Frankenstein (1931)


With Dracula (1931) proving a hit, Universal were understandably eager to capitalise on the success and pressed on with the production of the follow-up. Director Robert Florey was hired to develop the new film, based on a property that Universal had bought in May 1931, the rights to Peggy Webling's play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, a successful adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel which had been a huge hit with London theatregoers in the late 1920s.

The play had been commissioned in 1927 by theatrical actor / producer Hamilton Deane as an alternative to his popular adaptation of Dracula which he had been touring since 1924. After debuting in Preston, in the north of England, Frankenstein was also taken on tour and Deane and his company would alternate the two shows as it crossed the country until February 1930 when a revised version of the play arrived in London. Former journalist, John L. Balderston, who also adapted Deane's version of Dracula, planned to take the show to Broadway and penned his own adaptation - but when Universal bought the rights, they expressedly forbade any public performances of the play and it was never staged anywhere in the USA.

Initially, Carl Laemmle Sr, founder and president of Universal, had misgivings about the choice of material, fearing that it was, in many ways, stronger and more shocking than Dracula. It was only gentle persuasion by his son Carl Laemmle Jr, head of production at the studio, that got the film made when he assured his father of the film's potential.

The studio originally wanted to cast Bela Lugosi as the monster - and indeed announced him in the role as early as April 1931 - and approximately 20 minutes of screen tests were shot (now sadly lost) by photographer Paul Ivanno on left-over castle sets from Dracula. Those who were present at the shoot noted that Lugosi's make up and costume looked like that of the Golen in Paul Weggener's Der Golem (1920).

Florey claimed that he wanted Lugosi to play Frankenstein but that he was over-ruled by studio bosses who wanted their new horror star to play the monster. But Lugosi made possibly the worst decision of his life, and certainly one of the most momentous ones in the history of horror cinema, when he turned down the part, arguing that he didn't want to play lumbering brute with no dialogue and too much make up. It seems, though, that Lugosi wasn't going to be in the part for much longer anyway - Carl Laemmle Jr later said that when the studio head saw Lugosi in his oversized head make up, complete with wig, he "laughed like a hyena."

The test screenings also signalled the end of Florey's involvement with the film - it's never really been made clear why (no paperwork seems to exist at Universal), but Florey was shunted sideways into the hot seat on the set of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and in came British director James Whale. Initially Whale had some misgivings, but having been burdened with a string of World War I melodramas, perhaps sensed that here was a chance for a welcome change of pace and eventually accepted the job.

The first writer to actually attempt a pass at the Frankenstein script was Garrett Fort, who had written Dracula, and who combined elements from Florey's treatment (Florey later claimed that while Fort wrote the dialogue "My contribution was as continuity of action and development.") with material taken from an unproduced version of Webling's play by John Balderstone. Subsequently, Francis Edwards Faragoh would contribute to teh script, adding the now famous scene in which Fritz steals a damaged, criminal brain instead of the healthy one that Frankenstein sent him after which he accidentally drops.

Early on in the writing process, Fort had to deal with interference from the top - studio executive Henry Henigson was uneasy about the hinted-at frustrated love between Elizabeth and Henry's friend Victor "insufficient" a distraction from the horrors of the rest of the film. Fort stuck to his guns, arguing that the forthcoming marriage between Henry and Elizabeth was largely loveless affair, arranged by the couple's family rather than by the couple themselves and that the audience would secretly be rooting for Elizabeth and Victor as Henry and his creation get into deeper and deeper trouble. Fort got his way.

To replace Lugosi, Whale chose a 44-year old actor whose career thus far had been prolific (over 80 films) if rather undistinguished - fellow Brit Boris Karloff. Whale spotted Karloff sitting in the Universal Studios commissary one lunchtime and was fascinated by the bone structure of the actor's face. Whale immediately engaged the actor in conversation and parted after inviting Karloff to test for the part.

The job of creating the look of the monster fell to Universal's resident make up wizard, the legendary Jack Pierce. In the decades since, there has been much debate about who really created one of the most indelible images in horror cinema, Pierce or Whale, though the truth seems to be that it was something of a compromise - Pierce creating the finished version from Whale's initial sketches. Regardless of controversy over its parentage, the make up is one of the most immediately recognisable and best loved special effects of all time.

Early versions of the make up were greeted with some scepticism by Karloff, who felt that he still looked too alive, that his eyes in particular failed to convey the fact that here was a creature stitched together from dead bodies and reanimated. It was his suggestion therefore that Pierce build up his eyelids with mortician's wax to give the monster a more corpse-like appearance. Karloff also offered to remove the dental bridge in his right cheek to give his face a sunken look. That Karloff was willing to go through even more discomfort when the three hour make up application and three hour removal processes were already so arduous is a mark of his commitment to the role.

Indeed Karloff genuinely suffered for his art on Frankenstein - the weight of the make up, combined with the restrictive nature of the costume and the hugely heavy boots, resulted in Karloff having to undergo back surgery on three occassions after the film was completed. Karloff continued to suffer with back problems for the rest of his life as a direct result of his work on the film.

