Faces of Frankenstein | The Innovation and Influence of James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’
By Brian Keiper
Previous ⬅ Faces of Frankenstein | Prototypes of the World’s Most Iconic Monster
In terms of influence and cultural impact, James Whale’s Frankenstein is a strong contender for the greatest horror movie ever made. In fact, its effusion into the culture is so complete that it is largely taken for granted. Variations of the square-headed, bolt-necked make-up appear in cartoons, comic strips, children’s activity books, on cereal boxes and board games, and graces the covers of hundreds of editions of Shelley’s novel, even though the creature’s description in it is very different from Jack Pierce and James Whale’s legendary design. The look of the creature, however, is far from the only iconic and enduring element of this film. The 1931 version of Frankenstein is a point of convergence in the history of horror, marrying elements of disparate films that came before into one providential moment. And, as with so many films, it almost never happened.
Even after the success of Dracula in early 1931 (the introduction of serious supernatural horror in the sound era), Carl Laemmle, Sr., head of Universal Studios, felt it was a fluke:
“I said to Junior [Carl Laemmle, Jr. who had been made head of production], ‘I don’t believe in horror pictures. It’s morbid. None of our officers are for it. People don’t want that sort of thing.’ Only Junior wanted it. Only Junior stood out for it, and he said to me, ‘Yes they do, Pop. They do want that sort of thing. Just give me a chance and I’ll show you.’ Well, he showed me. He showed us all.”
Not only did the younger Laemmle “show them all,” Universal’s horror films were practically the only thing that kept the company afloat during the deepest years of the Great Depression.
There were also false starts to the film. Robert Florey, who had lobbied to make the film, was originally assigned to co-write (along with Garrett Fort) and direct Frankenstein, with Bela Lugosi set to star. Working under the assumption that Lugosi was to play the doctor, Florey and Fort began shaping the script. Laemmle soon made it clear that Lugosi, who they hoped to shape into the new Lon Chaney, was to play the monster, which the writers had reduced to a grunting, lurching, non-character. As the studio brass began to lose confidence in Florey, he took it upon himself to shoot about twenty minutes of now-lost test footage. There are many conflicting accounts from Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan (who would play Dr. Waldman in the test footage and final film), and Florey himself, but the result is indisputable. Florey was removed from the project and Lugosi departed as well, either of his own free will (according to Lugosi) or by studio mandate. Both were moved to Murders in the Rue Morgue which was a reasonably successful film released in 1932.
Enter James Whale. Whale had caught the eye of Universal with his World War I film Journey’s End (1930) and was making Waterloo Bridge (1931) for the studio when he was approached for Frankenstein. According to Whale, he was “forced more or less against my will” to take the job. But there were several reasons why Whale eventually warmed to the project. First of all, it was something other than a war picture. He articulated other reasons in interviews, saying “Frankenstein, after all, is a great classic of literature, and I soon became absorbed in its possibilities. I decided I’d try to do something with it to sort of top all thrillers.” He soon began working with writers to shape the existing Florey/Fort script, which had in turn been a revision of the play written by Peggy Webling and reworked for American audiences by John L. Balderston. The eventual film crafted from this script introduced several ingredients to the Frankenstein mythos that would become completely synonymous with it, practically eclipsing Shelley’s novel in the process.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, the method for the animation of the creature is left ambiguous. She no doubt was familiar with the scientific experiments of Luigi Galvani, who manipulated disembodied frog’s legs with electrical currents, and others who studied the effects of electricity on dead tissues, but her novel barely mentions these. The only thing that is clear is Victor Frankenstein gives life to the creature through scientific rather than magical or alchemical means. As illustrated in the first part of this series, film versions strayed far from this with prototypes for the creature being animated almost exclusively through such methods. The original version of the 1927 play written by Peggy Webling, which serves as essentially the first draft of the James Whale film, suggests alchemy but begins after the creation of the monster. When John Balderston revised the play for Broadway (a service he also performed on Hamilton Deane’s original stage version of Dracula), he brought a creation scene and science back into the equation, employing electricity, but also an “elixir of life” poured down the creature’s throat.
