“Fixing a Hole” is a new series, edited and sometimes written by Joel Bocko, whose sole purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. Every month has its own theme, and October 2011 is “Universal Horror.” While Joel selected all the titles, he has assigned certain films to guest writers.
This first essay is by one such guest – a “?” in the spirit of the film being reviewed.
Frankenstein (1931/United States/directed by James Whale)
stars Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye
written by Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey, John Russel, from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel and Peggy Webling’s play • photographed by Arthur Edeson • designed by Charles D. Hall • music by Bernhard Kaun • makeup by Jack P. Pierce
The Story: On a dark and stormy night, lightning strikes, Dr. Frankenstein flips the switch, and his monstrous creation stirs – “It’s Aliiiiiiiiiiive!”
Dead Man Walkin’
Usually, I’m the first one to say that the visuals are the key. Toss out the writer. Who cares about the actors? Damn the composer and the sound men. The rulers of the roost are the ones in charge of what we see. King Director. Vice President Cinematographer. Let’s not forget about the good citizen production designers and editors. As a fine artist (I paint and draw, sculpt on occasion), I’m immediately drawn into a film by what is SEEN. My feelings about everything are informed by my eye and, more often than not, the story and the characters are secondary to what the visuals can do to me. For me, it’s the visual world a movie can create, more than anything, which grabs me.
Visuals. This is my connection, my relationship with film that almost acts like a direct blood line in a personal heritage. I feel that I am tied directly to film because I CAN create visual art. My connection to film is a tether because I know what (slightly) the artist (director) goes through during his creative process (and, if it’s a true vision, you can bet your last nickel that it’s full of blood and sweat and neurosis). I look at film the same way many look at paintings or sculpture in an art museum or gallery presentation and allow the visual to stir me from the outside into the inner parts of my mind and soul. I have rallied behind recent films like Road to Perdition and Minority Report and Boogie Nights and sang their praises because, beyond everything else, their visuals are what made them transportive experiences. I cheer for the film that can take me to another place and time and this can only be truly done by what is seen. These worlds can be from times forgotten long ago or, perhaps, from places only found in the imagination and taking place a million light years away.
James Whale’s Frankenstein has always been a personal favorite of mine since I was a little boy. In a series of three films from Universal Pictures and based (somewhat) on the writings of Mary Shelley in what is now an iconic tale, I always found this first of the crop to be the ultimate shocker of the bunch. However, where I’ll sing the praises of the writing for Bride of Frankenstein (heralded by most as the best of the series) and cheer its plot and every twist of the story, I find it hard to say the same for the first. I’ll go out of my way to point out one amazing set design after another or drool over the cinematography of Son of Frankenstein as it’s got visuals to spare (it is most absolutely the best looking of the three). However, Frankenstein, which is mediocre in both writing and visual flourish compared to the others, is still the best.
Now that I think about it… There really is not one element that would usually cause me to love a film in Frankenstein. I mean, nothing. Nada. Zip. ZILTCH!
So, what is it about this film?
Frankenstein is that rare movie that harbors, for me anyway, one of those miraculous, benchmark performances that just bowls over the viewer and makes other actors envious. As the monster of the piece, Boris Karloff is, simply, perfection. It’s a performance that not only defines a single film and makes it stand out bigger and stronger than others, but presents itself as one of the exemplary examples in the art of acting that sees a character take over every fiber within the body and soul of the person giving the performance. When I think of the great, singular achievements in screen acting of the 1930’s (in fact, really, the whole of cinema history), then Karloff’s turn as the cadaver brought back to life immediately springs to mind.
At once intimidating, then touching, Karloff infuses the character with both the physical lumbering motion of an entity weighed down by his own strength and towering mass and the kind of curious innocence associated with very young children that are experiencing things, they will later take for granted, for the very first time. Physically, there is a sense of great weight to the performance, like sandbags strapped to his back and shoulders and that, in itself, informs his slow, labored and clumsy movement. The monster moves like one would think that very first alligator did when it crawled out of the primordial soup millions of years ago and stepped, shakily, up on its hind legs and began to walk away from the shore as an early human being. It’s the movement of a curious child that lunges forward toward what it’s after even though the feet aren’t seasoned to follow suit and move as fast as the rest of the body (Karloff worked extensively with his costumer/make-up designer Jack Pierce and, among other things, put 15 pound weights in each shoe to help weigh his feet down, making each step look laborious). In his facial inflections are the cautious tics of one trying to decipher the present moment as something pleasant or something sour. When fire is introduced, his expressions turn to the deepest violent fright and that informs the body and the movements as well. He reacts to the burning flame like a deer running from the dogs of a hunt and his physical and facial inflections are bolts and thrashes of fear filled pain and panic.
