If Dracula is the King of Monsters, monster royalty as it were, then Frankenstein is the People’s Monster, the Monster of the Proletariat. Everything about him is working class. He is outsized and strong to make him an able worker. His clothing is a workman’s suit. He is dull, brutish, inarticulate and ugly. He recognizes beauty and strives after it but is rejected by the beautiful people and chased away. He is the ultimate step-son.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s creation as the ultimate act of human hubris, to pretend to be God. And the Monster punishes Dr. Frankenstein for putting him through Hell.
Okay, so that’s the meta-story, now let’s talk about the movie.
Universal released Frankenstein in 1931. The cast is mostly contract character actors who appeared in most of the B-movies at Universal. Even Dr. Frankenstein was played by a minor star Colin Clive. And of course, the real star, the Monster is an anonymous question mark (?) in the opening credits. Boris Karloff made his name with this movie. And as opposed to Bela Lugosi’s eternal submergence into the part of Dracula, Karloff prospered as the go to monster player at Universal.
The story follows Dr. Frankenstein, first as he creates the Monster and later as the Monster attempts to destroy him. During this we meet the doctor’s fiancée and his aged father “The Baron.” And, of course, there is his lab assistant and part time grave robber Fritz. The hunch-backed sadist (played by Dwight Frye, the same actor who was Renfield in Dracula by the way) is the archetype for every Igor act-alike henchman in every monster movie that ever followed. And there are all those other memorable characters, the Burgomaster, little Maria the girl drowned in the pond, Maria’s father and of course Doctor Waldman played by Edward Van Sloan. If you read the previous post in this series you may remember Van Sloan as the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing the scientist and vampire hunter. In this movie unfortunately, he’s not quite as successful at monster eradication. In perhaps the most inept example of obsessive compulsive behavior ever filmed, we witness Dr. Waldman bungle the job of monster euthanasia. In the preceding scene the Monster, tired of being tormented by Fritz, hangs the hunch-back with a length of chain. Drs. Waldman and Frankenstein immediately suss out the necessity of subduing the Monster before he carries forward this new policy of interpersonal simplification on them. Working together they barely manage to tranquilize the Monster with a hypodermic before he could finish throttling Dr. Frankenstein with his bare hands.
Dr. Frankenstein, now convinced that his creature is too dangerous to live wants to put him down himself but his father and his fiancée arrive in time to interrupt the program. Dr. Waldman convinces him to leave and assures him that the deed will be performed without delay. So far so good, capable older scientist and biologist will dispatch the Monster with a good swift stroke to the carotid or the aorta or whatever, right? Wrong. We are about to witness film history.
The next scene opens on Dr. Waldman in operating room garb standing over the Monster lying on an operating table, seemingly unconscious. Dr. Waldman fiddles with some scalpels, checks the Monster’s vitals and turns aside to make an entry in his journal! I can’t recall the exact words but the paraphrase is something like, “sedation is becoming less and less effective, I must quickly euthanize him before he regains consciousness.” Of course, as soon as he finishes this diary entry and turns back to the job at hand, the Monster awakes and breaks the good doctor’s neck. What the hell! I mean, come on! Forget medical school, how did this guy get through middle school without a body guard? Instead of putting him in charge of monster execution he should have been assigned to spittoon polishing back at the baronial estate of Papa Frankenstein. What a loser.
Well, the story proceeds with the monster going on a killing spree that inexplicably leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s location. The Monster arrives just in time to disrupt the wedding and harass but for some unknown reason not kill the doctor’s fiancée. Roused by this threat to his planned for wedded bliss, Dr. Frankenstein joins the village mob and follows the Monster’s trail back to the obligatory windmill. Here the tables turn and the Monster kicks his creator’s butt and tosses him off the top of the windmill. One of the windmill’s vanes breaks his fall and he is transported back to the manor. The incensed mob sets fire to the mill and the last we see of the Monster he is trapped under a falling beam and surrounded by flame.
Miraculously the doctor makes a complete recovery and in the last scene the household staff are drinking a toast with the Baron to “a Son of the House of Frankenstein.” Looking at sequels as children, this toast seems to have been amply fulfilled.
So, what’s my conclusion? It’s incredible fun. With so many semi-comical characters it’s hard not to take the movie for what it’s meant to be a wild fantasy. And in that guise, it succeeds. It even somehow cobbles together a happy ending which completely ignores the actual ending of the book. The fact that the main characters are obviously British but are supposed to be a German noble family is inexplicable. The fact that there are no legal or personal repercussions from the Doctor’s creation murdering so many friends and neighbors is equally unexplained. But taken as a fairy tale it works. Silly, yes. Enjoyable, sure. See it if you haven’t already.