Last year the Morgan Library in New York had an exhibit called “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200.” Mary Shelley‘s novel was first published in 1818. Her creation has been with us ever since, and shows no signs of going away, no matter how many times angry villagers storm the castle. Frankenstein has had a long life in films, television, radio, stage, novels, music, comics, toys, games, and even breakfast cereal. And it’s far from over. Almost too much information in this regard can be found in Wikipedia articles titled “Frankenstein in Popular Culture” and “Films Featuring Frankenstein’s Monster.”
I bought this paperback edition in 1957, but despite Boris Karloff as the “monster” on the cover, it was heavy going, too much so for a seventh grader. I still haven’t read Shelley’s novel, but I’ve seen all the movies.
The first motion picture adaptation of Frankenstein was in 1910, written and directed by J. Searle Dawley for the Edison Studios. The film was restored by the Library of Congress in 2017. The running time is 12 minutes, 45 seconds. Here it is.
The Universal Studio Films
The first three Frankenstein films with Boris Karloff are the ones etched in my memory. They’re simply great, especially the first two directed by James Whale, and eminently repeatable. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen them, but my initial exposure would have been via Shock Theater, a package of 52 pre-1948 horror films from Universal Studios released for TV syndication in 1957. This was followed by 20 additional titles in 1958 with Son of Shock. (I describe the importance of seeing all these classic horror films at that point in my life in a blog post from 2012, “Famous Monsters and Me.”)
Frankenstein (1931). James Whale was a British-born director who brought a literate, witty, and clever touch to his films. Boris Karloff had also been born in England. He had already appeared in 80 films by the time he was cast in Frankenstein at age 44. Karloff, certainly, will be forever identified with this film and the Monster. Karloff’s Monster was a tragic, lonely figure. His performance embodied that.
Before the main title and credits begin, Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein and played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula earlier in the year, steps from behind a curtain to speak directly to the audience, offering a “warning” about what they are about to see. There’s something arch and playful about the way he does it. The title and credits then begin, with an emphatic music theme by Bernhard Kaun. As with Dracula, there’s no music for the rest of the film, except over the cast list at the end. Not having a music score seems almost radical, considering that most films thereafter were usually overloaded with music. Without music to tell us how to feel about what we’re seeing, the images have to stand entirely on their own. It’s interesting to think about. Per the book Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1939, “Frankenstein, unlike Dracula, is a film that doesn’t need apologies, and rightfully stands as Universal’s first great all-talking horror movie. Countless imitations have taken a bit of the gleam off its reputation and the picture stubbornly stands in the shadow of its first sequel. To be fair, Bride of Frankenstein was a self-conscious attempt to outdo the original and had the advantage of greater resources. While Bride certainly rates as a better movie, there’s a unique appeal in the original’s simplicity and lack of pretense. And understatement. The original is one of the few films without a score that actually doesn’t need one (a credit to Whale’s alert visual style).”
A controversial moment occurs during the “It’s alive!” scene in Henry (Victor in the novel) Frankenstein’s laboratory. Overcome with excitement that he has succeeded, Henry (played by Colin Clive) cries out, “Now I know what it’s like to be God!” This line was too much for religious sensibilities of the time, and was obscured by thunder in subsequent release. It was restored some years ago.
Another censored scene is when the Monster comes upon a little girl, Maria, tossing flower petals into a lake. He happily joins her and they take turns tossing petals. When he runs out, the Monster throws Maria into the lake as well, where she drowns. For years the scene had stopped before he actually did that. As with Henry’s “blasphemous” outburst at his success in bringing a dead body to life, people felt it was too much. This scene, too, has been restored.
Henry’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, is played by Dwight Frye. Frye had made a strong impression as the fly-eating Renfield in Dracula. Fritz is dim-witted and short-fused, constantly rushing about, nervously talking to himself. Fritz was the prototype for mad-scientist assistants in many films to come. One of my favorite moments in the entire film is when Fritz, using a short walking stick, pauses partway up the laboratory tower’s steep stone staircase to pull up his sagging socks. It’s off the wall, a totally real moment that hits you before you know it. I’m assuming the socks bit was Whale’s touch, but I’d like to think that Frye came up with it on the spot. It’s one of those privileged moments that sometimes happens in a film. Fritz’s character is a key to the plot, as he fumbles the job of procuring a “good” brain for Henry from the medical college and gets a “criminal” brain instead. Though it’s not like that’s the only thing that goes wrong in the story.
