Although Boris Karloff's makeup and performance have entered the pop culture
realm, this "Frankenstein" version from 1931 is not the best or the most
faithful of Mary Shelley's novel. Still, compared to most other film versions
(there have been over 100), it is one of the most effective and perhaps, one
of the most atmospheric.
James Whale's "Frankenstein" stars the harsh presence of Colin Clive as the
mad Dr. Frankenstein, slaving away at creating life from a corpse inside a
remote watchtower. He gets assistance from Fritz (Dwight Frye), a hunchback
who inadvertently steals a criminal brain from the local medical school. Once
the creation, now with a criminal brain, is brought to life with the use of
electrical devices and a brewing storm, it begins to wreck havoc, escaping
his prison and tormenting the local villagers. Eventually, Frankenstein
leaves the castle for more modest surroundings, and is ready to marry his
adoring Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) until terror strikes again in the face of the
There are far too many inconsistencies in the film to warrant the heaps of
praise it has received since it was initially released. Number one: how does
the Monster know about Frankenstein's bride-to-be and why does he attack her?
Number two: how is it that a villager knows his drowned daughter was murdered
by the Monster? Could she not have just drowned? Number three: where does the
film take place? Germany? Scotland? And what is with all the German and
Slavic names when everyone speaks with an English accent?
Such inconsistencies aside, "Frankenstein" certainly has a lot to recommend
it. Karloff is menacing, tender, sympathetic, cruel, and pathetic as the
Monster - his first appearance where he walks slowly facing Frankenstein and
stares inertly still sends chills to my spine. I admire Colin Clive's
hard-edged performance as the scientist - he shows the doctor's mental
breakdown and exhaustion perfectly. Mae Clarke does not have a lot of screen
time but she is sweetly innocent - her scenes with John Boles as Victor,
Henry and Elizabeth's mutual friend, suggests that Victor has mutual
affection for her. Edward Van Sloan (who appeared the same year as Professor
Van Helsing in "Dracula") is the most watchable presence on screen as an old
professor who has a keen interest in this creation, though he is nonplussed
by it at the beginning. He also presents the film in a prologue, which had
not been in all existing prints, where he warns the audience that it may
shock them, perhaps terrify them.
"Frankenstein" had some major trims in its original release thanks to the
Production Code. One was the deletion of Maria's drowning, as she is thrown
in the lake by the Monster who expects her to float like the daisies.
Originally, it had just shown the Monster smiling and reaching out its hands
to the girl. This minor trim makes the preceding scene of her father carrying
her lifeless body far more violent than intended.
The other deletion was a line of dialogue said by Dr. Frankenstein after the
first signs of life in the Monster. The deleted line - "In the name of God,
now I know what it feels like to be God" - was certainly essential and in
keeping with Mary Shelley's theme of man's attempt to emulate God.
"Frankenstein" is not a perfect film and not nearly as unifying as a whole as
the superior "Bride of Frankenstein," the latter in my estimation is the best
damn version ever. If nothing else, Karloff still makes one shudder and that
is enough to consider the film a horror classic - he makes the film his own.
Copyright © 1998 Jerry Saravia