By Brian Keiper
I have a deep love for all things Frankenstein. I want that to be clear right from the beginning to indicate that this will not be an exclusively scholarly series of articles, there are plenty of those readily available. Sure, there will be an academic element to them, but I am not an academic — I am simply a man who loves these movies. Some that will be explored are new to me, some I have enjoyed for many years. Still, others are so deeply meaningful to me that they have practically engrained themselves into my personality and into my very DNA in some sense. So, as we explore the history of this greatest of all monsters, know that this is not an academic exercise for me but a labor of deep love. This will also not be an attempt to chart every iteration and facet of Frankenstein, which would be a practically impossible task. Instead, I will be focusing on the celluloid life of the creator and creation and the major trends that have emerged over the decades: the prototypes, the classical period (both at Universal and Hammer studios), reclamation, subversion, parody, and finally, reinvention.
Very few early films are acknowledged adaptations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, but several are clearly inspired by it and would set the stage for the most famous versions to come. For this reason, I have labeled them prototypes as their influence is felt throughout the decades that have followed. They also differ from both Shelley’s novel and the versions that would follow James Whale’s monumental 1931 film in that they rely less on scientific means in the creation of the creature and rely more on an amalgam of magic, pseudoscience, and alchemy to give it life. This is key in that Frankenstein is considered by many literary scholars, if not most, as the first true work of science fiction, noting that these folkloric elements are eschewed for the sake of telling a fantastical tale extrapolated from the scientific theories and possibilities of Shelley’s time.
Despite the story having found its way into the cultural conversation, only three films made in the silent era are officially adaptations of Frankenstein. The most famous is a single-reel short made in 1910 that indicates this in its opening titles: “Being a Liberal Adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s Story for Edison Production.” Written and directed by J. Searle Dawley, the film is little more than a historical curiosity today, but it does employ several fascinating techniques in telling its story. The creation scene, in which the creature forms inside a giant cauldron housed within a large metal box with a window allowing Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) to view the progress, is the most interesting. The creature forms from smoke and dust, which was achieved by filming the burning of a fabricated monster and running the footage backward. As simple as the technique is, it is surprisingly effective in the film even now. As would be carried into many later adaptations, parallels are drawn between creature and creator, in this case through the effective use of mirrors which also works in a practical sense of viewing multiple angles within the frame without the use of cuts. Perhaps the most famous image of this version is the monster and the wild-hair makeup created by the actor who played the creature, Charles Ogle. Most of Frankenstein, like many films of the period, was shot primarily in wide master shots and it lacks the spark of genius found in the greatest films of the era such as those of Georges Méliès. It is, however, an important document of early American filmmaking and is arguably the first true narrative horror film made in the United States.
For decades, Dawley’s film was believed to be lost and was highly sought-after until a print was discovered in a private collection in the 1970s, filling in an important moment in film history. However, the two other direct adaptations of Frankenstein in the silent era continue to be missing links in the Frankenstein cinematic legacy: the American film Life Without Soul produced in 1915, and the Italian Il Monstro di Frankenstein (The Monster of Frankenstein) from 1920. Little is known about either film, but a few clues remain as to their basic plots and the personalities involved in each.
Life Without Soul was the first feature-length Frankenstein film, believed to have lasted approximately seventy minutes, and a few stills remain. In it, Dr. William Frawley (William A. Cohill), likely renamed to avoid such a Germanic name as Frankenstein during World War I, apparently creates a man (Percy Standing) out of clay, as one of the existing stills indicates. Standing’s performance as the creature was described by the critic Edward Weitzel as, “awe-inspiring but never grotesque.” He went on to say, “at times he actually awakens sympathy for the monster’s condition,” an aspect that many, including Boris Karloff and Robert DeNiro, would attempt to convey in their portrayals over the coming decades.
Even less is known about Il Monstro di Frankenstein, but as noted in The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror, “it was the last Italian horror movie for nearly 50 years […] partly due, no doubt, to the strict censorship which removed ‘sensational’ shots from fantasy pictures.” All that is known of the film is that it was directed by Eugenio Testa and starred Luciano Albertini and Umberto Guarracino. Apparently, the film used the name Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Albertini), and he builds his creation out of dead body parts. In this sense, it is unique among early film versions which more often relied on magical means that do not involve such gruesome activities as grave robbing and the stitching together of cadavers as found in Shelley’s novel. Due to the censorship found under Benito Mussolini, the film was savagely edited to a reported thirty-nine minutes before being lost, likely for all time.
Ironically, the films that would most influence Frankenstein films as we know them today were not adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel at all. Three films, in particular, produced during the flowering of cinematic art in Germany during the Weimar Republic, have had a profound impact on the future of the creature and creator. The movement now known as German Expressionism was short-lived, lasting from approximately 1920–1933, but remains one of the most important in the history of film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), and Metropolis (1927) all have a clear impact on the greatest Frankenstein film of all time, James Whale’s 1931 film, but also, along with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), they set the stage and created the language of horror (and much of science fiction) on film for the next century.
Preceding these three are two more films that draw from Shelley and the Frankenstein myth, though, like these, do so indirectly. Director Paul Wegener’s first film depiction of The Golem (1915) was a smash hit upon its release and takes place in the 20th century, long after the events of the more famous 1920 film. The Golem, played by Wegener, is discovered in the ruins of an ancient synagogue, revived by an antiquitarian, and forced to be his servant. It murders and rampages before being destroyed in a fall. Wegener would play the Golem again in a rather meta telling of the tale, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917) in which the actor pretends to play the Golem as a practical joke. Both these films are lost to time.
