Frankenstein in Hollywood

by Barry Forshaw
‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ gasps the English actor Colin Clive, working himself into a paroxysm over the twitching, scarred body of the patchwork corpse he has reanimated in Frankenstein (1931). It’s a seismic moment in several senses, freezing the derisory laugher it might prompt in an age of more subtle performances.

An analysis of the English influence on the first important wave of adaptations of Gothic literature in Hollywood in the 1930s is obliged to concentrate on the achievements of the massively influential James Whale, director of the seminal Frankenstein and several key movies of the genre (sometime informed by his irreverent gay sensibility). Later British-made adaptations (e.g. from the Hammer studios) were both reactions to and departures from the earlier films, with certain elements (including copious bloodletting) moved from the periphery to centre stage, but Whale (and his cadre of the British talent) set the gold standard.

Even before the completion of the immensely successful Dracula, Universal Studios had considered filming Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the talented director Robert Florey (later to make the deliriously inventive Beast with Five Fingers) was in the frame – long lost screen tests had even been made with Lugosi as the monster in make-up which apparently owed something to the Paul Wegener version of The Golem). But the Florey/Lugosi Frankenstein was not to be – an impeccable Englishman of iconoclastic manner named James Whale stepped into the frame and created (pace Browning’s Dracula) the first great universal Gothic film with this extremely free adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Whale had made his mark with two much-acclaimed films, a 1930 adaptation of RC Sherriff’s anti-war play Journey’s End (which he had directed in 1929 both in London’s West End and New York) and the more workaday Waterloo Bridge (1931, which, significantly, starred Mae Clarke as a prostitute — the director was subsequently to cast her as Frankenstein’s endangered fiancée in his Shelley adaptation).

Whale came to America as one of the many European talents that early US cinema was beginning to assiduously collect (and domesticate); his sophisticated manner (and homosexuality) were regarded as aspects of the ‘otherness’ which distinguished these ‘exotic’ foreign talents from US directors. What was not immediately apparent was his pitch-black sense of comedy. To modern audiences, the opening scenes of Frankenstein (with its outré components: grave-robbing, a grotesquely scarred hunchback, the driven, shibboleth-defying Frankenstein hiding behind headstones) are now clearly infused with a delicious gallows humour (literally so, when the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz played by Dwight Frye, cuts down a body from a gibbet). And there is the lovely moment when the dishevelled Fritz carefully adjusts his sock before scuttling up a staircase). None of this wry underlay provided by Whale would have been immediately apparent to the film’s original audiences, who would have focused on the macabre atmosphere, and who would never have seen such scenes so redolent with horror before. This judicious balance of irony and dread was new in this nascent genre, demonstrating how Whale was ahead of his time.

The British expats in Hollywood often favoured each other’s company, so it was hardly surprising that Whale employed the actor Colin Clive (with whom he had made Journey’s End) for his Frankenstein (now renamed ‘Henry’; Shelley’s ‘Victor’ is assigned to another character), Clive’s performance, viewed today, has a curious duality, with some remarkably contemporary underplaying alternating with scenery-chewing excess. But as an organic part of Whale’s idiosyncratic conception, Clive cannot be faulted. The film’s definitive coup, however, though was James Whales’ hiring of an English actor (of Anglo-Indian antecedents), the prosaically-named William Henry Pratt, who was to be granted the memorable stage name Boris Karloff. As with Christopher Lee’s later assumption of the role for the Hammer studios, this judicious piece of casting is one of the film’s several master strokes, furnishing a mimed, virtually silent performance which is one of the cinema’s great assumptions of a monstrous outsider (finessed, of course, by Jack Pierce’s brilliantly utilitarian make-up which allowed the actor to retain and use much of his own facial expressivity).

Those looking for a faithful channelling of Mary Shelley’s literary original would be disappointed; once again (as with Browning’s Dracula), a variety of stage adaptations as much as the original novel had been utilised for the film version, jettisoning Shelley’s arctic finale. The device of the theft of a supposedly ‘abnormal’ criminal brain (clearly — and rather ludicrously — labelled to that effect), as opposed to the carelessly dropped ‘normal’ brain which was to be placed in the monster’s cranium, suggests that a more quotidian rather than poetic approach was taken in adapting Shelley’s narrative.

