1931 film of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff playing the "Unnamed
Monster" is the greatest horror movie of all time.
had a scarier, albeit silent, monster and "Alien" (see
City Review article) was scarier with much more spectacular special
effects, but the movie's tale of dead body parts crafted into
a living being is mythical and haunting and a forerunner of the
great cloning debates that would arise decades later.
the story of Frankenstein special is the pathos of the "Unnamed
Monster," the cruelty of Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein's hunchback
assistant, and Dr. Frankenstein's obsession to make something
are talking about is god-like power and immortality.
the movie a classic is the acting, the direction and the cinematography.
The movie is based on Mary Shelley's 1818 novel,
"Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus." Frankenstein
is not the monster, but Dr. Henry Frankenstein, the scientist
who created him.
It was not
the first movie based on the novel. According to Tim Dirks, whose
provides in-depth reviews and summaries of great American movies,
J. Seale Dawley directed a 16-minute silent film on Frankenstein
for the Edison Company in 1910 and Joseph W. Smiley directed a
feature-length on Frankenstein in 1915, a lost silent film called
"Life Without a Soul," for the Ocean Film Corporation.
be numerous remakes of the 1931 film that was directed by James
Whale for Universal Pictures including "Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein" in 1948, "Young Frankenstein"
directed by Mel Brooks in 1974, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"
that was directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1994 and "Van Helsing"
that as directed by Stephen Sommers in 2004.
"Frankenstein" was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for
Universal Pictures, the same year that Dracula (1931), another
classic horror film, was produced within the same studio.
Mr. Dirks observed in his fine review of the 1931 film, "the
famed Dracula actor Bela Lugosi was cast as the Monster, and French
director Robert Florey was assigned to direct. But after various
screen tests, Lugosi refused the part, and Universal chose Britisher
James Whale to direct. Significantly, this film then launched
the career of unknown actor Boris Karloff, who is surprisingly
uncredited in the opening credits of the film as the Monster.
In the beginning credits titled 'The Players,' the Monster is
listed fourth, with a question mark after its name. In the end
credits, however, where the cast list is prefaced by - 'a good
cast is worth repeating...,' the Monster is listed fourth with
BORIS KARLOFF's name following. Karloff's performance is remarkable
- his acting communicated a hint of the pitiful humanity of the
grotesque Monster behind its hideous, stitched and bolted-together
The movie begins with a man announcing that
it would be "a little unkind to present this picture without
just a word of friendly warning" and that it is "one
of the strangest tales ever told" and deals "with the
two great mysteries of creation - life and death....I think it will
thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if
any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to
such a strain, now's your chance to....well, we warned you."
The first scene is in a graveyard with a statue
of the Grim Reaper near the village of Goldstadt in Bavaria that
Mr. Dirks pointed out "had been constructed for 'All Quiet
on The Western Front,' which was made the year before.
Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, and
his hunchback assistant, Fritz, played by Dwight Frye, are watching
someone being buried and at the end of the burial they dig the
body up and Dr. Frankenstein pats the coffin and says "He's
just resting - waiting for a new life to come."
way back to the Frankenstein residence, they happen upon a man
hanging from a gallows and Frankenstein instructs Fritz to cut
him down because he needs his brain. When the body falls to the
ground, however, Dr. Frankenstein declares the brain "useless"
and then orders Fritz to steal a brain from the medical school
from which he had been asked to leave because of his experiments
At the school,
Fritz observes Professor Waldman, played by Edward van Sloan,
telling his students that the difference between a normal brain
and a criminal brain is that the latter has a "scarcity of
convolutions on the front lobe" and a degeneration of the
"middle front lobe." When the lecture is over, Fritz
sneaks into and takes the jar containing the "normal"
brain, but drops it, and then takes the second jar, with the "abnormal"
At the Frankenstein castle, a maid announcedthe
arrival of Victor Moritz, played by John Boles to Dr. Frankenstein's
financee, Elizabeth, played by Mae Clarke, who expresses her concern
about Dr. Frankenstein who had written her that his work "must
come first," even before her and that "prying eyes can't
peer into my secret" that he is working on in an abandoned
She tells Moritz that Frankenstein had told
was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his
who tells Elizabeth he would "go to the ends of the earth"
for her, suggests they go to see Dr. Frankenstein's former professor,
office, Dr. Waldman declares that "Herr Frankenstein is a
most brilliant young man, yet so erratic he troubles me."
