Frankenstein (1931). 71 minutes. Directed by James Whale. Starring Colin Clive (as Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (as Elizabeth Lavenza), John Boles (as Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein’s monster), Frederick Kerr (as Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (as Fritz), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Waldman), Lionel Belmore (as the Burgomaster), Marilyn Harris (as Little Maria), and Michael Mark (as Ludwig). Based on the novel by Mary Shelley and the play adaptation by Peggy Webling. Make-up by Jack Pierce.
Frankenstein is an iconic pre-Code monster movie released by Universal Studios—the film studio that, with the release of Frankenstein, Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and a slew of other movies, would become the premiere horror workshop of Golden-Age Hollywood. Like many of those early 1930s films, Frankenstein is more than just a scary movie: at times profoundly psychological, it explores complex identity issues, tortured family relationships, and the thin line between order and chaos as it questions what defines us as living things. Yet the 1931 Frankenstein also draws on its particular historical moment to evoke the broader concerns of Depression-era American culture, tapping into wider fears about social upheaval that speak to the mentality of a country in a perilous economic and cultural predicament. The result is a movie that, in spite of its European setting and nineteenth-century roots, nevertheless functions as a powerful reflection of 1930s America.
The film opens in an expressionist-inspired graveyard with tilted angles and stark black-and-white photography. Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, the hunchback Fritz, are in search of a dead body for use in Frankenstein’s revivification experiments. When they finally find the parts they need, they still need a brain, so Fritz steals one from a medical school. He accidentally drops and destroys a brain labeled “normal” and in its place retrieves the criminal brain specimen sitting next to it. In Frankenstein’s castle laboratory, with a loud storm thundering outside, the male corpse is brought to life through the power of lightning. He is a tall, lumbering, stitched-up horror.
Soon Fritz takes to torturing the monster with fire, but the monster fights back, and Frankenstein discovers that he is freakishly strong. One night the monster breaks free of his cell and wanders off, eventually accidentally killing a small girl. In the meantime, Frankenstein is preparing to marry his fiancée Elizabeth, but the monster tracks them down, murders Frankenstein’s friend Dr. Waldman, and injures Elizabeth. A wild horde of people descend upon the village in search of the monster and corner him in a windmill with Frankenstein, which they light on fire. Frankenstein escapes, and the monster is destroyed. The movie ends back at Castle Frankenstein, where wedding preparations resume, and Baron Frankenstein toasts the future of the family.
The movie of Frankenstein is in many ways a modern psychological study, and one of its most interesting contributions to the Frankenstein tradition is the complex way that it manages the topic of personal identity: how identity is established, expressed, and delimited (or not delimited). It is probably the source of the modern-day confusion about who the Frankenstein character is: the film’s pervasive image of the clod-like, bolt-necked, flat-craniumed monster inadvertently transplants the identity of the subject (Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist) onto the monster himself. But we should note that while the movie establishes the monster’s appearance as a key element in its visual framework, Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is not even identified in the film’s opening credits; the actor’s name is replaced by an ominous question mark that projects some of the mystery of the film’s antagonist onto the actor himself. Through these examples, the monster character consumes the identity of both his fictional maker and the actor who creates him on screen, blurring the lines of hero with villain, performer with character, and reality with fantasy.
But Frankenstein enables the usurpation of more than Dr. Frankenstein and Karloff’s identities. It also distorts the identity of the story’s real-world creator in a gesture that signals the extent of the movie’s radical refiguring of creative agency. The story’s plot elements come from two female-authored sources: a play by Peggy Webling that is based on the classic novel by Mary Shelley. Thus you might be surprised to see that in the movie’s opening, Mary Shelley is credited as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley. The use of Shelley’s husband’s name in place of her own relates to the film’s larger project of fashioning creative action through men acting independently of women and through asexual reproduction (without the participation of a female) specifically. This is primarily evinced by Dr. Frankenstein’s regenerative scientific experiments, which seek to create life via the male-driven laboratory rather than through male-female intersection. (“It’s alive! It’s alive!” Frankenstein shrieks in a shaking fervor at the moment of the corpse’s revivification, imparting life to the creature with words as well as with electricity.)
However, the terms of male-centric creation in the film are horrific—the materials, the means of procuring them, the created being itself—and even the conventional forces of male-female coupling in the form of Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth (with its wholesome orange blossom embellishments, handed down through the Frankenstein generations as a symbol of conventional family life) struggle to contain the disturbing force unleashed by the creature engendered by Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s radical practice of moving away from traditional sex relationships to create life may be thrilling to him in the moment of creation (“Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he shouts in the uncensored version of the film), but the identity shift that his practice initiates must be undone, and Frankenstein’s male-generated progeny is eradicated through a cataclysm of fire at the movie’s end. So while Frankenstein may enact the fantasy of asexual life creation, and even tease us with that notion by supplanting Mary Shelley’s agency in the credits, it locates the heart of its horror story in that very phenomenon and ultimately rejects it.
