Continuing my reviews of the Universal Classics, I must touch on Frankenstein. It was the second film in what is considered the Universal Monsters set. Dracula was a near Valentines Day release, with Frankenstein being a near Thanksgiving release. This gave the producers and directors time to see how Dracula did and make modifications based on audience response. There are some really nifty factoids and tidbits worth mentioning so I want to cover them in this review. Please consider yourself warned this review does have Spoilers; at 83 years I think I am beyond the statute of limitations.
The movie was produced by the owner of Universal at the time Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the founder of Universal and heir to the empire from 1928 to 1936. This was one of the first directorial roles for James Whale, which would then be followed by the Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is easy to see he took a different tact to the film making than those who made Dracula. There’s at times an almost clear sense to take a more clinical and far less romantic approach to it. Even the writing, blocking, and delivery of the actors has started to drift away from the stage plays and silent films before. Not entirely mind you, but some of it is showing, mostly in the scenes with Henry Frankenstein and Fritz. It has more in common with later science fiction than it does with the some of the other horror films at the time; or perhaps more in common with Jekyll and Hyde. For those that like the movie Young Frankenstein, I recommend watching this and then the comedy. You will be amazed at how many references and callbacks were made with all due respect to the original films.
The story of course is inspired by the original work of Mary Shelley, adapted by Peggy Webling, then further adapted by John L. Balderston, and adapted once again to the silver screen by Garret Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh. I would say this suffers from the writers curse of too many writers, but movies were so nascent at this time it is difficult to tell where some of those story issues lie. Of course it is worth mentioning some of what we know about Frankenstein was not in the original film at all. The movie actually begins with the grave robbing and acquisition of the brain. It was not Igor, but Fritz – played by the magnificent Dwight Frye. The doctor is Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), not Victor; who is played as a friend of Henry. Boris Karloff, was not credited originally. The title card simply read:
That sort of thing is unheard of these days. I mean sure actors go uncredited in movies, but a major character within the film? Awesome. The movie also wastes no time getting us into the “action” of the piece with friends and the love of Henry coming to see him concerned about his well being before he even animated The Monster. The movie also couches much of itself in the science of the time; even if it is technobabble, it is the technobabble of the 30s. In a rather interesting twist, rather than turn his people away before the animation he actually shows off his work to the intrigue of his former teacher Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan – again, see I told you he was in everything). His fiancee, his best friend, and his mentor not only watch the animation but help to keep it secret from the rest of the world! There’s no argument. There’s no fighting about if it should or could be done. It has happened and they just go with it. I actually miss the simplicity of that.
The famous “It’s Alive” , is so beautifully done by Colin Clive who does not nearly have the career he deserves; due to a too early death. It gets cut off in most modern clips you hear, mostly due to censorship in the late 30’s, but when its said in the film its chilling, I am giving you the text, but you just need to see it!
“It’s alive, it’s alive. In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God…”
The beautiful arrogance is wonderfully entertaining. I may be the Vampire Princess, but I prefer the acting in this film to that of Dracula, mostly around Clives performance. The conversations between him and Waldman are professional discussions on what has happened, not the moral implications. The science is the conversation. The risk of such an experiment in that name as well. Even as the movie progresses it is still a conversation and a partnership – no matter how dark it goes.
It’s of course worth mentioning that the stiff arms out did not come until a later film (Frankenstein meets the Wolfman 1943) when The Monster was blind, his movements are rigid but not nearly as clunky as we think of. There is such subtlety in the expressions Karloff gives the monster, there is a reason he is considered a legend and a reason we remember him today. The iconic look was created by the infamous Jack P. Pierce – you will be hard pressed to find a make up expert in the industry who was not at some point inspired by Pierce. Even though it is a massive departure from Shelley’s description, it is what we remember. Even the green grey look we consider for the monster was due to the grease paint used to make him look dead on screen and off colour from the other performers. That look, by the way, is under Universal copyright until 2026 and I am sure it will be renewed after. I do, also, recommend the most recent releases to watch as they contain less unedited footage, including what happens to the little girl, Fritz, Dr. Waldman, and more importantly how the monster reacts to them.
Some of the technicals are not as solid as the make up work. You can clearly see it is a backdrop painting on a set, but other than that it is more solid than some of the films we get now!
Look, this is an awesome film that holds up better than most of the Universal Monster films. If you love the classics you should have already seen this, but if not. SEE IT.
I had an opportunity a year ago to see this and the Bride of Frankenstein as a double feature in a theatre. I do not regret it. If you have options to see this on the big screen take it.
This one is a great and it should be treasured and watched for all time. Here’s to the House of Frankenstein!