Frankenstein and the Unlimited Potential of Electricity

This lab is built for Power. Image: Science Factorama

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.

The wonders of 19th Century Science. Image: The New Verse News

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.

Frankenstein hunts down his creation. Image: Letterboxd

“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.

Source

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.

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56 comments

  1. An interesting piece, Ruth: many thanks.

    It’s surprising how much the movie differs from the novel in terms not just of the plot but of the science/technology. When I was commissioned years ago to write a children’s retelling of the novel, I reread it for the first time in decades and, having watched a registered 46,803 Frankenstein movies in the interim for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, was startled to discover that all the stuff about the galvanic vivification of a patched-together corpse was original to this movie (and thereafter became an established part of the movie canon). The novel, by contrast, is distinctly unclear as to exactly the scientific process that Victor uses.

    Natch, I tried to make the sci/tech in my retelling consonant with the novel’s hints. And, equally natch, there were a few folk who wondered why I’d “changed the original plot” by missing out the attic laboratory an’ the thunderstorm an’ Igor an’ . . . an’ . . . an’ . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for clarifying, John. It has been a few years since I read the novel and you’re right – the Coming-to-Life process is vague. I guess I got caught up in the movie, which I tend to do because of that great laboratory.

      Like

  2. Thank you for your erudite contextual backstory of Shelley’s novel. Re: your title …unlimited potential of electricity – In the era of the film’s release that potential was becoming a reality for many parts of rural America. The TVA and other New Deal projects enabled millions of Americans to electrifry their lives in their own homes and the public entertainment milieu. Perhaps, for some, FRANKENSTEIN was their first movie viewing experience. As to viewing the movie have you seen THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE? It is the story of a 7yr.old girl in rural Spain in 1940 seeing the movie FRANKENSTEIN and the effect it has on her life.A wonderful film.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I just finished reading the novel. Any similarity between the film and its source seems to be purely coincidental. The movie is first-rate on its own (although the novel itself isn’t well-written) but misses the essence of what Shelley was trying to convey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right. The film is very loosely based on the novel, which I quite liked. I guess the flaw in my article was my excitement over learning about science in the Enlightenment era. Perhaps I should have left the movie out of it.

      Like

  4. The Frankenstein lab was an amazing set and I believe it was used (or parts of it) in other movies, too. I like the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, though wish it wish it would stayed closer to the book. But Karloff makes a huge impact as the Monster and the atmospheric B&W photography set a new standard for horror films.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having just viewed again the 1920 German Expressionist THE GOLEM, one notices it’s influence on Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. No electricity- rather the all enveloping mist of conjuring the powers of the dark one, Astaroth, to animate the clay composition of the Golem. There are variations on the tropes of fire and innocence of young girl.The most obvious borrowing is the monster’s stiff lurching ambulation. And most likely Shelley was aware of the 17th century Jewish folklore version of the Golem

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I studied the novel at university–it’s a compelling story, especially the way Shelley creates empathy for the monster. The film is neat, especially for its time–I don’t think any of the more modern versions have done it any better!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What a wonderful post. I agree, it’s a gorgeous and important film, with so many levels. I do, however, find it difficult to watch repeatedly because it makes me terribly sad. I’ve read the novel many times, have taught it, too (alongside the film), and the book never evokes such sadness because the monster is rendered, ultimately, as an equal to Frankenstein in his wisdom, and ability to articulate his feelings and understanding of his situation, abandonment, and shunning by society, rather than a creature who is not only grotesque to behold, but also primitive in speech and behavior. Offhand, I can think of only a handful of passages in literature more poignant and pointed than this, “‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.'” It still gives me chills every time I read it. Many thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This is a great insightful article. Your style of writing is clear, concise and precise, and I very much enjoyed reading this great article. I should read Mary Shelley’s novel – Frankeinstein. Thank you for sharing. Have a great weekend

    Liked by 1 person

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