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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2011
Novels for Students
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 37. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Plot summary
Pages: 19
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, introduced the world to the iconic figure of the Frankenstein monster. The green-faced creature with bolts in his neck, wearing a jacket and stumbling away from torch-bearing peasants, has little in common with the creature depicted in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, but he has superseded her creation in the popular imagination. Each year at Halloween, variations on Universal Studio's version of the creature show up. Fierce or cuddly, deadly or pathetic, they all draw on the emotional range of Boris Karloff's brilliant, speechless performance.

One reason the film version of the Frankenstein story is so different from Shelley's novel is that it was made in a mass media age, for audiences with little sense of the theological principles that Shelley was exploring. Though it bears the same title, the Universal Studio version of Frankenstein is not actually based on Shelley's novel. In the more than one hundred years that passed between the two, there were countless stage adaptations of the novel, each adding a few twists to the story. The film's script, by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, actually credits a 1927 British play by Peggy Webling, a version that included elements that had been added over time.

This movie and Dracula, released earlier the same year, established Universal as the premier studio for monster movies and began a franchise, with the sequels Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Page 153  |  Top of ArticleFrankenstein, House of Frankenstein and others. It also opened the door for other popular films featuring the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film also made Karloff a household name; his portrayal of the monster established new standards for acting in the genre.

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Before the opening credits, the film shows a narrator, who steps out from behind a curtain on a stage, simulating the experience that audiences would have had if they were seeing a live performance in a theater. This narrator is Edward Van Sloan, who will play Dr. Waldman in the film, though here he is out of costume and out of character. He warns audiences of the upsetting and graphic nature of the story they are about to see and urges those who are squeamish to consider leaving the theater.

Before the Monster

The action of the story opens with the funeral of an unnamed character. The mourners who gather around the grave do not see that they are being observed by Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his assistant, the disfigured hunchback Fritz. When the ceremony is over, the caretaker covers the grave with soil and leaves. Frankenstein and Fritz come out and dig the casket up. “He's just resting,” Frankenstein says, with a gleam in his eye, “waiting for a new life to come.” They put the casket on a cart and ride off.

They stop at a gallows, where the body of a hanged man still dangles on its noose, and Dr. Frankenstein sends Fritz up to cut the body down. When he is able to examine it, Frankenstein determines that the neck has been broken, rendering the brain no good for his experiment.

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  • Like many films from the early sound era, Frankenstein does not have an alternate track for music while the characters are talking. Music plays over the opening and closing credits, but during the course of the film, the only music that can be heard is music that occurs within story, such as the dance music at the wedding feast. Sound that can be heard by the characters in a film is referred to as diegetic sound; sound that is heard only by audiences, such as soundtrack music, is called nondiegetic sound.
  • The interiors of Frankenstein are shot using low-key lighting, and several outdoor scenes occur at night, establishing a sense of gloom and mystery. Whale uses the general dimness to include hot points in the film by putting particular bright spots inthe frame. The most notable instances of this are the torch Fritz waves at the monster and the ones that the villagers carry, and the kinetic sparking machines in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, as well as the bright flashes of lightning that spontaneously illuminate the school lecture hall and the laboratory. Whale draws attention to the variations in the film's lighting by having Dr. Frankenstein turn off an electric light just before the monster enters for the first time.
  • A panning shot is one in which the camera moves smoothly across the scene in one direction. The very first shot of the film is a left-to-right pan at the graveside, showing viewers the mourners, the clergy, and the statue of the Grim Reaper standing behind them before settling on Fritz, whose face is then moved (vertically, not horizontally, as the camera has moved) to reveal the face of Henry Frankenstein. Another notable use of the pan is when Elizabeth, Victor, and Dr. Waldman are at the door of the tower, and Frankenstein shouts down to them. The camera pans very slowly up the tower wall, emphasizing Frankenstein's isolation from his friends.
  • The director films several important shots through other things, forcing viewers to focus on items that are beyond whatever is in the foreground. This occurs early, in the graveyard scene, as Fritz and Frankenstein are seen watching through a fence. Later, the creature is seen through the trees as he approaches Little Maria's house and stumbles through the branches to escape after inadvertently harming her. At the film's climax, Whale shows Frankenstein and his creation glaring at one another through the rotating spokes of the mill, highlighting the fear and anger that separate them.
  • Most of this film is shot with medium or far shots, showing at least the torso, if not the entire body, of one or more characters. When the monster first appears on screen, however, the film uses a series of close-ups to maximize the shock value of his face. This is a significant moment that is teasingly extended by having his arrival announced by footsteps and having him enter the room backwards. When the monster's face is finally revealed, Whale shows it, then moves in for a tighter close-up, and again for an even tighter close-up.

An establishing shot shows the outside of Goldstadt Medical College, where Dr. Waldman is showing a class the different physical characteristics of a normal and an abnormal brain. After the class leaves, Fritz steals in through a window. He takes the normal brain, but a loud sound frightens him and he drops it on the floor. He grabs the brain marked “abnormal” and leaves.

At the home of Dr. Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth, Victor Moritz enters. Elizabeth has just received her first letter from Frankenstein in four months and is worried about him. Victor says he ran into Frankenstein in the woods a few weeks earlier. They decide to go to talk to Professor Waldman, Frankenstein's old mentor. At his office, Waldman explains that Frankenstein Page 155  |  Top of Articleleft the university, unhappy that the school could not provide him with the materials he needed for his experiments: human bodies.

At the old watchtower that Frankenstein has turned into his laboratory, it is a rainy night. Frankenstein calls to Fritz, who is up on the roof preparing for the coming experiment, to come down. Fritz is nervous and jumps when a hand drops out from under the sheet on the operating gurney. Frankenstein pulls back the sheet to uncover a human form, with its face still bandaged. Their work is interrupted by a loud knocking at the door. Frankenstein sends Fritz to answer it, and the hunchback, walking with a short cane, takes a long time descending the tower stairs.

At the door are Elizabeth, Victor, and Dr. Waldman. Frankenstein comes to the door to implore them to leave, but when Victor accuses him of being insane, he invites them in to watch the experiment in progress. He seats them in the corner of his laboratory and explains his previous successes in reviving dead animals.

The gurney is raised through the hole in the roof during a fierce lightning storm, until lightning strikes a rod beside it. When it is lowered, they watch, fearing that the experiment is a failure, until Frankenstein notices that the body's hand is moving on its own. “He's alive!” Frankenstein shouts with joy, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” Though this last line captures the philosophical issue at the heart of Mary Shelley's novel, it was removed in 1937 by censors, who considered it too blasphemous. However, it was restored for the DVD release of 1986.

The next scene takes place days later, in the den of Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father. The town burgomaster (a public official similar to a mayor) enters and asks whether Frankenstein and Elizabeth are to be married. The people of the village are already making preparations for the wedding, he explains. Baron Frankenstein leaves to bring his son home from the watchtower laboratory.

