Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), his fiancée, is worried to distraction over his peculiar actions. She cannot understand why he secludes himself in an abandoned watch tower, which he has equipped as a laboratory, and refuses to see anyone. She and her friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), go to Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), his old medical professor, and ask Dr. Waldman's help in reclaiming the young scientist from his absorbing experiments. Elizabeth, intent on rescuing Frankenstein, arrives just as the eager young medico is making his final tests. They all watch Frankenstein and the hunchback as they raise the dead creature on an operating table, high into the room, toward an opening at the top of the laboratory. Then a terrific crash of thunder—the crackling of Frankenstein's electric machines—and the hand of Frankenstein's monster begins to move.
The manufactured monster (Boris Karloff), a strangely hideous, startling, grotesque, gruesome, inhuman form, about seven feet (213 cm) tall with broad shoulders, enormous long arms, a placid, gaunt, elongated face, a square-shaped head with boxy forehead, hooded eyelids over deep-set sunken eyes, neck-spikes or bolts to serve as electrical connectors on his neck, jagged surgical scars, and a matted wig, wearing a dark suit, shortened coat sleeves and thick, heavy boots, causing him to walk with an awkward, stiff-legged, crude gait, is held in a dungeon in the watch tower. Through Fritz's error, a criminal brain was secured for Frankenstein's experiments which supposedly result in the monster knowing only hate, horror and murder. However, when we are first introduced to the 'Monster' it seems that it is not, in fact, a malevolent beast, but a simple, innocent (if scary looking) creation. Frankenstein welcomes it into his laboratory, and asks his creation to sit, which he does. Fritz, however, enters with a flaming torch which frightens the monster. Its fright is mistaken by Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman as an attempt to attack them, and so it is taken to the cellars where they chain up the monster, thinking that it is not fit for society, and will wreak havoc at any chance. They leave the monster locked up, when there is an unearthly, terrifying shriek from the dungeon. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman rush in to find the monster has strangled Fritz. The monster makes a lunge at the two, but they escape. As the monster breaks through the door, Dr. Waldman injects a powerful drug into the monster's back and he sinks to the floor.
Dr. Waldman tries to destroy the unconscious creature which, however, awakens and strangles him. It escapes from the tower and wanders through the landscape. It then has a short encounter with a little farmer's daughter, Maria, who asks him to play a game with her where they would throw flowers into the lake so they appeared like little boats. As the monster takes much pleasure in the game and his playmate, it picks up the little girl and throws her into the lake in a playful sort of way and as he becomes aware of the consequences of his careless doing tries to get a hold of her, unsuccessfully. (The part of the sequence where the monster throws the girl into the pond was censored at the time of the film's original release, but has been restored in modern prints.) The creature then walks off troubled.
With preparations for the wedding completed, Frankenstein is once again himself and serenely happy with Elizabeth. They are to marry as soon as Dr. Waldman arrives. Victor rushes in, saying that the Doctor has been found strangled in his operating room. Frankenstein suspects the monster. A chilling scream convinces him that the fiend is in the house. The monster has gained access to Elizabeth's room. When the searchers arrive, they find her unconscious on the bed. The monster has escaped. He is only intent upon destroying Frankenstein.
Leading an enraged band of peasants, Frankenstein searches the surrounding country for the monster. He becomes separated from the band and is discovered by the monster, who springs at his prey and carries him off to the old mill. The peasants hear his cries and follow. Finally reaching the mill, they find the monster has climbed to the very top, dragging Frankenstein with him. In a burst of rage, he hurls the young scientist to the ground. His fall, broken by the vanes of the windmill, saves him from instant death. Some of the villagers hurry him to his home while the others remain to burn the mill and destroy the entrapped monster.
Later, back at Frankenstein Castle, Frankenstein's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) celebrates the wedding of his recovered son with a toast to a future grandchild.
The most specific difference between the book and the movie is the acceptance of the creature as a man rather than a monster, which has led to the naming – by some people's account as misnaming – of the creature as "Frankenstein". In the Peggy Webling play which the film is based on, the direct idea of the creator largely accepting his creation as an actual man and accepting success of his original experiment, rather than the explicit rejection by Frankenstein of his creature of the novel, is explored more directly and exactly.
