I know I’ve already heaped a great deal of praise on Boris Karloff in these reviews, and I’m probably going to do a bit more here, but at least in Frankenstein we come to a film with an ensemble of memorable performances. I’ve found something to enjoy about every single movie I’ve reviewed so far, but so often in the old classics the casting is very uneven. Often they seem to be built around one or two stars that steal the production while many of the other actors practically sleepwalk through their roles. Not to say this cast is perfect. Mae Clarke, as Elizabeth, is kind of generic, and John Boles, as Victor Moritz, could have easily been written out completely without having much affect on the story, but there are so many other memorable performances it’s easy to overlook the weak links in the cast.
Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is practically the consummate mad scientist. (I say “practically”, because he is due to be outdone in the sequel, but it’s too soon to get into that.) It’s a wonder that Elizabeth doesn’t break off their engagement on the spot when she, Victor and Dr. Walderman find him ranting about his experiment. His vanity is such that the second his sanity is questioned he insists the three witness the birth of his creature when seconds before he wanted to keep it a secret. Clive is almost over the top, and by the time he’s shouting “He’s alive!” and “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he’s borderline orgasmic. Sure it seems a bit campy by today’s standards, but I’ll bet there’s many a scientist who’s had a major breakthrough that can relate to Henry’s excitement.
Other great performances: Frederick Kerr, who endows Baron Frankenstein with the demeanor of an old British colonel; Edward Van Sloan, who seems to have been relegated to the role of German mentor in many Universal monster films; the underrated actor Dwight Frye as Fritz, Henry’s sadistic hunchbacked assistant, and of course Marilyn Harris as poor doomed Maria.
And then there’s Karloff, far from his first role, this was the one that made him a star, even if he was billed simply as “?” in the opening credits. Like Chaney’s Phantom, this is another case where I wish I could witness the character’s reveal the way audiences did in 1931. It’s easy to credit Jack P. Pierce’s iconic makeup design for making the Monster memorable, but it’s Karloff’s performance that makes him menacing one moment then childlike and sympathetic the next. One need only look to one of the film’s most famous scenes to know that this role was more than stumbling around and growling. The scene between the Monster and little Maria may be one of the most finely crafted scenes in the whole Universal Horror canon. It is the one moment in the film when the Monster experiences any joy. He plays Maria’s floating flower game with the enthusiasm of an amused toddler, which is what makes the scene’s outcome so much more tragic. Yes, you feel terrible for the fate of the little girl, but you also feel for the Monster and his lack of understanding of what he’s done. Curiously, the scene was censored for years, instead of ending with Maria being tossed in the water and the Monster running away confused, it ended with him grabbing her as she screams “You’re hurting me.” Leaving Maria’s fate to the audience’s imagination made it seem worse than was originally intended and probably made it harder to sympathize with the Monster, especially later on as her near catatonic father carries her limp body through the village streets.
Much of why the film works so well is probably due to the director, James Whale. Whale took on the film because he wanted to break free of the war films he’d become associated with, and ironically today he is best remembered for his horror films. Some of Whale’s trademarks are already apparent here, such as his dark sense of humor and his affection for older British character actors, like Kerr, in this case.
Now, I can’t ignore the fact that the story bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s novel. In the film Dr. Frankenstein shuns his creature when he beings to show violent tendencies, in the novel it’s merely because he’s ugly. In the novel, the Monster learns to speak and therefore articulates his misery, while the film only gives us precious glimpses at why we should sympathize with him. (Hats off to Karloff and Whale for making it work.) In fact, I’d say Dr. Frankenstein is the bigger monster in Shelley’s book, which was probably her comment on how superficial people can be. The movie seems far more concerned with entertaining than making a statement. I’m not criticizing here, I’m just observing. I love both works for different reasons. The two have become intertwined; the scarred creature with the flattened head and electrodes in his neck has become the image of Shelley’s Creature in our collective subconscious. I’m sure that’s how most people imagine the Creature when they read the novel, even if they’ve never seen the movie. One work manages to fuel interest for the other.
This week’s supporting features:
Bosko in the Looney Tunes short Congo Jazz (1930)
The Our Gang short When the Wind Blows (1930)
Next week’s film:
The Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death (1943) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish