Tag Archives: Mary Shelley

Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)

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.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


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Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, Jack Smight)

While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.

There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.

Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.

For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).


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