It’s Still Alive: ‘Frankenstein’ at 90 [Gods and Monsters]

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

Few works of fiction have penetrated culture as thoroughly as Frankenstein, and even after ninety years, no version remains as iconic as Universal’s 1931 film. The surprise success of Dracula earlier that year had vindicated Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s gamble on horror films and he immediately sought to put another literary monster on film. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the logical choice and overnight sensation and Dracula star Bela Lugosi a shoo-in for the lead. In Lugosi, Laemmle assumed he had found the heir to Universal’s silent star Lon Chaney, but a disastrous screen test proved it was not to be. This led not only to a relative unknown being thrust into legendary star status but the hiring of an up-and-coming visionary for the director’s chair.

Horror would never be the same again.

As with Dracula, the screenplay for Frankenstein was largely adapted from a stage version of the source novel produced for the British stage by Hamilton Deane. In this case, it was the 1928 play by Peggy Webling titled Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre that provided the basis. The play passed through a number of hands along the way before going in front of the cameras. John L. Balderston, who also adapted Deane’s version of Dracula for Broadway, retained some of the more curious aspects of this play including the change of Dr. Frankenstein’s name from Victor to Henry and the name of his friend and rival for the leading lady’s hand to Victor. Webling also called the monster “Frankenstein,” a tradition that, though not retained for the film, has persisted, at least in the public at large. After Webling and Balderston revised the play, they decided to sell it directly to Hollywood rather than go through the staging process. Universal was the obvious choice and the studio bought the play outright.

The script was then handed over to an exciting young director that had recently been hired by Universal, Robert Florey. Florey and Garrett Fort, who had written the final script for Dracula, reworked the Webling/Balderston play considerably. Much of the final film’s structure as well as some of its dialogue can be found in this draft. One aspect of this version had an unexpected consequence that changed horror history forever. The duo knew that Universal planned to leverage the popularity of their new star Bela Lugosi into making Frankenstein a success. Fort and Florey assumed that meant Lugosi would play the creator, so they beefed up the Dr. Frankenstein role and scaled the monster back. As in the novel, the creature in Webling’s play can not only talk but is articulate and thoughtful in his loquaciousness. Florey and Fort removed not only his ability to speak but the pathos behind him making him little more than a grunting animal. Then word came down from the studio brass that Lugosi was to play the monster, leading to one of the most notorious screen tests in film history and the launch of one of horror’s most fabled careers.

There are so many contradictory accounts of this lost screen test that we will surely never know the whole truth. In some accounts, Lugosi’s makeup was a prototypical version of that seen in the final film and applied by Universal’s legendary head of makeup Jack Pierce himself. In others, Lugosi insisted on doing his own makeup, using a “broad wig” and grease paint. In another, the makeup was so ridiculous that it made production head Carl Laemmle, Jr. laugh “like a hyena.” Whatever the case exactly, Lugosi backed out or was removed from the project. His reasoning was that he did not feel that he, a big star, should have to play a “grunting idiot” under layers of heavy makeup. In Lugosi’s defense, the pathos and subtlety of the monster’s character was apparently nowhere to be found in the version of the script he was given. Both Lugosi and director Robert Florey were removed from the project and assigned to Murders in the Rue Morgue, released in 1932.

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Soon after this test, Laemmle began to consider British director James Whale to direct. Laemmle had been impressed by Whale’s war film Journey’s End (1930) and was offered a five-year contract which began with Waterloo Bridge (1931), another war picture. Though Whale was not particularly keen on directing Frankenstein, it offered something besides a World War I film, so he decided to sign on. He then worked with screenwriter John Russell to further shape the story and dialogue with Francis Edwards Faragoh giving the final polish, which was approved by the production office. Apparently, Whale made a few more modifications both before and during shooting including Henry Frankenstein’s memorable monologue to his mentor Dr. Waldman about scientific curiosity.

Whale also brought several of his favorite actors to populate the cast. He had worked with Colin Clive on both the stage and screen versions of Journey’s End and fought for him to play Henry Frankenstein. Clive was considered something of a gamble due to several personal demons, including an alcohol dependency, but Whale vouched for him, and he was hired. For Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, Whale cast Mae Clarke, whom he had worked with on Waterloo Bridge earlier that year and would work with again on The Impatient Maiden (1932). Clarke had made quite an impression on audiences as the recipient of a half-grapefruit in the face from James Cagney earlier in 1931 in The Public Enemy. Whale was also impressed by Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye in Dracula and retained them to play Dr. Waldman and Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz. Whale would continue to enjoy working with Frye, casting him in small roles in The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Both Robert Florey and James Whale were great admirers of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s and elements from that movement made their way into the structure and final look of Frankenstein. Three films seem to have had particular influence: Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Paul Wegener’s The Golem, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Elements from each of these films can be found in Frankenstein including the monster’s attack on Elizabeth in her bedroom, the design and movements of the monster, his interaction with the young girl, and the creation sequence. In each case, Frankenstein uses these elements as starting points, expanding upon and sometimes subverting them into something exciting and innovative.

