Saturday, May 15, 1971: Frankenstein (1931) / The Invisible Ray (1936)

Synopsis: Brilliant young scientist Henry Frankenstein is determined to unlock the secrets of life and death. He secures cadavers for his experiments by stealing the bodies of executed criminals and by robbing graveyards. In these ghoulish activities he is aided by his hunchbacked lab assistant Fritz.
We learn that Henry hopes to give life to a body stitched together from human corpses, and he inexplicably delegates the crucial job of securing a brain to the brainless Fritz, who ends up with the brain of a criminal.
Meanwhile, Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth is troubled that her man has written a rambling letter to her, asking her to stay away, that his work must come first. Sensing trouble, she and Henry’s friend Victor go to see Professor Waldman, Henry’s former mentor at the University. Waldman tells them that Henry’s experiments had crossed all the boundaries of ethical behavior and reason. His demands for a limitless supply of human cadavers were too much for the University to provide; for this reason Henry decamped to a new location where he could make his own rules.
Elizabeth convinces Waldman to join her and Victor in trying to convince Henry to come home. The trio happen to arrive at Frankenstein’s lab just as Henry is using lightning to imbue his stitched-together corpse with the spark of life. They are fascinated, though horrified, when Henry succeeds.
Later, Waldman warns Henry that no good can come of this creation, and we see the creature for the first time. It is huge and ungainly, but seems strangely innocent. Fritz whips the creature and torments it with fire. Eventually the creature strikes back and Fritz is killed.
Convinced now that the monster must be destroyed, Henry allows himself to be taken back to his ancestral home, and leaves it to Dr. Waldman to dispose of the creature.
Back at his family’s estate, Elizabeth and Henry prepare for their wedding. But what they don’t know is that the monster has killed Dr. Waldman and is now on the loose…
Comments: For all the similarities between Dracula and Frankenstein — two smash horror hits released months apart by the same studio, sharing some of the same cast — the two movies are quite different. For most of its running time Dracula comes off like the stage play it was based upon. Frankenstein, by contrast, seems altogether more lively and innovative.
The camera work and set design recall the German expressionist films of the 1920s, and the production as a whole seems unhindered by the clumsy sound-recording devices of the time.
The performances here, too, rise above those of Dracula, though they are still uneven; Colin Clive is simply dreadful as Henry, all tremulous shouts and broad stagey mannerisms; Dwight Frye’s Fritz is a bit one-dimensional, though that is more the fault of the script than Frye’s performance (though seeing it this time I’m struck by how young the guy looks). Mae Clarke brings some badly-needed charm as Elizabeth, thinly-written as her part is. And my advice to anyone who remembers Boris Karloff’s performance as a lot of stumbling around and grunting ought to see this movie again. Through a lot of make-up and prosthetics Karloff somehow manages to project a combination of child-like vulnerability and feral savagery. It’s really an extremely subtle and well thought-out performance.
Much is made of the fact that Frankenstein departed greatly from Mary Shelley’s novel, and this is true. But the central theme of the novel — responsibility for one’s actions — remains intact. Henry builds his monster without a thought as to the consequences for Elizabeth, the creature, or the community at large. Thus he brags about his great accomplishment while it is being abused in the cellar by Fritz; when he consents to destroy the creature, he does not do it himself, instead leaving the task to Dr. Waldman.
If I have any complaint about the movie it is that the screenwriters let Henry off too easily; we see him being nursed back to health by Elizabeth in the final scene, and it is made clear that a wedding will be taking place soon, after which we can only assume that Henry and Elizabeth will get busy making new life the old-fashioned way.
That, as the kids used to say, is a cop-out. Elizabeth should probably think twice about marrying a nutty recluse who likes to sew together corpses that he just dug up in the graveyard.
Come on, Elizabeth. You’re a knockout, honey. You can do better.

The Invisible Ray

Synopsis: Renowned scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) demonstrates his newest discovery to a disbelieving group of savants, including Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi). In a somewhat surreal and complicated sequence, he reveals that all light and sound waves are preserved in space and time, and that looking back far enough he can see the moment millions of years ago in which a meteor containing an ultra-rare element called Radium X fell in southwestern Africa.

Radium X, as the name implies, is a souped-up form of radioactive material, possessing great potential for both healing and destruction.

Somewhat baffled but convinced by his demonstration, the scientists join Rukh on an expedition to recover the meteorite.

In Africa, Rukh works obsessively to unlock the secrets of Radium X. Meanwhile, Rukh’s beautiful young wife (Frances Drake) begins to fall in love with another man on the expedition (Frank Lawton).

Most of the party returns to Europe. Dr. Benet quickly discovers that Radium X, applied properly, can cure any physical ailment, and he uses it to heal the sick, though he assiduously credits Dr. Rukh with the element’s discovery.

When Rukh returns home he learns of his wife’s infidelity and of his rivals building new careers on his work.

After receiving an accidental overdose of Radium X, Rukh discovers that his skin glows in the dark and that his touch can kill. The overdose also seems to have left him deranged, and he decides to murder all those whom he believes have betrayed him, starting with the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition….

Comments: The third of Universal’s Karloff – Lugosi screen pairings, The Invisible Ray is a curious little misfire of a movie. It begins with an unlikely and convoluted science-fiction premise, becomes a jungle movie in the middle (lots of white men in pith helmets and “African natives” pounding on drums), then sprints through the third act with a revenge subplot reminiscent of James Whales’ The Invisible Man.

None of these story elements fit together very well. The African expedition subplot, presumably added to make Radium X seem more exotic and unobtainable, doesn’t add to the story and could been cut out; Rukh could just as easily (and much more credibly) have discovered it in his laboratory.

The movie still might have succeeded with a strong director and engaging cast, but that was not in the cards. Lambert Hillyard, who cut his teeth on B-westerns and serials, seems uncertain of his material here and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense.

And while Karloff and Lugosi do fine in their respective roles (as a mad scientist and a philanthropic doctor) Frances Drake and Frank Lawton are crashingly dull as the romantic leads — so much so that you wonder how they ended up in a major studio release.

Add to this some special effects that would have been unimpressive even in 1936, and you’re left with a standard-issue mad scientist flick from that era, almost aggressively generic and almost immediately forgettable. Still, it’s always interesting seeing Karloff and Lugosi on-screen together, and Karloff’s death scene alone is worth the price of admission.


One comment

  1. This was the first time most of us had seen Mae Clarke, and having since caught her in WATERLOO BRIDGE, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and NIGHT WORLD, it's amazing how attractive and sexy she was in those films, compared to the unflattering look and hairstyle she sports here. Our last look at her finds her delirious after meeting The Monster, must have been better than we'd have expected! THE INVISIBLE RAY and MAD LOVE are Frances Drake's best remembered genre titles, and Frank Lawton was coming off the title role of DAVID COPPERFIELD, soon to appear in Tod Browning's THE DEVIL-DOLL.


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