One might read another significant change from the novel as evidence of early 1930s dumbing-down: the creature’s loquaciousness is reduced to a series of inarticulate grunts and cries – but in the context of Whale’s schema, this is greatly to the benefit of the presentation of Frankenstein’s creation as something of an enfant sauvage, a badly served innocent whose violent actions are the result of taunting (the hunchback Fritz’s sadistic wielding of a flaming torch) or tragic misunderstanding of games (the monster’s inadvertent killing of a little girl by tossing her into the river like the flowers she had been throwing). Of course this interpretation is muddied by the fact that we now know the monster has a ‘criminal’ brain – but little in the creature’s behaviour suggests these actions of the results of criminality.

The death of the little girl famously resulted in a particularly egregious piece of censorship – the removal of the latter half of the scene after the monster reaches down towards her (followed by a shot of her father carrying her soaked body with one stocking askew) encouraged audiences to infer more sinister behaviour by the monster than this elision now suggested). The first appearance of the monster (in the series of jump cuts echoed years later by Alfred Hitchcock in a similarly shocking view of a gruesome face in The Birds) still carries a remarkable charge today, and marks out the fearful territory in which we are to regard the monster, however much sympathy we are invited to extend towards him later.

He is, of course, the outsider– as both Whale’s Britishness and homosexuality made him in Hollywood (although both of these things were hardly novel in the circles in which she moved). The youthful Frankenstein’s portrayal as an outsider with his taste for the forbidden (articulated in one of his more subtle moments by Colin Clive) is readable also as a metaphor for the director’s wry perception of his own status. (Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters constructs a plausible picture of Whale’s later life in Hollywood, aided by a nuanced performance by Ian McKellen as the director). And any reading of the monster (as played by Karloff) as a classic outsider to whom the director has extended sympathy is consolidated by the readings of virtually other every other actor (with the honourable exception of Christopher Lee) who has essayed the monster, with performances in which the physical mutilation and capacity for murderous violence are foregrounded at the expense of the alienated loneliness.

More than Browning’s Dracula, the prodigious success of Whale’s film virtually forged the horror film industry and spawned multiple progeny, mostly at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns — with the splendid exception of this film’s immediate sequel. It also popularised a certain (somewhat reduced) quotidian perception of Gothic motifs in the public mind, motifs which were almost parodically treated by Whale even before they had established themselves in any iconographic sense. But viewed in the 21st-century, the concatenation of elements that make Frankenstein work so well are still easy to discern: the aforementioned stressing the creature’s outsider status; the utterly persuasive mime utilised by Karloff to characterise his tragic misfit and (above all else) James Whale’s intoxicated, endlessly inventive utilisation of the newish medium of sound cinema. The film function as both as a blackly comic horror fable and as a serious study of misguided human striving. What’s more, the defining, status-quo  cliché of so many horror and science fiction films: the rosary-clutching suggestion that man should not trespass onto the territory of God — is given little force by the director, a man perfectly prepared to defy the deity.

The success of the film consolidated James Whale’s position as one of Universal Studio’s most bankable directors — and their ace practitioner of the horror film (a position he was further to consolidate with what many considered to be his best work, the sequel to Frankenstein — which would place on screen for the first time the novel’s diminutive female creator.
After Frankenstein, the other James Whale films which creatively utilised Gothic elements are an atmospherically eccentric adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s now-unread novel Benighted, as The Old Dark House (1932); a darkly comic, very English take on HG Wells’s The Invisible Man (1933); and what many considered to be Whale’s chef d’ouevre, the delirious The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). All of the Catherine wheels and Roman candles in the director’s box of fireworks are gleefully detonated here: his luxuriating in the theatrical, his taste for unorthodox close-ups, staggered camera angles and (for the time) ambitious tracking shots.

All of these, along with his very British sense of irony, informed The Bride, as did Whale’s background as a graphic artist and newspaper cartoonist (a characteristic the director shared with another, later filmmaker of similar exuberance, Federico Fellini). The film is further enhanced (unlike the virtually music-free Dracula and Frankenstein) by a fully realised orchestral score from another talented expat, Franz Waxman, adding a nigh-operatic dimension to Whale’s already grandiose conceptions.

Barry Forshaw
Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film. His books include Nordic Noir, British Crime Film and Death in a Cold Climate. Other work: Euro Noir, the HRF Keating Award-winning British Crime Writing, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and Italian Cinema. He writes for various newspapers and edits Crime Time. This post is an extract from British Gothic Cinema which is out now.