One of the greatest of these innovations can be found in its creation scene. Previously, as in the Edison one-reeler Frankenstein (1910), The Golem (1920), and even the more science-minded Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), there is an element of magic involved in the making of the monsters, be it by bubbling potion, elixir, or magic words. The creation of the robotic Maria in Metropolis (1927) relies more on scientific apparatus, but even it includes an element of alchemy. Here, there is nothing of the kind. The monster is brought to life purely by electrical means with some basis in scientific experimentation of the time. The electrical equipment, designed by Kenneth Strickfaden, that spins, whines, and above all sparks, is some of the most recognizable ever put on film. These original props were used and reused throughout the Universal cycle and all the way into Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein in 1974. This look redefined the mad scientist’s lab for decades, maybe even all time.

Another subversion of its influences came in the character of Dr. Frankenstein. Henry is quite different not only from Mary Shelley’s Victor, but from the template of the previous decade. The mad scientists established in German Expressionism were usually old, wild-haired megalomaniacs driven by power and domination over the weak. Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is young, handsome, and refined. He is also sympathetic and deeply concerned for the welfare of others, at least when not in throes of passion over his work. He is not driven by any evil motive but by a true zeal for discovery tempered by sadness that he may never achieve his goals.

The key to the success of Frankenstein is in many ways not an innovation but a carryover from earlier Universal silent films. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928) all featured sympathetic “monsters.” Frankenstein would take this to an entirely new level. Though present in the final script, it is Boris Karloff who truly imbues the Monster with his pathos. It is a remarkable feat that, despite the limitations of the makeup and cumbersome costume, Karloff is able to give such a nuanced and emotive performance.

Perhaps no monster in all of horror is as instantly recognizable as the creature in Frankenstein. It is said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. This is certainly true when it comes to the look of the Monster. No less than four people claim at least some contribution to the final makeup and costume, which was undoubtedly influenced by The Golem, particularly in his towering height, stiff-legged gait, and platformed shoes. Of course, the two most responsible are makeup legend Jack Pierce and director James Whale.

After meeting Karloff in the Universal commissary and offering him the role of the Monster, Whale made several sketches that he then showed to Pierce, who had been studying medical and anatomy books for inspiration. Though loathe to do so for many years, Pierce eventually admitted that the final design was a compromise undoubtedly refined over time between he and Whale. An important element in the process was experimenting with the makeup on Karloff himself over the course of several weeks. The cranium was built up using layers of cheesecloth and strips of cotton soaked in collodion, a strong-smelling solution commonly used in theatrical makeup at the time that creates a hard surface when dry. Karloff apparently offered two subtle but important elements to the makeup. Though satisfied with Pierce’s work, he felt that his eyes looked too alive and wondered if something could be done. Pierce applied mortician’s wax to his eyelids to give him a sleepy, half-dead look. Karloff’s second contribution was to remove the bridgework from the right side of his mouth to give his face a more cadaverous look, which Pierce accentuated with dark shading makeup. The final touch, the electrodes on the sides of the neck, was apparently suggested by the film’s first director Robert Florey when he was still working on the project.

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Whatever disputes there may be about the creation and design the Monster, there is no question that it was incredibly taxing for Karloff to perform in the makeup and costume. Apart from the work on his face and hands, Karloff was required to wear a padded costume to bulk up his thin frame and the asphalt-spreader’s boots he wore weighed thirteen pounds each. Metal braces were added to his legs and back to further encumber his movements. The film was shot in the late summer heat of southern California, spanning from late August to early October of 1931. By the end of the thirty-five-day shoot, Karloff had reportedly lost twenty-five pounds off his already slender frame. Removal of the makeup was even more torturous than applying it as it had to be pried off and slowly dissolved with oils and acids. Karloff commonly worked fifteen to sixteen-hour days on the film.

One day late in the shooting was particularly arduous and required the actor to remain in makeup for twenty-five hours. It included shooting the scene by the lake with the little girl Maria (Marilyn Harris) in the blistering sun followed by shots of carrying Colin Clive’s limp body to the windmill for the climactic sequence through the night. The film’s budget and Karloff’s lack of star-power at the time did not allow for a double and he was forced to carry Clive on his back up a hill over and over until Whale was satisfied with the shot. This very likely led to Karloff’s chronic back problems, but also to his role in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild so that other performers would not have to face such difficult conditions while filming.

Despite all the challenges he endured, Karloff gives an unforgettable performance that redefined “monsters” for all time. It is a performance filled with nuance, subtlety, and pathos that draws the empathy of the audience despite what was a truly horrifying appearance to 1930s audiences. It was this pathos that attracted the Monster’s biggest fans—children. Karloff received a great deal of fan mail from children expressing their love for and understanding of the Monster. The actor was always delighted by this fact. I count myself as one of the “child fans” of the Monster. I have been fascinated by him for as long as I can remember, and my love of horror springs from the moment I first saw Frankenstein at age six.

Frankenstein endures because it speaks to the child, to the adult, and the child within the adult in each of us. We recognize the Monster’s need for love. We, like Henry, want to “look beyond the clouds and the stars” and know “what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness to light.” We see the frightened outcast in ourselves. Just as Frankenstein and his creation are images of one another, we see our reflection in both of them. Frankenstein strikes deep and dissonant chords in our humanity. Chords of repulsion and compassion, disgust and empathy. It speaks to the heights of our intellectual curiosities and our most basic instinctual needs. This complex music draws us time and again to sit at the feet of masters: Shelley, Whale, Karloff, Clive, and simply listen and feel the music as it touches every aspect of our humanity—mind, body, heart, and soul.