In the laboratory, Frankenstein talks with Dr. Waldman about his accomplishment. He gloats about people's opinion that he is insane, but he is visibly shaken when Waldman tells him that the brain stolen from the school was a criminal brain. They hear the creature's heavy footsteps in the hall, and Frankenstein hastens to turn down the lights, explaining that the creature is like a newborn and that his eyes have not learned to focus yet.

The monster enters the room walking backwards. At thirty-one minutes into the film, he turns around, unveiling to audiences for the first time the face that has become iconic in motion picture history.

The Monster's Progress

In the laboratory with Dr. Waldman, the monster obeys Frankenstein's simple commands, backing up and sitting in a chair as told. When the skylight is opened, he withdraws, but then he reaches out like a child, trying to touch the light.

Fritz enters with a blazing torch, and the monster screams and draws back. As he swats at the fire, Fritz whips him, driving him back to his cell. Fritz continues to wave the torch at the monster while Frankenstein, depressed that he might never be able to train the creature to behave, leaves.

Soon, Frankenstein and Waldman, in the laboratory, hear a blood-curdling scream. They race to the cell and find that the monster has killed Fritz. The two doctors struggle to close the cell door before the monster can push his way out. Waldman explains that the monster must be destroyed. They go to the monster with a sedative prepared, but in the struggle to drug him, he gets his hands on Frankenstein's neck and partially strangles him.

Victor arrives with Elizabeth and Baron Frankenstein. Frankenstein meets them in his study, trying to act as if nothing is wrong, but he soon collapses. Dr. Waldman suggests that Baron Frankenstein take his son home to rest. He tells Dr. Frankenstein that he will destroy the creature but will keep the notes about his experiment.

Waldman has the monster strapped to a gurney and is holding a scalpel, prepared to dismember him, when the monster's hand comes up behind him and strangles him. The creature stumbles down the tower stairs and out the door.

At his father's estate, Frankenstein recuperates from his encounter with the monster, a scene that echoes a similar period of calm in Shelley's novel after the monster is thought to have left. Preparations are made for the upcoming wedding. The Baron gives wine to the servants for the celebration, and he talks about providing beer for the entire village. The film cuts to the village, showing dancing in the streets.

Outside of town, a little girl, Little Maria, plays with flowers beside a lake. She is not frightened when the monster approaches, and she asks Page 156  |  Top of Articleif he would like to play with her. She is throwing flower-heads into the lake to make them float like boats. The monster is amused by this, but he is also frustrated. Maria runs out of flowers. Looking for something else to float on the water, the monster, smiling, picks the girl up and throws her in. He then runs off into the woods, frightened at what he has done.

Elizabeth, in her bridal dress, explains to Frankenstein that she has experienced a frightening, ominous dream. Victor enters to explain that Waldman is missing and the monster has been sighted at large, so Frankenstein leaves with him, locking Elizabeth in. Soon they hear a clatter in the room, and the servants run to the locked door. The monster, in the room, approaches Elizabeth, and she faints. (In the novel, he murders her.)

Ludwig, Little Maria's father, carries the child's wet and lifeless body through the streets. The music falls silent and the dancing stops as people notice him. He takes her corpse to the burgomaster, who vows that justice will be done.

The villagers, armed with torches, clubs, and farm implements, gather to hunt the monster. They are divided into three groups, to be led by the burgomaster, Ludwig, and Frankenstein. As they search, the monster is seen briefly. Soon, they find a man whom he has mauled. Frankenstein separates from his group and soon finds himself face-to-face with the monster.

The villagers see the monster carrying Frankenstein and pursue him. He goes into a windmill and climbs to the top. Frankenstein escapes his grasp, but the monster chases him outside, onto a balcony, and throws him off. The villagers use their torches to light the wooden windmill on fire. As the flames rise, the monster shrieks in terror. A beam falls from the roof, pinning him in the fire.

The Ending

A group of maids is gathered outside of the bedroom of Henry Frankenstein, giggling. They bring him a glass of the wine that was saved for his wedding. Baron Frankenstein tells them, though, that his son is not well enough. He drinks the wine himself, toasting the potential for a son in the house of Frankenstein, as he pushes the maids back, away from the door, to give Frankenstein and Elizabeth their privacy.


The Burgomaster

The burgomaster is a local politician. He is portrayed by Lionel Belmore as a stereotypical civil servant, groveling before the powerful Frankenstein family and trying to gain their favor by bringing a bouquet of flowers for Elizabeth when he visits, cheerfully accepting the baron's verbal abuse. Later in the film, he organizes the posse to search for the monster.


Shelley's novel offers its readers a much more detailed explanation of Elizabeth Lavenza's background: how she was taken into the Frankenstein home when her mother, the sister of Baron Frankenstein, died, and was raised with her cousin (who is named Victor in the novel, rather than Henry) with the expectation that they would eventually be married. The Elizabeth of the film, played by Mae Clark, is presented as a generic love interest. She worries about Frankenstein, but she also leaves him for months so as not to impede his research. She does not talk about his work at all, leaving the moral and philosophical arguments to others.

Elizabeth becomes important to the film's plot as the time for her marriage to Henry Frankenstein draws closer. As in the book, the wedding day is ruined by the monster. In the novel, however, the monster is intelligent and angry, and it has the ability to speak. It threatens well in advance to disrupt the wedding day, and when Frankenstein marries Elizabeth, it kills her. In the film, the monster sneaks into a room where Elizabeth is preparing for her wedding, leaving after it causes her to faint. The wedding never actually takes place in the film, but the prospect of the wedding lets the story end on a hopeful note.

Baron Frankenstein

Henry Frankenstein's father, played by Frederick Kerr, is a gruff old man, one of the most socially prominent people in his community. He is presented as a somewhat foolish character in the film, wearing a fez and a bow tie and smoking a ridiculously long pipe.

Baron Frankenstein shows little interest in his son's experiments, and unlike his counterpart in Shelley's novel, he has no understanding of the work that Frankenstein is doing. He objects because his son has locked himself away, and he Page 157  |  Top of Articleis happy when the wedding to Elizabeth is planned, welcoming the young woman to his family with a wreath of flowers that has been in the Frankenstein family for three generations. To celebrate the upcoming wedding, the baron provides enough beer for the entire town, and the town celebrates. The baron has no comment on the rampaging monster that his son has unleashed. His concerns are relieved when, after the monster has been destroyed, he finds out that the wedding is still on.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein

Frankenstein is played by Colin Clive, whose work had been mostly in theater up to the time of this film. In the film, as in the novel, Frankenstein is a man who is obsessed with the idea of his own scientific abilities. Shelley's novel devotes much more space to establishing Frankenstein's intellectual background and the upbringing that led him to seek out ways to create life in the laboratory. The Dr. Frankenstein of the film, by contrast, is already deep within his experiments when viewers get to know him. His course of action is already determined. In the novel, the doctor's first name is Victor, the name that the film assigns to his best friend.

