Thursday, March 29, 2012

Frankenstein



Frankenstein (75th Anniversary Edition) (Universal Legacy Series)

#87 on the 1998 AFI Best 100 American Movies List

Frankenstein is a 1931 pre-Code horror monster film from Universal Pictures directed by James Whale and adapted from the play by Peggy Webling, which in turn is based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley. The film stars Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff and features Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan. The Webling play was adapted by John L. Balderston and the screenplay written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort with uncredited contributions from Robert Florey and John Russell. The make-up artist was Jack Pierce.

* Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
* Mae Clarke as Elizabeth Lavenza
* John Boles as Victor Moritz
* Boris Karloff (billed as "?") as The Monster
* Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
* Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein
* Dwight Frye as Fritz
* Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomaster
* Marilyn Harris as Little Maria

The film begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a "friendly warning" before the opening credits:

We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.

In the opening credits, Karloff is unbilled, with only a question mark being used in place of his name. This is a nod to a tradition of theatrical adaptations billing the monster without a name. Universal had not revealed in advance who was playing the monster and had not released any pictures of the monster in order to conceal his appearance. Karloff's name is revealed in the closing credits, which otherwise duplicate the credits from the opening under the principle that "A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating."

There was controversy around this point originally, as some part of the management of Universal built up the suspense of who was playing the creature to gather interest in the film as Bela Lugosi was still largely thought to be performing the role of the creature up until the time of the film's release. Some papers were erroneously still listing Lugosi as the performer. Some were coming to see if Lugosi had changed his mind and recanted about starring in the film, despite some published statements to the contrary, most notably the still-famous "electric beam eyes" poster, which still credited Lugosi as the monster and showed the creature without the now-famous flat head, neck-bolt makeup (created by Universal Studios make-up artist Jack Pierce. Pierce also created Lon Chaney's Wolf Man make-up and Karloff's Mummy make-up as well). Others state it was because the film would cause the ruin of the performer in the role and wanted to minimize said actor's liability, for the original film went against the censor boards of the day.

Bela Lugosi was originally set to star as the monster. After several disastrous make-up tests, the Dracula star left the project. Although this is often regarded as one of the worst decisions of Lugosi's career, in actuality, the part that Lugosi was offered was not the same character that Karloff eventually played. The character in the Florey script was simply a killing machine without a touch of human interest or pathos, reportedly causing Lugosi to complain, "I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!" However, the decision may not have been Lugosi's in any case, since recent evidence suggests that he was kicked off the project, along with director Robert Florey. Ironically, Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline and only after Lon Chaney, Jr. complained bitterly about the possibility of him doing double work through trick photography to appear as both the Wolfman and the Monster in the film for about the same pay rate. Chaney had already appeared as the Monster in the previous Frankenstein film Ghost of Frankenstein, directly succeeding Boris Karloff in the role.
The 1931 "Lugosi as Frankenstein's Monster" promo poster, without the now famous flat head makeup

As was the custom at the time, only the main cast and crew were listed in the credits. Additionally, however, a number of other actors who worked on the project were or became familiar to fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the B├╝rgermeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria's father.

Jack Pierce was the makeup artist who designed the now-iconic "flat head" look for Karloff's monster, although Whale's contribution in the form of sketches remains a controversy, and who was actually responsible for the idea of the look will probably always be a mystery.

Kenneth Strickfaden designed the electrical effects used in the "creation scene." So successful were they that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as "Strickfadens." It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the then-aged Nikola Tesla himself. According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff in the electrical "birth" scene, as Karloff was deathly afraid of being electrocuted from the live voltage on the stage.

There is no musical soundtrack in the film, except for the opening and closing credits.

The film opened in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on December 4, 1931, and grossed $53,000 in one week.

The scene in which the monster throws the little girl into the lake and accidentally drowns her has long been controversial. Upon its original 1931 release, the second part of this scene was cut by state censorship boards in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York. Those states also objected to a line they considered blasphemous, one that occurred during Frankenstein's exuberance when he first learns that his creature is alive. The original line was: "It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!" Kansas requested the cutting of 32 scenes, which, if removed, would have halved the length of the film. Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee sent censor representative Joseph Breen to urge them to reconsider. Eventually, an edited version was released in Kansas.

As with many Pre-Code films that were reissued after strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Universal made cuts from the master negative.

* Frankenstein's line, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!", was obliterated by a clap of thunder on the soundtrack.
* Some footage of Frankenstein's assistant Fritz taking sadistic glee in scaring the monster by waving a lit torch near him while the monster is shackled in chains.
* Close up of needle injection was removed.
* In the scene of the monster and the little girl tossing flowers into the lake, the second part of the scene was cut, beginning at the moment he extends his hands to pick her up.

These censored scenes were not shown for decades; in 1986, MCA-Universal restored the shots of Fritz tormenting the Monster, the close up of the needle injection and Maria being thrown in the water, while the full "Now I know what it feels like to be God!" line would not be fully restored until 1999.

3 comments:

Al Penwasser said...

Really interesting article. I have to admit, though, I prefer "Young Frankenstein." They got the whole movie down and it had Marty Feldman!
Didn't the credits just say "Karloff" instead of "Boris Karloff?"
How in the word I remember that is beyond me.

zabuzar said...

i dont think i have seen this one yet
thanks for the share, going to find it soon

WOODLOUSE said...

I haven't seen it either, been meaning to read the book