The 1916 six-episode serial Homunculus owes much more to Shelley than either of these early versions of The Golem. Rather than being a physical brute like the Golem, Homunculus is an artificial man of “sparkling intellect and indomitable will,” as critic Siegfried Kracauer observed. Like many later incarnations of the creation, Homunculus merely wants to be loved and accepted and goes to great lengths to achieve this. But wherever he goes, he is shunned by people who call him a monster, “a man without a soul.” This drives him to hatred, revenge, and tyranny, a foreshadowing of the real-life tyrant that would rise to power in Germany just over a decade later. The serial was a great success during World War I and still exists to this day, though its intertitles have apparently not yet been translated into English. The film remains an important, though largely unknown, link in the Frankenstein film lineage.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari only tangentially relates to Frankenstein but is worth mentioning in this context for two key factors: the element of the mad scientist and the performance of Conrad Veidt as the somnambulist Cesar. In many ways, Caligari is ground zero for the Mad Scientist movie. The hair, the wild eyes, the insane motives, and the obsessions are all here. What is not yet fully formed is the laboratory with its boiling chemicals in oddly shaped glass receptacles and buzzing, sparking electrical equipment. Much of that would begin to take form in Rotwang’s lab in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Still, Werner Krauss gives one of the indelible mad scientist performances that would inspire Strangeloves, Bond Villains, and certainly Frankensteins to come. In Conrad Veidt, we see a sympathetic monster who is compelled to evil against his will. It is a subtle, measured performance that announced one of the great film actors of all time, and it is a performance that clearly informed Boris Karloff and his approach to the monster eleven years later.
The Golem: How He Came into the World as it now exists is something of a Frankenstein creature itself. Though technically lost, it has been stitched together using elements from all over the world to approximate as closely as possible the film as it was originally presented. Though it stands in the shadows of other Expressionist classics, it is an excellent film in its own right and deserving of consideration alongside its more famous contemporaries like Caligari and Nosferatu. As with the previous films in the series, it was written and directed by Paul Wegener. An aspect that makes this entry particularly remarkable is that it was photographed by the legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, one of the most important, and unsung, characters in all of film history. This Golem film is the story of a rabbi who fashions a man of clay to protect the Jewish community of Prague from the oppression of the Emperor and his minions. The rabbi is warned by his writings that the demon who gives the Golem life, Astoreth, will return and cause the creation to turn on the creator. Though based on an ancient legend rather than Mary Shelley’s novel, the two clearly have a great deal in common based on this idea alone. Also, much like Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, the rabbi is not evil or mad, but sympathetic and well-intentioned, if not misguided.
While Caligari is the more singular vision, The Golem: How He Came into the World is ultimately the more influential film. This is particularly apparent when placing it beside James Whale’s Frankenstein and various events surrounding its making. It is well-known that Bela Lugosi did a screen test as the monster in 1931, of which the footage is long-lost. According to at least one account, Lugosi’s make-up looked much like Wegener’s Golem with a broad wig and a pallid, clay-like grease paint applied to his face. Apparently seeing Lugosi in the make-up also made Universal production head Carl Laemmle, Jr. “laugh like a hyena.” Several other elements from The Golem also made it into the finished film. There is lightning during the creation scene (though it is magical in nature in The Golem), a bedroom attack by the creature, the Golem throws a man from a tower, is chased by villagers, and encounters an unfearful little girl. The character of the Golem also elicits a great deal of empathy such as the scene in which he is handed a rose by a young woman played by Greta Schroeder, who would later play Ellen in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Perhaps the clearest influences are in two aspects relating to the creation itself. The first is the costume. Like Karloff’s creature, the Golem is a towering figure in giant boots who walks with a stiff gait. Secondly, the character is mute. In every other iteration of Frankenstein up to this point, official or not, the creature speaks and usually quite eloquently. This aspect would be carried into 1931 and on into many, if not most, of the Frankenstein films to come.
The final film worth discussing as a prototypical work in the story of Frankenstein on film is quite simply one of the greatest masterpieces of cinema. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is a vast, dense exploration of class, workers’ rights, religion, privilege, wealth, communication, and much more. It is not easily summarized and must be experienced and absorbed. Its influence has spread across the decades to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Dr. Strangelove (1962), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Back to the Future (1985), Tim Burton’s Batman films (1989 and 1992), Dark City (1998), and the 2003 iteration of Battlestar Galactica to name just a few. The major element that relates to Frankenstein is the character of the tyrannical inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and his robot creation, the evil Maria, that takes the place of the good-hearted human Maria (Brigitte Helm). The creation scene in particular is an iconic moment filled with instrumentation, sparks, and light that would soon feel at home in Henry Frankenstein’s laboratory in Whale’s film. Again, much like earlier creation scenes, there is an element of magic mixed with the scientific, here indicated by the giant inverted pentagram on the wall behind the robot creation as its form changes.
Rotwang is the prototypical “mad scientist,” to a greater extent than even Caligari, with slicked-back white hair, a black glove on one hand, and a piercing thousand-yard stare. Unlike Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, Rotwang’s motives are purely selfish, bent on evil and revenge. Ultimately, this kind of character would influence Peter Cushing’s portrayals in the Hammer films of the late 1950s and 60s with his dark and villainous interpretation of Victor Frankenstein. Even more directly, Rotwang would clearly inform Peter Seller’s performance as Dr. Strangelove with his gloved right hand that has a mind of its own along with his German accent and insane motivations.
With these films, the stage was set for the next step in the evolution of Frankenstein on film. As often happens, several unlikely personalities would come together in a single moment to create something influenced by what came before, but wholly innovative in its own right. Horror was about to change, and it would strike like a blast of lightning. 🩸
Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling
Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture by David J. Skal
From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film by Siegfried Kracauer
The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror edited by Phil Hardy
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @Brianwaves42.
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