Frankenstein (1931)

08/21/2020 06:51

Film: Frankenstein

Year: 1931

Director: James Whale

Writer: Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh

Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke and Boris Karloff



This was a film that I didn’t actually see until after I graduated from college. I got the box set that had I believe all of the Universal monster movies and I decided that I wanted to check out some of the more historical horror films. I know the first time I really didn’t care for it as I had higher expectations in my head. This is probably now my third time seeing as part of my Odyssey through the Ones. The synopsis is an obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

We start this off with a warning about the horrors and mysteries before it actually starts. It then shifts to a funeral. We see Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are watching in hiding. After it ends, they dig up the body that was buried. They load it on a cart and as they are leaving, they come upon a man who was hung. Henry has Fritz cut him down, but they can’t use his brain. His neck was snapped and I believe this is ruining it due to damaged to the brain stem.

The film then introduces us to Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and his best friend Victor Moritz (John Boles). They are both concerned for him as he has dropped out of college and conducting odd experiments in a tower. They decide to try to find him as well as help him.

Henry has Fritz go to steal a brain for him and he goes to the college that Henry was enrolled in of the Goldstadt Medical College. We see Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) as he is lecturing on the differences we can see a normal brain as well as the abnormal brain of a criminal. Fritz gets spooked and the normal brain is damaged. The one from criminal is taken instead.

Elizabeth and Victor meet Dr. Waldman to try to find out more about what Henry is doing. The trio of them goes to the tower on the night of the experiment. Henry is leery about letting them in, but there it is storming so he relents. They witness the success and the creation of the Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff). It doesn’t necessarily give the results that Henry was looking for though and the monster can’t be controlled.

That is where I will leave my recap and I have to say, I’m glad I’ve given this one a couple of rewatches. Previous to this viewing, I was able to see it on a 35mm print at the Gateway Film Center. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my issues still. It does capture that story though since the alternative title to the book was The Modern Day Prometheus. The idea of playing God is theme this movie is using, especially for the character of Henry. These are literally some of the lines he is stating as his experiment is a success and although Prometheus didn’t provide humanity with life, he did provide fire if you follow the myth.

Something else that really struck me was the monster and what happens to it. It is definitely a tragic figure for sure. I’ve made the joke that I didn’t ask to be born and have to deal with life. I couldn’t imagine being born into an adult body. It is trying to learn, but really doesn’t understand and the power that it has, it makes it quite difficult to control. This idea really struck me after this viewing. The monster is really an infant in its understanding and knowledge, but in a body with great power. It is going off its base needs of food, water and pleasure here. The idea of him being tragic is reinforced for me.

An issue with this film that I’ve been alluding to is that they really only seem to adapt half of the novel. We don’t get any of the monster learning and therefore, we don’t make him into the villain like the novel does. There is also the aspect of him being lonely and wanting a mate. That is completely cut out of this film and of course, the sequel. I just think this film is lacking by not having some of that here as I feel that is where the real tension comes from the monster punishing the creator. It also doesn’t make sense as to the monster showing up to the mansion during the day of Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding.

I do have to say that the low running time does make this film fly. It might even move a bit too fast to be honest. A personal gripe I have with most of the Universal films I think that they really are just lacking a sub-plot or two that could deepen the story. That is something that is for sure here. Much like I said with Dracula after this most recent viewing, they don’t even need to necessarily develop new ideas. Just using what was cut from the novel would help. I still think that the story we get builds to a solid climax and to an almost Shakespearian ending.

Something that I do think that is good here is the acting. Clive is solid as the mad scientist. You can almost see the mania that he is dealing with trying to prove his experiment. When he finally does you almost feel bad for him as he doesn’t know what to do with his life. It isn’t the success that he though and the lack of control over his creation drains the feeling of being like a god. Clarke is fine as his love interest. What I find interesting about her is that she loves Henry and she has a feeling of dread of the events that are coming up. Boles is intriguing to me as he kind of a snake to me. He loves Elizabeth, but he is Henry’s best man. He doesn’t act on anything, but I just don’t trust him. Karloff is amazing as the monster. He doesn’t have any lines, but kills it with his performance to convey the creature. It is all done with body language which is on point. Sloan and Frye are both solid in their respective roles. The rest of the cast definitely rounded this one out as well.

As to the effects of the film, there aren’t really a lot. You don’t expect that to be honest as this is the early era of filmmaking still. I don’t love the look of the monster, but I recognize that it is iconic. I’m not entirely sure that they went with the route, but I’m not going to hold it against the movie. I just prefer more of a realistic look myself. The cinematography is well done overall for the era.

Now with that said, this is definitely a classic. I like the story of the film and think that it is actually quite relevant even today. The acting really helps to bring it to life for sure. The film could have done with a sub-plot or two to possible deepen the story or even just including what was cut from the source material, but I think that the pacing of the film builds tension to a satisfying climax and conclusion. There wasn’t much in the way of effects, but that is more to just the era it was made. The soundtrack of the film is fitting for what they needed, but doesn’t necessarily stand out. I don’t love this one, but I do recognize that it is a classic. I still feel this is an above average movie, but just lacking for me to put it in the good category.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10