In our opinion, Frankenstein (1931) is the best kind of monster movie.
The film is only 70 minutes, but it’s richly layered with questions about life and death, and what it means to be human.
These same questions are sewn into the novel on which it is loosely based, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. As you may recall from Greek mythology, Prometheus was a lesser god who created a man out of clay and stole fire from the greater gods to bring his clay man to life.
This is exactly what medical school dropout Henry Frankenstein* (Colin Clive) does to his creation in the film, a humanoid stitched together from pieces of dead bodies.
When he jump-starts the creature with electricity, he cries, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Naturally, Frankenstein’s friends think his pursuits are vile, but he dismisses such short-sightedness. When he and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), unearth a freshly-buried corpse, Frankenstein is almost motherly. “He’s just resting,” he says reassuringly. “Just waiting for a new life to come.”
As horrific as Frankenstein’s actions are, they’re based on actual practices. According to Kathryn Harkup, author of Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, medical students in the 1700s were, for the first time, allowed to dissect human bodies. “In 1752,” she writes, “[British] Parliament passed the Murder Act to allow the bodies of all murderers to be made available for anatomising…”¹
(This, incidentally, created many lucrative but unpleasant business ventures. Harkup says some condemned criminals pre-sold their corpses while awaiting execution; a few took payments from several different buyers.²)
Novelist Shelley apparently drew upon the life of a strange German alchemist named Johann Conrad Dippel†, who lived in Castle Frankenstein on the Rhine. Dippel developed an oil that, he claimed, could cure all diseases. He also performed experiments on human cadavers.³
Dippel was odd, but his experiments were not entirely unusual. Harkup says at the beginning of the 19th Century – Frankenstein was published in 1818 – “Science began to advance from an ad-hoc process, often carried out by wealthy individuals who had time and money to indulge their interests, to a professional process.”4
During this time, the Scientifically Inclined were exploring the connection between electricity and life, a form of galvanism.
Frankenstein’s lab, in the 1931 film, is a beautiful, art-deco workshop, built to withstand thousands of watts of electricity. When a storm rages outside, Fritz fusses over the electrodes, while Frankenstein notes the Electrical Potential in the air.
“The fascination with electricity in the Enlightenment period can be attributed to several factors,” says Harkup. “Until the 1720s electrical phenomena were scarcely known and still less understood. In a period of around 30 years, however, a tremendous amount of research was conducted with staggering results. … The power and potential of electricity seemed unlimited.”5
This reverence for electricity is stamped on the film. Look at the scene where the creature is brought to life during a ferocious storm. A burst of thunder powers the machines in the lab, and strings of electricity suddenly appear, dancing between pieces of equipment.
Frankenstein and Fritz raise the creature’s body to an opening in the roof, as though it were a sacrificial offering. Here, amidst jagged bolts of lightning, the body is charged with electricity.
After the storm abates and the creature is lowered, Frankenstein examines the results. He is stunned and thrilled when the creature’s hand starts to move.
That’s not all. Over the next few days, the creature begins to walk and respond to simple commands such as “Come in”, and “Sit down”.
Before long, the creature (Boris Karloff) develops more human traits, such as curiosity and fear. But, lacking a moral foundation and civil guidance, it becomes a danger to Society.
“In some ways, Frankenstein [the novel] can be seen as the summation of the previous century’s scientific achievements,” writes Harkup.6
The film captures this sense of scientific Wonder. The effects may look a bit dated in our era of CGI glitz, but director James Whale’s framing and composition still feel fresh. We want to be awestruck when we see how electricity can be harnessed, and he does not disappoint.
Frankenstein makes us feel like we’re standing at the edge of Fantastic Discovery, at a time when such discovery meant anything could be possible.
*Frankenstein’s name in the movie is Henry; in the novel it is Victor. The novel does not provide great detail on how the creature is brought to life.
†Some sources dispute this.
Harkup, Kathryn. (2018) Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
¹Ibid., page 127.
²Ibid., page 128.
³Ibid., page 21.
4Ibid., page 15.
5Ibid., page 184.
6Ibid., page 21.
Frankenstein: starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff. Directed by James Whale. Written by Garrett Ford & Francis Edwards Faragoh. Universal Studios, 1931, B&W, 70 mins.