Saturday, October 27, 2012

Movie Review: Frankenstein (1931)

This past week, a friend and I took advantage of the recent Fathom Events/TCM screening of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein at the local multiplex. I had seen both films before, but that was about 15 to 20 years ago when the Sci-Fi Channel actually showed good movies, especially around October. The chance to see the two on the big screen was too good to pass up.

I was pleased with the presentation; TCM had digitally cleaned up the two films, which were projected in HD. I've seen movies made fifty years later that didn't look or sound nearly as good. Although a transmission error caused us to miss the first few minutes of the film (i.e., we didn't see the studio's "warning" about the horror we were about to see), we missed so little of the actual story that I think most of us forgot that it even happened.

[Note: Since Frankenstein is over 80 years old, this review will contain spoilers.]

Frankenstein (1931):
I've written about this film before in the 31 Monsters of October series I did in 2010 (they're still my most popular posts). I hadn't seen the film in years, so the entry has a few minor errors; e.g., I incorrectly believed that the film's Henry Frankenstein was a full-fledged doctor rather than a university student.

The story proper begins with a funeral which is under clandestine observation by a rather unsavory pair (in my opinion, anyone bringing a shovel to a funeral is suspect). After the grave has been filled but before the dirt has even settled, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunch-backed assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) rush out to do some good ol' fashioned grave robbing. (Yes, I said Fritz. There was no Igor character in the novel nor in the Frankenstein films until Bela Lugosi's "Ygor" appeared in Son of Frankenstein (1939).) Later, a second body is pilfered from the gallows. The hanged man's neck had been broken, making the brain useless, so a third trip is made to the local university (the one Frankenstein had attended until the nature of his studies started making his professors uncomfortable). A jumpy Fritz drops the first brain he grabs so he ends up stealing the one right next to it... the one in a jar labeled "Abnormal".

In the meantime, Henry's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), Henry's fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and their mutual friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), are worried about the fact that Frankenstein has recently secluded himself in a decrepit watchtower and thinks of nothing but his work. Elizabeth and Victor solicit the help of one of Henry's professors, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), in an attempt to convince Frankenstein to return to his normal life.

The three have terrible timing, though. Not only do they arrive at the watchtower in a thunderstorm, but it happens to be the very night that Frankenstein and Fritz intend to bring their hideous assemblage of dead body parts to life. Henry reluctantly allows his visitors to enter, but tries to convince them to leave. It's only when Moritz refers to Frankenstein's "mad" work that Henry decides to show them exactly how mad he is. Frankenstein's unexpected audience watches as Henry and Fritz start up various machines and electrical devices surrounding a table on which lies a human body covered in a sheet. As the storm reaches its zenith, the table is raised towards the roof and lightning is conducted through the machines and into the corpse. Once lowered to the floor, the body's exposed hand begins to twitch. An ecstatic Frankenstein declares that "It's alive! It's alive!"

Elizabeth and Victor return to Baron Frankenstein and try to allay his fears about his son (while leaving out certain details), while Dr. Waldman and Frankenstein discuss what to do with the Creature (Boris Karloff, obviously), which has been allowed to wander around the watchtower. Waldman warns that it's a monster and declares that it must be destroyed, while Henry maintains that the oversized being is made from the best human tissues and can become like any other human. When Henry admits that the Creature's brain came from Waldman's own university, the professor tells the startled scientist that "The brain that was stolen from my laboratory was a criminal brain."

When the Creature shows that it's terrified of fire, Fritz insists on tormenting it with a torch. The Creature's violent personality is soon revealed when it kills Fritz and attacks Waldman and Frankenstein. After the two are able to inject the monster with tranquilizers, a penitent Frankenstein admits that Waldman is right. The old professor volunteers to dismantle the Creature and insists that Henry return to his loved ones and finally make good on his promise to marry Elizabeth.

So, any guesses on what could possibly happen when a scientist is left alone in an abandoned watchtower with a tranquilized reanimated corpse with a propensity for violence? A reanimated corpse that, according to Waldman's own notes, is gradually developing a resistance to the tranquilizers?

