Frankenstein (1931) Director: James Hale
Based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of the same name (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus), James Hale’s film was one of two classic monster/horror movies made by Carl Laemmie Jr.’s studio, Universal Pictures, in 1931 -and both films saved the studio from near destitution.
Originally, Bela Lugosi, from Dracula, was cast to the play the part of the monster. However, after initial screening tests, he rejected the role and Boris Karloff was cast instead.
The film opens with a tuxedoed gentleman (Edward Van Sloan) appearing before a curtain to warn the audience of what they are about to see:
How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle [the producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It 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 – uh, well, we warned you.
The story begins in a familiar Bavarian countryside town (the village was recently constructed for use in All Quiet on the Western Front). A German Expressionist scene unveils as two men, Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, are robbing a grave. They carry a coffin all the way up to Henry Frankenstein’s castle to reanimate the corpse. Unfortunately, the body was the victim of a hanging and the two will need to acquire a new brain. Fritz makes his way to Goldstadt Medical College where he retrieves an ‘abnormal’ brain and brings it back to Dr. Frankenstein.
Elizabeth, Henry Frankenstein’s fiancee, convinces his former professor to go with her back up to Frankenstein’s castle where Frankenstein claims to have discovered the ray that is the cause of all life. He proves this to his guests by awakening the corpse he has created, shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Henry Frankenstein claims to feel what it is like to be God. Later, he and the professor are confronted by the monster who is obsessed with the light, but fear fire (with obvious allusions to the Greek story of Prometheus). The monster attacks them as he is tied up and taunted with fire. After a brief sedative, the monster flees the castle and comes upon a little girl, Maria, who is playing alone by a lake. In one of the most famous scenes in the film, she teaches the monster how to make flowers float on the lake. In jest, the monster lifts the girl to see if she will float but she drowns in the river and the monster flees.
Meanwhile, Henry recovers from his bout of madness while creating the monster, and refocuses his plans to marry Elizabeth. However, on the day of their wedding, the town discovers the truth of the murder of little Maria and they chase the monster, who has taken Henry Frankenstein hostage, to an old windmill in the countryside. The monster climbs to the top and throws Henry’s body over the side, and the angry mob burns down the mill with the monster inside of it. Originally the film ended here, but audiences were displeased so a short scene was added to complete the film in which we are given a glimpse of Henry recovering while his father makes a toast to the House of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein is a tragic film that contemplates the maddening dangers of mankind’s relentless inquiry into the physical world to unveil the causes of life. Fire plays a significant theme, appropriately matching the punishment Prometheus was given for giving the gift of fire to mankind, and also the contrast between the self-proclaimed progress achieved by modern science and the life-affirming union of man and woman (Henry and Elizabeth) are starkly juxtaposed with one another. Curiously, the audience develops a sense of empathy for the monster as the film advances, concluding with a pitiful scene in which the monster is screaming in agony as he burns to death. It is a classic that comes recommended to all lovers of classic film.