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Director by James Whale with Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles and Boris Karloff, 71 minutes, black and white, 1931

"It's Alive!"

DVD cover

Cover of DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

The 1931 film of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff playing the "Unnamed Monster" is the greatest horror movie of all time.

"Nosferatu" had a scarier, albeit silent, monster and "Alien" (see The 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.

What makes 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 come "alive."

What we are talking about is god-like power and immortality.

What makes 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 great site 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.

There would 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.

The 1931 "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.

"Originally," 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 body."

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."

On their 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 with humans.

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" brain.

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 clocktower.

She tells Moritz that Frankenstein had told her "he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity."

Moritz, who tells Elizabeth he would "go to the ends of the earth" for her, suggests they go to see Dr. Frankenstein's former professor, Dr. Waldman.

At Waldman's 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."

Elizabeth asks Dr. Waldman to join them and visit Frankenstein's laboratory.

We next 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."

When there 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 him.

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."

Dr. Frankenstein 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."

Back at 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."

Dr. Waldman then reveals that it is the "abnormal" brain taken from a criminal.

Dr. Frankenstein 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."

"I'm astonishingly sane, doctor," Dr Frankenstein maintains.

"You have created a Monster and he will destroy you," Dr. Waldman insists.

Dr. Frankenstein tells Dr. Waldman to have patience and to wait "till I bring him into the light."

The "Monster" 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:

"In 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.

Fritz torments 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.

The Baron 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."

Dr. Waldman 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.

She drowns 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."

Victor informs 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 house."

The Monster is in a room with Elizabeth who is horrified and screaming and her screams scare the monster off.

The body 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.

Frankenstein 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.

This film is rated 26th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films and 87th in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films

Click here to order the 75th anniversary, two-disc DVD version of the film from for 18 percent off its list price of $26.98

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