Any one of the Mythical nominees for best picture of the awards year running from August 1, 1931 to July 31, 1932 would be a good one—Grand Hotel was the first movie to boast an all-star cast, Freaks is a genuinely disturbing horror flick that holds up even by the standards of today, and Scarface, directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, is the best gangster movie of an era characterized by great gangster movies.
But only one film can boast both of being the top grossing film of the year, a sensation that spawned countless sequels, spoofs and remakes, and of being so influential that it defined its genre for generations with imagery and film language so much part of the vocabulary of Western culture that even people who've never seen it know what it's about—the only movie of 1931-32 that can make that claim.
That it's also a great movie makes Frankenstein my choice for best picture of the year.
I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb here to say that Frankenstein contains more iconic images than all the year's other nominees for best picture combined, so many, in fact, I could probably name the scenes in order and you could skip the picture altogether—grave robbing, brain stealing, thunderstorms and monster making, "It's alive," the monster's first appearance, fire, the tragic death of the little girl, the villagers with torches and pitchforks. These scenes were so well established in our collective consciousness, in fact, that more than forty years later Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder could spoof it in Young Frankenstein without having to stop and explain anything to their audience.
What movie from 1967 (which like Frankenstein in 1974 is now forty-three years in our rearview mirror) could you spoof in a full-length feature without leaving your audience scratching its collective heads—The Graduate, maybe, but what fun would that be?
The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation had its genesis in the ghost stories nineteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft, her lover and soon to be husband Percy Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron told each other while vacationing together in Switzerland. In 1818, Wollstonecraft, now Mary Shelley, turned one of these stories, a combination of a nightmare she had about a lab experiment gone awry and conversations Shelley and Byron had about the origins of life, into her first novel, Frankenstein.
"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," Robert Oppenheimer said to himself as he watched the first atomic bomb explode on the testing grounds of the New Mexico desert, and after the Second World War, a generations of science fiction writers made a cottage industry out of the question of whether we as human beings have the right to monkey around with things that before the advances of science had been the sole provence of God, and what moral culpability do we owe when our experiments go horribly awry—or worse, don't.
But Mary Shelley asked the question first and asked it so well that the phrase "Frankenstein's monster" has become shorthand for "unintended consequences."
The novel was an immediate sensation and spawned dozens of stage adaptations over the years. The earliest of these, Richard Peake's 1823 stageplay Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (read it here) introduced elements such as the elaborate creation scene, the mute monster and a lab assistant named Fritz that became as much a part of Frankenstein's literary tradition as the key elements of Shelley's original novel. Peggy Webling's 1927 stage version (credited as a source in the movie's titles) telescoped the time frame of the story, eliminated the Arctic chase that bookended the novel and, in the third act, added a bride for Frankenstein's monster which became the basis of the 1935 movie sequel. (Webling also, for the first time, named the monster itself "Frankenstein" after its creator.)
The success of Webling's stageplay caught the attention of Carl Laemmle, Jr., the head of production at Universal Studios and he bought the film rights for $20,000. The head of the studio, Carl Laemmle, Sr., wasn't keen to do Frankenstein, but Junior, who had been in charge of production since 1929, was enthusiastic and given the successes of All Quiet On The Western Front and Dracula, which he had previously produced, the father was inclined to give the son free reign. It was a good decision. The cycle of Universal horror movies that had begun with Lon Chaney during the silent era and which continues even to the present day with the studio's recent remake of The Wolfman, owes much to the enormous success of Frankenstein, which proved once and for all that the horror genre was viable box office.
James Whale, fresh off his successful screen adaptation of the play Waterloo Bridge, was slated to direct. For a man who had real reservations about the horror genre, he soon became its master—arguably the greatest director of horror in movie history.
In directing Frankenstein, Whale cast his gaze both to the past and to the future, drawing the movie's look from the German Expressionism of the 1920s—for example, in the graveyard sequence that opens the film—but using sound to generate fear and in the process, inventing many of the cliches of the horror genre we now take for granted. As British film historian David Thomson pointed out recently, Tod Browning's Dracula showed the potential that sound had for generating fear—"the wind in the trees, the wolves howling in the distance ... the women screaming in their sleep ... Lugosi's forbidding welcome, 'I am Drac-u-la'"—and then Whale took the ball and ran with it, giving us thunderstorms, shrieking laboratory equipment, groaning monsters, and a screaming Mae Clarke, that combine to keep the hair standing up on the back of our necks for an hour and ten minutes.
Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the oppor- tunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.
Whale also broke the rules of the early cinema with the introduction of Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth and the secondary character Victor. In this early scene, Whale shows us a series of quick close-ups and only then cuts to an establishing shot of the room, rather than the traditional approach which would have made clear where we were, that there were people in the room, and finally providing close-ups to introduce the characters, an effective bit of editing that further distances the film from the staginess of its contemporaries.
But the most effective sequence in the movie is the build-up to the introduction of the monster.
We're so familiar now with the look of Frankenstein's creation—the flat head, the hooded eyes, the bolts in his neck—that it's easy to forget that an audience in 1931 had no clear idea what the monster would look like and the final choice, which was critical to the movie's success, could have gone in any number of directions. The 1910 silent movie version of Frankenstein, a fifteen minute short which may have been the first horror movie ever made, presented the monster as a sort of Mr. Hyde to Frankenstein's Jekyll. On stage, the creature was a shaggy hunchback. And as conceived by the film's initial star, Bela Lugosi, the monster had a featureless face and wore a bushy fright wig. (Lugosi dropped out of the project shortly after the test footage was shot. Laemmle, Jr. thought Lugosi's choice of makeup, based on the clay monster in the 1920 silent film Der Golem was ridiculous and in any event Lugosi wasn't interested in playing a mute—and in the early versions of the script, wholly unsympathetic—monster.)
