Today’s movie is Frankenstein (1931). Mary Shelly’s little creation with sound. The film was directed by James Whale, who gave us in addition to Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), the wonderful Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the now controversial Show Boat (1936), and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
This film is only rated 7.9 on iMDB.com. Shocking. It fares a little better at Rottentomatoes.com with 100 percent on the Tomatometer and 87 percent audience approval. This film has been placed on the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress since 1991. It is also one of the movies recommended in “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” 2003, edited by Steven Schneider. In 1998, the American Film Institute’s included this film in its list of the Top 100 Greatest American Movies. AFI also rated the line “It’s alive! It’s alive!” as 49 of 100 quotes.
New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall said on Dec. 5, 1931, that:
“…James Whale…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.”
The role was first offered to Bela Lugosi. However, he turned it down, feeling that his acting skills would not be shown through the make-up. Also, the script he was shown just had the Monster being a pure killer. Lugosi’s star faded and Karloff became a bigger star. While Lugosi regretted his decision, he and Karloff became good friends.
Colin Clive played the mad scientist Henry Frankenstein. Clive was covered in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The awesome Edward Van Sloan played mentor to Henry, Doctor Waldman, Van Sloan was covered in Episode 47 – The Mummy (1932).
Dwight Frye played the dimwitted Fritz. Frye was covered in Episode 7 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Mae Clarke played Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth. Clarke was born in Pennsylvania in 1910. Clarke grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he father was an organist in a movie theater. By the age of 13, she was dancing in theater and nightclubs. In 1924, she was working in a cabaret act as one of “May Dawson’s Dancing Girls” when she was hired by Earl Lindsay to work in plays at the Strand Theatre and work as a burlesque artist at the Strand Roof nightclub, which was just above the theater. While in this arrangement, she befriended Ruby Stevens, who would later change her name to Barbara Stanwyck.
Two years later, Mae began appearing in “regular” theater. Her first film role was in Nix on Dames (1929). She played two memorable prostitutes in The Front Page (1931) and Waterloo Bridge (1931). That same year a film was released when she took a grapefruit to the face from her friend and fellow actor James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). That year she had a role in that little Gothic number, Frankenstein (1931). She was in two more films with Cagney, Lady Killer (1933) and Great Guy (1936).
She had a nervous breakdown in 1932 and again in 1934. She divorced and was in a bad accident during this period as well. When she was ready to go back to work, the Hayes Code was being enforced and the sexy films were no longer available. She did continue to work in films such as The House of a Thousand Candles (1936), Hearts in Bondage (1936), in the Republic serial King of the Rocket Men (1949). Her work was greatly reduced in the 1950s and she did some television work. Her final film was Watermelon Man (1970). After that, she retired and lived in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. Clarke died in 1992.
Edward Van Sloan comes and addresses the audience for Mr. Carl Laemmle. He gives the people that may be too nervous a chance to leave.
Local peasants are crying at the burial of a dead man. The Latin pray being recited has a line that translates as “Rest in Peace” clearly foreshadowing that the monster will have no peace. In the distance, Fritz (Dwight Frye) and Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and hiding and watching with anticipation. The grave is filled by the lone caretaker as it gets dark.
Fritz and Doc Frankenstein go and dig up the freshly buried body. A statue of the grim reaper watches over them. Doc Frankenstein says the body is resting, waiting for a new life. They haul the coffin of the recently dead man to a place where a criminal is hanging by the roadside. When Fritz cuts the body down, Doc Frankenstein says the neck is broken so the brain is no good. They will have to search for another.
A medical class at Goldstadt Medical College is shown working on a dead body. The lecturer is Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). He has two brains on the table. A perfect brain and an abnormal brain of a criminal. What could possibly go wrong? Fritz spies on the class through the window. The brains are left on the table when the class is dismissed.
Fritz climbs through the window and is scared by the classes skeleton. He selects the normal brain and when a gong goes off he drops it. Why was there a gong? Was it a class bell? Anyway, Fritz grabs the abnormal brain and scurries away. You really get what you pay for when it comes to hired help.