Frankenstein’s act of asexual creation is supported by and further develops a rather unusual family dynamic. The creation of the monster is enabled by the help of Frankenstein’s assistant, the hunchback Fritz, who has a dependent, childlike relationship with the paternal Dr. Frankenstein. Fritz digs up graves, lugs coffins, cut downs executed criminal corpses, and steals brains for his master, but it is evident that Fritz is not comfortable doing all of these things. In particular, when Frankenstein demands that Fritz scale a pillory with a knife between his teeth to retrieve a hanged body, the assistant recoils, unnerved by the prospect of the task. Fritz is easily frightened; when he steals the “normal” brain (so labeled) for Frankenstein’s experiment, a noise startles him and he drops it in its glass, destroying it. We mainly see him catering to Frankenstein’s needs while in a nervous state, and his devotion to the doctor’s strange requests fuels his anxiety.
All is not well with this relationship when the movie begins, but when Frankenstein creates the monster, Fritz suddenly has a rival for Frankenstein’s paternalistic attentions, and the situation grows more unstable. In their newly established dysfunctional family, with Frankenstein serving as both mother and father to the monster, Fritz lashes out. We see him approach the monster with a lit torch, something that we quickly gather upsets and frightens the monster. From then on, Fritz makes a project of both attempting to control the monster with the threat of fire and deliberately terrifying, even torturing, the monster by taunting him repeatedly with a torch shoved into his face. The monster emits noises that indicate his horror, and Fritz grins maliciously, revealing the delight he takes in tormenting Frankenstein’s new son. It is all very Freudian, suggesting the innate tendency of children to compete for affection from their progenitors, in this case with violence and sadism.
The monster is intended to terrify us, and yet he seems on the whole more tolerable psychologically than Fritz. Although the monster appears to be driven by base impulses such as fear and rage, his energies are nevertheless less directed and antagonistic than Fritz’s. Whereas Fritz acts out of deliberate vengeance and maliciousness, the monster figures things out as he goes and seems fairly aimless, largely reactive. Once out in the world, he is on his own, fighting his way through trees, wandering the countryside. When he reaches the little girl Maria who lives by a lake, and she demonstrates to him how to make flowers float, he in naïveté reciprocates by throwing her in the water, thinking she will also float. But of course he is horribly wrong, and the girl perishes. His enthusiastic initial reaction to her drives his interaction with her, and his reaction to her death drives his behavior for scenes afterward. We hear him cry out without words when he realizes what he has done in one of his more moving scenes. Overall, although he is not guided by an organized thought process, the monster is a feeling creature who at times, in spite of his freakish strength, seems vaguely childlike in his simplistic emotional reactions to people and stimuli.
Because the monster’s infantile actions, guttural utterances, and motivations are primarily brutish and crude, he more closely resembles Freud’s id than a recognizable human being. The extent to which the monster serves as a stand-in for this instinctual, base component of human psychology is in sharp contrast to the intellectual profile of Mary Shelley’s original creation. Her monster (who is not called a monster but rather a “creature,” stressing the fact that he is a created thing rather than an aberration) is an inquisitive thinker who speaks carefully, writes cunningly, and is clever enough to verbally threaten his creator with promises of depraved violence should he not get what he desires. In particular, Shelley’s creature desires a mate, something that the movie’s monster does not appear to be equipped to contemplate (the issue of the monster’s mate would arise in the sequel The Bride of Frankenstein ). Yet the reduction of Shelley’s creature to the movie’s monster brings the movie into territory that actually has the potential to resonate deeply with the audience: the monster’s bumbling horror infuses the narrative with non-verbal emotional displays that encourage emotional responses from us—sometimes of pity, but often of horror, shock, and revulsion.
Frankenstein thus touches on deep, subconscious fears of our id-like selves run amok, our crudest impulses acting out uncontained by the society around us. In Pre-Code Hollywood (1999), Thomas Doherty writes that this anxiety is common to pre-Code horror films:
Nurtured by the incipient sense of disorder and disintegration in American culture, the horror genre blossomed in the early 1930s. Whether in the form of torch-bearing peasants descending upon a mad doctor’s lair or sub-humans massing against their superiors to assert their inalienable rights, social chaos permeates the pre-Code horror film. With the rational pretenses of civilization askew, the superstitions of medieval Europe as transmitted through the post-Enlightenment prose of nineteenth-century novelists gained fresh currency.