Robert Florey and Garrett Fort kept this aspect intact in their draft. In the lost test footage Florey shot, possibly because the laboratory equipment created by Kenneth Strickfaden had not yet entered the equation, the monster was awakened using an elixir of some kind. The script, however, specifies that Frankenstein’s laboratory be “suggestive of the laboratory in Metropolis.” After James Whale was brought on, the script went through only one more major revision by Francis Edwards Faragoh. John Russell was brought on before Faragoh, but apparently, he and Whale did not particularly get along, so he was quietly dismissed and is credited with working on dialogue. In this script, references to the violent ray, the ultraviolet ray, and the ray discovered by Henry beyond all these that first brought life into the world, are certainly pseudoscientific but also avoid the supernatural. The scientific elements were only enhanced in this final version with Whale himself writing Henry’s poetic speech to Dr. Waldman just before the first appearance of the monster:
“Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”
Frankenstein’s laboratory is one of the greatest set designs in film history, and Kenneth Strickfaden’s machines set the template of the mad scientist’s lab for a generation. Whale called the creation scene the “high spot of the film” and the key to its success as a narrative whole. “If the audience did not believe the thing had been really made,” he said, “they would not be bothered with what it was supposed to do afterward.” It was of utmost importance that the creation be seen as at least plausible to the audience, even if far-fetched. The willingness to suspend disbelief holds up remarkably well even after ninety years, and much of that is due to the elimination of the supernatural from the creation sequence. Even if the science is nonsensical, it at least sounds like technical jargon, an extrapolation of known scientific theories into the next phase, a device commonly used in science fiction from Mary Shelley’s novel all the way to the superhero stories of today.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein* is a new kind of mad scientist: complex, neither hero nor villain, and quite far from the wild-haired Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, or Rotwang from Metropolis. He is suave, generally composed, and sober-minded, only flying into fits when in the throes of obsession over his work. Whale’s hand-picked casting of his old, though troubled, friend Colin Clive was truly inspired. Clive’s portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein remains the most sympathetic of any film version. In the novel and in many film adaptations, he is cast as something of a tragic hero. In others, particularly Peter Cushing’s characterization in the Hammer films, he is practically a psychopath. Here he is something far different.
He conveys the manic energy needed for the elation of the creation scene and the decades-long deleted line, “in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” The inner conflict about his marriage to Elizabeth, suggesting a homosexual subtext to the character, is played with subtlety — a clenched jaw, a stern look, and a pause before taking a drink to “a son to the house of Frankenstein.” The fact that he has already produced a “son” for the house of Frankenstein by non-sexual means always lurks just below the surface of Clive’s performance. When removed from his work, he is kind and thoughtful. When fixated upon it, he is cruel and sarcastic. By the end, Henry realizes that he and his creation are two sides of the same coin — unnatural father and unnatural son. They also represent opposing castes of rich and poor, something that Whale very likely intended as the key subtext of the film as he was a poor boy from the “wrong” part of London who had grown to become quite successful and even bourgeois. This conflict also finds its way into Clive’s performance as a “man of the people” who is also very much part of the local aristocracy and a man of astounding privilege.
The hunchbacked assistant to Dr. Frankenstein, popularly and inaccurately known as Igor, is an amalgamation of Fritz from the 1931 film, Bela Lugosi’s character Ygor from Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and just a dash of Quasimodo from the 1923 and 1939 versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though he only appears on screen for a few minutes, Fritz, played by character actor Dwight Frye who had made quite the impression as Renfield in Dracula, is the film’s most memorable supporting role.
