Celebrating 80 Years of Frankenstein
Ben Bussey introduces Brutal As Hell’s 80th anniversary tribute to Frankenstein.
November 21st 1931 – i.e. 80 years ago today – saw the theatrical release (not that there was any other kind back then) of Universal’s Frankenstein, and popular culture has never been the same since. Yes, that is an absolute, inarguable fact. So often we deal in arguing the relative merits of a film, what is or is not significant and why, but in this instance there really is no debate. The horror genre, the horror film, and indeed cinema overall would not exist as we know it without Frankenstein. Sure, the German Expressionists had given us the nightmarish visions of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu; Lon Chaney had his celebrated macabre collaborations with Todd Browning in the silent era, and Browning had subsequently brought the first talking horror picture to the silver screen with Dracula. But it was Frankenstein which – not unlike the good doctor himself – brought all the pieces together and charged them with life, creating an entirely new entity in doing so.
Let’s be candid: Browning’s Dracula is far from a masterpiece. Despite its star turn from Bela Lugosi and the unforgettable imagery of the early scenes, it rapidly descends into stagebound tedium, blandly performed, severly lacking the gall to let things get truly sinister. The key problem, or so it would seem, is that Browning was just not comfortable directing dialogue: note that the most powerful, memorable sequences are those with little or no speech involved. Nor was Browning alone in this. What the movies really needed, then, were directors who did know how to get great speaking performances out of their actors. Enter James Whale, whose experience of directing, acting and set design for the stage were pivotal to making the film what it is. (Look out for an article discussing Whale’s work in detail later on.)
Frankenstein proved that a tale of the supernatural could be handled seriously, with real gravitas and pathos. Boris Karloff (AKA William Henry Pratt, and/or ‘?’) ended a career of obscurity and became a superstar with his iconic turn as the Monster, or Creature, as he is said to have preferred to call it. His performance, Jack Pierce’s make-up design and Whale’s direction are quite rightly the most celebrated components of the film, but too often sadly overlooked is Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein himself. With his jet-black, side-parted fringe draping over his perpetually furrowed brow and his drive to rebel against the order of the day, we might regard him as the emo that arrived too early. Such jovialities aside, Clive’s performance is every bit as wonderful as Karloff’s, in almost a mirror opposite capacity; where Karloff is mute, uncomprehending and ultimately innocent, Clive is articulate, obsessive and for the most part unrepentant in his compulsion to break the laws of science and morality to realise his vision. Truly, his is one of the first great speaking performances in film, with many memorable lines, from the menacing “Crazy, am I?”, to the contemplative “Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous?”, to the deranged cry for which he will always be remembered: “It’s alive!” And let’s not forget Dwight Frye as Fritz (often incorrectly remembered as Igor), the performance against which film history has judged every subsequent hunchbacked assistant of a scientist with lax morals and sadistic temperament.
And the sheer number of unforgettable images: the opening grave robbery, in the cemetery where every tombstone stands at a forty-five degree angle under the painted backdrop of a cloud-strewn sky; the remote castle, bleak and uninviting in the dark stormy night; the laboratory, with its deluge of bizarre devices crackling with electricity within that same Gothic castle, a headlong collision of the futuristic and the medieval; the bandaged body of the creature winched into the air as kites fly into the storm to catch the lightning; the haunting reveal of the creature itself, alive at last; the lakeside encounter with the little girl who neither judges nor fears the strange man she meets, to her peril; and the final confrontation between creature and creator within the burning mill. (Hmm – did I just indavertently re-enact Lord Byron’s opening speech from Bride of Frankenstein?) All these scenes and more have been endlessly imitated these past eighty years, but we’d be hard pushed to say they have ever truly been surpassed.
On top of all this, Frankenstein and its sequel stand firm as proof of how a cinematic adaptation of an existing work can stand up as an entirely separate work of art in its own right. As the screenplay was adapted by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh (probably with contributions from Whale) from a treatment by John L. Balderston, which itself was modelled not on Mary Shelley’s novel but Peggy Webling’s stageplay, it is little wonder that the film winds up bearing scant resemblance to the book; we might even say that Frankenstein is itself a Frankenstein… yes, I know, it’s a corny analogy, but it rings true. It also does nothing to impede the film’s resounding success. This really is worth emphasising, as nowadays we seem so obsessed with loyalty to the text; whenever a book is adapted for the screen, all we hear is fans demanding it must not stray from the source material, and more often than not filmmakers insisting they will not do so. It must be said, this approach is not necessarily a good thing. So often, it results in films weighed down with excessive exposition and overwritten dialogue which might work on the page but comes off awkward and unnatural; think Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, the last forty five minutes of Return of the King. In not closely following Mary Shelley’s work, Frankenstein winds up being a film that is entirely distinct, with many merits which are entirely its own. It’s much the way that Kubrick approached Stephen King’s The Shining so many years later, and there’s definitely something to be said for this approach.
Yes, Frankenstein is a groundbreaking, extraordinary film that still stands up today, and should never be forgotten. With that in mind, we’re marking the 80th anniversary here at Brutal As Hell with a few special pieces on the subject. Keep an eye out in the next couple of days for explorations of the film and its legacy, how it has shaped horror film history, how it has shaped popular culture overall. We hope that you will join us in this heartfelt tribute. We think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you…