Viewers might think that Frankenstein is insane when they first view him, side by side with his deranged assistant Fritz, watching a funeral from their hiding place. His enthusiasm about robbing the grave of the recently deceased is notable. Throughout the assembling and animation of his creature, Frankenstein appears to allow his obsession to take control of his rational mind, ignoring his father and the woman he loves. Dr. Waldman's discussion with Elizabeth about why Henry left his position at the college supports this impression of him. The design of his laboratory, mixing bubbling chemical solutions with loud, open electrical currents, highlights the strangeness of his quest.

After first establishing him as a mad scientist, the film goes on to acknowledge some of the thoughtfulness of Shelley's protagonist. In his dialogue with Dr. Waldman after the monster has been reanimated, he calmly explains his success. He makes light of Waldman's fears, feeling that he has contributed to humanity, though his calmness is quickly shaken when he hears about the abnormal brain that Fritz has stolen from the college.

Once Dr. Waldman has agreed to destroy the monster for him, the function of Frankenstein as a character changes. He becomes the film's romantic lead as he focuses on his upcoming wedding to Elizabeth. He becomes a heroic figure, leading the search for the monster, striking out by himself when the rest of his search party is lost. Although the Victor Frankenstein of the novel ends up racked with guilt as the monster strikes out against members of his family, the Henry Frankenstein of the film does not carry his guilt for the monster's actions so heavily. The film's happy ending implies that viewers should be glad that he has survived the monster's attack and that he will soon be married.


The character of Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, was added for the film. He gives Dr. Frankenstein someone to talk to while preparing the monster, and he provides an antagonist for the monster when the creature is new and innocent. Dwight Frye, the actor who portrays him, has Fritz so stooped under his misshapen back that he walks with a short cane. His deformity gives some insight into why he would torture the creature with a flaming torch: he has found someone less powerful than himself for once. It is a foolish move, however, and the creature easily kills him. In subsequent Frankenstein movies, and in horror movies in general, the physically deformed laboratory assistant has become a standard cliché.

Little Maria

Little Maria, played by Marilyn Harris, represents childhood innocence. She is the first person in the film to not be terrified, or even disturbed, by the monster's features.

Her first scene with her father establishes that Maria is lonely, as the monster is. Her father leaves her alone at their cabin while he goes to town for one of the free drinks that the Frankenstein family is providing to everyone to celebrate the upcoming wedding. Before he goes, she asks him to stay with her; in response, he kisses her and tells her that she has her cat to play with. When the monster arrives, she does not hesitate to take him by the hand and invite him to join her in playing. Just before she hits the water, she shouts that he is hurting her, but he does not understand until too late.

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Ludwig, Little Maria's father, is not listed in the film's credits. He leaves her alone at their cabin while he goes to town for the wedding celebration. The film does not show him coming home to find his daughter drowned in the lake, but the long sequence of Ludwig carrying his dead daughter through the festivities in the streets with a haunted look on his face provides one of the film's most horrifying scenes.

The Monster

Boris Karloff became an international star with his nuanced portrayal of the Frankenstein monster. It is a character who has no lines and does not appear until the film is nearly half over. The Universal publicity department intensified the campaign to raise public curiosity about the monster by leaving Karloff's name out of the film's opening credits, putting just a question mark next to “The Monster.”

Karloff's performance gives viewers a look at a creature who was born fully grown. He matures before the audience's eyes. At first, he is like a baby, reaching up as if he thinks he can touch the sunlight. He obeys Frankenstein's commands without objection, but Fritz's taunting angers and confuses him, and he strikes out against it. In his scene with Little Maria, viewers can see that he has a gentle side: he is moved by flowers and a child's innocence, and tries to play with her, but his underdeveloped mind, just weeks old, is unable to comprehend the danger of throwing her into the water. After he has drowned her, he panics, realizing that he has done something wrong. In the scene at the windmill, however, he looks at Frankenstein with true anger, conveying the bitterness he feels about his tortured life. In the end, he is still terrified by fire, and his screams as the windmill burns show his vulnerability.

By contrast, the monster in Mary Shelley's novel quickly grows into a rational adult when he is away from the narrative. He explains at great length, with complex language, how he learned language and human customs by observing a family from hiding for untold months. Shelley's monster is motivated by anger at the man who made him and who dooms him to loneliness by refusing to make a mate, but Karloff's creature is an innocent, frightened being who never understands why the world is hunting him.

Victor Moritz

Victor Moritz is Henry Frankenstein's best friend, played in the film by John Boles. He is loosely based on the character of Henry Clerval, who is Frankenstein's childhood friend in the novel. In Shelley's version, Clerval is murdered by the monster while traveling with Frankenstein, but Whale's film has Victor on hand to facilitate discussions about Frankenstein's behavior with Elizabeth and the baron. The film also adds a touch of romantic intrigue when, early on in the film, Victor admits that he is in love with Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth, making her uncomfortable. The romantic triangle that has been hinted at is never brought up again, but the connection helps explain why Victor is around the family while his friend is secluded in his laboratory for months at a time.


An unnamed narrator, played by the same actor who plays Dr. Waldman, briefly introduces the movie, warning audiences about its graphic nature.

Doctor Waldman

Dr. Waldman, played by Edward Van Sloan, is a professor at Goldstadt Medical College, which Henry Frankenstein was associated with earlier, before the film's beginning. Like a character of the same name in the novel, he is Frankenstein's mentor at the college. In the film, he provides a scientific and philosophical connection, someone to whom Frankenstein can talk about the morality of creating life, although their discussions barely touch on the depth that Shelley covers in her novel. After stopping the monster when it attacks Frankenstein, Dr. Waldman offers to destroy the creature while its creator recuperates. He is killed because he is distracted by taking scientific notes about the process of destruction instead of paying attention to the creature on the table in front of him.


Existence of God

The subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus,” a reference to the character from classical mythology who stole fire from the god Zeus and gave it to humanity. The implication is that one person could unlock secrets previously unattainable Page 159  |  Top of Articleby humans and make them accessible. This idea is echoed in Whale's film when Dr. Frankenstein exclaims, upon reanimating dead tissue, that he now knows what it feels like to be God. He feels that he has a power that, until then, only God had.

