A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1931 – Frankenstein

American horror. I felt we needed a spot for this. Plus, it’s Frankenstein. And Universal monsters. I’m rolling this all into one. This was also the highest grossing film of 1931. (And if it wasn’t, since we don’t have actual numbers, it was right there.) Widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931, and of all time – it’s a good choice.

The film is littered with iconic moments and images, a lot of which aren’t even in the source material. So when they’ve been repeated (and parodied… Young Frankenstein) over the years, it’s because they were referencing this film and not the source material.

This film is more of a horror film than Bride of Frankenstein, so I’ll focus on those elements. Over history, the two have become melded together, specifically due to movies like Young Frankenstein and all of the iconic images out there.

If you don’t remember, the book begins with the ship captain stuck in the ice in the arctic, and then being told Frankenstein’s story. Then we get the story, which is way less memorable (though still very memorable) than the movie version. Frankenstein creates the creature, finds it grotesque (because it’s eight feet tall with yellow eyes and dead skin), and flees. The creature then murders Frankenstein’s family. He then shows up at Frankenstein’s place, now able to speak, and is like, “Dude, what the fuck?” He says he learned to talk by listening to people up in the mountains. Then he tried to talk to them, but they got scared, so he burned their house down. He then tells him to make a female companion for him. Which Frankenstein does, but then he worries that it’ll beget a race of creatures, so he destroys it. The creature then murders Frankenstein’s best friend. Frankenstein is thrown in prison for it. He is acquitted, though, but then the creature comes and murders Frankenstein’s wife. He then goes out in pursuit of his creation to destroy it once and for all. Then he dies on the dude’s ship from the beginning, and the creature shows up and cries because his creator is dead. He then says he’s gonna kill himself and disappears. It’s actually a great story. But the movie is different.

The beautiful thing about the movies (aside from the fact that they’re so clearly influenced by German expressionism, and films like Caligari and The Golem and Nosferatu) is that they’re directed by someone who didn’t make the obvious film that could have been made from the book. James Whale made a movie where the creature is given humanity. And not many people (especially now) would have had the balls to do that. If you watch Bride of Frankenstein, you really see it. But it’s still evident here. The creature is a tragic figure, and not just a killing machine. And that’s what elevates this movie above something like Dracula.

But, the film has so many iconic moments — “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and the fire, and specifically the moment pictured in the Pic of the Day, where the creature (wonderfully played by Boris Karloff, credited as “?” in the opening credits, which marks the first time a movie deliberately withheld a star’s name for the purposes of having the audience believe the character they play rather than watching a performance) finds a little girl by the lake and start playing with flowers. And he’s so amused by the flowers floating on the water, and so primitive still, mentally, that when they run out, he picks up the little girl and throws her into the water, expecting her to float as well, which unintentionally has the effect of killing her, since she can’t swim. And he runs away, knowing something bad just happened. Which is great, since you get to see the humanity and the ability to destroy there as well. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this movie as iconic as it is.

It’s a great movie. This and Bride of Frankenstein together hold up better than any other iteration of this story that’s ever been told since then.


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