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Frankenstein (1931): Classic Monster Collection

Universal Home Video

Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive,
Mae Clarke, and John Boles

Based on the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly
Adapted by John L. Balderston
From the play by Peggy Webling

Directed by James Whale


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"God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil."

— Rousseau, Emile


Young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly ran with an interesting crowd.

The quiet English girl, just nineteen, was having an affair with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the couple were friendly with Lord Byron, a poet of even higher renown.

Passing a June evening at a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland during 1816, Wollstonecraft, Shelly, Byron, and others decided to trade ghost stories, which was a favorite pastime. After some consideration, Mary delivered the story of a Dr. Frankenstein, who was obsessed with bringing the dead to life — and not just a dead body, but a collection of dead body parts stolen from fresh graves. All present agreed that it was the best story of the night, and the nineteen-year-old soon committed it to paper as her novel Frankenstein, published in 1818. She later married Shelly, but Frankenstein was her only novel, and it remains her only contribution to world literature. Yet it was enough to immortalize her as a major figure of the Romantic age, and the tale has been told and retold ever since.

Shelly's Frankenstein is firmly rooted in the Romantic/Gothic genre, which was a reaction to the essentially positivist, rational world that the Renaissance introduced a few hundred years earlier. Gothicism, a facet of Romanticism, was not concerned with the tangible or the discernible, which were regarded as limiting, shortsighted concepts (and a little dull, too). Gothicism investigated a metaphysical netherworld (or perhaps a super-world) where unfathomable powers held sway over the acts of men, good and bad. Shelly's Dr. Frankenstein, by his desire to bring the dead to life and thus become like a God, tampers with this paradigm, causing his own eventual downfall. Drawing from Milton's Paradise Lost and Ovid's Prometheus (hence the alternate title of her book, "The Modern Prometheus"), Shelly's Faustian tale has become as influential as the Faustian legend itself.

It must be noted (and it is no small point) that Shelly's Frankenstein is radically different than both the 1931 Universal horror film and the well-known physiognomy of the Frankenstein monster from that film, a clumsy, mostly mechanical (and electrical) figure that bears little resemblance to Shelly's cadaveresque horror. Nor are Shelly's many profound themes present in the film (such would be impossible in this 71-minute excursion). The Faustian ideas remain intact, but the Romantic/Gothic qualities are discarded, and there are several feminist interpretations of Frankenstein that claim Shelly was examining the impossibility of reproduction without women in the context of current-day scientific advancements, along with what can happen to neglected or abused children who are raised without female influence (interpretations not without merit — both Shelly and her mother were well-known figures in the 18th- and 19th-century women's rights movements). Frankenstein is a tale of deformity, but not merely a physical one. It examines both the moral deformity of a doctor intoxicated by science and the practical deformity of his creation, a hack-job of spontaneous generation that cannot possibly integrate itself into a dynamic society that relies on developmental processes, not developmental events. Nowhere in Shelly's novel is it suggested that the creature's brain is a criminal mind — a plot point in the film that suggests the doctor's experiment could have worked, provided his hunchbacked assistant (also not in the novel) had pilfered a healthy specimen from the medical college rather than a jar of psychotic gray-matter.

But despite the many profound readings that Shelly's Frankenstein offers, the fundamental story soon became a popular spook-show yarn, almost instantly arriving on the stage in numerous adaptations. In fact, while some high school and college students today are often introduced to the original novel in a classroom setting before seeing the 1931 film (as this writer was, years ago), for nearly 200 years the theater was where a lot of folks first met the misguided doctor and his creature. Underplaying the most trenchant Gothic themes, these many plays concentrated on the shocks and thrills that persist today as a fundamental component of most contemporary Hollywood movies. They also had the greatest influence on James Whale's Frankenstein — the script is an adaptation of a 1927 stage production by Peggy Webling. Shelly's Frankenstein is merely a distant cousin.

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The fascinating story of James Whale is probably best-told elsewhere (Bill Condon's brilliant Gods and Monsters is as good a place to start as any), but he was a pioneering director with a gift for composition, which was an extension of his passion for painting, and especially portraits. It is Whale who is most responsible for making Frankenstein such an influential film, since the acting is nothing special (at times its even a bit shrill), and the script only skims a surface of weighty ideas at a rapid pace. But while the fundamentals of Frankenstein may be potboiler-horror stuff, Whale takes advantage of every moment. Given the opportunity to situate his camera somewhere, he consistently finds a better spot for it. Presented with a straightforward sequence, he finds a way to shoot it in a more unusual manner. From the opening shot (panning across the faces of mourners around an open grave and coming to rest on a statue of the Grim Reaper), to the introduction of the monster (who said that Godard invented the jump-cut?), to the final flight of the monster across the countryside and the burning of the windmill, Frankenstein is a bag of expressionist treats that easily makes up for whatever deficiencies are inherent in the production itself.

Whale, along with legendary makeup-artist Jack Pierce, is also responsible for the iconic success of the monster, a figure as easily recognizable in 20th-century American pop-culture as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or a bottle of Coca-Cola. Boris Karloff, as the monster, delivers a sturdy performance, but much of the sympathy that the creature generates is a direct result of the heavy-lidded eyes and twisted, half-open mouth, which offer up an unexpected level of expression, asking the viewer to infer the near-human innocence within the monstrosity. Even Whale's introductory shots of the monster are oddly intimate. Despite the repellent visage, we still are treated to a series of close-ups that are little different than what traditionally happens when a romantic lead first appears on the screen. To Whale (who reputedly thought of Frankenstein as a comedy of sorts), the monster is Doug Fairbanks. He's Valentino. It was not happenstance that Whale only allows us to share an intimate moment with Karloff and no other actor. After that moment, we can't take our eyes off him.

Universal's DVD edition of Frankenstein, part of their "Classic Monster Collection," is a first-class item. The entire 71-minute version of the film is on board (cut by the Hayes Office in 1937 but restored in 1986 to include the line "Now I know what it feels like to be God," as well as the complete lakeside scene between the monster and the little girl), and the print is very acceptable, with some damage and flecking, but also with very good low-contrast detail. The transfer is in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is artifact free. Audio is likewise solid, in the original mono and with very little ambient noise. Voices are clear and easily understood. Universal deserves high praise for filling this disc with a great deal of value-added content, including the 45-minute documentary How Hollywood Made a Monster (which examines Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, several stage productions, and the Hollywood incarnation), a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer, a series of on-set stills with audio clips from the film, the Universal comic short "Boo!" with footage from Frankenstein and Nosferatu, trailers from 1938 and 1951, production notes, and cast and crew bios and filmographies. Frankenstein is a collectable DVD that earns the title "collectable."

— RW



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