This tolerance of the creature as a man would largely be revoked by Universal in their later films using the creature in which the creature was to be marketed as a specific villain and not to be empathized with by the audience. In all Universal films starting with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, every time the creature is referred to directly in-story, he is specifically named as "The Frankenstein Monster" or simply "the Monster" and never again in-story as just "Frankenstein" in order to emaphize the fact that he is a manufactured being and an inherently evil one.
But one of the other notable differences between the book and film is the articulation of the monster's speech. In Shelley's book, the creature taught himself to read with books of classic literature such as Milton's Paradise Lost. The creature learns to speak in what appears in the novel as Early Modern English, because of the texts he has found to learn from while in hiding. In the 1931 film, the creature is completely mute. In the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, the original creature learns some basic speech but is very limited in his dialogue almost still preferring at times to communicate with grunts and growls to express his emotions. By the third film, Son of Frankenstein, the creature is again rendered completely mute.
In Mary Shelley's original novel, the creature's savage behavior is his conscious decision against his maltreatment and neglect because of his inhuman appearance, whereas in the 1931 film adaptation states that his condition is largely due to the effect made by Frankenstein's assistant Fritz (played by character actor Dwight Frye, who also played Renfield in Dracula with Bela Lugosi), who has provided a defective brain to be used for the creature. This suggestion that the monster's brutal behavior was inevitable arguably dilutes the novel's social criticism and depiction of developing consciousness. Though there are times despite such a defect, the creature responds to kindness as done to him in the scene with Maria, the little girl at the lakeside.
The deformed (hunchbacked) assistants of the first two films are not in the novel.
Also, in the novel, Frankenstein's name is Victor, not Henry (Henry Clerval was the name of Victor's best friend) and he is not a doctor, but rather a college student. Elizabeth is murdered by the Monster on her wedding night. The Monster also murders Henry Clerval and Victor's young brother William. Victor's father dies heartbroken after Elizabeth's murder and Victor begins his pursuit of the monster, which eventually leads to his death from an illness aboard a boat en route to the North Pole. The Monster, finding Victor dead, vows to travel to the Pole and commit suicide, although it is not revealed if he does so.
The film begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a "friendly warning" before the opening credits:
We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.
In the opening credits, Karloff is unbilled, with only a question mark being used in place of his name. This is a nod to the first stage adaptation when the monster was billed only as a question mark, and that Universal had not told who was playing the monster, and had not released any pictures of the monster in order to conceal his appearance. Karloff's name is revealed in the closing credits, which otherwise duplicate the credits from the opening under the principle that "A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating".
There was controversy around this point originally, as some part of the management of Universal built up the suspense of who was playing the creature to gather interest in the film as Bela Lugosi was still largely thought to be performing the role of the creature up until the time of the film's release. Some papers were erroneously still listing Lugosi as the performer. Some were coming to see if Lugosi had changed his mind and recanted to star in the film despite some published statements to the contrary, most notably the still famous "electric beam eyes" poster which still credited Lugosi as the monster and showed the creature without the now famous flat head, neck-bolt makeup (created by Universal Studios make-up artist Jack Pierce. Pierce also created Lon Chaney's Wolf Man make-up and Karloff's Mummy make-up as well). Others state it was because the film would cause the ruin of the performer in the role and wanted to minimize said actor's liability, for the original film went against the censor boards of the day, which resulted in some portions of the film starring actor as the monster being removed from the film, the most noted removal was the drowning scene of the little girl, Maria. These removed scenes have since been restored to the film releases as shown in the recent DVD releases of the original Universal films.
Bela Lugosi was originally set to star as the monster. After several disastrous make-up tests, the Dracula star left the project, lamenting the mute role as he did; Lugosi would soon regret the decision, now probably the most famously catastrophic and talked-about mistake of an actor refusing a role in film history. At least that's what Lugosi always said. But recent evidence suggests that Lugosi was kicked off the project, along with director Robert Florey. Ironically, Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline and only after Lon Chaney, Jr. complained bitterly about the possibility of him doing double work through trick photography to appears as both the Wolfman and the Monster in the film for about the same pay rate. Chaney had already appeared as the Monster in the previous Frankenstein film Ghost of Frankenstein, directly succeeding Boris Karloff in the role.
As was the custom at the time, only the main cast and crew were listed in the credits. Additionally, however, a number of other actors who worked on the project were or became familiar to fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria's father.
Jack Pierce was the makeup artist who designed the now-iconic "flat head" look for Karloff's monster, although Whale's contribution in the form of sketches remains a controversy, and who was actually responsible for the idea of the look will probably always be a mystery.