The monster as we know it was a collaboration between makeup expert Jack Pierce and the English actor chosen to replace Lugosi, Boris Karloff. Depending on who you believe, Whale cast Karloff (born William Henry Pratt) either after seeing Karloff brooding over lunch at the Universal commissary or at the suggestion of Whale's companion, David Lewis, who had seen Karloff in Howard Hawks's prison drama The Criminal Code. Either way, the choice was inspired. Karloff's tall, lean build (along with some very clunky shoes) allowed the monster to loom over the rest of the cast and Karloff accentuate his already thin features by removing a bridge of molars from the right side of his mouth and then sucking in his cheek. He also suggested the heavy eyelids made of wax that gave the creature a look of dim confusion.
"We had to surmise that brain after brain had been tried in that poor skull," Karloff said, "inserted and taken out again. That is why we built up the forehead to convey the impression of demoniacal surgery. Then we found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, where dumb bewilderment was so essential. So I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing."
It took three hours every day to put the makeup on and almost as long at the end of the day to take it off.
After an elaborate creation scene (Mary Shelley had summed up the entire creation sequence in a single paragraph) which Whale felt was essential to convincing the audience of the monster's reality, he then delays Karloff's first appearance until the moment just after Frankenstein learns for the first time that he's gifted his creation with a defective "criminal" brain (which along with the opening grave robbing scene was an addition of the screenplay). As Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his colleague Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan) talk, we hear the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stair—an early example of the role sound plays in horror—the characters at last react to the approaching footsteps and we know something important is about to happen. The door to the lab opens, the monster backs into the room, then turns, and at the speed of a tripping heartbeat, a pair of axial cuts—a jump cut directly along the line from the camera toward its subject—brings us eye to eye with the monster for the first time.
Thirty-one minutes into the picture, it's one of the greatest entrances in movie history, up there with that dolly shot that zooms in on John Wayne in 1939's Stagecoach.
Audiences of the time were completely sold. Frankenstein premiered on November 21, 1931, and immediately set box office records. Shot in thirty-five days at a cost of $291,000, Frankenstein grossed over $5 million in its initial run, despite hitting theaters at the depths of the Depression. The critical reception was just as enthusiastic and the movie made the New York Times top ten list for the year.
"Whale and I both saw the character of the monster as an innocent one," Karloff later said. "This was a pathetic creature who, like us all, had neither the wish nor the say in his creation, and certainly did not wish upon itself the hideous image which automatically terrified humans whom it tried to befriend."
And therein lies the lasting appeal of Mary Shelley's story, I think, and why we feel such empathy for the monster, because it dares to ask the question "Why, oh Lord, did you make us, as Frankenstein did his monster, so poor, so ugly and so ill-equipped to face a world that is so unforgiving of all but the rich, the beautiful and the talented?" It's a question many of us ask on a daily basis, whether we're a starving refuge in the war-torn Sudan or simply a befuddled suburbanite wondering why Kate Gosselin is on television and we're not.
I've been re-reading Mary Shelley recently, and I think she was asking, albeit surreptitiously, a question even more fundamental than that of what duty scientists owe humanity, which is to say, What duty does the creator, i.e., God, owe his creation, us. That's a question religion doesn't usually ask; religions primarily concern themselves with the duties a man owes his god. To even ask the question the other way around (forget trying to formulate an answer) would have for centuries been to invite the stake as the penalty for blasphemy, and even in the nineteenth century such speculation meant financial ruin and social exile—afterall, Mary's own husband, Percy Shelley, was expelled from Oxford and became estranged from his family for touting atheism.
So I ask you, what duty does the creator owe his creation? Because let's face it, if I neglected my dog, say, the way God has neglected the earth, the SPCA would be on me so fast my head would swim.
But I digress.
Frankenstein was a huge hit but, of course, received no Oscar nominations. Admittedly, there were few technical awards in those days—no awards for special effects, costumes or makeup— but it was overlooked even in the categories of sound and set decoration, never mind screenplay, acting, directing and best picture. So I say let's give Katie Awards to the key figures behind the production of this classic movie: Charles D. Hall for interior decoration, what is now known as art direction-set decoration, and Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed the electronic gear in the laboratory out of odds and ends he collected from radios, airplane motors and industrial machinery; Jack Pierce and Pauline Eells for their iconic makeup job; and to C. Roy Hunter for sound.
And now for what I suspect is a key question for many: will Frankenstein scare you? Probably not, to be honest, but then again that depends on what scares you. I happened to catch a goodly chunk of some cable network's Saw marathon a few weekends ago (while Katie-Bar-The-Door was working ungodly hours keeping America safe for democracy) and to be honest with you, I wasn't just not scared, I was bored most of the time. For me, anyway, a good horror movie has to do more than simply test your gag reflex or your autonomic reactions to cats-jumping-out-of-closets kind of shocks, otherwise you might as well head on over to the supermarket and watch the butcher chop meat. Frankenstein is stylish, exciting, has a few genuinely disturbing moments, such as when the monster accidentally kills the little girl, and raises some fundamental questions about our role in the universe. For me, that's just about all I could ever want out of a horror movie—or any other kind of movie, for that matter.
In the end, I chose Frankenstein as best picture from among the dozen or so must-see movies released between August 1, 1931, and July 31, 1932, because more than the others, it is a fundamental building block, not just of movie literacy but of cultural literacy. Its look, its feel, its conventions and its concepts have so permeated the bedrock that even if you've never seen the 1931 version of Frankenstein, you've drunk from its well.
I say, time to drink from the source.