It would be years later before I could see the full-length film, probably an airing on Nightmare Theater, which I've written about before. I have no idea how often I've seen the movie since then, but these days I own it on DVD, and can watch it when I want to (kids today have no idea what it was like when I was a kid, with limited opportunities to see any of our favorite movies and TV shows). I've collected figures of the Monster and his Bride over the years, as well.
The film is a classic, although it was overshadowed by the even better sequel Bride of Frankenstein, and the later films in the series present a very different Monster than the one we're introduced to in the first movie.
The movie opens at a cemetery, where a funeral is concluding. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Victor in the book) is hiding with his assistant, Fritz (the character often referred to as “Igor” by many people, I'm guessing the confusion is because Fritz is hunchbacked as the later Ygor character played by Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein). When the funeral concludes, Frankenstein and Fritz come out of their hiding place and dig up the corpse, followed shortly after by cutting down the corpse of a man who's been hung. We see that Fritz has a bit of a phobia about the dead, having to be forced to do Frankenstein's bidding.
As the film moves on, we learn that Frankenstein plans to stitch together pieces of corpses he's stolen to create new life, but the bodies he's gathered haven't got a suitable brain. He plans to have Fritz go to the nearby university to steal a brain, but as we're all familiar with, Fritz screws up, dropping the brain (being kept in a jar filled with liquid) and destroying it, then stealing a brain identified as “abnormal” instead.
The scene changes to the home of the Frankenstein family, where Elizabeth, Henry's fiancee, is getting worried about Henry. She has Victor Moritz called to the house to tell of her concerns, and he decides to pay a visit on the abandoned watchtower Frankenstein is using for his experiments. Dr. Waldman, a former teacher of Henry's, is called upon to come with Victor and Elizabeth to visit Henry. Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father, is also concerned.
Elizabeth, Victor and Waldman arrive at the watchtower lab just as Henry's preparing to bring life to his creation. Henry at first tries to get them to leave, but they are insistent. A storm is brewing, which is needed for the experiment, although lightning doesn't play as key a role in the process as it would in later films. Instead, a wavelength beyond ultraviolet light is the key factor.
The experiment is a success, and the monster lives, although we never get a good look at his face during this process. Henry's obviously been obsessed with this experiment. Later, the Monster is finally revealed, and we finally see Karloff as the Monster in his full glory. Henry treats the monster almost as if it's a retarded child, or perhaps a trained animal, as he gives the Monster instructions to walk to him, then sit in a chair so that he can be exposed to sunlight for the first time. The Monster's reaction to the sun is awe and joy, but he also tries to grasp the light physically. Henry closes the window letting in the light before the Monster can get too worked up. When Fritz enters the room carrying a torch, we see that the Monster has an instinctual fear of fire. Fritz uses the torch to torture the monster, even after Henry tells him to leave the Monster alone.
Later, when the Monster is locked in the cellar, Fritz continues to tease and torture the monster with the torch, until finally the Monster has had enough, and kills his tormentor. Henry and Waldman decide that the Monster needs to be destroyed, and after a struggle, they manage to inject the Monster with a sedative to knock it out. Henry goes home to plan his wedding while Waldman stays behind at the lab, the plan being that Waldman will keep the Monster sedated until it can be dissected.
I should really point out that Elizabeth, Henry's fiancee, doesn't seem to be that great a match for Henry as she's portrayed here. I don't know if it's Mae Clarke's performance, or the way she's written, but I just don't see that she brings anything to the relationship. She doesn't inspire Henry at all, and really only barely supports his goals. It feels like she's got her own preferences as to what Henry should be doing (not that she ever says as such). For his part, Henry doesn't really seem to be in love with her; he's certainly fond of her, and later when she's menaced, he is distraught with worry over her, but there's no passion there that I can see.
As the village starts a festival to celebrate the wedding of Henry and Elizabeth, things go wrong at the lab. The Monster seems to have developed a resistance to the sedative being used, and it revives, kills Waldman, and escapes. Since the Monster has no lines, we can only interpret what it wants from Karloff's performance, and in my opinion, Karloff does very well at conveying what the Monster wants. For the most part, he wants to be left alone, although he also craves something from his creator. Perhaps he wants to know what his place is in the world.
Given the importance placed on Fritz's stealing the abnormal brain earlier in the film, I can't say that the Monster really shows signs of having a defective brain. Yes, the Monster is prone to violence when threatened, but is the Monster really out of line here? He is uneducated, inarticulate, and uncared for. His only interactions are with Fritz (who tormented him every chance he could), Waldman (who was never exactly fond of the Monster) and Henry (who kept locking the Monster away when he didn't have time for him). The Monster, in many ways, is a child, a toddler. Toddlers tend to strike out violently when they don't get their way (at least, most toddlers I've dealt with do), because they don't have the language skills to express themselves. The difference between most toddlers and the Monster is, of course, that the Monster is six and a half feet tall, and stronger than the average human, so when he strikes out, the effects are much more permanent.
The Monster wanders through the woods outside of the tower, in search of... his creator? We know he needs something, and he seems to have some instinct that guides him in the direction of Frankenstein. But along the way, the Monster has his first encounter with someone who treats him kindly.