Outside Frankenstein and the creature, Fritz also has the most impact on the plot, retrieving the criminal brain from Dr. Waldman’s classroom and serving as the creature’s tormentor and first victim. The brain-stealing subplot was a carry-over from the Florey/Fort draft, but Whale goes to great lengths to dismiss the device in Frankenstein and completely ignore it in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), preferring the creature to have a kind of misguided innocence. Incidentally, the focus on the brain in Frankenstein films was also birthed in the 1931 film, becoming a key element of several of the Universal films, the entire Hammer cycle, and many other films to come, particularly the parodies. In fact, brain-switching is a key element that the Ygor character becomes obsessed with in future films.
Which brings us back to Fritz and his gradual evolution into Igor. Fritz is a tormentor in this film, a hateful presence that garners little sympathy. In fact, if there is a true villain in Frankenstein, it is Fritz. He is the first to teach the monster the cruelty of the world by torturing him with his torch and delighting in the creature’s screams. Karl in Bride, also played by Frye, is an extension of Fritz and a murderer whose crimes are blamed on the monster. Lugosi’s Ygor is much more sympathetic (more on him in later installments of this series). Before long, Ygor evolved into Igor in comic strips and cartoons, eventually receiving his own animated movie in 2008 in which he has become the sympathetic figure, an outsider as much as the monster is in the 1931 film.
Though The Golem (1920) has a similar sequence, the image of the villagers with torches, guns, pitchforks, and various farm implements hunting for the monster reaches its true nexus point here. The imagery would carry into other monster movies, rip-offs, spoofs, and even a few unexpected places (like 1980’s Christmas Evil) for decades.
In Frankenstein, it is another example of the class disparities that Whale was fond of depicting; the peasants dancing at the wedding of the son of the town Baron essentially turn on their own by hunting for the monster, who at least in part represents the working class and those devastated by the Great Depression. Still, when the child of one of the villagers is found dead, they turn on the monster, not the wealthy aristocrat that brought it into existence. Henry Frankenstein joins their ranks to hunt down the monster but again, Clive portrays unfathomable guilt behind his eyes as he takes up leadership of a faction of the mob. In later versions, the villagers rarely contained such depths, but here it is a complex statement about social and class constructs that has never been equaled.
The Sympathetic Monster
Perhaps the greatest innovation of James Whale’s Frankenstein is the sympathetic monster. This is to some extent present in Shelley’s novel but nowhere near as it appears in the film. Much of the empathy we feel for the monster is due, of course, to the performance of a previously little-known character actor — Boris Karloff. Karloff gives one of the most nuanced performances ever captured on film as the creature, a term he greatly preferred to “monster.” He plays the character like a child that is just beginning to understand how to use his enormous and unwieldy body. In the first scene in which the monster appears in full view, he is shown light for the first time. He reaches for it with desperation, becoming agitated when he is unable to touch it. Frankenstein closes off the light and the creature reaches out to his “father,” in a sense his God, for answers, perhaps even some form of affection, but receives none. Immediately after, Fritz barges into the room with a lit torch, frightening the creature who is then incapacitated. Frankenstein then averts his eyes from his “child,” signaling his rejection, and tells Fritz to “leave it [rather than him] alone.” In this brief sequence, much of our allegiance shifts from Frankenstein to his creation, and this continues for most of the rest of the film.
Because film is a collaborative medium, credit for Karloff’s performance is also due at least in part to others. One of them being Universal’s master makeup artist Jack Pierce who created the most iconic creature makeup in film history for Karloff. Whale took a great deal of credit for the design as well and elements of this are certainly true. The costume, with its too-short sleeves to emphasize the length of his arms, was based on a character Whale himself played on the London stage in A Man with Red Hair. Whale also said, “I made drawings of his [Karloff’s] head, added sharp, bony ridges where I imagined the skull might have been joined,” and these design elements were incorporated into the design. Karloff himself suggested two small details. First, he felt that his eyes were too alive-looking, so Pierce applied mortician’s wax to his eyelids, giving them a weary, semi-dead look. Karloff also removed the bridgework from inside his right cheek to give him a more cadaverous look, which Pierce accentuated with dark shadowing makeup.
