Friday, March 8, 2013

Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale                                 Writer: John L. Balderston
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke and Edward Van Sloan

The first thing one notices about James Whale’s Frankenstein is the fingerprints of the director all over the production. Because it was released the same year as Universal’s Dracula, there have always been inevitable comparisons made between the two films, with Dracula always coming out on the short end. The reasons are easy to see. First and foremost is directorial vision. Other than the scenes in Transylvania and the opening exterior shot of the sanatorium--generally credited to cinematographer Karl Freund--Dracula seems director-less, something actor David Manners claims is true, namely that director Todd Browning was rarely on the set. Conversely, it’s clear that James Whale is firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat of Frankenstein from start to finish.

The reason usually given for Whale’s readily apparent vision is his background on the British stage. As such, his influence in his films extends not only to shot selection, but scenery, staging, lighting, costume, makeup, in addition to the guidance of the actors. The gothic/expressionistic opening in the graveyard is the first of many deliberate choices that are quite brilliant. When Mae Clarke meets her childhood friend John Boles in the mansion, Colin Clive is shown only as a photograph strategically placed between them. When Clive makes his first appearance in the laboratory he is dwarfed by the physical space and the equipment, mirroring his position as mere man attempting to usurp god’s power to create. And these are just the first three scenes.

Colin Clive, while known for his histrionics, is somewhat modulated in this role. Sitting down with Edward Van Sloan and casually smoking a cigarette the morning after his experiment, he actually does seem as, “astonishingly sane,” as he says. Karloff, of course, is magnificent in the role of the monster. Though he would have a much more successful career than Lugosi, like the first Dracula, never again would Karloff be so thoroughly convincing in a role, and so perfectly performed a character. Mae Clarke, despite being an American, works better than the nubile Valerie Hobson in the sequel. John Boles assumes the ineffectual male role that Manners played in Dracula, but Edward Van Sloan is equally powerful and commanding in both films.

John L. Balderston's script, of course, bears only a passing resemblance to Mary Shelley's original novel, but in looking at later attempts to be more faithful it's probably for the best in this case. The cult-like following of the Universal monsters by many, myself among them, is interesting considering that the films directed by James Whale are definitely aberrations when looking at all of the horror films produced by the studio, not only the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, but his earlier work as well, The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. Of all the other films, only The Wolf Man, by George Waggner approaches the stylistic and artistic success of Whale at Universal. The tragedy is that Whale hated the films and longed to do more mainstream work. Despite this, however, Frankenstein remains one of the seminal horror films in history, and it’s largely due to his genius and vision.

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