The February release and instant success of “Dracula” convinced producer Carl Laemmle Jr. to accelerate the production of Universal’s follow-up. Following tests in which star Bela Lugosi and director Robert Florey were let go (or walked, depending on who you believe), production began in the Spring with a new director and a largely unknown actor as the star. That November, only 9 months after the release of “Dracula”, FRANKENSTEIN was brought into theaters. Think, for a moment, of the most iconic images in Horror. Lightning storms in a mad-scientist's lab, a hunchback assistant, a mob with torches flooding into the countryside - this movie doesn't just have it all, this movie largely started it all. It's difficult to overstate just how great an impact this film had when it was released, and how utterly it still holds the power to fascinate.
Well known as a theater director, James Whale had only directed three films (one was uncredited) before taking on FRANKENSTEIN. He chose this project in order to do something different, since the films he had done to this point had mostly been war movies. Whale brought a uniquely theatrical sensibility to the film, staging the set pieces in grand style. He also collaborated closely with make-up artist Jack Pierce to create a horrific monster while still making the monster’s deformities logical. A flat head to better place the brain, scars and seals to clamp it off, and of course, electrodes on the neck. While James Whale’s direction and Jack Pierce's make-up were revelatory, it was Boris Karloff's star-making performance as the monster that brought it to life.
Boris Karloff at the time was a bit player for Universal before a chance meeting with James Whale in the commissary would change his life forever. He had appeared in some 80 films before landing the role as the monster, and he made the most of the opportunity presented to him. Karloff connected with the monster completely, infusing a humanity and pathos into a character that could easily have been nothing more than a lumbering killing machine. Seeing the monster as an abandoned child, he brings an innocence to the monster that few had seen in the character before. Who could forget that moment of longing as the monster reaches for the sun after Henry Frankenstein opens the skylight?
Karloff’s dedication to getting the character right even effected the make-up for the creature. Feeling that his eyes didn’t look ‘dead’ enough, he convinced Jack Pierce to add some mortician’s wax to his eyelids. This weighed his eyelids down and gave the creature a more somnambulant expression. He also removed the bridge in his mouth and sucked in his cheek to give his face a more cadaverous look. For a character that could have been so shallow, Karloff’s dedication and massive acting chops made the monster so much more.
FRANKENSTEIN has kinetic directing by Whale. It boasts innovative make-up effects by Jack Pierce. It gives us full-throttled performances by Karloff, Colin Clive, Edward van Sloan, Mae Clark, and Dwight Frye. All combine to give us an unparalleled achievement in the early years of cinema. Audiences at the time were blown away and instantly adopted the film’s images to form a massive part of our cultural identity. Images that still influence us today.
“Dracula” in February, then FRANKENSTEIN in November… what a year 1931 was for cinema of the macabre!
FRANKENSTEIN fun facts - When James Whale met him in the commissary, Boris Karloff was wearing his best, most dapper suit. He later joked at being offended at being offered to screen test for a monster since he thought he was looking rather handsome that day.
The monster’s costume shoes weighed 13 pounds each.
Henry Frankenstein - “It’s Alive! It’s Alive! Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Dr. Waldman - “You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”
Henry Frankenstein - “Quite a good scene, isn't it? One man, crazy - three very sane spectators.”