Frankenstein (1931)

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FRANKENSTEIN—-the 1931 classic will always remain The Original for most of us, but it had been filmed twice before as a silent, in 1915 and 1920, and Thomas Edison himself (speaking of God-like life-bringers) had done it as a short back in 1910.  This 70-minute building block of the Fantasy genre is always lumped with the Horror side of that realm, but a good old Mad Scientist surely places it in the Sci-Fi line as well: just ignore the ‘technical explanations’ and focus on those fantastic electric currents.

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This was spawned from Dame Peggy Webling’s 1927 play.  After getting past the idea of a Dame named Peggy, lore reveals she was urged to adapt Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel by one Hamilton Deane, who’d produced the hit 1924 stage version of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, the first interweaving of filmdom’s two most famous creatures (no slight to the mighty ‘Kong’). Deane’s Dracula crossed the Atlantic from England the same year Peggy’s play breathed actor-life into Shelley’s less suave monster, and the Hungarian émigré who stunned as Dracula on the New York stage was the first actor in consideration to play the creature when crafty Carl Laemmle & son of Universal Pictures bought the rights to “Frankenstein” as a follow-up to the hit they earlier in 1931 with screen Dracula.

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Bela Lugosi turned the part down (whoops!) and newcomers Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, ready to go, also exited, stage left.  Director James Whale put through his paces a 44-year-old unknown named William Henry Pratt, cast in the role Lugosi skipped.  Pratt, who kept himself fed digging ditches while trying to get his acting career off the ground, worked, as any movie buff knows, under the adopted, more exotic tag Boris Karloff, and the rest is history. *     “It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!”

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In visual styling suggested by silent German expressionist classics like The Golem, Whale set the tone and look for decades of horror films. Those boomers who caught this as kids were seeing a creaky fossil with jumpy prints and bad sound.  Watch it anew, with refurbished picture and audio quality, and edited cuts restored, and it’s easy to see why it was a giant hit, eclipsing the success of Dracula.  Universal’s investment of $280,000 roared back as the most profitable picture of the year, earning nearly $2,000,000.

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Six writers tinkered the script, which gave another memorable role to Dwight Frye, who had just capered as ‘Renfield’ in Dracula.  Here, Dwight is the gleefully sadistic, not-too-sharp hunchback helper-ghoul ‘Fritz’, and his bouncing about is quite amusing. Colin Clive’s thoughtlessly messianic ‘Henry’ has vital madness going for him.

With Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore and Marilyn Harris as ‘Little Maria’ (“I can make a boat!“).

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Despite the handicap/blessing of all the iconic makeup (including boots that weighed 11 pounds each) Karloff delivers a stunning performance as the hapless creation. Basically a frightened and abused child in the form of a hulking apparition, Karloff’s eyes and vocalizations—whimpers of hopefulness, pathetic screams of distress and growls of rage—are marvelous conveying the ‘monster’s wonderment, confusion, instinctive panic and lashing out, and he works furious energy into his body movements. Critics offer their interpretations of what the unhinged doctor and his stitched-together experiment represent, but as for Karloff’s soulful truth behind the neck bolts and scars, the great Glenn Erickson, in his review at DVD Savant, sums it up beautifully: “In what other fantasy does a horrible monster accidentally kill a small child, yet earns our complete understanding and sympathy?”

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*John Boles is pretty boring in this, but he had real-life skill at being convincing, and didn’t lack for nerve, as he’d fooled lethal adversaries in Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey, acting as a US spy during World War One.  Mae Clarke, 21 at the time, eventually logged 121 credits, yet sealed fame the same year this came out, suffering at the hands of another temper-challenged brute when Jimmy Cagney shared History’s Most Famous Grapefruit with her kisser in The Public Enemy.  Sad and unlucky Colin Clive, plagued by alcoholism and TB, died of pneumonia in 1937.  An exasperated Dwight Frye fired off on typecasting: ” If God is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!”

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As to the immortal Boris, allow me this morsel. My late brother-in-law, Larry Pennell, starred in a story on the graceful elder mans TV series, Thriller (“Late Date” in 1961–excellent episode!) : he said Karloff was “a wonderful gentleman”.

**Another classic 1931 chiller, “M” also dealt with a child-killer, but Peter Lorre’s creeps-inducing psychopath was not a hapless victim of circumstance or accident and sympathy was absent.

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