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  • Read Elizabeth Young's Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor, published by New York University Press in 2008. In it, Young explains how the Frankenstein myth applies to racial divides in modern America. Choose another racial or ethnic group in the United States and write your own explanation explaining how aspects of the Frankenstein story might apply to that group.
  • Write a scene in which the childlike monster of the movie is able to talk, explaining his actions. Be sure to explain how his perspective differs from that of the monster in Mary Shelley's novel. Then, watch Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935 sequel to this film, and in an essay, compare how your talking monster differs from the one conceived by the filmmakers.
  • Popular writer Dean Koontz has updated the Frankenstein story in a series of books (Prodigal Son, City of Nights, and Dead and Alive). Read one book from the Koontz series and create a digital or traditional storyboard for adapting one of the scenes to film, doing it in the way that you think Whale and his cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, would have done it if they were adapting Koontz instead of Shelley in the 1930s.
  • This film has no soundtrack. In groups of two or more, compose or choose existing music that you find appropriate for two scenes, one with action and one with quieter discussion. Synchronize your music to the film using a digital video editing program, taking care to emphasize specific gestures with specific musical cues. Play it for your class and then give a brief explanation of why you made the artistic choices you made.
  • At the time of its release, the face given to the monster in this film was considered a shocking portrayal of dead tissue brought to life, but hundreds of interpretations of Boris Karloff's makeup have rendered this version benign or even friendly at times. Draw or sculpt a version of the monster that would be considered horrifying in modern times. Keep a written or digital journal (including sketches or photographs) of your thought process and the revisions that you make as your work progresses, and present your journal to your class along with your work.
  • Frankenstein is sometimes looked at as a metaphor for teen angst, since the monster rebels against its creator, symbolizing its parent. Write a comparison between the family dynamic portrayed in this film and the family portrayed in your favorite movie drama about a difficult family situation, explaining what the characters in each film have in common.
  • Read Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel, adapted in 2008 by Classical Comics for the Classic Graphic Novel collection. Suitable for young adults, it includes a glossary, a table of contents, a biography of Shelley, and the novel's origin and history, among other helpful features. It received a starred review from Library Journal. Write a review of the graphic novel that compares it with the film. Post it to your blog and invite your classmates and teacher to comment.

In the novel, Frankenstein's monster functions as a guilty conscience, stealthily showing up after months of lying low, hundreds of miles from where he was last seen. The film also punishes Frankenstein for his blasphemous presumption, but it does so in a quicker, though Page 160  |  Top of Articleless gruesome, manner. Colin Clive plays Frankenstein as a man who is racked with guilt from the moment that he first realizes that his monster is dangerous. Elizabeth is not murdered by the monster in the film, but she is threatened. The last half of the film, after the monster comes alive, presents the process of Frankenstein realizing how little like God he is: although he managed to reanimate dead tissue, he has no control of his creation, and he struggles to undo the mistake he has made.


One of the most memorable scenes in this film is when Fritz, the assistant, is sent to the medical school to retrieve a brain for the monster and, after dropping the normal brain, ends up bringing Dr. Frankenstein a brain marked “abnormal,” which Dr. Waldman earlier described to his students as being that of a murderer. Waldman's later revelation about the brain horrifies Frankenstein, as he instantly understands that the creature's violence is not something that it will grow out of, that it is predestined to live out the behavior of a sociopath. Several of the film's sequels, including The Ghost of Frankenstein and the horror comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein dealt with plans to replace the monster's abnormal brain with another one.

Although this plot twist establishes that the creature is destined to be violent, the plot of the film itself is not so clear about the subject. The creature kills three people in the film. The first two, Fritz and Dr. Waldman, are threatening him when he kills them, so his assault on them can be viewed as self-defense. Throwing Little Maria into the pond could be viewed as the inevitable action of a criminal mind, but he does not act with anger or cunning: in fact, as he runs from the scene of the crime, he appears to be frightened at what he has done. The monster lacks the mental capacity to control the mighty body Frankenstein has given him, but his actions do not seem to be as malicious as those of a born criminal.


Working with the situation established in the first half of the film, the creature could have been presented as a person who retains the thoughts that were already firmly planted within its brain. Instead, the filmmakers decided to follow Mary Shelley's conception that the creature is someone who came into existence at the time of Frankenstein's experiment and therefore had to learn about life anew. While Shelley had this learning process occur out of the narrative range, only to have the creature tell Frankenstein all about it later, Whale presented the creature's learning process from its beginning.

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When he is first introduced to audiences, the creature is implicitly compared to an infant. He walks backwards, having not yet learned how to walk; the curtains are drawn because his eyes are not yet accustomed to light. When he does see sunlight, he reaches out as a child would, unsure of the range of his power to grasp. He has a primordial terror of fire. Later, when he encounters Little Maria near her home, he is willing to sit down and play a childish game that she has made up to keep herself amused.

Later in the film, Whale implies some of the resentment that drives the creature in Shelley's novel. The creature stumbles into the study where Elizabeth waits, prepared for her wedding, though he leaves without harming her. When he encounters Frankenstein face-to-face in the woods, he has grown; earlier, he obeyed commands, but now he is angry at the man who created him. It is as if the creature has grown into a rebellious adolescent, blaming his father figure, who brought him into the world and therefore caused all of his woes.

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Grand Guignol

Critics reviewing the film at the time of its release frequently characterized it as Grand Guignol. This phrase comes from La Theatre du Grand Guignol, a theater in Paris that became famous for producing macabre, graphic stage presentations from 1897 to 1962. Its experiments with the outer boundaries of horror came to define the concept of terror for a generation of budding filmmakers.

At a time when melodrama was the most popular theatrical form, providing audiences with sweet stories about average people who triumph over adversity, the Grand Guignol made its name by focusing on the darker side of life, often with a sardonic twist of humor. Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film, provides a list of subjects that were typical of this kind of theater: “The special technical forte, the major ‘attraction’ of the Grand Guignol, was its realistic presentation of shockingly graphic mutilations, eviscerations, stabbings, beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, rapes, and other atrocious acts performed live on stage.” To modern audiences, the events depicted in Frankenstein might not seem to match the terrors presented at the Grand Guignol, but audiences of 1931 found much to be repulsed by, starting with the extremism of Boris Karloff's makeup as the creature, which highlighted the concept of a being made from pieces of corpses, stitched together. One scene, the drowning of Little Maria, was considered so gruesome that censors had it removed from the film, and it was not seen for decades.

German Expressionism

The most notable visual elements in this film—off-kilter camera angles; gloomy, misty settings; and the crowded laboratory, filled with sound and action—are techniques usually associated with German expressionism. Having become popular in German cinema in the 1920s, German expressionism focused on characters who were at intellectual extremes, frequently at or near the point of insanity, surrounded by a cluttered visual world that mirrored their confusion and paranoia. Shadows were frequently worked into the visual scheme to suggest the sinister. The early European films of director Fritz Lang are often categorized as prime examples of the German expressionist style, including Metropolis (which takes place in a futuristic city, with a robot woman created to stop a workers' uprising), M (about a police hunt for a suspected child molester), and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (about an insane criminal mastermind who controls people through hypnosis). In the field of horror, F. W. Murnau's groundbreaking silent vampire film Nosferatu (1922) is considered a model of future German expressionist films.


Adaptations of the Novel

Almost immediately after Mary Shelley published the first version of her novel in 1818, people saw the story's basic appeal to popular culture and began adapting it to other media. The first stage version on record was called Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, produced at the English Opera House in London in July of 1823. The idea of a scientist dabbling in God's domain drew some protesters, but that did not stop other versions from popping up. By the end of that year, there were two other dramatic adaptations, at the Coburg and the Royalty theaters. There were also several burlesque versions of the story, comedies with titles such as Frankenstitch and Frank-n-stein, or the Modern Promise to Pay.