Another true part of the brilliance of the performance is the character’s immense emoting of curiosity. Karloff so perfectly infuses gentleness into his hand movements when pulling the petals off a daisy stem in his moment with the little girl by the pond that you forget this is just an actor in a costume and some very heavy make-up. In these moments you really believe it’s a being who is trying to recreate, for himself, the same kind of innocent whimsy that attracted him to the smile of this little child. You can see, in the way he crouches next to her and slowly inches his way closer to her, that he sees her as his mentor, someone with answers to his many inner questions, in what is beautiful about a life that has just begun for him.
As a horror film performance, it is one of a half dozen masterworks. As the monster allows his lack of knowledge to guide him through this world of new sensations, his reactions become more brutish and violent the more he finds out that the world isn’t all daisies and songs and little girls that sing them. He reacts with the explosions of a wild animal forced into a corner.
Finally, though, it’s the eyes.
Curtained with heavy lids that look like thick window shades, the eyes are ALWAYS empty. His moments of first consciousness as he awakes from the electrical storm that is his birth see his eyes relay an uneasy knowledge to the viewer that there is nothing behind them. There are no memories of a past life, of loved ones or experience. Those eyes, as seen in an extreme close up as he sits erect upon the laboratory table for the first time, show us that any thoughts coming into his mind are only those of the present and its through those eyes that we realize this is what the dead would look like if it had really risen from the grave. I don’t know, but there’s something in that stare that Karloff seems to be in through the entire running time of this film that suggests the newfound experiences of early man. It’s almost neanderthal in its primitive curiosity and darting movement, and it’s completely frightening. It’s the queasy feeling you get when you think back to the moment of your birth. You can’t remember it at all, except in fleeting, disorganized flash images, and it feels utterly bizarre.
I could say a lot about the tightness of James Whale’s direction and his beautiful use of hand-held camera in some of the early moments. I could say that there’s an impressive sense of dread in the completely silent passages and the restraint that composer Bernhard Kaun shows to add to the tension is truly miraculous. BUT…
It’s all, truly, in the performance.
Frankenstein is one of those films that speak directly to my soul because of one gargantuan element. Karloff’s performance is one of such striking and frightening believability that it over-rides just about every other interesting thing in a movie filled with interesting things. It’s an acting tour-de-force that is assured a place in cinema history because of his titanic attention to detail and his total immersion into the character.
I can think of many an actor or actress that was so good in a role that you believe they were born to play it. It’s almost as if God had chosen this one thing for them to accomplish in life. I think of the tears in the eyes of Renee Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Memories of Cagney’s crooked grin as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy immediately come to mind. Could anyone aside from James Stewart play George Bailey, all alone and praying to God at that bridge on that snowy Christmas Eve, in Carpa’s It’s a Wonderful Life?
We’re devastated by the death of MacMurphy because Jack Nicholson made him our best buddy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I think of a nervous young man faced with the loneliness of his mind and the memories of his past that force his actions as played by Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
There have been many in the past, and a few recently. These are performances that transcend from being just that, a performance, and ask you to believe that what you are seeing is the real deal. Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver is real and he bears no resemblance to the man named Robert DeNiro that’s playing him. Daniel Plainview is about as perfectly realized a person, warts, arrogance, misanthropy and all, in There Will Be Blood, that there is no sign of the great Daniel Day-Lewis in there, somewhere, creating him for us all to experience.
So, too, is Karloff’s creation in Frankenstein. It’s a piece of perfection without words spoken and just pure heart and instinct guiding him. He is a child, in the body of an automaton, looking for some sign to tell him where he came from and where he should move next.
Thinking about his performance that way, the way we all should, the way he intended us to, makes the character created by him all the more frightening…
James Whale really had a great eye for talent.
September 19, 2011
Dennis Polifroni is a longtime contributor to Wonders in the Dark. His other pieces can be found on his author page.