Written by publisher, writer and reviewer, Aaron Polson
I have had the privilege of teaching Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, a half-dozen times in my tenure as a high school English teacher. Each time, before I hand books to my students, I ask them to draw a picture of Frankenstein. My purpose strikes at the heart of Shelley’s novel and what I feel is a major theme: loneliness and abandonment. Invariably, the students draw pictures of the monster—a walking patchwork cadaver which has no name—rather than the title character, Victor Frankenstein, who abandons his creation. A character who never even gave that creation a proper name. Most of the drawings look like the iconic make-up worn by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece from Universal, Frankenstein.
Aside from the central conceit about a young doctor experimenting with the power to bring life to dead tissue, the film bears little resemblance to the book. There are no lengthy discussions between the creator and his creation. Karloff’s “monster” speaks no words. It is only through a series of grunts and gestures that Boris Karloff brings life to the role. Colin Clive creates the quintessential “mad doctor” as Henry (rather than Victor) Frankenstein. The scene of the unholy act isn’t an attic apartment in the city of Ingolstadt—no, it is a ruined tower, a true mad scientist’s lab loaded with electrical equipment and buzzing machinery, lost in dark and gloomy mountains of some strange England/Germany hybrid countryside. Henry employs a hunched, leering assistant (Fritz, played by Dwight Frye), the prototypical Igor. All of these deviations from the novel will serve as popular monster movie tropes for years after Frankenstein, and hint at the power of the film’s popularity today.
But it isn’t only James Whale’s brilliant handling of the script or Karloff’s makeup which afford Frankenstein its lasting place in film history. It is the deftness with which he tells the remarkably human story of the monster, especially when the monster cannot speak. In one key moment, Karloff displays true joy as the monster stumbles across a young girl. The monster and child play with flowers, tossing petals into a lake, until, much to the monster’s consternation, they run out of flowers. In one contemporary cut of the film, the audience only learns the little girl’s fate later, as her grieving father carries her waterlogged corpse through the streets. The murder of a girl on screen was a little too much for the censors. Seen in its entirety, Karloff’s creature stumbles away after tossing the girl in the lake, distressed at the outcome of his—its—own actions. The movie has power because it is a human tale as much as a monstrous one.
Frankenstein’s history is littered with plenty of tasty horror triva. Karloff wasn’t the first choice for the monster, as Bela Lugosi was removed by Whale (twice). Leonard Keeler, a Chicago inventor, used his “Lie-Detector” to measure audience responses to the scary scenes—with the aim of eliminating “dead spots” and providing audiences with a constant thrill ride in future movies (God help us). Several theatres played to the Gran Guignol tradition and parked ambulances in front of the box office for theatrical effect. The censors hacked the end of Clive’s famous line, “It’s alive! It’s alive! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Evidently they believed a main character claiming to feel like God was a bit of a no-no. In many ways, it was a film before its time.
There have been other cinema monsters, but few have invaded our collective unconscious so completely. Perhaps the Karloff’s spirit-gum laden creature reminds us just a tad too much of ourselves. Perhaps the creature is not much of a monster, after all, and like the best fictional characters, only teaches us something about ourselves.