An interesting bit of trivia is that some of the laboratory equipment created by Kenneth Strickfaden for the 1931 Frankenstein was used by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (1974). Per IMDb, as Brooks was preparing for this film, he discovered that Strickfaden was still alive, and living in the Los Angeles area. He visited Strickfaden, and found that he had stored all the equipment in his garage. Brooks made a deal to rent the equipment, and gave Strickfaden the screen credit he hadn’t gotten for the original films.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This is considered by many to be the finest of the Karloff Frankenstein films, and I’m inclined to agree. Per Universal Horrors: “Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best and least typical of the Universal horror films. In terms of acting, direction, photography, set design, editing and overall presentation, the film is close to flawless.”
James Whale infuses the film with wit and humor. The music score by Franz Waxman is excellent. The cast is also excellent. Colin Clive is his usual neurasthenic self as the tormented Henry Frankenstein; Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clarke as Henry’s wife Elizabeth; Ernest Thesiger is wonderful as the diabolical Dr. Pretorius (even the name is ominous); and Dwight Frye, whose character Fritz was murdered by the Monster in the first film, is back as yet another lab assistant, Karl (but they’re basically the same guy). And Boris Karloff, here billed in the credits as simply “Karloff,” returns as the Monster. Pretorius teaches him to speak, which Karloff believed was a mistake, but I think it works.
After the main title credits, there’s a prologue with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). They’re gathered in a luxurious setting discussing Mary’s novel Frankenstein. Byron and Shelley think it’s a shame the story (of the first film) ended where it did. Mary says oh no, that wasn’t the end, and begins telling what happened next, leading us into The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a rather clever intro.
This film’s creation scene takes place near the end rather than the beginning. It’s even more elaborate than in the first film.
Finally, rejected by the Bride (Elsa Lancaster again), the Monster figures the hell with it and decides to blow everything up, but first urges Henry and Elizabeth to leave. Pretorius isn’t given that option, with Karloff delivering a great line, “We belong dead!” The way he says it, you know he means it.
Son of Frankenstein (1939). Directed by Rowland V. Lee, Son of Frankenstein is in every way a more elaborate, stylish production than the previous two films. Bride of Frankenstein has the look of a fairy tale, while Son has a harder, expressionistic look, thanks to the sets and lighting. Per Universal Horrors, the film “…picks up the continuing saga of the Frankenstein family years after the deaths of the Monster and his Bride… Baron Heinrich (formerly Henry) von Frankenstein has died, leaving behind a legacy of hate in the hearts of his fellow countrymen. His son Wolf (Basil Rathbone), an American college professor, becomes the victim of their contempt when he returns to the village of Frankenstein with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to claim his inheritance.”
The cast is excellent, especially Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill. Lugosi plays Ygor, a singularly unpleasant character who was hanged for body snatching years before but survived with a twisted neck and protruding bone — as well as a bad attitude about it all. Even better is Atwill as Inspector Krogh, who has bitter memories of his own. When he was a boy, the Monster tore off one of his arms. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the verbal sparring between Wolf and Krogh while they play a game of darts. A nice touch is that Krogh sticks his supply of darts into the wooden forearm of his prosthetic arm, pulling them out one by one to throw. Another nice touch is in a climactic confrontation near the end when the Monster again tears off Krogh’s arm — the prosthetic one.
Wolf thought the Monster was dead, but Ygor has been using him to kill off the village burghers who had condemned him to death. The Monster is now in a coma, and Ygor pressures Wolf to make him well again. Of course, Wolf can’t resist the challenge and the chance to clear his father’s name. Oddly enough, the Monster comes off as a secondary character here, through no fault of Karloff’s. He’s just not as interesting as Rathbone, Atwill, and Lugosi. He’s an imposing figure here — he appears to have packed on a few pounds in the intervening years. He’s more of a bulked-up thug than the tragic, lonely creature of the previous films. And he no longer speaks. The script and Lee’s direction have made him less human. Nevertheless, Son of Frankenstein is a terrific film. It has style and wit not found in subsequent Frankenstein films from Universal.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), attempts to carry on the quality of the first three films, but doesn’t get there. I think there’s a different tone to the Universal films made in the 1940s. Maybe the war years had something to do with that, but I don’t know. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Ludwig, yet another son of Henry Frankenstein. Lon Chaney, Jr. is the Monster this time around, a definite comedown after Boris Karloff. Chaney was fresh off the success of The Wolf Man (1941), but I’ve never cared much for him as an actor. Bela Lugosi is back as Ygor, having survived being shot to death by Wolf in the previous film. Evelyn Ankers plays Elsa, Ludwig’s daughter. I find her immensely appealing and always like seeing her in films.
