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: As improbable as it might seem, this is only the third time the 1931 Frankenstein has been seen on Horror Incorporated. The first screening was in November 1969, and the second in May of ’71. So it’s been quite a while since this one has turned up on the schedule.
Other entries in the Frankenstein franchise have popped up more frequently. Son of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein have each been broadcast four times, while House of Dracula (which has a role for Frank even though he’s not in the title) has been on five times. Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman have each been screened three times, and Ghost of Frankenstein, which features underachieving Frankenstein brother Ludwig, has been on the schedule twice.
The truth is, we’re not seeing the classic Universal monsters as often as we once did. Lately the schedule has been dominated by PRC mellers and oddments of varying provenance — Cave of the Living Dead and The Sound of Horror, for example — that provide a little more variety, even though they are of somewhat inferior quality.
The KSTP programmers seem to be re-introducing the Universal titles to the 8:00 pm Friday audience, though — an audience presumably different in makeup than the weirdos who staying up until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Last Friday we got to see The Invisible Ray, which hasn’t been broadcast on Horror Incorporated for more than two years, and now we get James Whale’s definitive take on the Mary Shelley novel. Frankenstein had made a huge impression not only of cinema audiences in 1931 but on TV viewers a quarter of a century later, when 52 horror titles, including this one, were released by Screen Gems as the Shock! package of films.
It’s a movie that holds up well under repeated viewings, and while it lacks the Grand-Guignol looniness of Bride or the Shakespearean pretensions of Son, it’s a lean and straightforward film, bright as a penny and so shocking by 1931 standards that the Laemmles felt it necessary to film a now-famous introduction that warned audiences of what they were in for:
It can’t be overstated that this movie was unlike any other ever presented in a cinema up to that time. The tenderest child of the 21st century would yawn today if forced to sit through it, but in 1931 the subject matter and treatment was considered quite ghoulish and troubling to reviewers of the time, who conceded that it was well-made but seemed uncertain what audiences would think of it. Although it was a pre-code movie and there were no industry censors in place to insist on cuts, the film nevertheless was bowdlerized in a number of states and municipalities.
Cut very early in the film’s run was the end of the scene between the monster and the little girl Maria at the lake. Three states (New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) insisted that the moment when the monster throws the girl into the water be cut; and having been excised from the master print, was long believed lost. It was recovered in the 1980s and has been restored to newer versions of the film. Having seen both versions, though, I actually find the scene more effective with the action implied rather than shown; but perhaps that’s more a case of preferring the version I saw first.
Boris Karloff’s performance has been lauded over the years, and rightly so, but Colin Clive was praised effusively by critics at the time and even today is well-regarded by film writers. Perhaps I’m not seeing what they saw in his performance. I found his Dr. Frankenstein to be shrill and neurotic, an overwrought performance marring what is otherwise a solid cast.
Seeing the film again I was particularly impressed with Dwight Frye’s performance. He takes the thankless role of Fritz and really brings a lot to it. The satisfaction he clearly gets from tormenting the monster is that of a man who’s been on the receiving end of human cruelty all his life and now sees the opportunity to dish it out for a change. And there’s an undercurrent of self-loathing in it that’s easy to miss.