Sunday, 14 February 2016


The journey to the eventual film script for Frankenstein was a labyrinthine one. In 1823, dramatist Richard Brinsley Peake wrote the first dramatized version of Mary Shelley’s novel for the stage. Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein introduced plot and character detail changes to her work that were still present right through to the Universal film. 

Another connection that ties the fate of Frankenstein to Dracula in the twentieth century comes courtesy of Hamilton Deane, the theatre producer whose stage adaptation of the Stoker novel had done so much to bring it to future cinema fame. After that success, he looked for another property which he could tour around England on a double-bill with Dracula and commissioned Peggy Webley to adapt Frankenstein. This became an equal horror hit, and the duplication of the earlier formula was completed when John L. Balderston applied the same revisionary treatment for Broadway of this material in 1930 as he’d already done for Dean’s Dracula. Among his contributions to the developing mythology we know today were the introduction of a creation scene for the monster and the addition of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, who was mute. (It was only for the 1931 film that the creators decided he should speak so that Frankenstein had someone with whom he could share his plans!). Producer Horace Liveright, who was behind the Broadway run of Dracula, wanted to add his own stamp to the script, but before that complication could add to the mix the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929 cleaned him out. The Broadway run never happened and he finally sold the Frankenstein movie rights to Balderston and Webling who ultimately benefitted in a deal made with Universal.

The other similarity in the gestation of both horror films is the passionate commitment of Carl Laemmle Jr in pushing it through production. His enthusiasm for Universal making Frankenstein was as keen as for Dracula. For a man who had been literally gifted his post of Vice President of Production by his father as a 21st birthday present, Laemmle Jr showed great instincts in choosing commercial projects. Not only were these two highly successful, in fact vital, money-makers for the studio but he was also behind their seminal All Quiet On the Western Front.

Universal bought the film rights to Frankenstein for $20,000, giving Webley and Balderston 1% of the gross profits for cinema releases based on their work. 

Having only existed till now as an official Frankenstein film in a rushed silent short by the Edison Company in 1910, Life Without Soul (1915) and Albertini’s Italian version Il Monstro di Frankenstein in 1920, Italian Mary Shelley’s classic tale would now be galvanised into feature-length cinematic life in the sound era by an American studio who already had form in the genre. Robert Florey negotiated to write as well as direct the project in May 1931; meanwhile the studio had contracted Balderston to submit his own draft. Florey aimed to protect his position by insisting on a contract stating he was performing both duties on Frankenstein. This was granted by scenario editor Richard Schayer but Florey was too appeased to spot that the document didn’t specify the actual name of the film.

Florey wrote his own screenplay’s plot, enlisting Garret Fort to supply dialogue. Florey invented the plot point of transplanting the criminal abnormal brain into the creature, later extended in Francis Edwards Faragoh’s draft to being a replacement by Fritz for dropping a normal one. This would mollify critics by safely explaining away the creature’s homicidal actions.

Under Florey’s tenure as director, the role of Henry Frankenstein was originally earmarked for Bela Lugosi following his success in Dracula. He tested for all of the character’s scenes up to the ‘birth’ of the creature. However, Laemmle Jnr ordered that he be transferred to trying out instead for the monste, a part which Lugosi saw as degrading. His make-up featured clay-like skin and an enormous head prosthetic reminiscent of Paul Wegener as The Golem. Carl Laemmle Jr reported that seeing this footage made his father “laugh like a hyena”. According to stellar make-up artist Jack Pierce who famously crafted the creature’s iconic look, the fault lay with Lugosi who heavily influenced the design: “Lugosi thought his ideas were better than everybody’s”. Allegedly, the actor quit the film citing a desire to retain his self-professed romantic lead status – to be fair an equal case was his dissatisfaction with the script’s draft at this point, which as we’ve seen showed the creature as a rampaging soulless machine. Certainly, the final shooting script pitied the monster much more than the stage play source material. Ultimately Lugosi was to play the scientist’s creation - however this would be down the diminishing quality line of sequels in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The poor reception for Lugos’s screen test resulted in Florey being sacked as director.

To helm the project instead, Universal chose James Whale, a prestigious director they had under a five-year contract. Mounting stage productions became a passion of his whilst he was a POW in a German camp during World War One. After the war, he abandoned his work as a newspaper cartoonist to concentrate on a career in the theatre, proving his own mettle with the class material of R.C. Sheriff’s play and film of Journey’s End and the movie of Waterloo Bridge. Whale welcomed the challenge of working in the realms of the macabre, the script being “The strongest meat” of the offers made to him, and never shied away from a subject that was daring, controversial and new to him. This embrace of the unconventional echoed his private life in which, rarely and riskily for the period, he was openly gay.

