"We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you."
Every young boy's horror touchstone—and if we're to believe Víctor Erice's "El Espíritu de la colmena" every little girl's, too. One of Carl Laemmle Jr.'s ghoul gallery of public domain necromancy movies that spawned dozens of sequels and dozens of imitators, all inferior to the craft of these primitive films, made at the fog-shrouded dawn of the Sound era.
But towering above them all in the pounding hearts, toad-squirming minds, and knocking knees of horror fan-dom is the story of "The Modern Prometheus" and the Monster to whom the public bequeathed his name.
"Frankenstein" boasts odd beginnings. Written by Percy Bysshe Shelley's frail flower of a wife, aged 18 when she conceived it, during a Gothic night's creativity, "Frankenstein's" story and it's several graves-deep inner meanings had been a classic for decades. It had been filmed before (even by Thomas Edison), but Laemmle's production, directed by James Whale has emerged as the one with the biggest boots to fill.
It might be because of its introduction (reproduced above). Edward Van Sloan walks out onto the filmed stage and warns us of the subject matter to come and the blasphemous implications of a man not "reckoning upon God." It's a good tactic—a carnival barker's come-on—for rather than warn us away, it whets the audience's appetite for the terrors to come.
And James Whale doesn't disappoint. Whale's life has merged with Legend (the movie "Gods and Monsters"), but his German-expressionism-influenced eye and sense of the absurd (which would come to full flower in the follow-up, "The Bride of Frankenstein") created a sinister world of vast-shadowed hallways, spitting whirling laboratories, and castle chambers that resembled gargantuan funeral homes.
Before going on to the actors, homage must be paid to the craftsmen: Art Director Charles D. Hall, whose bizarre designs for the film give it its scale and majestic decay; and, of course, make-up artist Jack Pierce, who transformed a slight British actor named Karloff into a 7-foot, barrel-chested, electrode-studded,* flat-skulled (and copyrighted) hulk. There have been many subsequent designs for Frankenstein's piece-meal monster, but none have been so iconic as the Whale-Pierce-Karloff version.
Karloff's contribution cannot be slighted—including his removal of an upper dental plate to give the Monster a dented, off-kilter face. But mention should be made of Colin Clive's hyper-bi-polar doctor (he was a wayward medical student in Shelley's tale), prone to manic exultation or fainting dead away in emotional extremis. The good doctor's a bad drama queen. As his house-keeper would say in the sequel, he's a queer fellow.
There's another reason to celebrate the longtime classic-ness of James Whale's "Frankenstein." It and it's sequel "The Bride of Frankenstein" may be two of the greatest gay-themed movies to come out of straight, Hayes Code mainstream Hollywood. I had a film professor who was studying "Bride" and told of his curiosity about the air of exoticism in the first two "Frankenstein" films, when that "queer" line came out it was the lightning-bolt that was the key. What is "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein" except the story of a man (or two men in "Bride," with Frankenstein and Professor Pretorius collaborating) trying to give birth.** The melancholy cruelty of Nature and mob-hysteria towards the different permeates both of Whale's "Frankenstein" films,*** and turns Monster into mirror, a figure of identity rather than horror, and occurs whether the audience is gay or straight. There's a reason the shunned figure of Frankenstein's Monster resonates: he's an outcast, yearning but misunderstood, tortured, but sympathetic. And though kept prisoner in a castle dungeon rather than a closet, he would emerge sequel after sequel, never vanquished—indomitable—his super-human will-to-live allowing him to see another day. As they say in "Jurassic Park," "Life will find a way."
Frankenstein" is one gifted director's roaring protest against the Nature of Things ... and man's intolerance.
* One of the basic copy-rights of the Universal design are the electrodes sticking out pf the Monster's neck. Though "Frankenstein," the story, is in the public domain--one of the main reasons Francis Ford Coppola produced a version years ago--and anyone can do a re-make, those electrodes, and the rest of the make-up design, are the commodity of Universal Pictures. When Mel Brooks made his "Young Frankenstein" in the 70's, he by-passed the neck-studs...with zippers.
*** Christopher Isherwood also used Frankenstein and Pretorius (dubbed "Polidori") to create a more homo-erotic version of the story...for NBC television...when he wrote the teleplay for "Frankenstein: The True Story
**When he presented his theory in class, one of the students remarked "That's kind of mind-blowing..." to which he replied, "I'm glad you said 'mind...'"