In the early days of the Great Depression, when the boundaries of normal life were changing and fortunes were overturned so effortlessly and constantly, these must have been potent fears indeed. Given the extent to which the creation of the monster symbolizes a massive upsetting of traditional mores, Frankenstein is a fitting story for such a tumultuous age, one that must have seemed more unpredictable than many that had gone before.
The novel Frankenstein is set in Europe during the nineteenth century, but consider how the film uses the novel’s European qualities to tell a modern story with non-European resonance. In the movie, we see dark stone castles, Roman Catholic graveyards, ancient crypts with statues of old knights, centuries-old alcohol, antique Alpine family wedding heirlooms, and villagers carousing in dirndls and lederhosen with blonde, braided hair. Everything is dripping in storied tradition, and yet that tradition is met with a real challenge via the chaos that Frankenstein has unleashed. Frankenstein is obsessed with creating something new, something that stands in stark contrast to his environs, and something that in its elements of rebellion, disruption, and invention actually feels very American.
But the movie uses the European cultural context to suggest to a world both outside and inside of Europe that what is new is not necessarily desirable, not obviously good. Frankenstein asserts that there is wisdom in the old order, something to be feared in the new world initiated by the scientist in his laboratory, and something to be dreaded in the newness of the world outside of his laboratory as well. This theme is well encapsulated in the movie’s first sequence in the graveyard, where Frankenstein is shown peering through a wrought-iron fence at a funeral procession that slowly recedes. He is waiting to retrieve the newly buried corpse, and as he looks on, the spikes at the top of the fence appear like two horns above his head—the perverse experimenter framed in the antique cemetery by an old image of religious evil. The film’s gestures back and forth between the new and the old, between radical developments and tradition, suggest a path towards stability that is grounded in old-world symbols and their accompanying conservatism.
The movie does allow us to thrill to the horror of Frankenstein’s mad nascent science, it is true, perhaps at its own peril—the filmmakers had to fight to keep in content, including the line about knowing what it is to be a God. But ultimately, in one sense, Frankenstein retreats into conservatism with determination, destroying the monster and what he symbolizes, and regressing into the safety of Frankenstein’s impending marriage, the comfort of the old Frankenstein estate, and, in the last moments, the pleasure of aged wine. Yet interestingly, the saviors of the Germanic society that Frankenstein depicts are not Dr. Frankenstein, Baron Frankenstein, or the Burgomaster. Rather, it is the torch-carrying mob of vengeful villagers who track down the monster and set the windmill he hides in on fire. Thus the torch that Fritz uses in early scenes to torture the monster cruelly is reborn and recast in the salvific torches of an impassioned horde. It should be noted that the horde acts on emotion much as Frankenstein does: it is enraged that the monster has killed one of its own (little Maria) and craves vengeance. But in the movie’s universe, emotional, id-driven activity does not have to be snuffed out entirely in order for society to survive. Instead, the lone actor who threatens to overturn the social order must be dispensed with, even if that requires the overturning of other social codes, such as due process, justice, and social restraint.
The world that Frankenstein concludes with is not obviously admirable or desirable, even though it is presumably intended to be appealing. In the end, the comfort we might possibly take in group consensus as evinced by the mob is not enough to bring about this movie’s conclusion with unquestionable optimism. By the end, chances are that we have begun to pity the monster to at least some degree due to his demonstrations of basic human feeling, and knowing that he perishes in flames and confusion is upsetting indeed. After all, did this creature ask to be made, and made as he is–does any of us? The monster may symbolize the terrors of a new world, but unlike Dr. Frankenstein (who escapes unscathed), he does not create that new world, and yet he suffers the punishment for it.
Our potential sympathy for the monster thrusts him into a position not unlike that of the gangster protagonists who double as villains in pre-Code crime movies such as Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1931). They serve as similarly inarticulate forces of destruction whose narratives nonetheless cause us to question how they came to be the way that they are and what society should do in response to them. Pre-Code crime movies inevitably end in a violent showdown in which their gangster characters are killed spectacularly, but the showdowns do little to snuff out the enduring and troubling vivacity of their main characters, who seem to live on beyond the film’s end and their grisly deaths.
Frankenstein, even more than those movies, is about the awesome power of life—the creation of life, the perversion of it, and the extinguishing of it. But it is also about the impossibility of erasing the spectacular life force of its monster-villain, and in this way the movie’s promise of reassurance—its articulation through geography, costumes, props, and culture of an old order that can save us from the horrors of new ways of living—is only somewhat realized. For although the villagers destroy the monster in the context of the story, in the world of cinema the movie establishes him as legendary, and while the life of a mortal being can easily be snuffed out, the life of a legend is something else entirely. Destroying the legend of its monster by rejecting him utterly is something that the movie version of Frankenstein is not equipped to attempt, and due to his nearly universal status today as the ultimate movie monster, it is safe to say that modern society has no plans to cast him out either.