The next film in the series, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), was when they really started to run out of ideas. The first half is basically a sequel to The Wolf Man, with Chaney reprising his role as the doomed lycanthrope Larry Talbot. Bela Lugosi is the Monster, which is ironic considering that he originally turned down the part in the original Frankenstein because of the makeup required and the fact that he couldn’t speak. He had too much ego for that. The opening, in the graveyard where Larry Talbot was laid to rest after being killed by his father (Claude Rains) in The Wolf Man, is quite atmospheric and exciting. Nothing in the rest of the film quite matches that, though the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya is back as Maleva the gypsy woman. Regardless, it’s a fun film.
House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) are absurd monster mashes, quite ridiculous. The posters tell you all you need to know. The only point of distinction, as I recall, is that Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) is cured of being a werewolf at the end of House of Dracula. I’m sure all those people he killed over the years as the Wolf Man are happy.
The final film from the Universal years was a comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1947). It’s actually pretty good, and it treats the various monsters with a certain amount of respect. It has the distinction of being only the second and final time Bela Lugosi would portray his signature role of Dracula. Lon Chaney is back as Larry Talbot, once again a werewolf. There’s a great moment when Chaney says to Lou Costello, “You don’t understand. I turn into a wolf when the moon is full!” To which Costello responds, “Yeah, you and twenty million other guys.” Or words to that effect. This film is a far cry from the classic Frankenstein films, but it’s not bad for what it is.
In 1957, the British studio Hammer Film Productions seriously shook things up with The Curse of Frankenstein, the first Frankenstein film in color. I was tremendously energized when I saw it and Horror of Dracula (1958) for the first time as midnight movies at the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, Iowa. Both films made a very strong impact with their blood and gore and cleavage. Many of the more sensitive cultural commentators were outraged. I, of course, was quite thrilled.
Both films also made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing played Victor Frankenstein and Lee played the Creature (rather than the “Monster” of the Universal films). They went on to appear together in many subsequent Hammer films. Here is a clip of the first meeting of Frankenstein and the new-born Creature.
Hammer made seven Frankenstein films in all, with varying degrees of success. Frankenstein’s Monster is the main character in the Universal films, whereas with Hammer the continuing character is Frankenstein himself. He goes from film to film assembling a new creation each time. For me, The Revenge of Frankenstein, the second film in the Hammer series, is far and away the best. It took me years to finally see it, but it was worth the wait. At the end of the film (Spoiler Alert!), Frankenstein is killed by angry patients in a charity ward he had mainly for the purpose of harvesting the occasional body part for his extracurricular projects. A young doctor who’d been assisting him with his experiments transplants Frankenstein’s brain into the skull of a body that closely resembles Victor. He’d previously assembled it to have on hand, I suppose, in case something like this happened. Victor was nothing if not methodical. In a coda, we see the reborn Frankenstein and his assistant in their offices in London. This is the only success in the entire Hammer series. Frankenstein has become his own creation! Pretty neat.
The Hammer Frankenstein Films:
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) — Excellent
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) — The best
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) — The worst
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) — Have only seen it once a long time ago. Need to see again,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) — Very good
The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) — A parody of the first film, without Cushing. Have never wanted to see it.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) — Unpleasant, but worth seeing.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Part 2 will include info re new and forthcoming Frankenstein films, film posters, vintage newspaper ads, comic books, a video interview with Boris Karloff, and more. A lot of stuff that wouldn’t reasonably fit into this post. And that still won’t begin to cover the subject. There’s just too much Frankenstein. Look for it in a day or two. — Ted Hicks