Yes, it's the famous sequence where the Monster meets Maria, a little girl left to play by herself while her father runs an errand. When the Monster approaches Maria, she doesn't react in fright; instead she treats the Monster like a friend, taking him by the hand and leading him to the lakeside, where she shows the Monster how she plays with flowers, throwing them into the water and watching them float. The Monster smiles for the first time here; this is the first and only happiness he's ever experienced. He wants it to continue, and is disappointed when they run out of flowers. As many have discussed, what happens next can be interpreted two ways; the Monster throws Maria into the water, and she drowns. In some edits of the film, it appears the Monster does this because he's upset that there are no more flowers. On the other hand, many argue that he sees Maria as being pretty, like the flowers were, and he doesn't have the intelligence to understand that just because two things are pretty doesn't mean that they share other properties.
As soon as Maria dies, the Monster becomes distraught. It's obvious to me that he realizes that he's made a terrible mistake. At some level, he knows that he's responsible for Maria's death, and even understands that the death is a tragedy. But still, he has no way to express this, and has no guidance to help him understand. He makes his way to the village, and off-camera, he's spotted by some villagers. Despite this, the festivities still continue in town.
The Monster finds his way to Frankenstein's home, and enters the room Elizabeth has been locked in (for her own protection by Henry, although apparently he'd forgotten all about the windows of the room). Elizabeth isn't aware of the Monster's presence at first, but screams and faints when she does see him. The Monster leaves without molesting Elizabeth in any way.
Outside, in the village, the celebrations stop as Maria's father carries her corpse into the village. He goes to the Burgomaster's home and demands that the Monster be hunted down and made to pay for the death. Now, aside from the fact that we know that the Monster has committed this murder (I suppose accidental manslaughter would be the proper crime), that's because we saw it happen. Maria's father, the villagers, and the Burgomaster are all too happy to assume the Monster killed Maria, even through they have no proof whatsoever. For them, just the fact that the Monster has been spotted recently makes him guilty.
Frankenstein joins the villagers, and they divide into two groups to hunt down the Monster, with Henry leading one group and the Burgomaster leading the other. Naturally, the villagers are carrying torches. And just as naturally, it seems, Henry gets separated from his own group, where he encounters the Monster for the first time since leaving the lab. He tries to fend off the Monster, but is knocked unconscious and taken away by the Monster. They're soon spotted, and the villagers chase the Monster to a windmill, which the Monster enters, carrying Henry with him, and climbing to the top. Henry revives and tries to escape, but for his efforts, he is thrown over the side, where he strikes one of the windmill blades before hitting the ground.
One wonders what might have happened if the Monster had the opportunity to confront Henry without the mob chasing them. Would he have been able to communicate somehow what he wanted from Henry? We'll never know.
The mob puts the torch to the windmill, and the Monster goes berserk. His fear of fire had been diminished somewhat earlier in the film, as a mere torch wasn't enough to make him cower, but the inferno in the windmill is another matter entirely. The Monster is terrified, and tries to figure out a way out of his situation, to no avail. Finally, a beam of the structure falls on him, sending him to the floor, where the flames apparently destroy him.
Later, at the Frankenstein home, Henry is being tended to by Elizabeth, and we get the impression that things are going to be all right for them. The film closes with Baron Frankenstein offering up the same toast he'd made earlier in the film, “To the son of the house of Frankenstein!”
Karloff's Monster is a sympathetic creature in this film. He has no control over his environment to begin with, and acts out of instinct more than anything else. Like with other classic movie monsters, we feel for him, and are sorry that he suffers at the end of the film. Of course, we learn in Bride of Frankenstein that the Monster is not dead at all, and in successive films, he is “killed” time and again, each time being brought back in the sequel. Also in successive films, the Monster is more of a Monster (especially once Karloff quits the role after Son of Frankenstein), and less sympathetic.
Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein is obsessive, and doesn't seem to really have thought through his plans at all. Once he brought the Monster to life, he doesn't seem to know what to do with it, other than proving that his theory was right.
Director James Whale did a great job with this film, although I will always believe that the apex of his directing would be Bride of Frankenstein. That movie is much more well-rounded, offering up humor to help ease the tension. Whale doesn't put much of himself in this movie; his later films The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man have more of his character than this does. But at this point in his career, Whale hadn't much experience; he'd directed only three movies prior to this out of the 23 he'd ultimately direct. Perhaps he wasn't offered much control here, given that Frankenstein was made as a follow-up to Dracula.
You may have heard that initially Bela Lugosi was lined up to play the Monster, but he decided he didn't want the part; some sources say it's because of the lack of dialogue, while others say it's because he'd be hidden by the make up. One wonders how he would've reacted had he been offered Claude Rains' role as The Invisible Man, not being seen at all in the entire movie!
As I wrote earlier, Lugosi would join the series as Ygor in the third and fourth installments of the series (Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein), before playing the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lugosi would leave the series at this point until the final entry, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, when he'd finally return to the role of Dracula (which had been played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in Son of Dracula, and by John Carradine in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula). Karloff wouldn't return to the series again until House of Frankenstein, and then he wasn't playing the Monster. Lon Chaney, Jr. would be the only actor to play all three monsters featured in the series, playing the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein before going back to playing the Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man through the rest of the series. He was also one of the actors to play the Mummy, taking over that role from Karloff as well.
I've tried to introduce my son, Tristan, to this movie series, but without any luck so far. His only exposure to the Frankenstein Monster that he's been willing to see is the version in Hotel Transylvania. I've tried showing him some of the Castle Films versions, but he claims that they're too scary for him (I've had better luck with King Kong and the Godzilla films). My daughter, Desi, seems more interested, but I'm not quite sure she's ready for them yet. But I'm hopeful that both kids will be open to watching them some day, and will love them as much as I did when I was their age.
Next time around, “My Favorite Movies” looks at the Beatles' first film, “A Hard Day's Night”!