Anyway, as Henry, Elizabeth, and the rest of the village prepare for the wedding, the bride-to-be begins to have horrible premonitions of doom. Although Dr. Waldman's failure to arrive on time has Elizabeth worried, Henry insists that the old professor was never very punctual. Meanwhile, the Creature roams the countryside and the body count begins to rise. While the drowning of a little girl is caused by the Creature's lack of understanding rather than from malice, many deaths result from the villagers' violent reactions to the Creature.

Not long after finding out that Dr. Waldman has been killed, Elizabeth's screams and the Creature's grunting alert Henry that the monster is in his house. The arrival of Henry and Victor causes the monster to run off before he can seriously injure Henry's fiancée. When the little girl's father brings her body to the town's Bürgermeister, the bereaved father, the Bürgermeister, and Frankenstein (whose part in the whole tragedy is unknown to all but Elizabeth and Victor) are assigned to lead three groups of pitchfork- and torch-wielding villagers in a search for the monster.

The three groups eventually converge on the mountains where the Creature confronts Frankenstein, who has become separated from his group. After knocking him out, the monster drags his unconscious creator to a rundown windmill. When the villagers surround the structure, the Creature throws Henry to the ground. Only a passing windmill vane breaks the scientist's fall. The villagers set fire to the building, apparently destroying the Creature.

Although I recognize a lot of its weaknesses, I love this movie. Modern audiences may be a bit less forgiving than I am, though. As I've noticed in many other movies from the '30s, a surprising number of the actors, even some of the more important ones such as Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), give oddly stilted and exaggerated performances. And, as was par for the course during this era, the writers insisted on giving us a comic relief character in the form of Baron Frankenstein. While Kerr's befuddled Baron is occasionally funny, his antics often seem out of place in an otherwise serious film. Fortunately, he never descends to the level of Odious Comic Relief; a position that would be more than adequately filled in The Bride of Frankenstein.

There are a few logical lapses in the film as well. For example, it's never explained how the drowned girl's father knows that she was murdered. He leaves the little girl, who can't swim, to play by the lake. He never sees the Creature and therefore has no reason to suspect that her death was anything but an accident. Additionally, through an unbelievable and unexplained coincidence, the Creature makes a beeline to the Frankenstein home and arrives in time to interrupt the wedding. While the novel's monster threatens Elizabeth shortly after the wedding (okay, "threatens" as in he actually kills her), Mary Shelley's Creature is portrayed as having an above average intelligence and finds his creator's home by following him surreptitiously.

There are other aspects of the film that may turn off modern viewers. These are characteristic of movies from this period and aren't truly the fault of the filmmakers. For starters, like Dracula (1931) and other "talkies" from the very early 1930s, the movie lacks any sort of score. We've become so used to hearing music in the background of our movies that its absence can be off-putting. Also, the climactic search for the Creature occurs on a relatively small mountain set, which adversely affects some of the scene's drama. Unlike some of their foreign counterparts, early American filmmakers rarely risked their expensive equipment by doing location shooting and preferred to stick to indoor sets. By contrast, the German director F. W. Murnau filmed a surprising amount of Nosferatu (1922) on location, much to that film's benefit.

These shortcomings aside, Frankenstein is a great old film. Mae Clarke's Elizabeth or Frederick Kerr's Baron Frankenstein may not be the most engaging characters, but Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein is excellent when he's in full mad scientist mode. Between Clive's acting, director James' Whale dynamic camera, and electrical effects designer Kenneth Strickfaden's equipment, the creation scene is still amazing even 80 years later. Boris Karloff makes the movie; his depiction of the Creature is simultaneously menacing and sympathetic. And his performance is only enhanced by Jack Pierce's famous makeup job. In fact, the makeup has become so iconic that I'd be willing to bet that most modern viewers wouldn't recognize Boris Karloff without it.

Next time: The Atomic Spud meets The Bride of Frankenstein...

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