by Robert Hornak
Mary Shelley’s original novel was born in the long wake of the western world’s great unshackling from regal tyranny. The American and French Revolutions were still visible in the rear view mirror, being free was the lingua franca of the day, and by the early 1800s, a de facto requirement for progress and individual happiness. Meanwhile, Shelley’s own mother had been a force for gender equality, working to break women away from the tyranny of male power structures. It’s no wonder that Mary, whose blood must have pumped with the assumptions of freedom, would push her imagination into the ultimate realm of tyranny, death itself. Her impromptu story that fateful stormy night in Switzerland, having first captured the imagination of the small group of literary souls that surrounded her that weekend, has grown tall, unconquerable, and endlessly re-built into a myriad combinations from horrifying to hilarious. It’s immediate popularity spread even further in play form, needfully limiting the scope of the novel, and adding elements – like, eventually, the right-hand lab assistant – that might help keep the stage-bound version as captivating as was her globe-trotting tale of a man and his philosophically-minded creation. By the age of film, the story was already ubiquitous, and generally known as much from its ancillary versions as its original incarnation. Thus, by 1931, the ground was ready for the tilling, and Universal, seeking to recapture Dracula‘s lightning in a bottle, leapt upon Shelley’s story, setting it before a new audience, one for whom the bright optimism of the Enlightenment had long since been dimmed by the most bloody, spirit-rending war the world had ever seen, the dark memories of which moved alongside the despair pulsing up out of a brand new, worldwide economic catastrophe. It was tyranny of another kind, a spiritual and psychological one, as well as economic, and all steeped in the relative newness of Freudian self-awareness. Man, whose 19th century take-away was that science, not God, would rescue them, had crawled through the mud of war and poverty to conclude that not only would God not rescue them, but that God wasn’t even there, and that it was time for the great human DIY project. In this spirit, director James Whale framed his version in pitch-black bolts of shadow and delivered the ultimate story of man-as-God to a world that could now embrace the creature rescued from death in the mold of these new, early 20th century tyrannical shackles, and would watch him burst forth into the new world – a place where the chance to live forever could be crushed by the ever-adapting forces of hate and fear.
The book is the seminal science fiction story, and the film reargues its central theme, as the expanding genre had hundreds of times during the two centuries since its publication: the friction of man’s irresistible push for scientific progress meeting nature’s near-impenetrable mystery. But in this foundational story, even updated, the raw materials are so elemental – body parts and weather – it’s hard to imagine a metaphor going any simpler. It’s one man (Colin Clive) testing God’s law via bold scientific experimentation, and paying a toll for his overreach. Henry (as he’s called here, versus Victor in the book – “Victor” is counter-intuitively another character entirely) is presented in the first frames as a borderline madman-ghoul, on a romp with his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), among the freshly dug graves of a nearby cemetery, and later, cutting a just-hung criminal from his gallows, all in the service of construction: Henry is building a new man from parts of the dead. He’s constantly under cover of night or hiding in the dim corners of his cavernous laboratory, for he knows his deeds – while supernaturally intentioned and for the good of mankind – are the sure marks of what the world would call crazy. Indeed, his behavior in the first half hour could never be called measured. On the perfect stormy night, when his mighty apparatus is set to call down lightning on his creation, he’s intruded upon by friends and family, who witness the event and watch as Henry contorts and preens, electrified himself by the power of creation, crying out in mad spasms his new alignment with the Almighty. Two scenes later, Henry is calm, sated, bathed in overhead light, smoking a cigarette. The instantaneous revulsion the character feels in the book for his creation is here replaced by a near post-coital sense of well-being, softly justifying his actions to Professor Waldman: “Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light? If you talk like that, people call you crazy…” It’s evoking beauty and order as rationalization for the ghastliest and most misguided of projects, and we can see ourselves in his hubris. Like Henry, it’s often not until well after that the real-world brunt of our best-laid plans come round to haunt us. In Henry’s case, his man-made brute succumbs to the spoiled brain in his skull, is rendered untamable, and escapes into the countryside to act as violent proxy for Henry’s unholy godhood. The rest of Henry’s arc is the reluctant dawning of his mistake and then working to confront and kill his creation – essentially the annihilation of his creative overreach by destroying his work and reneging back into the world of staid conventions: marriage, family, the acceptable stewardship of normalcy. But we’ve not been shown his life before his mad inspiration swallowed him up, so when the bedroom door closes on newly-betrothed Henry and bride, we can recall only the devilish spark in his eyes, and we somehow know he’ll be back to the crypt to tamper again with the dark forces of nature. Henry is the essential human, ever believing there’s not a mistake so big it’s not worth learning from twice.