To portray Henry, Whale followed his creative instinct and fought for Colin Clive, who’d played Stanhope to great acclaim in both Whale’s stage and film productions of Journey’s End. He respected Clive’s talent and his distinctive clipped tones, a vocal versatility “like a pipe organ…”The studio ideally wanted Leslie Howard (at least agreeing that something in the scientist suited a very British, cut-glass accented type that would continue through many incarnations) but Whale got his way. He had valuable experience in guiding Clive through the previous role’s intensity and suggested adding a measure of Stanhope’s simmering breakdown into the part in a letter to the actor prior to filming. Whale was careful to steer Clive toward balancing Henry Frankenstein’s excesses with a believable truth, finding different shadings to avoid running exclusively on a roaring, high-octane overdrive. He saw Henry as: “…an intensely sane person…at times rather fanatical…and in one or two scenes a little hysterical”. Even before filming, the director’s considered approach and integrity is evident and pays off tremendously in modulating Clive’s fierce energy and credibility even at the highest pitches of emotion. One of my favourite moments in Frankenstein is his subtle and amusing reaction to Dr. Waldman’s news that the creature has been given an abnormal brain. Henry ponders this coolly, his composure momentarily ruffled, glances at the doorway to the lab as if silently computing the odds of trouble and then airily dismisses any hint of setback.

Colin Clive (born Colin Glenn Clive-Greig in 1900) came from a distinguished military family. He was descended from ‘Clive of India’, the Commander-in-Chief of British India, Major General Robert Clive. Colin would later play Captain Johnstone in the 1935 film about his illustrious ancestor, Clive of India. How ironic that he portrayed notable army roles as an actor since he was training for a military career at Sandhurst when his horse fell, fracturing the young man’s knee. This ended his following of the family business as it were, so he switched careers into the theatre, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After stage repertory work, the huge critical and commercial success of Journey’s End was to make his and Whale’s careers, establishing him as a riveting talent especially in tortured roles. He would go on to appear in two more horror roles in Mad Love and reprising the young scientist in Bride of Frankenstein.

 Privately, Clive’s triumphs couldn’t allay his insecurity and the crippling inner tension of attempting to hide his homosexuality, which was still illegal in those times. Unable to conduct his sexuality with the same boldness as Whale, his conflicted inner life channelled into the seething sincerity of his performances but manifested itself more destructively in the chronic alcoholism which eventually claimed Clive’s life so tragically early in 1937.


Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in Forest Hill, Surrey in 1887 to a violent and abusive English father and an Indian mother who divorced Karloff’s father within 18 months of ‘Billy’ (her youngest child of nine) being born. Throughout his career, Karloff hid his ancestry, knowing that prevalent racism as well as racial typecasting would adversely affect his acting ambitions. Looking at early photos of him courtesy of Stephen Jacobs’ excellent biography Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, it’s hard to believe he was able to keep his dark, brooding Anglo-Indian looks a secret. He would explain this away later as the product of spending too much time in the sun!

After a somewhat uneven childhood - indulgence from his mother and bullying by his siblings - Billy dodged a life in the civil service into which most of his siblings fell. His passion was for acting, overshadowing his studies whilst at Uppingham public school and kindled by seeing his brother George in the profession (who later abandoned it for the more secure world of paper merchanting). Billy’s family tried in vain to use George’s change of heart to persuade him into forgetting the notion of an unstable career in the theatre, holding an intervention during which they cruelly belittled his looks and talent. Partly to escape this lack of support at home, Billy took advantage of the period’s welcoming of immigrants by Australia and Canada. The toss of a coin led him to plump for a Canadian adventure. He sailed to Montreal listing his profession as ‘farmer’ with no knowledge of either the profession or his new home country.

Although he had no firm plans, Billy could not be accused of being work-shy. He went from back-breaking farm work to real-estate brokering before spotting an advert by chance in a newspaper: the Jeanne Russell Players stock theatre company were looking for a character actor. He bluffed his way in and there began his grounding in arduous but solid technique as a repertory stage actor for various companies touring Canada. At one point, the turnover of productions he learned on the road was astounding – two plays a week for 53 weeks.

