This now ubiquitous characterization has become the public domain icon of "Frankenstein" ever since, and has yet to be replaced, in spite of the myriad later day representations (not counting the Universal Sequels that carried this design forward). Sesame Street still features an animated short featuring the monster and scientists, teaching the letter "F" ("Frank, you've been Standing on my Foot since Friday!"), The Munsters' main character is a humorous Karloff Clone and even more obscure fun stuff like the '80's Cartoon Show called The Drak Pack featured a character called "Frankie" that was yet another borrowed representation. The list goes on for miles! I'll bet each one of you reading this can think of six or seven other boggarted visions of Universal's Image of "The Monster" without fail.
How does that bode for the original? Well, it at once places it firmly in the "Classic" category, showing its influence at every turn. It also allows for some unintentional comedy in hindsight, considering all of the varied imitations. Stripping all that away and focusing solely on the film as it stood then (and accepting the zeitgeist for what it was), Frankenstein is an incredible work of Gothic Horror, featuring one of the all time great Screen performances from an unsung master pantomime artist named Boris Karloff.
Colin Clive portrays the titular mad scientist (renamed to "Henry" Frankenstein), whose obsession with playing God (or Prometheus, as the case may be) has driven a wedge between himself and his family (represented by his Father, Frederick Kerr's old Baron Frankenstein), his fiancée (Mae Clarke's Elizabeth) and his friends (like John Boles' Victor Moritz... at least they got a Victor in there). Frankenstein's associates now include the hunchbacked "Ygor-esque" assistant named Fritz (Dwight Frye) and his mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). His goal is to create life by reanimating combined pieces of corpses into one amalgamated monstrosity.
In one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the film (and in horror history) Henry's experiment succeeds. In one of the most tragic scenes, the experiment goes horribly awry. At issue here is the way Whale and his writers flip the coin between successful experiment and tragedy. Of course this has to happen for the film to work, but the way this happens, arguably does not work as well as it could. Karloff's brilliant portrayal reflects a fully grown infant with full strength and relatively good balance, but no real mind or memory. He has a very human need to learn and understand and a very primal fear of fire. The film turns on the scene that this sympathetic and misunderstood newborn adult begins to be viewed as a Monster (by aaron pruitt). However, the very way this is pulled off screams "Unfair". Further, it's only logical that the other players in the scene should've really known better.
As the film goes on, Karloff makes the story more and more his own, right up to the bitter end. Whale's opulent direction and the varied and sincere acting (only campy when one forgets that this is an early talkie) help to make this film a good, dramatic story. In particular, Colin Clive is mesmerizing. He comes off as a prototypical Bruce "Human Chin" Campbell, but without a trace of the silliness. Even when he's obviously acting (or overacting) Clive is amazing to watch and hear. It took Five Writers (John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey and John Russell) to adapt the play by Peggy Webling (which, like Dracula's source play, was more responsible for the Universal Picture than the original Novel proved to be).
However, it took only one Karloff. And he is incredible in the role. He fully embraces the innocence of his character. Innocence wrapped in uncomfortable power. Karloff's "The Monster", built of the spoils of robbed graves, never asked to be created. Every step he takes is marred by pain and every person he meets shows violence and aggression to him. All but one: Marilyn Harris' Little Maria. The problem is, the Monster has strength but no knowledge and his benefactors have turned on him before teaching him anything. How do you think that friendship turns out? Karloff's portrayal of the tortured soul fits the role perfectly, displaying the hunting humans as the real monsters, as he becomes the sympathetic victim of circumstance.
Interestingly enough, one of Karloff's best acting performances after Frankenstein is his role in The Body Snatcher, in which he turns the tables by playing... a grave robber.
So good was Karloff that he actually outshined Clive as the intended star of the show (the intended second-fiddle nature is the reason Good Mr. Lugosi turned the role down)! This shows in the dramatic and beautifully horrifying make up of the legendary Jack P. Pierce. Jack Pierce designed the fright make up that made the Creation into the Monster. But it was Karloff that made him Human, and it's Karloff that we root for, even at his most angry and heinous.
Keeping in mind that this was an early, and relatively low budget "Horror Show" that was filmed 100% on the Universal Studios Lot, the special effects by John P. Fulton and Ken Strickfaden were quite good. The same can be said for the props by Ed Keyes, set design by Herman Rose and the art direction by Charles D. Hall! There is a classic, influential and still truly astounding Gothicism that makes full use of its black and white majesty to affect the horror and hope of the piece. Still, there are some very betraying flaws here, such as obvious wrinkles in the backdrop scenery and the use of limp dummies in place of stuntmen. Still, this was 1931, and what these folks did with what they had was nothing short of astounding.
Best of all, Frankenstein ends satisfactorily (if tragically) but still leaves the viewer wanting more. Thankfully (albeit against his initial desires), James Whale returned to the loose Shelley adaptation to direct 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, one of the best sequels of all time. Even standing alone, Frankenstein is beautiful and enchanting to watch, touching and tragic to endure, and fully worth Four Stars out of Five (with a full five for Kaloff alone). This may not have been 100% Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley's creation, but there can be no question of Frankenstein's filmic influence is undeniable and far reaching. Bravo to one of the greatest classic horror films of all time. We may all be so lucky to find ourselves reanimated one day... but I warn any future mad scientists out there... don't use my brain... it's ABNORMAL!
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