The performance itself was greatly informed by James Whale, who sought to find the humanity of the creature. His change of attitude toward the project seems to have largely hinged upon this idea. After he and friend David Lewis read the novel, Lewis remarked, “I was sorry for the goddamn monster,” which became the key to unlocking the film for Whale. Actress Mae Clark, who plays Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth in the film, spoke of Whale and Karloff’s working relationship. “They were so at ease they would just whisper and agree. I remember all the gestures the monster did were Whale’s — I saw him do them.” This was apparently the case early in the filming but as it went on, Karloff and Whale encountered more disagreements, the greatest occurring during the film’s second most iconic scene after the creation sequence. Reportedly, Whale wanted Karloff to pick up the little girl Maria (Marilyn Harris) over his head and throw her in the lake, but Karloff did not want the monster to be seen throwing her in at all but rather merely reaching for her. Due to censorship, this latter version appeared in the film for decades. The restored scene reveals an effective compromise.
The scene of the creature and Maria at the lake is a masterpiece of empathy. For the first time in his life, the creature encounters someone who does not reject, torment, or recoil from him in terror. The creature joins her in throwing daisies into the lake which float upon the surface. His face is filled with ecstatic joy as he plays this simple game with her. All the troubles he has faced in his short and tragic life have disappeared. But then the daisies run out. Like a child, the creature seems to conclude that beautiful things, like flowers, float. So, this beautiful little girl will float too. He picks her up and tosses her into the lake. When she sinks, he is terrified and runs off into the woods. It is a tragic end to a beautiful sequence but also the logical conclusion to such an interaction. We feel for Maria and are shocked at her death, but we understand that the creature had no intention of hurting her and only flees out of fear of the repercussions.
In a way, elements of this scene played out in real life. During the shoot, Karloff was not allowed to eat in the studio commissary and was required to wear a veil over his head while in makeup so as to not frighten those working on the studio lot. The lake scene was shot at Sherwood Lake and required an hour’s drive to the location. Karloff was already in makeup, and no one wanted to ride with him. Marilyn Harris approached him and asked, “can I ride with you?” to which Karloff replied, “well of course, darling.” This was the first indication of the way that children would react to the creature compared to adults. After the film was released, Karloff received mountains of fan mail, much of it from children who wrote that they understood and felt for the monster, empathizing with him in a way that adults, hardened by years of prejudices, could not. Paraphrasing one such fan letter from a little girl, Karloff said:
“She said something like this: ‘I always like to see you as the Frankenstein monster, though at home they sometimes tell me it will make me sleep badly at nights. It doesn’t. If I lie awake thinking about you I think what a poor, frightened thing you are with all those people chasing you: besides, you didn’t mean to be bad, did you? They made you be.’”
In addition to these innovations, Frankenstein introduced the sensibilities of German Expressionism to American horror more than any other film before it, incorporated elements of comedy to balance the terror, and combined horror with science fiction more thoroughly than any previous film. It is a marvel that so much is layered into this brief, seventy-minute film. It has been and continues to be endlessly analyzed, interpreted, and written about. Perhaps what matters most is how it makes each person who comes to it feel as they watch it. Though I have seen it dozens of times, I still find myself compelled by it, discovering more to be mined from its riches with every viewing. James Whale’s Frankenstein is a triumph of the art form and a masterpiece of deep soulfulness, humanity, and empathy. 🩸
* The name Henry being ascribed to Frankenstein and Victor to his best friend is a carry-over from Peggy Webling’s play, a reversal of how they appear in the novel. Most later adaptations revert back to Shelley and use the name Victor Frankenstein.
Classic Monsters Unmade: The Lost Films of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Other Monsters Vol. 1 1899–1955 by John LeMay
James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis
Karloff: The Life of Boris Karloff by Peter Underwood
Robert Florey’s Frankenstein Starring Bela Lugosi by Philip J. Riley
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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