It was around this time circa 1911 that Billy Pratt became Boris Karloff, an important name transformation in horror history whose origin has never been definitively traced. Like many of Karloff’s anecdotes, he wove fantastical stories that were often founded more in entertainment value than strict truth. Whilst it’s true that Billy Pratt wouldn’t have the same marquee impact, Karloff claimed that: “The ‘Karloff’ comes from my mother’s family – there were some Russian ancestors - and the ‘Boris’ I took out of the air or something”. The most plausible explanation posited by Greg Nesteroff suggests the inspiration was a ‘Count Karloff’ in a Harold McGrath play that was staged in Canada two years before. Regardless, ‘Boris Karloff’ was to conjure up a usefully enigmatic aura for his heavy features and presence. Universal would exploit this to the hilt when marketing his films, going so far as to refer to him simply by the surname for extra publicity chills.

The all-important role of Frankenstein’s creation seemingly came by way of James Whale’s life partner, producer David Lewis, who had admired Karloff’s work as a vengeful convict in The Criminal Code on stage and screen.  By the time he was considered for this life-changing part, Karloff was already making a living as a Universal contract player, a veteran of 80 films varying in shades of ethnic villainy and the occasional good-guy role of varying sizes. Whale met Karloff and was captivated immediately by his cadaverous visage. Karloff recalled him remarking:“Your face has startling possibilities”.  His other physical attribute, a height of six feet would be a bonus, though in the shape of a rather thin physique which did not concern Whale as he knew the actor’s costume could be padded out to create the fear-inducing bulk of the monster. Crucially, what was within Karloff’s nature would make his monster a classic icon, more than simply the gross stuff of shock effects. Whale reflected later on the actor’s “queer penetrating personality”, and despite the painstaking metamorphosis of his face and body, underneath we feel pity for this shambling, awkward giant child, pushed rudely into the world, unwanted, trusting to a fault and hounded to death.

Karloff’s make-up by Jack Pierce followed consultations with Whale and his resulting design has never been bettered in portraying the composite creature (notable inferior attempts include Universal’s own sequels):

“I figured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practising surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way. He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight. That's the reason I decided to make the Monster's head square and flat like a shoe box and dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together.”

Pierce initially stalled delivery of a screen test for three weeks so he could perfect his work. Once approved for shooting, every morning the actor would sit from 4 am till 8 am while Pierce began layering cotton and collodion solution onto his face to produce the operational scarring. Mortician’s wax fashioned the eyelids under which Karloff’s wounded, soulful eyes peer. Special molar fixtures were designed to reshape his jawline, and by sucking in his cheeks, cadaverousness was augmented by shading them. A blue-green greasepaint gave off a corpse-like greyness to the skin on monochrome film – and the finishing touch was the positioning of those iconic bolts to the sides of his neck as lightning-electricity inlet points.

In constructing Karloff’s remarkable full-body transformation, he was given a black suit whose colour firstly emphasised the pallor and details of his striking visage. It was double-quilted to fill out the actor’s slim frame and featured shortened sleeves to make the arms appear over-long.His fingernails were painted with black show-polish to simulate how the corpse’s blood would flow to the extremities.
   For his lower-half, steel struts were attached to his legs enabling the stiff, tottering gait and asphalt-spreader boots were worn that not only increased his height and ungainly stomp but allowed him to lean forward at an unnatural angle.

It’s easy for us to forget that Karloff’s Frankenstein monster was once totally unknown to the public – the character has so saturated global pop culture since the 1930s. Whale clearly understood the shocking impact that he must have upon being revealed to audiences for the first time. Artfully, the director staged Karloff’s entrance as a tease for maximum effect. At his master’s command he enters the scene backward and then turns slowly into the light so we can take time to savour his gloriously unsettling appearance. It is one of the greatest movie entrances of all time. In Karloff’s lumbering movements, his silent expressive eyes and hands pleading for compassion, he is a little frightened boy trapped inside an enormous skyscraper…for life.

