Based less on the Mary Shelley novel and more on a failed stage play, the 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein is rated by critics as one of the greatest films ever made. It's on a couple of AFI lists; it has a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes; and it remains a hallmark in the history of horror. When most people think of Frankenstein, this is what they're thinking of, because it's one of those rare movies that manages to overshadow its source material.
It's an incredibly stream-lined telling of the original story, but despite turning the monster into a lumbering beast and eliminating or dramatically altering almost the entire narrative, it manages to maintain--if not amplify--Shelley's thematic thrust. This movie beautifully captures all of the allegorical possibilities while adeptly exploring that thorny philosophical problem of nature versus nurture.
In this version, the monster is mistreated from the very beginning--even moreso than he is in the book--but because he hasn't intelligence enough to have a moral code, he resorts to murder as an instinctual form of self-defense and a reflection of the cruelty shown him by Fritz, Frankenstein's assistant. He also murders Dr. Waldman out of self-defense--as the good doctor was about to perform an autopsy on him--but it is his third and final murder that is most telling: that of little Maria. It is obvious that Maria's death is an accident, that the creature is simply too innocent to realize that she won't float when he throws her in the lake.
This is one of those pictures I can hear
The Maria scene--which was famously cut during the Code era--is probably the most pivotal moment in the entire film. Without saying a word or having anyone tell the audience, it is clear that this one act is what turns Frankenstein's creation into the monster, what starts him on his quest to track down his creator and enact some form of primal vengeance. If he had been shown love--or at least guidance--it's entirely possible that this would never have happened, that Frankenstein's creation could have been made more human.
It's therefore an open question as to whether his homicidal streak is caused by his abnormal brain or by they way he is "raised"--whipped in the dark recesses of the watchtower and abandoned by his creator--and we get no clear answers from the mesmerizing performance of Boris Karloff, who endows the creature with just enough pathos to raise this question in the minds of the audience.
A face only a mother could love
Frankenstein himself, as played by Colin Clive, is clearly driven by a touch of madness, but his guilt and shame is no less palpable when the killing begins. When Fritz becomes the first victim of the monster, Frankenstein immediately blames himself but can't yet bring himself to kill his creature, calling it "murder." In just two lines of dialogue, this raises all the same questions about the morality of creation and the responsibility behind it that take Mary Shelley a hundred or so pages to ask.
Early versions of the script ended with Frankenstein and his monster dying together at the windmill, but with studio heads contemplating potential sequels, the ending was ultimately more ambiguous, leaving Frankenstein alive (along with Elizabeth, in a massive departure from the book) and his monster's fate unclear enough to give future writers some wiggle room. Thank goodness for these studio heads, too, because we wouldn't have Bride of Frankenstein otherwise.
Never hire an architect with an inner ear problem
However, it is not just the script and the principal actors that make this film so important and so great. Director James Whale lends his theater experience to the entire movie, leaning into an impressionistic style when it comes to the gothic, off-kilter sets, the lighting, and the dynamic camera work. It is Whale, more than even Karloff, who made this movie into a phenomenon, ensuring that it would have a lasting place in film history.
If you want to know more about James Whale and the making of 1931's Frankenstein, I will have a video retrospective review on my YouTube channel at the end of the month. In the meantime, be sure to come back here for more Franktober reviews, continuing next week with Bride of Frankenstein. And hey, if you missed it, go check out my review of the original novel from last week.