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The History Of Universal's Frankenstein Part One
Outside the window of a lonely, damp castle, past the rotting spires, the grey, groggy hillsides are punctuated by hundreds of tiny specks of light, a dreary screen of smog somehow pierced by the tips of borrowed, gypsy knitting needles on top of the fabric of dusk. The thunder cracks. The specks swirl angrily around a long since abandoned mill, demanding justice. The dark shadow of a man peers down in terror as villagers set the site of his last stand ablaze, an unloving Germanic Alamo. The shadow man jerkily attempts escape but is engulfed by the glowing timber, which smears the dark sky in a mournful glowing glaze. Indeed Frankenstein, I agree, fire bad.
If you haven’t seen 1931’s Frankenstein than you are missing out on scenes more emotive than the previous paragraph could ever dream of being. What’s that you say? You think this is hyperbole? Some find this Universal classic to be campy and silly but they are missing out on the film experience of their lives. Generally it’s agreed Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are amazing, pre-Hays Code gems. But what about the creature’s other appearances on celluloid?
Universal’s fantastic, undead creature continued to haunt cinemas until 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein . Some entries in the series are stronger than others but each is amazing in its own way. Just as the creature was fitted with strange body parts rifled from graves, so was Universal’s Frankenstein cycle constructed of ill-fitting, imperfect pieces. It’s time to dissect some of those pieces.
In the first installment of this series we will explore the first two Universal Frankenstein films, directed by the incomparable James Whale.
Universal actor Edward Van Sloan opens the 1931 Frankenstein with the following monologue, delivered in front of a grand, theatrical curtain:
We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.
This moment of sheer, funhouse hucksterism tells one everything one needs to know about Frankenstein. This film, directed by World War One veteran and well known homosexual James Whale, displays the horrors of science, mob violence and the misunderstanding of loners. So horrific and slanderous was this film that it was widely banned and censored. In fact, if the Kansas censors had their way the film would have been half its length. This is early outsider cinema, shocking and delusional, marketed to the masses.
Frankenstein was rushed into production after the massive success of Universal’s Dracula (1931). Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal frowned upon these “monster” films, even though the studio had achieved great victories in the 1920’s with hits such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Cat and the Canary (1927). His son, Carl Laemmle Jr. had different ideas about Universal’s line of horror pictures. He was determined to adapt the great works of gothic horror into moving pictures. After Dracula became a smash hit, even in the era of the Great Depression, Junior was given the full support of his father’s company. He would next adapt another classic horror novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
One can go no further in a discussion of Frankenstein without mentioning the extraordinary talent of Boris Karloff, displayed in his turn as the monster. Karloff was a relative unknown at the time, having worked on numerous silent films and finally achieving a bit of recognition in 1931’s The Criminal Code. The gripping, morose and tortured face of the monster made him human, even though he wasn’t exactly. Karloff turned a role that could have been forgettable, a lumbering bulk, and transformed it into a tragic performance worthy of Shakespeare. The monster represents the misanthropy and sadness of the outsider, something which Karloff himself knew all too well. As a boy Karloff had a lisp and a stutter and was the butt of many schoolyard jokes. He conquered the stutter but always retained a slight lisp.
Simply put, without Karloff there would be no Frankenstein.
As shown in this gorgeous poster, Bela Lugosi was originally scheduled to star in the film, following his magnetic portrayal of Count Dracula. However, Lugosi turned down the role, feeling it was beneath him. What talent was there in stiffly stumbling around like a wooden soldier? It was all for the better, can you imagine a short, slight Frankenstein’s monster? Lugosi would enter the Universal Frankenstein series eight years later in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, although not in the role of the monster.
Bride of Frankenstein
1935’s Bride of Frankenstein punches up the original by adding spice, sex and social satire. Director James Whale had to be coerced into revisiting the creature, as he, a man of taste, wished to produce legitimate feature films, perhaps ones dealing with the rusted metal shellshock of the war he so valiantly fought in. After all he’d had it with monsters after helming The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man directly after Frankenstein. Whale mustered up an insane, hallucinatory dialogue on sex, loneliness and religion with some laughs peppered in for effect. If he were going to make this picture, he’d do it his own way.
Like the first film, Bride of Frankenstein opens with a prelude, this time telling the tale of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein. This gives the beginning of the film an air of authenticity that will definitely wear off soon. Included in this film are homunculi of a priest, a devil, a ballerina and a mermaid; a kindly blind fiddler and so many references to Jesus Christ it will make you feel like your sitting on a pew.
Henry Frankenstein's foil in this film is Dr. Pretorius, an effeminate mad scientist. Pretorius is a key element of the film and the starting point for much of its humor and social commentary. Pretorius was played by Ernest Thesiger in all his wiry, grey glory. Thesiger and James Whale met during a Christmas time production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1919. He was a success on the stage and even penned an autobiography entitled Practically True in 1927. Whale invited Thesiger to play a creepy host in The Old Dark House and naturally did the same for Bride of Frankenstein. Pretorius is an aging, amoral fop drawing Henry Frankenstein closer to evil; in his absence there may have been no Bride of Frankenstein.
The beautiful Elsa Lancaster would inspire boyhood fantasies and punk rock glamor for years to come. Her serpentine and bird-like movements are iconic. She is all at once a sexy undead angel, an Egyptian cat goddess and voguish runway model. Lancaster was an English cabaret and theatre star during the First World War. It was through the theatre that she met her husband, actor Charles Laughton. Her early film appearances include the Anne of Cleves in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) along with Laughton. Her success brought her to Hollywood, where she would make her break through in Bride of Frankenstein.
Sadly, Colin Clive, who had collaborated with Whale since 1929 at The Savoy Theatre, would never again appear as Henry Frankenstein. He would pass only two years later from a deadly combination of tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism.
However silly, the film ends with a dramatic, heroic ending that is perhaps the best scene in the entire series. This cathartic finish signaled the end of the original Frankenstein creative team. James Whale was officially done with horror films. The creature himself, Boris Karloff, would give the role one last go around.
Don't let the sticky floors or dusty velvet seats chase you away! Part two of The History of Universal's Frankenstein explores Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the legendary battle royale Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.