In the early golden years of classical Hollywood, Universal Studios somehow always tempted, and summarily avoided, being left hanging in the lurch. Unlike the five major studios, all of which owned their own theaters and thus guaranteed distribution of their films, Universal wasn’t born with a silver spoon in its mouth. The spendthrift glamour of the MGM musical machine was but a cloudy daydream for a studio that, while hardly poverty row, needed to carve out its own niche to go toe to toe with the big boys. Rather than trying to assimilate to the studio heavies with facsimiles of their Dream Factory productions, Universal ensconced itself in the out-of-the-way places, the boondocks of cinema, testing out more unsavory realms befitting their more hardscrabble existence. Unwilling, or unable, to lull the masses with luxuriant A-picture opulence, the company decided not to soothe America to bed but to lower itself into the murk of mutated German Expressionism and raise a shrieking countermelody, the kind of rattling cadence that could wake the dead.
Thus, out of the fires of Murnau and Lang was born the Universal Horror tradition, provided of course that the scalding-hot auteurist brimstone of Expressionism could be sculpted with the hammer of B-movie budgeting and on-the-fly production schedules that singe away any bloat. With a scant, brutal 70 minute runtime, our present subject is an electric jolt of a picture, emblematic of the in-and-out style of the company that desperately needed to channel trim budgets into semi-blockbuster success. Without tumbling into needlessly quixotic myths about the beauty of relying on craft to overcompensate for a lack of funding, the first run of Universal Horror is nonetheless the platonic ideal of massaging an expedient production, even a harried one, into a genuine opportunity to work on the margins of Hollywood. More than that, it allowed Universal to brew up works (relatively) uninhibited by social propriety or the stipulations of committee-designed over-the-counter mainstream appeal.
Of course, we’re talking about 1931’s Frankenstein, a death-caked affront to normalcy, an unholy matrimony of demonic zest and wistful innocence, and a thoughtfully direct critique of Western society to boot. Director James Whale, very much an auteur in a system where auteurism was an endangered species, stripped Mary Shelley’s own critique of Enlightenment rationalism for parts rather than copying it wholesale. The poetic ruminations and waxing longueurs of Shelley’s prose were vastly too literary to survive the cinematic lexicon intact; the Modern Prometheus’ diatribes and reflections would appear hopelessly stodgy in film form, after all. For his Frankenstein, Whale would not only reshape the thematic integrity of the piece (fashioning it into a lament for individuality in a mob-mentality world) but remold the style, the mantra, the tempo of the piece into something more chest-thumping but no less mournful.
Loosely following the original text, the film begins with Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) exercising his brazen lack of inhibition for recasting life in his own image by uncoupling humanity from mortality and shocking life into a patchwork of reanimated human flesh. The being, the Monster (often mistakenly referred to as Frankenstein), wakes up with a maw for the peculiarities of the world and the reckless, rampaging brain of a psychopath (mistakenly placed in the body in lieu of a supposed “normal” brain). With an anecdotal tempo more akin to a hasty scribble of a narrative, or a broad-strokes fable, Frankenstein follows the Monster as he wanders through the European countryside in a state of suspended animation between life and death, radiating the wounded fascination of a newborn child ever-curious about the world and entirely uncertain of their own place in it. And walking between an evanescent land of possibility he can innocently experience for the first time and, on the other hand, a human world eager to put him back in the grave at first opportunity. A tragedy of misapprehension and miscommunication with the Monster as a stand-in for social others never given a chance, Frankenstein may not be conventionally frightening in the fangs-drawn sense today, but the texture of the piece is too conflicted and exploratory to settle for conventional horror anyway.
Besides, while it isn’t per-se scary, the implications of this vision of fresh-eyed humanity stomped out by the torrent of human fear of the unknown and the different is plenty frightening on its own terms. Without all of that puny social message movie hand-wringing, Frankenstein slides into the pre-Code tradition of rabble-rousing, beaten-down genre cinema with social parables smuggled in underfoot the grotty, punchy B-picture style of the text. Played by Boris Karloff with an achingly human energy and a palpable aura of dread exteriorized in his pallid eyes, the Monster grows from wide-eyed child transfixed by the world to ill-tempered adolescent bedeviled by the world, flailing around in search of an adequate response to a society that doesn’t want to listen. It is precisely his inability to speak or communicate with the world outside of a stray grunt, in stark opposition to Shelley’s excessive speeches on every subject under the sun, that transforms the Monster into a bruised, empathetic outcast with a mortally confused soul. No leaden “The Monster is gay” analogies are called for, but for Whale, a known homosexual even at the time, the implications of a film about a misunderstood social pariah as a suffering outsider are quietly heartbreaking to say the least.
And wonderfully expressive, to say the most. Deposing the staid inadequacies of Dracula from the same year (a film that strands a wonderful Bela Lugosi stare in the mire of cinematic lethargy and visual timidity), Frankenstein explores the full felt force of Germanic fairy tale Expressionism, grafting not only the shadow-strangled horror but the misty romanticism and luxuriant light-and-motion interplay of A-pictures like Sunrise. This is not a tepid first toe into the black pool of the strange, but a relatively deep dive. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson (no surprise that he was, not a decade later, lensing the likes of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca) scratches smears of acid-drenched light and shadow throughout, galvanizing Charles Hall’s lyrical production-design in a surfeit of negative space and spectral mist. Jack Pierce’s make-up is similarly warped and influenced by the batty interiors of the mind, much like Whale’s own tone of macabre requiem influenced by German director Paul Leni, for whom silent horror was as much a fount for comedy as fright.
If Frankenstein suffers at all, it is only as a victim of circumstance and comparison. Four years later, Whale was still riding the waves of his initial success with Shelley’s book. Given liberating freedom to rework the rest of the Frankenstein text as he saw fit, he brewed up and unleashed Bride of Frankenstein, a deliciously imperfect, scatter-brained, totally scrambled monstrosity of camp, curiosity, terror, upheaval, and the last gasp of unmediated German Expressionism in America before it would be slightly diluted with the rise of the film noir. While Frankenstein works divinely within its chosen register, Bride alone accrues the charisma of a film actively dynamiting new cinematic caverns and pillaging cinematic temples as it lashes out in every direction it can find. Frankenstein is merely the first symptom of Bride’s full-on syndrome; what was in 1931 a sniffle was by 1935 a full-onslaught malady, one of the great American films of any genre, a film for which “horror” or any genre is not merely a rough guideline but an edict to upend, a set of bylaws to disturb with the gallant energy of a cinematic bacchanal.
The post-mortem on Frankenstein is a film of glowing reputation to this day and a director whose reputation has only recently been recovered from the dustbin of Hollywood history. Whale’s career was ultimately mismanaged; his wily eyes for outré imagery and deranged narrative fancy ultimately became fodder for a system that, post Hays Code implementation, wanted little to do with Whale’s fantastique-colored, semi-camp film offerings. Hollywood post-1934 was in the business of sanding itself down, and Whale’s delectably rough contours just didn’t make the cut. Or rather, they cut too much into Hollywood’s newly svelte, slick, spic and span edifice. Whale deserved more; his Frankenstein not only stalks with the best of them, but it prowls around thornier questions: the place of social outsiders in a world hell-bent on normalization. Although Frankenstein is not as wonderfully queer in its sense of otherness as its successor four years later, it suffers only in comparison to an unimpeachable masterpiece. Frankenstein may not be thoroughly unimpeachable, but it is a near-masterwork nonetheless.