The other principal cast members featured two returning from Dracula, namely Dwight Frye as the hunchback assistant Fritz (the role later immortalised as ‘Ygor’) and Edward Van Sloan who played Professor Waldman as well as giving an opening speech out of character that we will discuss shortly. Van Sloan was arguably something of a good-luck talisman for Universal as he appeared in the opening films of their first three horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and then The Mummy (1932). Frye, despite his evident talent, had now become locked into typecasting as eccentric servant parts. By World War Two, he was reduced to working night shifts for Lockheed aircraft company and died in 1943, possibly induced by the strain of supporting his family whilst trying to stay connected with the business in local theatre productions. By then, his death certificate listed his job title as ‘Tool designer’. Fortunately we have his legacy in Frankenstein’s scenes between him and Clive; as master and servant they are sublime examples of teamwork, both actors matching each other in intensity of shared demonic purpose.

In the 1927 and 1930 theatre productions, the monster deserves that name by behaving as a violent brute rather than the sensitive, poetic soul who is turned malevolent by society’s awful treatment of him. The scientist’s lack of responsibility for his creation also intensifies into physical cruelty – he uses a whip and hot irons to dominate the creature, even ordering him to lie down and roll over like a submissive dog. Cunningly, in the film, this inhumane torturing is passed to Fritz, thus placing the creator in a more sympathetic light and amplifying the truly pathetic in Karloff’s moving and heartfelt performance.

John Boles had the dubious honour of portraying Victor Moritz, a newly-contrived character designed to drive an unnecessary wedge of soap-opera love triangle between Henry and his fiancĂ© Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). He flourished in the era of talking pictures, his forte as a baritone in such famous operettas as the film of The Desert Song in 1929 for Warner Brothers. In Frankenstein, he comes across as an ill-at-ease tailor’s-dummy clone of Ronald Colman, blandly accompanying the heroics whilst pining ineffectually for Elizabeth. In the novel, the scientist Victor’s best friend is the breezy, optimistic Henry Clerval. For the Webling play onwards, his first name was exchanged with Moritz which for the scientist at least has a less imperious ring to it, one of a number of subtle alterations made to render him more sympathetic. 

Actress and dancer Mae Clarke had turned an uncredited gangster’s moll famously receiving a half grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) to two lead roles before the year was out. Her dancer-turned-prostitute in the hugely popular Waterloo Bridge so captivated Whale that he insisted on her for Elizabeth in Frankenstein. (The studio had considered the young Bette Davis for the part but Carl Laemmle did not find her sexy enough). Writer Anita Loos had also found Clarke enchanting; she was the inspiration for singer Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Amongst the supporting cast, Frederick Kerr was also transplanted from Waterloo Bridge.  Whale rated highly this veteran of fifty years in the theatre – “He’s an asset to any picture” – and as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, he makes a splendidly Colonial old buffer of comic relief, at times rambling away in a quasi-improvisatory style. Lionel Belmore playing the Burgomaster came back for the sequels Son of and Ghost of Frankenstein; so did Michael Mark, the father of the drowned child, who also pops up in House of Frankenstein.

The film opens with a speech by Edward Van Sloan as himself before a front-cloth as if making an announcement to a theatre audience. This was filmed sometime after production and was intended to pacify religious fundamentalist groups’ objections to Frankenstein’s controversial ‘God complex’. The studio had already fallen foul of regional censorings of such lines as his “In the name of God” and “Now I know how it feels to be God!” and when re-submitting the film in the more conservative climate of the Production Code for its 1937 U.S. re-release this line was cut out of all distributed prints. Other cuts would include minor surgery to Fritz’s goading of the creature, the removal of Henry’s hypodermic injection into his back and eliminating the entirety of Karloff drowning the little girl, which we will examine.

The music is by Bernhard Kaun whose score only accompanies the beginning and end of the film. Within a few years it would be standard practise for a film to be under-scored throughout.
In the credits there is the notable identity (or lack) of the actor playing the Monster as simply “?”. This is not just for the purposes of marketing mystique but playfully harks back to the 1823 stage version which reversed the mystery billing by naming the actor T.P. Cooke but labelling his role as ‘_____’.

Kenneth Strickfaden’s famously elaborate design for Frankenstein’s laboratory equipment was the product of his life-long fascination with gadgetry of all kinds. Beginning his career as an electrician, he amassed a huge quantity of parts collected from automobiles, aircraft and other sources. The cornucopia he constructed for the lab looked dauntingly impressive and wonderfully incomprehensible. Even so, the lightning sparks given off during the monster’s creation were still enough to make Karloff apprehensive as he lay prostrate under the technicians’ handiwork high up on the platform. (Me Brooks would request him personally to come out of retirement to create his wonderful workshop for 1974’s Young Frankenstein).
Whale paid as much attention to selling the creation scene to audiences as he did to every other aspect of the film, understanding that without it, vital credibility would affect their willing suspension of disbelief and investment in the characters.