Numerous adaptations followed, each adhering to the basic premise of the story but changing it slightly. Fritz, the laboratory assistant, was an early addition, giving Frankenstein someone to discuss his plans with. In general, the looming, powerful presence of Frankenstein's monster proved to be a crowd-pleaser, and so authors writing new adaptations focused on his role, chiseling away at Dr. Frankenstein himself, who had been the undeniable focus of the novel. Different stagings addressed in different ways the problem of ending a play about an immortal creature; he was buried under an avalanche, trapped in a fire, or struck by a thunderbolt.

After the initial rush, stage productions continued, though not at the same pace. There was seldom any time throughout the latter half of the 1800s when some small theatrical company was not putting on its own version of Shelley's story, such as the 1887 production at the Gaiety Theater called The Model Man, which starred Nellie Farren as a female Dr. Frankenstein, whose creature was significantly more friendly than most familiar versions, laughing and dancing in a way that audiences rejected.

The most notable stage version of the twentieth century was the one written by Peggy Webling Page 162  |  Top of Articlein 1927, which Frankenstein director Whale credits as the source material for the movie. Webling was asked to write an adaptation of Frankenstein by Hamilton Deane, an actor who had earlier written a stage version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula and enjoyed theatrical success with it. Webling's play toured England for two years before making it to a London stage in 1930. After the success of Tod Browning's film Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios bought the rights to Webling's play and immediately adapted it for the Whale film, released by the end of that year.

The Universal adaptation was actually the second film version of the Frankenstein story. In 1910, a short silent version was made for Edison Studios. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the motion picture camera, is sometimes credited as a producer of this film, though historians doubt that he had any particular input into this production. The film, which compacts Shelley's story down to thirteen minutes, stars Charles Ogle as the monster and Augustus Phillips as Dr. Frankenstein. Because it was made before 1920, its copyright has expired and it is in the public domain. This movie can be legally downloaded in its entirety from the Internet.

Popular Entertainment in 1931

Motion pictures became the most prevalent form of popular entertainment in the early 1930s for several reasons. One reason was technology. Until recently, most films had been presented without sound, forcing viewers to imagine the characters' dialogue while music was played, often in synchronization with the action. Various experiments with sound (actors talking) in film took place throughout the 1920s, but film studios were hesitant to commit to any one format until the financially struggling Warner Brothers studio released The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, in 1927. The popularity of that film was so overwhelming that studios raced to upgrade their systems, knowing that audiences' tolerance for silent films was over. While audience tastes changed almost overnight after The Jazz Singer, movie theaters tried to hold off. There were two prevailing formats for synchronizing sound and film: one, called sound-on-disk, provided a soundtrack on a record disk, while the other format, sound-on-film, put the soundtrack right on the strip of film. Gradually, the sound-on-film format won out, and by 1930 most theater owners wired their theaters with speakers to accommodate the new technology.

Frankenstein Archive Photos/Getty Images

The stock market crash of October 1929, which led to the Great Depression, helped to push movies forward as a prevailing force in popular entertainment. As the unemployment crisis deepened and savings were lost, people found themselves with little money in their budgets for amusements. Films cost much to make, but they could reach massive audiences. Movie tickets rose at the end of the 1920s, as theaters were investing in sound systems, so that the average ticket price in 1929 was between thirty-five and fifty-five cents, but prices decreased during the Depression, bringing the average ticket in 1934 down to twenty-three cents. Compared with other distractions, movies were an affordable bargain. While many industries suffered throughout the Depression, film studios grew. As the competition grew, studios invested heavily in scripts, rights, and special effects, struggling for audience attention.


Since the very moment that Frankenstein was released into theaters, it has been considered a groundbreaking effort, one of the works that defined the horror genre in cinema. Its release Page 163  |  Top of Articlehad been promoted by Universal Studios for months, building on the success of the Tod Browning film Dracula, also released in 1931, and teasing audiences about what the monster would eventually look like. In Variety, a show business newspaper dedicated to watching industry trends, Alfred Rushford Greason gave unmitigated approval when the film opened in December of 1931. “Looks like a ‘Dracula’ plus,” Greason writes in the paper's signature choppy style, “touching a new peak in horror plays and handled in production with supreme craftsmanship.” Greason also notes that “subtle handling of the subject comes in the balance that has been maintained between the real and the supernatural, contrast that heightens the horror punches.” After praising the acting of Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, and John Boles, he also compliments the technical effects, noting that the “photography is splendid and the lighting is the last word in ingenuity.”

Also at the time of the film's initial release, Mordaunt Hall wrote, in the New York Times, that he observed people at the premier laughing “to cover their true feelings.” “No matter what one may say about the melodramatic ideas here, there is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” he notes, pointing out that Dracula looked “tame” beside it. His review singles out Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein for praise, though more recent critics have found Clive's performance to be almost humorous in its exaggeration.

Frankenstein was a commercial success, grossing more than twelve million dollars, much more than its 250,000 dollar budget. While Dracula had been successful in its own right, it was Frankenstein that established the standards of the look and feel of the Universal horror film, a standard that was to be copied by its own sequels and by other franchises the studio produced, from the Mummy movies of the 1930s to the Wolf Man films of the 1940s to the Creature From the Black Lagoon films of the 1950s.

As acclaimed as Frankenstein has been since its initial release, serious critics prefer its first sequel, 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. Radu Florescu captures the general consensus in his 1975 book In Search of Frankenstein when he notes that “here was a case where all the elements of filmmaking meshed together to form a nearly perfect feature,” listing the story, photography, and music as elements that showed just the right touch and crediting Whale for the fluidity of camera motion that he had acquired between the two projects. Bride of Frankenstein is frequently chosen over the original film on lists of significant movies, such as Time magazine's list of “All-Time 100 Movies.”


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In the following essay, he examines how Frankenstein's two endings serve to complete the transition between Shelley's view of the monster and the one common in popular culture.

Universal Studios' 1931 film Frankenstein uses a few of the same character names as Mary Shelley's novel and the same basic premise, that of a terrifying giant man made of dead flesh. After these and a few incidental details, though, the resemblance ends. Shelley's novel is best approached as a philosophical treatise on the dangers of crossing the line that separates humans from God. It has some narrative motion, in that the action moves around between Italy, Switzerland, and the North Pole, but it shows little sense of or interest in what makes a story gripping. The film, on the other hand, was created to entertain and to please a widely varied public. A part of the film's popular appeal was the way it pretended to show off its literary roots, drawing attention to its relationship to Shelley and the romantic movement in literature.

Because the two versions are so different, it makes little sense that they would be held up for comparison as often as they have been. Fans of Shelley's version look at James Whale's film and wonder why they should be expected to care about a mindless, grunting creature. The filmmakers were going for scares, not ideas, loading the screen with visual gimmicks such as the pointless but interesting electronic devices in the scientist's laboratory in scenes central to the film but nonexistent in the novel. Fans of the film, most of them not readers at all, much less readers of ponderous, idea-driven narratives, are likely to just plod through the novel wondering when each long sentence and paragraph will end. Those in the literary camp want to see the monster express his thoughts about his situation, while fans of the film feel that his struggle can be shown, and shown better, without words.

