The big question among fans of Universal's horror films tends to be which of their 1931 classics was better: Dracula or Frankenstein? Personally I'd say Dracula, but both films are up there with the best ever cinematic adaptations of their respective novels. They're certainly by light-years the most iconic, although Hammer is worth a mention too.
Returning to my opening comparison, Frankenstein has outstanding central performances and bold, dynamic direction from James Whale. In contrast Dracula looks like a stage play. Visually speaking, Whale's work on the first two Frankenstein films is in a league of its own. Clearly inspired by German Expressionism, you've got these dizzying sets in which the actors are dwarfed by cathedral-like ceilings and strange, slightly mad angles. There are experimental shots, such as the scene where Frankenstein and his creation are glaring at each other through a gigantic mill wheel. The camera's moving around in a surprisingly modern fashion. It's a feast to look at.
Unfortunately it doesn't quite work. It's all very well being experimental, but Whale's clearly pushing the boundaries of what was possible in Hollywood in 1931. The camerawork is occasionally wobbly. There's a place for hand-held shakycam, but that place is not German Expressionism. In addition the editing is clumsy, with story transitions being undersold and shot-by-shot continuity always not being preserved. To an extent you accept this. It's seemingly something that Whale wasn't too worried about, being happy to put together cool shots without letting himself be handcuffed by the visual logic. That's fair enough. It does look impressive. However it's a shame that the film's managed to let itself look dated even in this minor way, since otherwise it's great enough to be timeless.
I should say more about those dodgy transitions. This 71-minute film moves like a bullet and you've certainly got no chance to get bored in those early scenes where Frankenstein hasn't yet built his monster. That's good. However on the downside, Frankenstein has two major emotional changes that needed more time and weight. He goes from mad scientist to loving bridegroom and finally to My Monster Must Die, each of which happened abruptly enough to startle me. Oh, the film works. None of this derails the story or anything, but these are points where a little more character work could have made the film even stronger.
All that said, James Whale is still a Good Thing. He's done bold, magnificent work and he's the only director of these Universal classics whose name is still recognised today, as opposed to a whole host of actors (Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, etc.).
As for those actors, they're astonishing in both Dracula and Frankenstein. The films have a partially shared cast, by the way. Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye appear in both, while Bela Lugosi was offered the role of the Monster and even shot some test footage on Dracula's sets, with completely different make-up involving a wig and "polished clay-like skin". That footage is now lost. Anyway, Lugosi rejected it because it was a non-speaking role, although twelve years later he'd end up playing him anyway in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.
There are two actors whose work you'll want to watch. Van Sloan and Frye are always good value, but the latter in particular got far more to do in Dracula as Renfield. No, the big two are Frankenstein and his Monster, Colin Clive and Boris Karloff respectively.
I'll talk about Clive first. I seem to remember he either had or would later have alcohol problems, but here he's terrific. No one's told him this is going to be remembered entirely for Karloff, since he's tearing through the film with silent-era intensity in a performance that deserved better than being overshadowed like this. The script and direction aren't helping him when it comes to those aforementioned story transitions, but he's strong enough to blast over all such obstacles anyway. Everyone knows about Karloff, but Clive is this film's secret weapon. Even leaving aside the rest of the film, he's one of the best Frankensteins I've seen.
Then there's Boris Karloff.
I'm something of a reluctant Karloff fan. He's always seemed like a stage actor who hasn't realised there's a camera pointing at him. Even late in his career, he'll have these little moments where there's nothing behind the eyes. However what he achieves here is colossal enough to justify every last scrap of his reputation. It's a tour de force, with entire dimensions that his immediate successors in the role couldn't even begin to imitate. Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange didn't even seem to be trying. I quite like Bela Lugosi in the role, but his voice made test audiences fall about laughing and so his performance got cut to shreds in the editing suite.
Karloff however has found the perfect role for him, seemingly written to show off his theatrical strengths. Apart from grunting noises, it's entirely physical. He's putting so many different qualities into his Monster, on the one hand a lurching zombie and yet on the other someone who's effectively a new-born child. He's innocent. He's even sweet, with his most charming scene of all being the one in which he drowns a little girl. He's got those pendulous ape-like arms and that clumsy gait, but what his successors missed is the energy and unstable momentum that makes them more interesting. He hasn't really mastered walking, but you've got to love his attempts at doing so.
He's vital, bestial and dangerous, but with a soul. He has a brain-damaged, retarded manner of expressing himself, but that just makes it more interesting. Karloff can plead with his eyes, while you've got to laugh at the look on his face when he realises he's being dissected. It's not surprising he gets peeved at that.
Yes, Karloff really is that good. Better still, he'd hang around for the next two sequels.
On the downside, there are also some terrible and/or inappropriate performances. The only thing that makes Mae Clarke's Elizabeth look good is standing next to John Boles's Victor. Boles simply doesn't understand this new-fangled screen acting. He's being melodramatic even in casual conversation and ignoring his fellow actors. He's a joke, but even weirder is Frederick Kerr's Baron Frankenstein. Nothing about him fits in with the rest of the film. He's basically the Brigadier in The Three Doctors, a comedy blimp who doesn't have a clue about anything. Kerr's bumbling is arguably more realistic than the tone of the rest of the film, since he's merely a clueless old man who's looking forward to his son's wedding, but this isn't a realistic film. The upshot is that his scenes feel like a waste of space.
It's time I talked about the script, which surprisingly is only based indirectly on Mary Shelley's novel. (They credit her as Mrs Percy B. Shelley. Hmmm.) More than a century had passed since the original novel was written, in which time generations of stage plays had twisted the story into a more dramatic shape. The film claims to be adapted from a play by Peggy Webling, but film historians have apparently traced its stage antecedents back to 1823. That's where the Igor-like hunchback Fritz comes from, although Chinese whispers would seem to be the best explanation of the way Henry and Victor have swapped names. You'll also look in Shelley in vain for the lightning storm birth of the Creature, which is so instantly iconic here that it became the rule for all Frankenstein films thereafter.
As an adaptation of Shelley, it's intelligently stupid. The ideas are similar, but they've dumped the characters' motivations and two-thirds of the narrative. Shelley's thoughtful, verbose Creature has become a snarling brute. There's no murderous vendetta in this version, being instead a tale of tragic innocence and well-meant disasters. What's more, all this is for the best. What's left works much better as a story, being weighed down neither by philosophising nor by hilarious coincidences. Besides, there's a fuller exploration of Shelley's themes in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Put the two of them together and the resulting 146-minute gestalt might be one of the most oddly faithful Frankenstein adaptations yet.
It's slightly edgier than you'd think, although this is still a movie that's always had a huge children's following. There's a line in which Frankenstein compares himself with God, which was in the original pre-Hays Code version but got cut when it was re-released. There's also the death of a child, which is something that movies get nervous about even today. Presumably that's why the producers inserted a prologue of Edward Van Sloan delivering a cautionary speech to the audience, although that's nothing compared with the even more elaborate framing sequence for Bride of Frankenstein.
This isn't a perfect film, but it's a remarkable one. It feels as if it's gone mad when we're wasting time on Frankenstein's dad and the Burgomeister, but Karloff and Clive are towering. I particularly love the latter's line: "This body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it." Meanwhile James Whale is going to town. It has one of the most important make-up designs in the history of cinema, courtesy of Jack Pierce. Even the sets and special effects aren't dated at all, except if you're being picky with the burning windmill model. Fire doesn't scale well.
Bizarrely the sequel would be even better. What do they think this is, a Marvel superhero franchise?