Karloff got along well with his director, only differing in point of view when it came to handling the controversial scene in which the creature drowns the little girl (Marilyn Harris) by accident. Karloff felt he should treat her innocently like the delicate flowers he had been tossing into the river, whereas Whale saw this as a clumsy and brutal act, albeit unintentional. Either way, the resulting scene both horrifies us and earns sympathy for the unwitting child-like monster, unaware of the tragic consequences he has now set in motion – hence the censor’s unease over it. It seems the censored version before restoration may have increased the scene’s unpleasantness rather than tempered it as it cut just at the point where the creature reaches out for the girl, suggesting the even more awful possibility of child rape.

The Frankensteins’ wedding day festivities, like much of the shoot, was filmed on the Universal back lot. The company kept a fully-intact European market-place set for many years until it was burnt down. The staged scene was populated with genuine Austrian musicians and dancers, which unwittingly adds to some confusion over just what period and location we are supposed to be in. Characters have German-sounding names and often costumes befitting the time of Shelley’s novel and yet the principal actors sport English or modern American accents and are sharply dressed from the same era as the film-making. This clash of styles is jarringly evident during the man-hunt for the creature – suddenly Frankenstein’s people leading the olde worlde villagers resemble time-warped 1930s Warner Brothers gangsters.

Originally the climactic fire consumes the windmill, creature and Frankenstein together, however the studio realised they had a budding franchisable hit, so Whale and his scenario editor invented the survival epilogue that shows the Baron and his staff discussing his son’s recovery while Henry has Elizabeth at his bedside in the background. Because of Kerr’s positioning and soft focus through the doorway, we cannot be sure if Mae Clarke was in the scene. Another actor definitely doubled Clive who’d already returned to Europe by now. While we’re on the subject of re-appearances, fans of Kerr’s welcome dash of relish will be pleased to see him again as he vanishes mysteriously during the wedding scenes.

Let’s not forget also that in the novel, Henry’s fiancĂ© herself does not survive. Elizabeth is strangled by the monster on their wedding night. The Peggy Webley play allowed Elizabeth to live as well, but further complicated matters by having the creature fall in love with her. Any possibility of this muddying the murky waters is mercifully cancelled out when in that version he throws himself suicidally from a cliff-top at the end.

The film was budgeted at $262,000 for a 32-day shoot, finally coming in five days over schedule at a final cost of $292,000. To boost publicity for Frankenstein’s release, the studio pulled out all the stops, using the kind of sideshow gimmicks producer William Castle would notoriously use in promoting his films in the 1950s – offering free nerve tonic in cinema foyers as well as stationing nurses and ambulances on hand in case of overcome audience members. There was no need; Frankenstein was an enormous hit, and the box-office from this and Dracula between them not only confidently began the horror movie genre that would make Universal world famous, they also rescued the studio from debts of $2.2m accrued by 1930. Azmid the glowing reviews, Film Players Herald praised Karloff’s affecting subtlety : “If Universal’s production of Frankenstein does nothing else, it establishes Boris Karloff as the one important candidate who has arisen for the mantle of Lon Chaney.”

Ultimately Boris Karloff enjoyed a happy association with the creature that made him famous over the following decades. Despite a punishing schedule of sixteen-hour days due to the make-up application (about which Karloff had to officially complain to the Academy) he was eternally grateful for the sewn-together corpse who had revived them both to stardom. “God bless the old boy. Without him, I’d have been nowhere”. Though he was initially stifled by increasingly restrictive sequels, unlike Lugosi he avoided the temptation of endless repetition of the part into self-parody. He refused to do more than two sequels in the role, re-teaming with Whale for Bride of Frankenstein (as well as The Old Dark House) increasing his range in other horror projects sufficiently to allow him to play the scientist in House of Frankenstein for Universal to no ill effect career-wise. Lugosi had done the same but could not resist recycling his signature Dracula in many touring stage productions, while complaining of the limitations that prevented him from fulfilling the matinee-idol status he’d enjoyed back in Hungary. Karloff seemed altogether more at peace with his lot as a ‘horror actor’ type and would go on to a long and lucrative career. “God bless the old boy. Without him, I’d have been nowhere”.

After finishing Frankenstein, before leaving the genre James Whale would direct three more successful horror pictures for Universal culminating in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein that re-teamed him with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.

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