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  • This film spawned several sequels at Universal Studios, which eventually ran out of imagination or innovation and became mere catalogs of horror movie clichés. The first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is considered to be superior to the original and is often included on lists of the best films ever. Directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff again, it continues moments after this film ends and is closer to Shelley's novel in that the monster talks, insisting that Frankenstein create a mate for him. The DVD was released by Universal in 1999.
  • In 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed a more faithful adaptation of the original novel in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, starring Branagh as the doctor and Robert De Niro as the creature. Dark and moody, the film never scored with audiences, though critics praised De Niro's performance. It was released on DVD by Sony Pictures in 1998.
  • Mel Brooks gave Frankenstein and its sequels a comic skewering with his 1974 film Young Frankenstein. Brooks used several of the sets from Whale's original production and filmed in black and white to give the parody a look that matches its source material. It is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox in a 2006 revised edition.
  • The 1998 feature film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, presents a fictionalized account of director James Whale at the end of his life, recalling his early days in Hollywood, how being gay gave him a feeling of alienation that drew him toward sympathetic monsters in his work. It won the Academy Award for best screenplay, and McKellen was nominated for best actor. It was released on DVD by Lions Gate in 2003.
  • British studio Hammer Film Productions ushered in a new era of monster films with its 1957 release of The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would both star in a series of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy films for the studio. It was released on DVD by Warner Home Video in 2002.
  • Shrek, a 2001 production of Dreamworks Studio, is the story of a green ogre and is a fairy tale of evil and love. Suitable for younger audiences, it has, like Frankenstein, been followed by several sequels.

Each version of the Frankenstein monster has its virtues. Shelley's monster is an intellectual. He disappears from the story for a while and then shows up again, having pondered the mystery of his own existence. The conclusion he reaches is that, having been brought forth into a world he did not ask for, he will find his fulfillment only by being paired off with a mate like himself. This forces Dr. Frankenstein to consider whether he should dabble in God's realm once more. He refuses, even at great personal cost, as friends and family are murdered. The monster of the film is iconic in his own right because he taps into a primordial feeling, common to most adults. Most adults remember the childhood awkwardness of figuring out appropriate behavior while surrounded by others who, like the torch-bearing mob in the film, stand ready to punish. Just as Shelley's medium, the novel, is more abstract and cerebral than film, so too her philosophical monster is appropriately more abstract and cerebral. In the end, though, both monsters address universal truths about the human condition.

Shelley's narrative is bent on presenting its story at arm's length, so much so that the action is often discussed well after it happens, sometimes even through dispassionate letters. In contrast, the 1931 film is almost too eager to get its Page 165  |  Top of Articleaudience's emotions involved. This is seen most clearly in the ending the studio tacked on. Even audiences who respect the film's original take on the monster's dilemma—that of finding his way through a world that hates him on sight—have little choice but to throw their hands up and sigh. In the end, the film tries to wipe away the terror it has worked so hard to establish.


Whale's film actually has two endings. The story has a natural conclusion, but that is followed by a stereotypical Hollywood ending that has little to do with the story. The first ending gives viewers the satisfaction of seeing where the film's events would almost inevitably lead. Dr. Frankenstein, who has tried to ignore the monster, leads the hunt for it after the creature has frightened his fiancée and then left when she fainted (a pale shadow of the doctor's pursuit of the monster across the frozen Arctic sea after the creature murders Elizabeth in the novel). In the film, the two meet. The monster overpowers his creator and, hearing the approach of the mob, carries Frankenstein off to an empty windmill. The windmill makes no particular narrative sense, but with its spinning blades and whirring gears, it provides a great visual setting. The monster taking the scientist with him does not make much sense, either—what does he want from him?—but Whale takes great care to show that the monster does have emotions toward Frankenstein when they meet.

Inside the windmill, the doctor tries to escape. The monster obliges, throwing him from the balcony, and his limp body is jackknifed across the windmill's slow-turning blade before falling to the ground. Once the creature has committed the Freudian act of destroying his creator, the villagers step forward and burn the windmill, surrounding Frankenstein's monster with the thing that has terrified him most throughout his short life: fire.

At this point, the story is complete. Frankenstein has been punished for desecrating corpses and tampering with the line that God has drawn between life and death. The creature is punished for the lives he has taken and for being made with a “criminal brain,” akin to being born with original sin on one's soul. Overall, it is a satisfactory ending, much more satisfactory than that of Shelley's novel, which leaves the creature floating off into the Arctic darkness, more a state of mind than a reality.

But this is not really the film's ending. It goes on. Frankenstein has survived the fall. He is taken home to recuperate in the hands of Elizabeth, who has forgiven all. The atmosphere there is festive. Five giggling, pretty maids bring him wine, but they are stopped outside his bedroom by his father, Baron Frankenstein, whose cantankerousness has already provided the film with comic relief. The camera shows Baron Frankenstein and the maids in the foreground, Frankenstein and Elizabeth far behind, clearly played by different actors. Baron Frankenstein jokes about the family wedding custom and toasts the grandson he hopes for. Soon, the whole unpleasant “life from dead tissue” incident will be but a memory for these people.

This ending is a terrible fit to the movie, but it fulfills several functions for the studio. For one thing, it opens the door for a sequel, which eventually came about four years later, with even more aspects of Shelley's novel (such as a talking monster who insists on a mate) woven into it. Mainly, though, it sent audiences out of the theater happy, not concentrating on matters of punishment or death.

Though it serves no narrative purpose, ending the movie with neither Frankenstein nor the creature in the scene is what has given the film its identity. It begins with another scene added in post-production, with actor Edward van Sloan stepping out from behind a curtain and pretentiously giving the audience a warning on the behalf of the producer, “Mr. Carl Laemmle,” as if showing this film is dangerous but unavoidable, a social responsibility. Tacking on an ending that has no stars and has little to do with the plot—an ending that is clearly there to lighten the mood and make this film more commercially attractive—has the opposite effect. It sends the Page 166  |  Top of Articlemessage that nothing serious has gone on, that it can all be waved away at the studio's command.

Frankenstein Getty Images

This ending finalizes the transformation of the Frankenstein story, taking it out of Mary Shelley's hands for good. It is an important step between Shelley's ponderous meditation and the lighthearted cardboard cutouts of the creature that stores tape to their doors each Halloween. Without the second ending, Frankenstein might have been a good horror film, but with it, the film makes a statement that Mary Shelley never touched on: the statement that horror movies are, after all, only make-believe.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Frankenstein, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2011.

Steffen Hantke

In the following essay, Hantke examines Robert Spadoni's book Uncanny Bodies, which looks at the early history of sound in American cinema, focusing primarily on Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein.

Aside from brief excursions into American (and partially German) horror films of the late silent and early sound era, Robert Spadoni's Uncanny Bodies deals with a highly limited group of primary texts. Its two introductory chapters trace the early history of sound in American cinema, and the two central chapters of the book are, respectively, devoted to Tod Browning's Dracula (1930) and James Whale's Frankenstein (1931).