There are two central characters in the story, creator and created, with only one ancillary character worthy of note: Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), whose function is to be the amalgamated voice of reason, religion, and condemnation. We don’t know much about Waldman going in, except that he’s a professor at the university near Henry’s ad-hoc home office and that he’s the only other person on Earth who fully understands what Frankenstein has done. He deems it evil and accuses the scientist of being intoxicated by his own success, but we then watch Waldman very casually shift his allegiance from the side of measure and wisdom to a kind of quiet intoxication himself. It’s not overt, it just happens, by virtue of his simply sticking around. Soon, especially after the torturing imp Fritz is dispatched by the monster, Waldman is Henry’s de facto new assistant, helping to wrangle and sedate the beast, hide him from random intruders, and apply his knowledge and expertise to perfecting him. Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clark) and friend Victor (John Boles) are written and performed with such an absence of life (they could use an electrical jolt themselves) that the only real audience surrogate we have left is Waldman. He’s free of Henry’s delirium and the creature’s innocence, but walks among Charles Hall’s remarkable sets commenting on, interacting with, and finally giving himself over to the irresistible calling of eternal life. Since Henry escapes death at the end, it is Waldman who is the sacrifice for Henry’s sin of corporeal curiosity, dying by the creature’s hand, even as he’s taking his sweet time observing the monster when he’d promised to destroy it.
The film pivots away from the manifest philosophical focus of the book toward its more cinematically promising horror elements – mainly the acquisition of body parts, the perverse creation scene, etc. – and renders the creature a lumbering, dim-witted mute, the exact opposite of Shelley’s verbose and learned student-beast. Where Shelley’s battles its creator’s pride with points derived from Milton and Goethe, Whale’s creature is a grunting, loping mental defective, easily re-programmed from gentle, shuffling dumbness to thrashing, vengeful terror with a few pokes in the face with a lit torch. But the coup of the film is that Boris Karloff, as the monster, is so transparent in his anguish, even through Jack Pierce’s heavy, nightmarish makeup, that his face and body are all he needs to make known his bottomless confusion. Whale, himself buffeted by feelings of isolation and forced silence as a gay man, gives more room for the monster to reveal its humanity than the humans, and the sight of the poor brute reaching up toward the light, crouching away from tormenting flames, and smiling alongside a small child, the only one in the entire film to show even a shred of kindness toward him, underlines the filmmaker’s brotherhood with the marginalized of the world, miming the pain inflicted so callously as well as the greater capacity of such souls to recognize simple, quiet moments of beauty.
Early in the film, Henry reassures Waldman he’s not bringing life back to the dead, that the body he’s about to turn his machines upon, in fact, never lived, that he’s created a new body from the parts of other men. It’s a twisted denial, given the borrowed brain and all the experience locked dormant inside it. This aspect of the living monster begs the greatest underlying fascination, generally unaddressed, in virtually all filmed versions of the story: does he know who he is; is he who he was; is he somehow imbued with the collective conscience of all whose parts combined to make him? Some versions have dipped into this facet of the story – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), others – but they do so at the cost of language. These questions require the creature to have speech, which instantly minimizes the literal brute-force of his clenched silence. The many pages of the creature’s angrily eloquent philosophy in Shelley’s book, which ring out with the anguish of a being of no time or place, with no home to speak of, only a creator who’s abandoned him, are reduced down into Karloff’s desperate expressions, up to and including the final confrontation on the mountain and in the mill. It’s what makes this monster somehow more eloquent than the more chatty iteration in the otherwise superior sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Here, the monster is apparently destroyed, consumed by the fire that was his greatest fear, but he takes with him the concentrated experience of mankind, meted out over just a few days – consternation, frustration, unearned torment, with the rare interlude of solace, warmth, acceptance and love. Karloff’s ability to embellish all of these roiling moments without saying a word – a re-animation of sorts of the freshly by-gone silent era – lifts this version out of mere reiterated horror and up into beautiful, black-and-white elegy.