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Wednesday, October 19, 2016
James Whale | Frankenstein
rooting for the monster
by Douglas Messerli
Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), and John Russell (uncredited) (screenplay, based on a play by Peggy Webling, based, in turn, on the novel by Mary Shelley, composition by John L. Balderston), James Whale (director) Frankenstein / 1931
The other day I determined to watch Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein again, films I had not seen since my childhood. I was far more impressed with James Whale’s filmmaking this time than I was as a rather snobbish child, when the horror genre little interested me.
Of course, there is still a great deal of nonsense in Whale’s version of Frankenstein; the very whole idea that Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) who speaks like blustery country Englishman should live in a Tyrolean village where the “peasants” celebrate his son’s wedding with Schuhplatter dances makes for some quite ridiculous moments.
What I was also struck by this time was what a real scientific nerd Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) truly was (even his professors had thought he had gone too far), yet how quickly he turned against his own monster (the strangely handsome, at moments, Boris Karloff), even threatening his creation with his torch, while permitting his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to actually torture him, leading the monster to kill his assailant.
Also surprising to me was how few monster encounters appeared in the original film, as opposed to the several sightings by characters in The Bride of Frankenstein. Yet the one scene depicted is worth everything just for its black humor: meeting the little girl who gives the monster half of her flowers and shows him how, if you throw them into the lake, they will float. They each throw them, one by one, watching them gaily drift away. When they run out of flowers to toss into the lake, the joyful monster picks up the girl and tosses her into the water; evidently, she can’t swim. You might almost think that Mel Brooks wrote the scene.
How the girl’s father immediately knows that the monster has killed her (or for that matter, that anyone has killed her) is somewhat inexplicable, as is the mass hysteria that overcomes the villagers. But by that time, after sensing that something is wrong, Henry’s bride-to-be is attacked by the monster, and Henry leads one of hunting parties in search of beast, shouting to his men “Stay together men!” while ordering them, in the next second, to break up into two groups.
Even though the craggy hills look very much like a sound-stage, Whale creates stirring portraits in nearly all of his night scenes, and the chase, with the creature capturing his maker, Henry’s fall from the tower, and the mill’s being set afire certainly doesn’t disappoint in its excitement.
Fire and light, indeed, seem to be subthemes throughout this work. The monster is kept the dark for days before he finally, and only briefly, is allowed to witness light, a very touching scene as Karloff slowly raises his hands in his pleasure of beneficent sun. As I already mentioned, both his creator and assistant control and torture the monster through his terror of fire. And it is fitting that, presumably at least, the monster is consumed by fire as well.
Finally, Frankenstein’s monster seems to not have been given even the slightest of chances by human beings to be spiritually “brought into the light.” Endowed with a “bad” brain, he is doomed, as evidently many are in this German-like territory where hanging is a common occurrence, to die before he has even come to life. The murder of the monster, accordingly, is almost a kind of abortion, turning him into the most poignant figure of the film—despite his murder of two and attempted killing of others. Whale was a kind genius to make us root for the monster instead of those who attempt to free themselves of him.
Los Angeles, October 19, 2016