“It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” exclaims Henry Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff worked in Hollywood for over a decade, often being cast in small parts and sometimes playing exotic villains. That all changed, however, in 1931. As Bela Lugosi became best-known for portraying Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s Dracula that year, Karloff became best-known for his portrayal of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein later that same year (both films were released by Universal; the success of Dracula had enabled them to make Frankenstein). I was lucky enough to attend a showing of Frankenstein at the Museum of the Moving Image more than 12 years ago as part of their NY Film Critics series. It was a thrilling experience to finally see it on the big screen, especially since I had finally seen Dracula just a few months before at the Museum of the Moving Image.
1931’s Frankenstein follows a mad scientist whose pursuit of recreating life brings disaster to himself, his family, and his town. Whale brought together a terrific cast that included Colin Clive (as Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (as Elizabeth Lavenza), John Boles (as Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein’s monster), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Waldman), Frederick Kerr (as Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (as Fritz), Lionel Belmore (as the Burgomaster), Marilyn Harris (as Little Maria), and Michael Mark (as Ludwig). Clive is neurotic as the famous scientist, and Karloff is child-like yet monstrous as the creation brought to life by the overreaching doctor. Clarke gives Dr. Frankenstein an emotional anchor, and Frye brings the crazy (without going over-the-top) as the doctor’s assistant. Whale’s strong direction draws memorable performances and his influence on the film is very much apparent, from the tight story to the Expressionistic sets to the improvement in the characterization of the monster (the monster in original director Robert Florey’s version was just a remorseless killing machine lacking any humanity).
The screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort largely adapts the play by Peggy Webling, which in turn was based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography is first-rate, as is the Gothic production design by Charles Hall and Herman Rosse (how can you not love Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and the Expressionistic interiors of the watch tower). The special effects were incredible (I loved Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical effects in the sequence where the monster is brought to life). Jack Pierce’s makeup design was certainly Oscar worthy (his design for the monster has become iconic; it’s the one that future Frankenstein monster makeup designs have been inspired by and/or compared to). The opening title music by Bernhard Kaun sets the mood for the rest of the film. Whale’s Frankenstein is one of the greatest horror films ever made, anchored by a hauntingly sympathetic performance by Karloff. It has managed to survive the censors of the 1930s and gone on to become one of the all-time classics!