He says that Frankenstein's research in "chemical galvanism
and electro-biology were far in advance of our theories here at
the University" and had reached dangerously advanced stages.
His experiments to recreate human life, and his demands for corpses
"were becoming dangerous." He describes Frankenstein's
work as an "insane ambition to create life," adding
that "The bodies we use in our dissecting room for lecture
purposes were not perfect enough for his experiments" and
that "He wished us to supply him with other bodies and we
were not to be too particular as to where and how we got them."
asks Dr. Waldman to join them and visit Frankenstein's laboratory.
see Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory where a body, apparently
stitched together from parts of various stolen corpses, lies on
a operating table beneath a system of pulleys leading up to the
roof. Dr. Frankenstein hopes to harness the power of lightning
to spark his creation to life and he declares: "This storm
will be magnificent. All the electrical secrets of Heaven."
is a knocking at the door downstairs, he sends Fritz to send Elizabeth,
Henry and Dr. Waldman away.
Dr. Frankenstein then tells them directly that
he must not be disturbed and that his experiment "is almost
completed." Henry tells Dr. Frankenstein he's crazy and Frankenstein
then takes them up to his laboratory and locks the door behind
Dr. Frankenstein tells Dr. Waldman that he
initially experimented onoly with dead animals and then with a
human heart that he was able to keep beating for three weeks.
He tells Dr. Waldman that the body on the operating table is not
dead: "it has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own
hands from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows, anywhere!
Go and see for yourself."
has the operating table lifted to an open skylight where the body
lying on it is repeated struck by lighting. He lowers the table
and after a moment the right hand twitches leading Dr. Frankenstein
to shrek "Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive...."
In his review,
Mr. Dirks notes that censors removed the last part of Dr. Frankenstein's
next comment that "Now I know what it feels like to be God."
The next day, Victor and Elizabeth visit Dr.
Frankenstein's father, Baron Frankenstein, played from Frederick
Kerr, who wonders why his son goes "messing around an old
ruined windmill when he has a decent house, a bath, good food
and drink, and a darn pretty girl to come back to." When
a servant says that the town's burgomaster Herr Vogel, played
by Lionel Belmore, has come to visit, Baron Frankenstein says
"tell him to go away," adding that "nothing the
burgomaster can say be of the slightest importance."
The burgomaster inquires when will the wedding
occur and the Baron replices that unless his on "comes to
his senses, there'll be no wedding at all."
Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, Dr. Frankenstein tells Dr. Waldman
that "the brain must be given time to develop. It's a perfectly
good brain, doctor. You ought to know. It came from your own laboratory."
then reveals that it is the "abnormal" brain taken from
is taken back but then remarks "Oh well, after all, it's
only a piece of dead tissue" to which Dr. Waldman replies
that "Only evil can come of it" and that his "health
will be ruined" if he persists in this madness."
astonishingly sane, doctor," Dr Frankenstein maintains.
have created a Monster and he will destroy you," Dr. Waldman
tells Dr. Waldman to have patience and to wait "till I bring
him into the light."
arrives, slowly shuffling and plodding forward and backs into
the room. He is a very tall, gruesome and grotesque figure, scarred,
with metal rods stuck in the sides of his neck and wearing an
ill-fitting suit and big boots.
Dirks providings the following description
of the next scene:
a moving, symbolic sequence, when Henry opens the ceiling's skylight
above him, the Monster sees sunlight for the first time and his
face comes alive. With a child-like yearning for the unknown (and
the beginnings of intelligence), he slowly rises, faces the light,
and pleads and gropes heaven-ward - he stretches out his long,
huge, open, corpse-like, scarred hands to try and reach up and
grasp the golden shaft of sunshine coming through the skylight.
Henry realizes that the effort is hopeless and fruitless and,
at Waldman's persuasion, shuts out the intangible light from the
window. Bewildered by the disappearance of the light, the Monster
reacts piteously with confused frustration and wordless whimpers.