Far away, Victor Moritz (John Boles) is called to see Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) who is Doc Frankenstein’s fiancé. She has received the first letter from him in four months. Doc Frankenstein’s letter is pretty strange. Victor says he saw him three weeks before and he was acting strangely. Victor says he will go to Doctor Waldman about Doc Frankenstein. Then he hits on Elizabeth and rebuffed. He gets a handshake and a thank you. Then she decides she is going to see Doctor Waldman too.
Waldman tells Elizabeth and Victor that Doc Frankenstein is insane to try and create life. Doc Frankenstein wanted to the school to provide him with fresher bodies and he didn’t care where they came from. Elizabeth asks Waldman to come along and see Doc Frankenstein.
Doc Frankenstein is living in an old watchtower near Goldstadt. This particular night, an electrical storm is brewing. Fritz is on the roof with some electrical equipment and Doc Frankenstein is down in the lab where the captured electricity will flow. Doc Frankenstein mixes solutions while Fritz hooks up the electrical lines. They have a stitched body on the table and Doc Frankenstein tells Fritz the body has the brain that he stole.
Ken Strickfaden created all machines and electrical effects for this film. He was not credited on the screen until Mel Brooks used the same equipment in the hilarious film Young Frankenstein (1974).
Just as they get ready, they hear rapping on the castle door. Fritz goes to the door and sends the trio away. They keep pounding on the door and calling for Henry Frankenstein. When Doc Frankenstein finds out it is Elizabeth he goes down and reluctantly lets them inside. Doc Frankenstein tries to talk Elizabeth into leaving. When Victor calls him crazy, he invites them up. He locks everyone inside of the lab and commands them all to sit.
Waldman goes straight for the body but Doc Frankenstein makes him sit too. Doc Frankenstein goes into a reassertation on how he has found wavelengths above ultra-violet. He says he has found the ray that first created life. Doc Frankenstein says he has conducted his experiments on animals and a heart. Watching this movie again I discovered why the Monster was made of pieces parts. Doc Frankenstein wanted a body that had never had life, otherwise, he could have used a whole body.
Waldman examines the body. The storm hits its’ height and Doc Frankenstein and Fritz go to work turning levers and flipping switches. The three visitors watch with horrified amazement. The Monster is hoisted to the roof where it is repeatedly hammered with electricity. Victor and Elizabeth are getting a little handsy. When the Monster is brought down, the hand is moving and Doc Frankenstein goes into his it’s alive dance. During this scene, Doc Frankenstein also said, “Now I know what it’s like to BE God!” On re-release in the late 1930s censors said this was blasphemy and it was covered with a thunderclap. Eventually, the line was reinserted.
Victor and Elizabeth go to see Doc Frankenstein’s father Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). They put a brave face on Doc Frankenstein’s work. The Baron thinks it is another woman. The Burgomaster (Lionel Belmore) is announced and comes in. The Baron is very rude. The Burgomaster only wants to know when the marriage will be held because the village is prepared. The Burgomaster leaves without a good answer.
Doc Frankenstein is on top of the world and is hanging out with Waldman. Waldman thinks the Monster should be kept locked up. Doc Frankenstein laments about being called crazy. Doc Frankenstein thinks the Monster will develop in time. When Waldman finds out where the brain came from, he tells Doc Frankenstein that he has used the brain of a criminal. Doc Frankenstein has kept the Monster in total darkness so far. The Monster (Boris Karloff) comes in and can obey simple commands.
Jack P. Pierce designed the look of the Monster and it is very different from what was in the Shelly novel. He created the flat head, the neck electrodes (not bolts) and green tinted skin. The green tint made the monster very pale in Black and White film. It took Pierce four hours each day to put Karloff in makeup and outfit. The total outfit weighed 48 pounds including thick soled hot asphalt boots” that weighed 13 pounds each. The look Pierce created is copyrighted by Universal until 2026 if you want to make your own movie.
Doc Frankenstein lets in some light and the Monster stares at and reaches for the sky. In what is some very good acting Karloff looking at the night sky as the Monster appears to be looking on the face of God. Fritz comes in with a torch and the Monster freaks. The two doctors overpower the Monster and chain it in the basement. Waldman says to shot the Monster. Fritz tortures the Monster with fire and a whip.