This is not, as one might think, a concession to the canonical status of these two films and their significance for the development and consolidation of the horror filmgenre. The two films' canonical status is hardly in question. Much—perhaps too much—has already been written about them, their stars, and their directors. And yet canonicity is the central focus of Spadoni as he tackles the question of why, among all possible choices, it has been these two films that have lasted and have even come to define horror film as a genre. It is to the credit of the book that its author manages to find a fresh angle from which to ask that question.

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Why have these two films stood the test of time? Spadoni asks this question pointedly against many of the negative assessments that both films—Browning's perhaps more than Whale's—have had to suffer throughout the years. Dracula, Spadoni acknowledges, is in fact a notoriously bad film. Stagy and slow, it has acquired a reputation only to be valuable, and watchable, as a piece of high camp, thanks largely to Bela Lugosi's seminal performance as the eponymous Count. While Frankenstein's long-term reputation has fared better than that of Dracula, Spadoni marshals quite a few sources, both from the time the film was released and from more contemporary viewers, that point out how rough and tumble especially the film's editing is. Compared to some of Whale's other, even earlier, work, Frankenstein seems not quite up to par. As historical documents, both films are still interesting; as horror films, however, they seem to fall behind the more accomplished entries in the genre.

But Spadoni is not out to undercut both films' claim to canonicity. What may come as a surprise to many contemporary viewers, whose perception of the films is, of course, filtered through layer after layer of successive critical and popular opinion, is that they were both considered highly effective machines for scaring their audiences at the time of their release. For someone unwilling to assume a patronizing attitude toward those audiences (what did they know, after all, back there in the dark ages?), this assessment, especially of the creaky, clumsy, plodding Dracula, posits a mystery worth puzzling over. Which is exactly what Spadoni is doing: asking a question seriously that has become facile as long as it is asked merely as a rhetorical question. What, indeed, did they know, back there in the dark ages? Good question.

What they—these audiences in 1930, whose perception differs so dramatically from our own—knew was that the merging of sound and image, which we contemporary viewers have come to embrace unthinkingly and unknowingly, is, in fact, not as natural as we might want to believe. Sound, as Spadoni reminds us, only came into pictures in 1927, most notably with Warner Bros.' release of The Jazz Singer. For all those who, literally, hadn't “heard anything yet,” this was not only a momentous breakthrough but the beginning of a unsettling period of transition. Sound was neither universally embraced as an improvement upon the medium—a position fairly well known, if only through the detour of later films like Singin' in the Rain—nor accepted as a technology that contributed to the realism, the verisimilitude, or mimetic accuracy of cinema.

This was the result of the idiosyncrasies of early sound technologies, which often divorced sound from object and voice from body. But it was also, more generally, the result of an audience response that had been conditioned by preceding technologies—technologies that had taught viewers to suppress the knowledge of the essential artificiality of the medium. When sound entered the picture(s), disrupting these established forms of reception, it brought aspects of cinema to the audience's consciousness that had previously—and have ever since—vanished into patterns of repetition and habituation. During this brief moment of transition, however, the audience grew conscious of the medium itself and learned to be more savvy about its essential artifice.

At the heart of this moment, and of the aesthetics it fostered, was Dracula. Browning's film, Spadoni suggests, was particularly suited to explore and exploit the cognitive dissonances that the transition from silent to sound film created because of its monstrous creature's ability to be simultaneously absent and present. In detailed shot-by-shot analyses of scenes from Dracula, Spadoni shows how Browning and Lugosi create an interplay of image and sound (and, perhaps equally importantly, of off-screen events and silence) that played on a cinema that, thanks to the introduction of sound, had just become strange and uncanny to its contemporary audience. Much of what later audiences have criticized about the film—from the lack of narrative complexity to the long silences between moments of dialogue—Spadoni reconstructs as audiences at the time must have perceived it: an unsettling spectacle that reflected back on the experience of cinema itself.

Though released only a year after Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein already marks a moment in which a horror film transcends the paradigm set by its predecessor and “propelled the horror genre into the mature sound era” (97). Unlike the ghostliness with which Dracula permeates Browning's film, Spadoni notes the visual directness, the bluntness, with which Karloff's body, aided by the work of Universal make-up wizard Jack Pierce, dominates the frame. Aggressively visible yet conspicuously mute, this body served as a site for the film's evocation of “the uncanny of early and sound cinema at the same Page 168  |  Top of Articletime that it evoked a silent cinema newly estranged by the same” (115).

Readers interested in the transition from silent to sound film will find Uncanny Bodies intriguing for its focus specifically on horror films, which, in contrast to, for example, the musical, are not generally considered in this context. For those interested in horror film, the book has even more to offer. Asking readers to consider Dracula and Frankenstein as two increasingly sophisticated and conceptually distinct responses to the arrival of sound in cinema, Spadoni rehabilitates the films themselves, their makers, and their contemporary audiences. These were not the clunky, creaky, awkward first steps of the genre; filmmakers were not cluelessly fumbling with a new technology; and viewers were hardly the simpletons we like to take them for. Although the book, with its tight argument and detailed background information on the period, is a far cry from a fan's plea for his favorite movies, fans of horror cinema might come away with a new appreciation of a moment in the history of their favorite genre that is largely dismissed as a stepping-stone for better things to come.

Source: Steffen Hantke, “Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre,” in Film Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2008, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly

In the following review, a Publishers Weekly contributor reviews James Curtis's book, which shines some light onto the life and thoughts of Frankenstein director James Whale.

Shortly before his death, film director James Whale admitted that he'd looked in the mirror and realized that he'd launched “this horror” into the world that he couldn't stop. Was he referring to his creation of the classic film Frankenstein (1931) or its inferior off-shoots? Was he alluding to his inability (despite succeeding in mainstream genres) to transcend his reputation as a specialist in monster movies? Curtis (Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges) narrates in seamless detail how this innovative son of a West Midlands coal man rose from obscurity to acclaim as a British theater and Hollywood director. Trained as a West End actor and stage manager, Whale gained recognition for his rendition of the WWI war drama Journey's End. He traveled to Broadway and finally Hollywood to adapt Journey's End (1930) to the movies. Curtis charts Whale's triumphs as well as his failures, lending insight into the convoluted collaborative world of movie making in the days of Hays Office censorship. Many of Whale's mainstream films (Waterloo Bridge; One More River; etc.) disappeared while Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein never went out of circulation. Showboat (1956) marked the pinnacle of Whale's career and was followed by a gradual decline and slide into suicide. One comes away from this quixotic and compelling biography with the feeling that Whale, who was homosexual, not only reinvented the monster movie but also himself, and that his particular genius was often ill appreciated, except in the one genre he disdained.

Source: Review of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 15, April 13, 1998, p. 60.

Alfred Rushford Greason

In the following review, Greason reports favorably on the movie Frankenstein.

Looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays and handled in production with supreme craftsmanship. Exploitation, which dwells upon the shock angle, is also a punchful asset with hair-raising lobby and newspaper trumpeting.

