When Dracula premiered in February of 1931, its success signaled to the executives at Universal Studios that the public was hungry for material of that style and quality. The studio had tracked a loss in 1930, and Dracula had become one of the biggest successes in the studio’s history, singlehandedly saving the studio. Keep in mind that the idea of sound in motion picture was a relatively new commodity, and while for most studios the gimmick was all about Vaudevillian style comedies and dance routines, Dracula brought back the idea of the horror movie, a concept that worked quite well in the silent era, especially for Universal. And because sound was a such a new concept, the idea of a movie having a fully scored soundtrack wasn’t in the minds of most. There would be an overture and end theme, but no thematic score the way we understand it today. Have you ever watched a movie without the music? It changes everything. There are no emotional cues to latch on to. Nothing tells heightens the drama. It’s up to the actors themselves to do the heavy lifting in that department, along with mood lighting and sound effects.
The other thing to keep in mind was that this was a rare time in Hollywood history known as the Pre-Code Era. Basically what this means is that between the advent of sound in motion pictures in 1929 and the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines of 1934, this handful of years was the creative equivalent of the Wild West. Anything could happen in the minds of the production teams, and often did where budget and skill allowed. Technically, the Code was adopted in 1930, but it wasn’t yet enforced by any stretch of imagination. Films like this one called that whole idea into question, challenging morality itself on a number of levels, up to and including the idea of playing God.
Frankenstein is, like Dracula before it, based on a stage play, which is in turn based on the source material from the original novel. It was a formula that paid dividends, so there was no reason not to trust lightning to strike yet again. This accounts for the extreme differences between the film and Mary Shelley’s original. And yet, the movie ended up being so iconic that when people think of Frankenstein, they tend to think of this version of the story, and they tend not to know that Frankenstein is the creator, not the creature. Pop culture has since run amuck with this version of the creature in virtually every format of multimedia you can name. Why is that? What made it work so well and stick with us after so many other versions have come and gone since then?
Even though the film opens with a concierge at a movie theater telling the audience that what they’re about to see may surprise or horrify them, the story itself was no great surprise. Shelley’s novel had been a hit for over a century, and there were various stage and screen versions already seen before. But again, this was the age when sound in motion picture was starting to mature, and right along with that, makeup effects were maturing in the wake of such pioneers as Lon Chaney, Sr. Because of such realistic makeup, paired with the sheer presence of Boris Karloff, the movie’s opening statements were anything but hyperbole. Karloff towers in the collective imagination to this day as one of the greatest screen personalities of all time. Frankenstein’s creature is his masterpiece, which he would reprise four years later in the sequel.
The thing is, it’s not just Karloff’s presence that sold it. His portrayal is nuanced and even sympathetic, which is something that would have screwed with the minds of audiences of the era. After all, deformities equated in the minds of audiences as abnormalities. The physical reflected the mental. And they had been conditioned to see this in film. Dracula was pure evil, and Frankenstein had used an abnormal brain in the creation of his monster. But from the outset of being given life, we see the creature being tortured and threatened with fire, and we instinctively know this is wrong. It’s a performance that really makes you appreciate why humans are born as we are: naked, fragile, and helpless. Could you imagine an infant with the destructive capacity of a fully grown adult? That’s essentially how Karloff played the creature. Unlike in the novel, this creature is a blank slate, and while incapable of speech at this point, he learns fast. Despite the cruelty of his creator, he escapes in search of a friend in the outside world.
The scene where the creature befriends the little village girl remains one of the most controversial scenes in film history, and one of the most powerful. In many cities and states, this scene, and many lines considered to be blasphemous, where cut from the version of the film shown to local audiences. In such cases, Universal made cuts to the master negative. Thankfully we live in an age where audiences appreciate the full restoration of such films, and these can be readily found with little difficulty, intact and arguably in like-new condition.
In the scene, the girl demonstrates to the creature how to make “boats” from the flowers in her basket, floating the heads of the flowers in the water. The creature is overjoyed with this entire idea, and in his exuberance he picks up the girl and tosses her into the water to watch her float too. When he realizes the girl has drowned, Karloff runs the emotional gamut from ecstatic to confusion to fear in a matter of moments, and it’s powerful enough to feel. The assumption from the studio may have been that audiences were to feel as the angry mob does, that the creature is evil and needs to be hunted down and destroyed. But it doesn’t really come across that way. Instead, director James Whale was making audiences feel the confusion and despair at being an outsider, alone in a world that hates what you are. It was something he knew all too well, being a closet homosexual in an age when there were entire leagues formed around issues of morality, part of what led to the Motion Picture Code in the first place. A world of “gods and monsters” could at that time only be portrayed on the silver screen, and this film helped to prop that door open for many such endeavors to come.