February 27, 2019

Frankenstein (1931)
Grade: 81/100

Director: James Whale
Stars: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Edward Van Sloan

What it's about. The Mary Shelley classic novel receives its first talkie adaptation in this landmark early Universal horror movie. Frankenstein made a star out of Boris Karloff, a tall and deep-voiced British actor.

It also brought attention to its director, James Whale, who followed its success with three more horror movies for Universal, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and the surreal Bride of Frankenstein.

Whale changes the setting to 20th-century England. Colin Clive is the brilliant but misguided young doctor Frankenstein. Mae Clarke is his devoted fianceé whose eternal love and comely figure are insufficient to lure Clive out of his laboratory, where he toils with his weird hunchbacked servant Dwight Frye to steal brains and bodies and attempt to bring them back to life via electricity.

Edward Van Sloan is a distinguished elderly professor who develops a strong interest in Clive's mad science project. Frederick Kerr is Clive's comic-relief blow-hard father. John Boles is Clive's best friend, a man of uncommon heroism and integrity, who openly pines for Clarke, but in vain.

Because it is a movie, Clive succeeds in bringing life to Boris Karloff. Karloff a grunting, violent monster who inevitably escapes from the laboratory to wreak havoc on Clive's picturesque village, where everybody pretends that the year is 1830 instead of 1930. Marilyn Harris is a child actress with a brief but pivotal scene.

How others will see it. The remarkably influential Frankenstein forever stamped the character of Frankenstein's monster, much as another Universal movie from 1931, Dracula, stereotyped its Transylvanian bloodsucker.

Frankenstein was ignored by the Academy Awards, which as usual regarded the horror genre with condescension. But it was an enormous box office hit, with more than double the box office gross of the second-biggest movie of the year, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights.

Today at imdb.com, Frankenstein has 58K user votes, a big number for an early talkie. The user ratings are high, and range from 7.6 among women under 30, to 8.4 among women over 45. The user reviews are generally full of praise for Whale and Karloff, though some call the film "dated", which certainly applies to the characters of Clarke, Boles, and Kerr.

How I felt about it. The movie improves as it moves along, with the best scenes of all unexpectedly involving the villagers instead of the monster. But Karloff camps it up wonderfully. He is a tormented beast with all the fears and passions of an unloved savage.

Clive is a Jekyll and Hyde sort whose dull Dr. Jekyll has already won the heart of Clarke before the film begins. His insane Hyde personality is far more cinematic, and enjoys hanging out with Frye and dead bodies while waiting for a choice electrical storm to redeem his antisocial obsession. Karloff rises from the slab with Clive's dark side, leaving the better half of Clive to ineffectually anguish over what he has done. Yet a happy ending is somehow salvaged, with the beast destroyed (until the sequel) and Clive, Clarke, and Kerr reunited.

It is odd that the best scenes, if not the best remembered scenes, involve a crowd of extras in village garb. The editing is also curious: a cat disappears in the arms of the flower girl, a dog moves between shots, and Frey's corpse vanishes. Clive's personality is all over the map, and the village seems to regard the Frankenstein family as local royalty.

But eccentricity is a James Whale hallmark, even when his efforts are serious. In any event, Frankenstein is his masterpiece, noticeably better than its cult classic comic sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), though that movie is also quite good.