It was exactly eighty years ago today — Saturday, November 21, 1931 — that James Whale’s Frankenstein was released. Here’s a bit of what New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall had to say at the time:
Out of John L. Balderston’s stage conception of the Mary Shelley classic, “Frankenstein,” James Whale, producer of “Journey’s End” as a play and as a film, has wrought a stirring grand-guignol type of picture, one that aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.
It is an artistically conceived work in which Colin Clive, the Captain Stanhope of the London stage production of the R. C. Sherriff play, was brought from England to act the rôle of Frankenstein, the man who fashions a monster that walks and thinks. It is naturally a morbid, gruesome affair, but it is something to keep the spectator awake, for during its most spine-chilling periods it exacts attention. It was Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, the firm responsible for this current picture, who presented Lon Chaney in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and while, as everybody knows, Quasimodo was a repellent sight, he was a creature for sympathy compared to the hideous monster in this “Frankenstein.” Boris Karloff undertakes the Frankenstein creature and his make-up can be said to suit anybody’s demands. He does not portray a robot but a monster made out of human bodies, and the reason given here for his murderous onslaughts is that Frankenstein’s Man Friday stole an abnormal brain after he had broken the glass bowl containing the normal one. This Frankenstein does not know.
No matter what one may say about the melodramatic ideas here, there is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it “Dracula” is tame and, incidentally, “Dracula” was produced by the same firm, which is also to issue in film form Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Hall reviews four other movies in the same issue of the paper: The Cuban Love Song, Reckless Living, His Woman, and Wonders of the Congo. All forgotten now. But Frankenstein will never be forgotten.