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The Three Best Frankensteins
There Are Only three Frankenstein Movies that are Classics
In 1931 Universal released a movie based upon a novel by Mary Shelly and entitled Frankenstein. It was directed by James Whales and starred a troop of unknown, mostly British performers, including the unknown and unrecognizable person who played the monster and billed in the end credits only as “Karloff”. No one at the time, not Universal, not Whales and certainly not “Karloff” could have guessed that their little 63 minute production would spawn a franchise that would go on for over seventy years.
Besides the sequels produced by Universal, there were even more produced by other studios. Besides the three elaborated upon in this hub, from Universal came The Ghost of Frankenstein, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf man, with Chaney playing the wolf man and Bela Lugosi playing the monster; House of Frankenstein with Glen Strange performing as the monster and Karloff as the mad doctor. In the sixties, Hammer studios presented its version of the story with Peter Cushing as the mad doctor and performing as the monster. Even in the nineties Kenneth Branagh presented a different version of the story with, of all people, Robert De Nero as the monster (how is that for strange casting?)
As a kid I saw most of these Frankenstein movies produced in the forties and even then I could see that something was wrong with them. The make-up and the performances of Chaney, Strange and particularly Lugosi as the monster were like Halloween parodies of the original and were not frightening even to us kids. The fact is they were all b-movie rip-offs of the originals. I have most of them in my collection and watch them occasionally for their nostalgic value, not for their quality as old horror movies. The fact is that there are only three Frankenstein movies that qualify as classics. All three were produced by Universal and all three had Boris Karloff as the monster-the only three times he played that role. These are the three Frankenstein classics in descending order:
No. 3 Frankenstein (1931)
This is the grandfather of them all, the very first. With direction by James Whales and make-up by Jack Pierce, this movie set the bar for all of the following Frankenstein movies to meet or exceed. Except for the ones listed here, none of them met and certainly did not exceed the bar. The atmosphere of the sets and the pace of the production are outstanding, considering it came out in 1931. But besides the Pierce make-up, the real star of this movie is the one who does not utter a word-only the most horrible sounds to be heard in any horror movie up to that time and for some time after that- Boris Karloff. When I first saw his first close-up as a kid, I had nightmares for a week. Even now, after seeing the movie countless, that first close-up has its effects on me.
Karloff had the perfect body for the monster, except for his less-than-six-foot height, which was compensated for the elevated shoes. He had the gaunt face, the slim, angular frame and monstrously long hands. And he had the perfect moves that were far more frightening than laughably exaggerated movies of his imitators in later Frankenstein movies. And, of course he had the perfect voice for those very scary sounds from a monster who could not talk. These sounds are both monstrous and pitiable in the last scene at the windmill when the monster is consumed by fire.
It is interesting to note that the scene with the monster playing with the little girl and innocently throwing her into the river, causing her to drown, was deleted from the original by the censors at the film’s release. But all video versions of the film have the total scene included, and it makes one wonder what the censors were thinking in 1931.
No.2: The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
This is my choice for number 2 but it is the third and last film to be released in which Boris Karloff played the monster. This film is also the only one of the three that was not directed by James Whale, who had left Universal by 1939. It was directed by Roland Lee. The film stars Basil Rathbone, who steals almost as much of the film as he did in all of the Sherlock Holmes movies, Bela Lugosi, who plays Ygor and who also steals part of the movie with a very un-Dracula-type performance and make-up that is so effective that you would not recognize him if you did not know he was in the film; and, of course, Karloff who plays the monster as well as he did in the first movie, but is less the center of the this movie than he was in the first. Also giving a very good performance is Lionel Atwell as the inspector who lost an arm to the monster years before. This part was brilliantly satirized by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. One other player who steals his share of the movie is Donnie Dunnigan who plays the son of the son of Frankenstein. Despite an almost sickening southern accent, he gave a great performance.
The plot of this film concerns Ygor’s using the revived monster for revenge against the town’s people who unsuccessfully hanged Ygor years before. He convinces Frankenstein to bring the monster back to health and orders the monster to exact revenge by blowing an eerie tune on his horn. When Frankenstein realizes how evil Ygor is, he shoots and kills him. When the monster discovers Ygor’s dead body he cries out in anguish and goes on a rampage. Then he decides to get his revenge on the doctor by kidnapping his son. Frankenstein comes to the rescue by swinging on a chain and kicking the monster over a precipice, down into a boiling river of sulfur.
This film is ranked as better than the original because, besides the performance of Karloff as the monster, there are credible, even classy performances from the actors who played characters that were just as central to the plot as was the monster. And it avoids being a cartoonish imitation of the original, as the subsequent versions of the Frankenstein saga were. But as good as it was, Son of Frankenstein did not match up with my no. 1.
No. 1: Bride of Frankenstein
This is the best of the three for a number of reasons: first, it introduces Dr. Pretorius, played by Ernest Thesiger, who plays the part in a more scene-stealing way than did Colin Cleve, who once again puts on the shoes of Dr. Frankenstein. Second, this film features a young Elsa Lanchester, future wife of Charles Laughton, who plays both a speaking part and a non-speaking part. She opens the film playing Mary Shelly who tall her friends the story of what happens to Frankenstein and the monster following her initial story. Later, she plays the un-credited role of the bride of the monster. Third, Boris Karloff returns as the monster, with the same make-up and the same physical performance but with an added dimension-the monster now can talk.
In this plot the cunning Dr. Pretorius convinces the reluctant Dr. Frankenstein to revive his monster and help him create a bride for the thing. Frankenstein is brought back with the additional ability to speak, although only haltingly. This new ability is depicted most captivatingly in the scenes with the blind hermit, who teaches the monster to drink wine and enjoy a cigar. He also calms the monster with his violin. This is parodied hilariously in Young Frankenstein, with Gene Hackman playing the blind man who keeps missing the monster’s bowl and dumping hot soup in his lap.
Elsa Lanchester plays the monster’s intended bride like an over-alert animal, quickly shifting her eyes and head from place to place, as if anticipating danger. When Frankenstein sees her, her bizarre appearance does not in the least deter him. He wants her. He sits next to her, holds her hand and asks, “Friend?” But when she takes one look at him, she hisses like a cat and shrinks back in disgust. Frankenstein becomes all the more pitiable when he says, “She hate me.” In the end, he tells Dr. Frankenstein to leave. “You live.” He says, “We deserve to die.” He then pulls a lever to destroy Dr. Pretorius, his unwilling bride and himself.
Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by James Whales, is one of the few sequels, like the second Godfather movie, that was better in quality than the original. This superiority applies to the script, the performances of the key players and even to the original musical score by Franz Waxman.
The subsequent Frankenstein films, with Chaney, Lugosi and Strange playing the monster may be enjoyed for a laugh or for nostalgic reasons if you saw these films on the late show when you were a kid. But for serious collectors of horror films the three mentioned above are the only Frankenstein movies that can and are considered classics.