While Pierce put the finishing touches to the make up effects, other elements of the design process were under way. Set designer Herman Rosse (whose work here and on both Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue would go uncredited) had originally planned to give the film a futuristic look, after Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), but eventually agreed with Whale and art director Charles D. Hall that a darker, more gothic look was the way to go.

The resulting sets are still impressive today - cavernous spaces that emphasise the vertical and which gave Whale plenty of corners into which he could throw the darkest of shadows. One set, however, wasn't original the drawing room of Elizabeth's home, had been recycled, having first seen the light of day in the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary and was here enhanced with a seamless matte shot to fill in the rooms ceiling. To bring the bare laboratory set to life, Whale hired Santa Monica inventor Kenneth Strickfaden to design a series of electrical props and gadgets - all fully functioning - that would be endlessly copied in every mad doctor's lab for decades to come. Strickfaden's extraordinary props were cobbled together from pieces salvaged from abandoned aircraft, discarded car parts and worn out components from industrial plant... anything he could get his hands on in fact.

With design work now well under way, Whale had to complete the rest of his cast. For the lead role of Dr Henry Frankenstein, he cast another British ex-patriot, Colin Clive, who had worked with him back in London in both the film and stage versions of Journey's End (1930). Laemmle wanted to cast Leslie Howard in teh role, but Whale insisted on hiring Clive, despite his troubled private life and battle with alcoholism. Rounding out the main cast were American actress Mae Clark (who Whale had previously directed in the World War I drama Waterloo Bridge (1931)), cast as Elizabeth, and Edward Van Sloan, returning from Dracula, here cast as Dr Waldman.

One of the best remembered performances in Frankenstein came from the then totally unknown Marilyn Harris, who played the tragic little Maria, tossed into the lake by the monster when an innocent game goes horrifically wrong. Karloff objected to the scene, wanting to simply show how innocent the monster was by having play with the child and not kill her. Whale insisted that the scene be shot. The sequence actually had to be shot twice as, on the first take, Harris didn't sink and Whale had to use all his charm to get her to do it again. He promised her anything and made good on that promise when she repeated the scene and was rewarded with what she most wanted at that moment - two dozen hard-boiled eggs!

One character that was introduced to the story in its stage incarnation was also carried over to the film. Fritz, Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, doesn't feature at all in Shelley's original but makes for a memorable supporting character here, as played by the great Dwight Frye. The character had first appeared in the story in the script for the 1823 stage adaptation by Richard Peake and resurfaced again when John L. Balderston took his rewrite of the Hamilton Deane production to Broadway. Early drafts of the script featured a mute Fritz, but this was changed when it was realised that Frankenstein would have no-one to converse with in their scenes together.

Fritz was one of many deviations from the novel that were neccessary to bring the film to screen and many of the iconic imagery associated with the story originated in this film - the idea that the monster is brought to life by electricity makes its debut here (Shelley only mentions electricity and magnetism obliquely); the monster itself is much changed from the novel which featured an altogether more human, less primal creature, one that actually saves the life of the little girl it encounters, not takes it; the monster's mental state being the product of a damaged brain accidentally stolen by Fritz when he should have taken a perfect one. There are many, many other minor changes to the novel.

Frankenstein opened on 4 November 1931 at the Mayfair Theatre in Time Square, New York and was the smash hit that Universal knew it would be - the New York Times hailed it one of the best films of the year and the box office exceeded $12 million. It was a huge hit with the public, but many of them weren't actually seeing the whole film as it had originally been planned by Whale. Although the US federal censors left the film alone, many states screened cut versions, Kansas being particularly censorious, the State Board of Censors demanding no less than 32 cuts. In Britain, it suffered numerous cuts, but the most infamous act of vandalism wasn't committed until a re-release in 1937. It was now that the Maria death scene was cut from the film and it wasn't restored until 1985.

The removal of the scene adds some unwanted and unintended subtexts - as screened, the monster is seen to lean in towards the little girl, grinning at her. The film then cuts to show her distraught father carrying her body through the streets. In the cut version, we don't see what happened to her and there now exist implications - where non existed nefore - that the girl was assaulted by the monster. It also removes the poignant shot of the monster realising with horror what he has done after he playfully throws Maria into the lake. Karloff was horrified at the cut, removing the only scene in which the audience is allowed to see the monster as something other than a lumbering automaton.

The Catholic Legion of Decency took offence to Frankenstein's impassioned cry of "now I know what it feels to be like God" after the monster is 'born' and the scene was frequently cut when the film was shown on television. The cut was made in the most barbarous and clumsy fashion imagineable, simply excising the scene leaving behind a nasty jump cut. It remained missing for many years until an original sound disc was found in the archive Los Angeles radio station in 1966, allowing the sound to be reinstated for the first time in decades.

The success of the film prompted Universal to bring Whale, Karloff and other key players back in 1935 for a sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, one of the greatest horror movies ever made..


Last Updated: 1 January, 2009


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