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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frankenstein (1931)

Universal Studios made themselves famous for "horror" films in the 1930s. Following the success of their Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, Universal put out a variation on Mary Shelley's story that would become hugely influential for decades. Universal's Frankenstein. Much has already been written about this film, so this review will not attempt to cover everything. James Whale's Frankenstein was a hybrid -- partly a horror movie, but also partly a sci-fi movie. The goal of FrankenFEST is to explore the science fiction aspects of the many Frankenstein films. Some have more "science". Some are more "horror". Some are just silly.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Henry Frankenstein and his hunchback assistant Fritz dig up a recently buried body and take down a hanged man. Henry still needs an undamaged brain, so Fritz sneaks into a medical college to steal one. He drops the first brain-in-a-jar, so takes the second, labeled "abnormal brain." Henry has his creature assembled on a table and awaits the storm's peak for the jolt to infuse life. Just then, his fiancee, Elizabeth, friend Victor and former teacher, Professor Waldman, come knocking at the door of Henry's spooky tower. Reluctantly, he lets them in. Baited by Victor's accusation that Henry is crazy, Henry shows them his experiment. The storm peaks and the creature moves. "It's Alive!" Waldman stays to help. Victor and Elizabeth express worry to Henry's dad, Baron Frankenstein. Meanwhile, Henry shows off his creature to Waldman. It needs time to mature. However, Fritz taunts it with fire, sending the creature into a rage. It murders Fritz. It beats up Henry before Waldman injects it with anesthetic. Victor, Elizabeth and the Baron arrive and take the sick and battered Henry back to the village. Waldman stays to get rid of the monster. Before he can, the anesthetic wears off. The monster kills Waldman and escapes. In the village, all is festive, music and dancing for the wedding. Elizabeth is troubled with premonitions of doom. The monster comes across a little girl who wants a playmate. She tosses flowers in the lake to watch them float. When she's out of flowers, the monster tosses her in to float. She doesn't. The monster is upset and flees. He goes into the village and sneaks into Elizabeth's bedroom. Before he can do anything, her screams bring everyone running. He escapes unseen. Maria's father brings her dead body into town. The Burgomeister organizes three search parties to find the killer. Henry leads the mountain group. The monster finds Henry alone, knocks him out and carries him away. The mob see this and purse them to a windmill. The monster throws Henry from the upper railing, but he catches on a windmill blade, so doesn't die. The mob burn down the windmill. Henry recovers with Elizabeth's doting. The baron makes a toast to a future "son of Frankenstein." The End

Sci-fi Connection
The "science" in Whale's Frankenstein is mostly medical or biological. Waldman describes Henry's work as being in "chemical galvanism" and "electro-biology." Henry himself describes the key being "rays" beyond violet in the spectrum. This "Life Ray" is apparently available in electricity. Much of Henry's lab is filled with large things that spark or arc. Electricity is, in this pre-atomic world, the magical stuff that can do wonders. Compare Henry's lab and creation with Rotwang's in Metropolis ('27). The motif of the mad scientist's lab being stocked with sparky things dates back to this era.

Compared to the Novel
The main characters are retained, although the names of Henry and Victor are swapped, for some reason. Universal's screenplay was more of an adaptation of a stage play written by Peggy Webling in 1927. Her successful play had to do something similar to Edison's screenplay, in paring the story down to some basic elements. Whale's film focused more on the hubris of unfettered "science" than on the philosophical elements of creator-creature obligations. The hubris of the "mad" scientist, as a plot trope, would endure many decades into future films.

Saga Connection
This is the film that begins the famous franchise that will run from the 1930s, through the 1970s and beyond. It is the first of many chapters.

Iconic Monster -- The famous monster was a combination of make-up specialist Jack Pierce (who created the flat-top head and bolts on the neck) and the characterization given by actor Boris Karloff. Their "monster" was too captivating to the public imagination, too iconic to ever really die -- as we shall see -- that he would reappear in many later films. Little children would dress up as the monster for halloween. Parodies and spin-offs would key off the Pierce-Karloff monster.

Lasting Expressions -- Much of the look of the film stems from the artistic style of German Expressionism. This style is a whole topic unto itself. The stark light and dark, the use of up-lighting, the asymmetry and odd angles all enhance the feeling of instability. Nothing is soft. Nothing is "quite right." Contrast Henry's tower with the village sets. They're all normal enough, and almost Disney quaint. The normal world vs. HIS world: dark, unstable and "off". The artistic style of German Expressionism would not remain popular beyond WWII, but its visuals in association with the mad scientist's lab would endure far beyond.

What's Your Name? -- Far back into the 1800s, probably not long after Shelley penned her story, people would often confuse the monster and the man. The monster, in both the novel and the 1931 movie, had no name. He was, like the novel, called only, "my creation", "the monster" or "the fiend." It was Henry who carried the family name of Frankenstein. Yet, to the public imagination, such a strong character as the monster simply could not go nameless. He was often referred to as "Frankenstein" as if that were his name. That's not the case, but it has been a common enough mistake that it has stuck. The monster is more famous than the man.The more famous character gets the name. After all, children do not dress up as Henry (or Victor) Frankenstein.

Artistic Touches -- Aside from the many Expressionist visuals, there is one scene which, though brief, is an interesting
inclusion of a famous painting. When the monster accosts Elizabeth in her room, just as he sneaks out, and the others burst in, note Elizabeth's position on the bed. This very brief moment is also captured on the poster art (see above). This seems an unmistakeable visual reference to Henry Fuseli's famous 1791 painting: "Nightmare" (shown here). Maybe this something that only art history majors might enjoy, but it was an interesting bit for Whale to include.

Mixed With Vampires -- A curious note, is how much Frankenstein as a story had become intertwined with the classic vampire story: Dracula. For one, Universal released them both in 1931. Beyond proximity, Universal had originally cast Bela Lugosi as the monster, but he declined the part. Lugosi would, however, end up playing the monster in a few later iterations. As well, Webling's play, which served as source material, also followed a successful Dracula production by the same star. The two characters sprang from very different literary roots and told very different cautionary tales, yet, they would become paired in the popular imagination, as if they were somehow brothers.

Bottom line? Universal's 1931 Frankenstein is a movie classic that is not to be missed. It is a well-told and well-paced story, but more importunely, it is foundational to almost all the Frankenstein films to come.

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