As the two doctors search for an answer they hear Fritz screaming. When they get to the basement, the Monster has grabbed Fritz and killed him on a metal spike. The two doctors retreat trapping the Monster again. Waldman still wants to kill the Monster. The Monster is about to break the door down. Doc Frankenstein brings a knock out hypodermic and they lure the Monster out. Waldman gives the Monster the shot and is knocked to the ground. The Monster is about to kill Doc Frankenstein when the drug takes effect.
Just then someone bangs on the door. It is Victor saying the Baron and Elizabeth are on their way. They hid the sedated monster.
Victor lets the Baron and Elizabeth inside and Waldman comes out. Waldman advises that the Baron take his son away from this place. Upstairs Doc Frankenstein passes out when his father and Elizabeth come in. They give him brandy as first aid. Waldman says he will preserve the records and destroy the problem if Doc Frankenstein goes home.
Waldman has the Monster on a table. He notes in the log that it is taking more and more medicine to sedate the Monster each time. He writes that he is about to perform the dissection. The Monster on the table begins to move. Waldman prepares to kill the Monster when suddenly the beast grabs the doctor and kills him.
The Monster leaves that castle for the first time.
Henry and Elizabeth are having a grand time relaxing at his opulent estate. They plan to have the wedding soon. The Baron gives out flowers to the men on the day of the wedding. The entire village is happy and celebrating the wedding.
The Monster is cursing through the woods and finds a little girl playing with a kitten. The girl is friendly to the Monster even though he is hideous. The girl and the Monster begin throwing flowers into the water. When he is out of flowers, he picks the girl up and throws her into the water.
Elizabeth comes and gets Henry to come to talk to her. She says she has had a feeling of danger because Waldman is late for the wedding. Henry blows her off, but she says something is coming between them. Victor comes in and gets Henry. He tells him that Waldman has been murdered in the tower. Henry locks Elizabeth in the room. Bad plan. Victor says the Monster has been seen in the hills. Then they hear the Monster upstairs. While they search for the Monster, it goes to the room where Elizabeth is locked in and chases her. Too bad she can’t get out. The Monster flees before the people break in and Elizabeth survives.
The villagers are dancing and having a good time when the father of the little girl that was killed comes into town carrying her body. This is pretty traumatizing to everyone. He walks to the Burgomaster house and says his daughter has been murdered. The villagers turn into a mob.
Elizabeth is not responding too well to Henry. Henry leaves Victor to take care of Elizabeth and goes to kill the Monster. The village mob seems to have an idea what they are looking for. I don’t know how. They divide into three groups, one lead by the dead girl’s father, one by Henry, and one by the Burgomaster. The mobs and the hounds head out, leaving the women and children alone in the village.
Henry’s group goes up the mountains and it is not long before they find the Monster. The Monster doubles back and gets away. Henry loses his mob. He walks right to where the Monster is hiding. The Monster grabs Henry, who screams for help. The Monster knocks Henry out. He carries the unconscious man to an old windmill.
Film historian Gregory W. Mank stated that Director James Whale was jealous of the attention Boris Karloff was receiving. Whale required the 44-year-old actor to actually carry the 154-pound Clive through multiple takes over several days. This injured Karloff’s back and he had trouble with it for the remainder of his life.
Soon the mob and dogs have surrounded the mill. The Monster drags Henry to the top. Henry wakes and tries to escape. He and the Monster have a stare off as the grinding wheel, flashes on and off their faces. Finally, the Monster grabs Henry and throws him off the top. He bounces off a blade before he hits the ground. The mob sets the mill on fire and the Monster screams in agony as the flames get closer. A beam falls from the roof trapping the Monster. The men watch until the mill is completely burned.
Henry survives and is under the care of the Baron and Elizabeth. The Baron drinks a toast to a son for the House of Frankenstein.
At 44 years old, Boris Karloff was not considered a star before this movie. In fact, he was not invited to the film premiere. An all-around great guy, Karloff always referred to the Monster as “the dear old boy.”
World-Famous Short Summary – Couple has another come between their love
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Beware the moors