He lowers his arms, and extends them in a beseeching and pleading
gesture toward his Creator. Henry calms him and suggests: 'Go
and sit down.' The Monster obliges and backs up - his face remains
uplifted and his open hands still grasp for air, but the brightness
of the light is shut out. Frankenstein's Monster is frightened, panics
and becomes violent when hunchbacked Fritz enters and brandishes
a lighted torch. A struggle breaks out as the monster expresses
fear of the flames - he utters lower gutteral cries and thrashes
around. The three men attack and wrestle the troublesome Monster
to the floor and overpower him. After subduing him, they tie him
up with rope. 'Shoot it. It's a Monster,' Waldman shouts. The
scene fades out, and as the next scene opens, the Monster is manacled
to the wall and locked up in the downstairs dungeon cellar. The
tormented Monster frantically utters more gutteral sounds as he
struggles to break free of his restraining and binding chains.
the Monster until he breaks frew of his shackles and kills him
and impales him on a hook. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman inject
him with a sedative just as Baron Frankenstein and Elizabeth arrive
and Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman hide the Monster in the cellar.
says he's come to take his son, now close to a breakdown, home
and Dr. Waldman tells him he will preserve his papers and that
the Monster wilol be "painless destroyed."
plans to "dissect" the Monster but it awakens on the
operating table and kills him and escapes.
Dr. Frankenstein begins to recover and plans
are made again for his marriage to Elizabeth.
The Monster, meanwhile, has been roaming the
countryside and comes upon a young girl, Maria, played by Marilyn
Harris, at the shore of a lake. She is gathering flowers and invites
him to play: "Who are you? I'm Maria. Will you play with
me?" She takes his hand and leads him to the side of lake
and offers him a flower. Hesmells the flower and smiles. They
both throw flowers into the lake and watch them float. When he
has thrown all his flowers intothe lake, he picks her up and throws
her into the lake.
to the Monster's consternation. In his article, Mr. Dirks notes
that "In the original version of the film, the scene was
truncated and it cut away from the drowning - it was considered
too gruesome and cruel to remain. However, the excision implied
some other kind of undesirable, unseen fate for the girl beyond
a drowning. The drowning scene wasn't restored to the film until
the mid 1980s."
Dr. Frankenstein, who is about to get married to Elizabeth, that
the Monster hasescaped and has "been seen in the hills terrorizing
the mountainside." Dr. Frankenstein hears a moan and recognizes
it as belonging to the Monster and declares "He's in the
The Monster is in a room with Elizabeth who
is horrified and screaming and her screams scare the monster off.
of the drowned girl is discovered andher father carries her into
town causing the wedding celebrations to halt and the Burgomaster
promises revengefor her murder and Dr. Frankenstein declares that
"There can be no wedding while this horrible creation of
mine is still alive," adding that "I made him with these hands, and
with these hands I will destroy him."
Search parties go out for the Monster and Dr.
Frankenstein is confronted by him and dragged off to an abandoned
windmill where the Monster throws out a window. A blade of the
windmill, however, breaks his fall and he is rescued by some of
the peasants who arrive and set the mill on fire. The Monster
presumably perishes in the conflagation.
Mr. Dirks notes that "Originally, the film ended here,
but the unhappy denouement displeased preview audiences, so a
short epilogue was added." "The film," he continued,
"concludes with a requisite happy ending, although the symbolism
of the transgressing Creator killed by his deformed, monstrous
creation - as sensed by Elizabeth - might have been more appropriate."
In the extended version, Dr. Frankenstein recovers with Elizabeth
nursing him back to health.
Bela Lugosi reportedly turned down the role
of The Monster because it was not a talking part and although
he would go on to a long career as a vampire with a heavy accent,
Boris Karloff would be praised for his sensitive interpretation
and eventually be asked to be play more different roles, including
that of the Mummy.
remains impressive because of Karloff's performance. We understand
his bewilderment and suffering and we root for him and forgive
him his "sins." Yet his hulk and gait are intimidating
and the opening graveyard scene and the lightning at the top of
the skylight in the lab are very memorable.