Appeal is candidly to the morbid side and the screen effect is up to promised specifications. Feminine fans seem to get some sort of emotional kick out of this sublimation of the bed time ghost story done with all the literalness of the camera.

Maximum of stimulating shock is there, but the thing is handled with subtle change of pace and shift of tempo that keeps attention absorbed to a high voltage climax, tricked out with spectacle and dramatic crescendo, after holding the smash shiver on a hair trigger for more than an hour.

Picture starts out with a wallop. Midnight funeral services are in progress on a blasted moor, with the figure of the scientist and his grotesque dwarf assistant hiding at the edge of the cemetery to steal the newly-buried body. Sequence climaxes with the gravedigger sending down the clumping earth upon newly-laid coffin. Shudder No. 1.

Shudder No. 2, hard on its heels is when Frankenstein cuts down his second dead subject from the gallows, presented with plenty of realism. These corpses are to be assembled into a semblance of a human body which Frankenstein Page 169  |  Top of Articleseeks to galvanize into life, and to this end the story goes into his laboratory, extemporized in a gruesome mountain setting out of an abandoned mill. But first our scientist must have a brain, which leads to another s[t]ock touch of the creeps, when the dwarf crawls into a medical college dissecting room to steal that necessity. If you think these episodes have exhausted the repertoire of gruesome props they are but preliminaries.

Laboratory sequence detailing the creation of the monster patched up of human odds-and-ends is a smashing bit of theatrical effect, taking place in this eerie setting during a violent mountain storm in the presence of the scientist's sweetheart and others, all frozen with mortal fright.

Series of successive jolts continue through the moment when the monster creeps upon the scientist's waiting bride, probably the prize blood-curdler of the picture, and its final destruction when the infuriated villagers burn down the deserted windmill in which it is a prisoner. Finish is a change from the one first tried, when the scientist also was destroyed. The climax with the surviving Frankenstein (Frankenstein is the creator of the monster, not the monster itself) relieves the tension somewhat at the finale, but that may not be the effect most to be desired.

Subtle handling of the subject comes in the balance that has been maintained between the real and the supernatural, contrast that heightens the horror punches. The figure of the monster is a triumph of effect. It has a face and head of exactly the right distortions to convey a sense of the diabolical, but not enough to destroy the essential touch of monstrous human evil.

In like manner the feeling of horror is not once let go past the point at which it inspires disbelief, where out of excess it would create a feeling of make believe. This is the trick that actually makes the picture deliver its high voltage kick. The technique is shrewd manipulation. After each episode of dealing with the weird elements of the story there is a swift twist to the normal people of the drama engaged in their commonplace activities, a contrast emphasizing the next eerie detail.

Playing is perfectly paced. Colin Clive, the cadaverous hero of Journey's End (1930), is a happy choice for the scientist driven by a frenzy for knowledge. He plays it with force, but innocent of ranting. Boris Karloff enacts the monster and makes a memorable figure of the bizarre figure with its indescribably terrifying face of demoniacal calm, a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism.

Mae Clarke makes a perfunctory ingenue role charming, and John Boles is satisfying as a family friend, playing with neat elegance a part that loses much with the alternative finale.

Photography is splendid and the lighting the last word in ingenuity, since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere. It took nerve for U[niversal] to do this one and Dracula all of which may track back to the gruesomeness in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was also produced by this company. The audience for this type of film is probably the detective story readers and the mystery yarn radio listeners. Sufficient to insure financial success if these pictures are well made.

Source: Alfred Rushford Greason, Review of Frankenstein, in Variety 100, December 7, 1931.


Corliss, Richard, and Richard Schickel, “All-Time 100 Movies,” in Time,,28757,1953094,00.html (accessed October 6, 2010).

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “The Growth of the Studio System,” in A Short History of Film, Rutgers University Press, 2008, pp. 89–91.

Florescu, Radu, In Search of Frankenstein, New York Graphic Society, 1975, pp. 193–94.

Fort, Garrett, and Francis Edward Faragoh, Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, DVD, Universal Studios, 2004.

Greason, Alfred Rushford, “Frankenstein,” in Variety, December 7, 1931, (accessed September 21, 2010).

Hall, Mordaunt, “The Screen: A Man-Made Monster in Grand Guignol,” in New York Times, December 5, 1931, p. 21.

Hudson, David, “German Expressionism,” in GreenCine, (accessed October 6, 2010).

“Questions and Answers: Q#19,” in The Picture Show Man, (accessed October 6, 2010).

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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Worland, Rick, The Horror Film: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 36.


Curtis, James, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

After the release of the Academy Award—winning film Gods and Monsters, Curtis revised his 1982 biography of the director, adding substantial new material that helps readers understand the perspective he brought to making this film.

Dettman, Bruce, and Michael Bedford, The Horror Factory: The Horror Films of Universal, 1931–1955, Gordon Press, 1976.

This study offers a chronological look at the main Universal Studios franchises—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Wolf Man—and the ways in which the studios writers bound these series together in sequel after sequel, creating a particular artistic film style.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, “Transferring the Novel's Gothic Sensibilities to the Screen,” in Readings on Frankenstein, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 115–28.

This essay gives an overview of the many screen versions of Shelley's novel, from the 1910 Edison film to The Bride, with rock musician Sting as Baron Frankenstein in a remake of Bride of Frankenstein, and many lesser-known adaptations in between.

Glut, Donald F., The Frankenstein Archive: Essays on the Monster, the Myth, the Movies, and More, McFarland, 2002.

All of the essays in this book were written by Glut, who is an acknowledged expert regarding the cultural phenomenon that has grown from the 1931 movie. His works range in scope, looking at portrayals of Frankenstein's monster in such diverse venues as cartoons, comedies, superhero stories, and pop music.

Hitchcock, Susan Tyler, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, W. W. Norton, 2007.

From the novel to the film to costumes, models, and the use of the word “Frankenstein” as a common reference for unintended consequences, Tyler examines the ways in which this particular story has seeped into the modern consciousness.

Jones, Stephen, The Illustrated Frankenstein Movie Guide, Titan Books, 1994.

Jones has done a comprehensive study of all things related to the movie, including other movies with similar themes. His book, aimed at a commercial audience, includes a brief article about Frankenstein, written in 1957 by Boris Karloff.

Soister, John T., Of Gods and Monsters: A Critical Guide to Universal Studios' Science Fiction, Horror, and Mystery Films, 1929–1939, McFarland, 2001.

Though this book does touch upon Frankenstein, Dracula, and the other well-known films that came out of the Universal stable, its primary interest is in its discussion of the more obscure movies the studio was churning out at the same time.


Frankenstein AND James Whale

Frankenstein AND Universal Studios

horror AND Frankenstein

James Whale AND Mary Shelley

James Whale AND Arthur Edeson

Peggy Webling AND Frankenstein

Mary Shelley AND gothic

Dracula AND Frankenstein

horror film AND literature

James Whale AND Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2174900018