Kenneth Strickfaden designed the electrical effects used in the "creation scene." So successful were they that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as "Strickfadens." It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the then-aged Nikola Tesla himself. According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff in the electrical "birth" scene as Karloff was deathly afraid of being electrocuted from the live voltage on the stage.
Although Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant is often referred to as "Igor" in descriptions of the films, this is incorrect. In both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein has an assistant who is played both times by Dwight Frye who is crippled. In the original 1931 film the character is named "Fritz" who is directly hunchbacked and walks with the aid of a small cane. In Bride of Frankenstein, Frye plays "Karl" a murderer who stands upright but has a lumbering metal brace on both legs that can be heard clicking loudly with every step. Both characters would be killed by Karloff's monster in film. It was not until Son of Frankenstein that a character called "Ygor" first appears (here, he was played by Bela Lugosi and revised by Lugosi in the Ghost of Frankenstein after his apparent murder in Son of Frankenstein). This character — a deranged blacksmith whose neck and back are broken and twisted due to a botched hanging — befriends the monster and later helps Dr. Wolf Frankenstein, lending to the "hunchbacked assistant" called "Igor" commonly associated with Frankenstein in pop culture. The Igor character and its pronouncation would be specifically addressed finally in the parody Young Frankenstein whereby the Igor character specifically classifies the proper pronunciation of his family name as "EYE-gore" against the popular pronunciation of "EE-gore".
During the early stages of preproduction on the biopic Walk the Line, director James Mangold interviewed the biopic's subject Johnny Cash. Cash told Mangold that his favorite film was Frankenstein. Cash explained that the idea of a gentle figure being mistaken for a monster spoke to him at a personal level.
In 1991, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".
In the 1996 TV film Doctor Who, during the mortuary/regeneration scene, a mortuary assistant is shown watching the film. More specifically, the monster's reactions to its first moments of life, is paralleled in the Doctor's regeneration after he is pronounced dead.
This film was #27 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
The world's most valuable movie poster is the full color 1931 Frankenstein 6-sheet which is currently owned by Stephen Fishler, a NY poster collector. It is the only copy known to exist.
There is no musical soundtrack in the film, except for the opening and closing credits.
The next sequel, 1939's Son of Frankenstein, was made, like all those that followed, without Whale or Clive (who had died in 1937), and featured Karloff's last full film performance as the Monster. Karloff would return to the wearing the makeup and role of the Monster one last time in the TV show Route 66 in the early 1960s, but most discredit that appearance. The Monster is no longer wearing his trademark "too small jacket" but is now wearing a furry vest/coat (which will mysteriously transform back into the too small jacket in the next following film Ghost of Frankenstein when the creature climbs out of the sulfur pit without changing the vest off), and the sets and lighting have a decidedly expressionistic tone. Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh delivers his famous line: "One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots." The film also features Donnie Dunagan (who voiced Disney's Bambi) as Wolf Frankenstein's young son, Peter.
Many consider most of the successive films using the Frankenstein creation to be less than appreciative to the creature as most of those films merely demote the creature to the status of only a lumbering murderous robotic device that is mostly used as a subservient illiterate henchman in someone else's plots, such as in the creature's final original Universal company's film appearance in 1948 with the deliberately farcical Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein whereby Lugosi's Dracula plans to "dumb down the monster" in order to prevent the creature from any possible resistance to Dracula by transplanting Costello's brain into the creature. Mel Brooks's comedy Young Frankenstein parodied elements of the first three Universal Frankenstein movies.
Within Universal's Frankenstein films, the Frankenstein creature would largely be kept in the idea of a mostly mindless monster who is always rampaging and running amok murdering people, until the recreated Universal film company's 2004 film Van Helsing where the Frankenstein creature would return to the idea of being more human.
The popular 1960's TV show, The Munsters, depicts the family's father Herman as Frankenstein's monster, who married a vampire's daughter. The make-up for Herman is based on the make-up of Boris Karloff.
Little Maria is a character from the film, portrayed by Marilyn Harris. She is initially seen playing with her pet cat down by the old river. After she waves goodbye to her father, Frankenstein's monster appears and throws Little Maria into the old river. It is later revealed that Little Maria was killed in this incident.
A parody of Little Maria's death is depicted in the 1974 spoof Young Frankenstein. As this was 43 years after the original scene, that is seen by many to prove that the character has stood the test of time.
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