more of a morality play than a horror story. Certainly people have gone around and murdered others long before “Frankenstein” was penned . . . and there’ve been many stories and novels written on the theme. The difference with “Frankenstein”, of course, was that a trouble became released upon the world through the efforts of a overzealous scientist. Not altogether a monster, however (in spite of the repellent aspect which the Creature was described as having). Those who’ve taken the trouble to read the book conclude that the Creature’s actions were not as a result of an inherent evil nature, but due more to the reactions people had to its appearance (and to unfortunate circumstance). Ultimately, it is Frankenstein’s reaction (the rejection by one’s Creator) which drives the Creature to murderous acts. The horror in Shelley’s story lies not in the perceived ugliness and savagery of the Creature, but in how an alleged “Humanity” reacts to it.
Difficult stuff to fit into the frame of a horror story. But the British playwright Peggy Webling tried her level best when, in 1927, she adapted Shelley’s novel into a stage play. The result was rather removed from the novel, but it served as the inspiration for the playwright/screenwriter John Balderston who adapted the play into a form which Universal Pictures bought the screen rights for (Balderston, by the way, would perform a similar adaptation for Hamilton Deane’s stage version of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”). Once Balderston’s material was bought it was handed over to a team of writers, with the final result given to James Whale for filming.
Not only does Whale occupy a position of importance within genre cinema, but he also occupies a particularly important moment in cinema history. He was the bridge which brought the gothic elements of German Expressionism into the American studio system, as well as being one of the important directors of the generation immediately following the era of silent films (more on that in the next paragraph). His work would practically put Universal Pictures on the map as well as set the standard for visual storytelling for decades to come. “Frankenstein”, his fourth film, would make his reputation and would become his most well-known work (perhaps only surpassed by its sequel: “The Bride of Frankenstein”).
For all Whale’s talent, however, and in spite of the iconic reputation which the film enjoys, “Frankenstein” is not without its flaws. Like many films made in the dying shadow of the Silent Era, “Frankenstein” clearly demonstrates that the rules of talking pictures were still being written. The overall plot is rather thin and is in serious need of coherence (scientist makes monster, monster gets loose and kills a few people, monster gets chased up into a windmill which is then set ablaze. End of picture). There is practically no character development, and the film is really little more than an accumulation of reactions to events (the monster grabs the bride, the father arrives at the laboratory, the assistant steals the wrong brain). Little in the way of explanatory dialogue. Rather than being a whole movie, “Frankenstein” is a collection of film clips.
(Letting you know here that the problem wasn’t just limited to Whale or gothic horror films of this time period. Watch the Marx Brothers in “The Cocoanuts”: a string of gags connected by a threadbare plot.)
But the liabilities which “Frankenstein” brings to the screen are balanced out by its assets. The rulebook for talking pictures might have still been in the process of being written, but Whale was hitting the ground running. Aided by the cinematorgraphy of Arthur Edeson, Whale would create an almost fairy-tale setting (complete with canvas stormy sky) for his actors to move through. And his camera would be busy. Particularly memorable would be the first good look at the monster: a hulking figure entering the laboratory backwards . . . then it slowly turns about to face the audience who is then treated to rapid close-ups of its face.
And what a face! Whale was not the only one whose reputation would be made by “Frankenstein”. Fresh off his success with “Dracula”, Jack Pierce would bring about a Creature which would quickly be recognizable the world over: the scarred, blocklike head with the overshadowed dull eyes (which could so quickly blaze with anger or suspicion), and the prominent electrodes on the neck. Pierce’s work would cast such a long shadow that attempts at different versions of the Creature would continually fall flat.
For his canvas, Pierce had Boris Karloff: a name which people would soon conjure with. By 1931 Karloff had already appeared in seventy-five films. But when Bela Lugosi turned down the role of the Creature, Karloff was brought in to play the part and . . . as with Whale and Pierce . . . his future was assured. Here’s where the lingering influence of silent films provided the most necessary ingredient as Karloff . . . his dialogue nothing more than grunts and growls . . . relies on gestures and movement to express himself (no small task given the fact that Karloff was walking around in a costume which, among other things, featured thirteen-pound boots and a back brace). Billed as a “monster” (and in a film where a narrator warned audiences that they might be “horrified”), Karloff manages to produce moments of visual poetry. When shown the light of the sun his desire for it becomes plainly evident. When pursued by the villagers he becomes as much a storm as the climate which brought him to life. Even in perhaps the most terrifying scene of all, when the Creature throws a little girl into a lake, Karloff manages to steal a fraction of sympathy from the audience who, rather than witnessing an act born of a callous and murderous nature, are instead seeing the tragedy of Innocence Unleashed. Karloff’s ultimate triumph in “Frankenstein” is in depicting not a monster, but a child lost in utter ignorance, and we grieve because the people around him must pay the price.
Lionel Atwill, Peter Cushing and others have all tried on the crown of “mad scientist” throughout the years of horror cinema. But Colin Clive clearly stands at the summit. His Henry Frankenstein is so utterly on the edge that at times he seems far more threatening than the Creature he puts together. His insane euphoria at the success of his experiment is one of the true chilling moments of the movie and, when he seems to regain reason near the end of the film, he almost appears to be a totally different character.
(In one scene he is explaining his work to his friends and fiancee, angered that his sanity is being challenged. His snarling face and hooded eyes for a moment invoke the exact expression Karloff would have as the Creature.)
As Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth, Mae Clarke does her best. Given the scanty nature of the plot, her job is practically limited to wandering around in fashionable outfits and worrying about what’s going on with her intended up in that tower. Only when she’s scheduled to marry Frankenstein does Clarke get a chance to truly act: decked out in a wedding gown and going on at length about disturbing visions she’s been having (she gets visions and he’s borderline wacko . . . talk about your matches made in Heaven). It’s during this part in the film where she also screams just before Karloff delivers one of the more interesting growls in the film.
Frederick Kerr provides the comic relief (which, for some reason, the studio felt the film needed) as the doddering Baron Frankenstein. To give him credit there were more people laughing at him in the Regal Charles Towne Square 18 than were screaming in terror at Karloff. Come to think of it, no one was screaming in terror at Karloff. Oh well . . .
1931 was a busy and important year for Dwight Frye. Not only was he chewing the scenery as Renfield in Tod Browning’s “Dracula” but he practically invented the stereotype of the mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant in “Frankenstein”. Delivering a performance almost as on the edge as Clive’s, Frye’s work in the film is mainly physical (tormenting the Creature with a torch, or stealing brains from a hospital) and, while not particularly or dramatically demanding, he would succeed in inspiring generations of imitators to shuffle around and go “Yes, Master!”.
No, “Frankenstein” wasn’t particularly frightening. But, even from the distance of all these years, its importance to films in general, and the horror genre in particular, is still clearly evident. If Shelley’s novel dived into deeper and more meaningful issues, Whale’s “Frankenstein” would occasionally suggest depths which later monster movies would ignore completely. And if the film appears to be brief and thin, then perhaps the best thing one could do is consider it an important learning process. Or, better yet, consider “Frankenstein” to be the prequel for what was to follow: the film many consider to be a superior effort.
“The Bride of Frankenstein”.
Which I’ll discuss in my next column.