I’m trying to imagine how Frankenstein looks on the big screen–maybe on one the size of Radio City Music Hall; James Whale fills the screen upward. He directs the viewer’s attention always up, starting with the first scenes in the tower laboratory. The frames are obviously filled with extensive detail, which video certainly does not preserve. This style–tall screen (versus wide screen)–amplifies the watered-down Expressionist sets.
The film’s set design is stunning. Again, to complement Whale’s tall screen shots, the Frankenstein manor has cavernous rooms. The actors frequently occupy corners, making me wonder if theatrical audiences had to search for them in the expansive shots. But when the film’s sets are for the outdoors–the film’s famous graveyard opening for example–Whale uses the frame much differently. The painted backdrop, the endlessly murky sky, is Frankenstein‘s suspension of disbelief on-switch. Opening with it, Whale gets the viewer to accept he or she is no longer on familiar ground. Edward Van Sloan’s opening warning probably contributes as well.
Without a musical score, with incredibly delicate sound design and occasionally jarring cuts, Frankenstein is a strange dream. The first scene with Boris Karloff is the best example of this dream state. The nearly silent introduction to the monster, combined with the perspectively challenged sets, distances the viewer from Colin Clive and Van Sloan. This approach to the narrative–it being distant from the characters and more objective–really plays out in the last scene. As the Monster burns in the windmill, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but the film doesn’t encourage any sympathy. The lack of music really makes the narrative perspective indifferent.
That indifference only applies to the story of Clive and Karloff–and to some degree to Clive’s romance with Mae Clarke. The film’s very strange for the first act–with the grave-robbing, followed by Dwight Frye robbing the medical college (the lecture in the medical college is also worth some examination, which I’m not going to make time for here), then the rather frank scene between Clarke and John Boles. The friendship between Boles and Clive’s characters hardly gets any screen time, yet it’s present and important to the film. Frankenstein takes a lot of filmic shortcuts, usually to good effect, and that conflicted friendship is successful.
But it isn’t the most successful… the strangest thing about Frankenstein is the place of Frederick Kerr as Clive’s father. As it plays out, Kerr is the film’s main character. Even with all the conflict stemming from bringing a monster to life, the real focus is Clive and Clarke’s wedding, specifically what Kerr’s great scenes related to it. When Kerr first appears, Frankenstein changes direction–it goes from being uncanny to a bent traditional–and each of his scenes is better than the previous.
His performance isn’t the film’s best–all the principals are great, with Clive somehow turning that field day for overacting into one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of insanity. But in Whale’s detachment, Clive becomes even more removed in his recovering sanity. Boles and Clarke occasionally seem like they’re in a melodrama, but both have some great moments. Van Sloan’s great, as is Frye.
Karloff’s performance is singular.
Only in the end–like with most Universal horror films–does Frankenstein begin to show its stitches. The lack of content, of actual story, comes out as everything begins to run together (the Monster’s off screen rampaging, the attack on Clarke) and logic hops out the window. Around the same time, men in 1930s dress appear alongside the guys in lederhosen, which might give logic a shove.
It doesn’t really matter much, because by that time, Frankenstein‘s already established itself. Whale’s technically superior hunt through the mountains and the windmill finale, as narratively problematic as they are, still work great.