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24 Things We Learned From the ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) Commentary

By  · Published on October 25th, 2012

For 81 years, those words have surely been said from at least one person to another every year around Halloween time, and for good reason. Not only is Frankenstein arguably the best of the Universal monsters from the 1930s, the monster at the film’s center has become a pivotal image for October 31st. So, to round our horror slate of commentaries, we’re diving into the classic original, our oldest film covered to date.

Naturally, this means we aren’t listening to any of the cast or crew from the film (although we get some quotations from director James Whale). Since the first commentary track came out in 1984 – King Kong Criterion Collection, which will be covered at some point here – films from days of old have to settle for film historians to talk shop while they play out. That’s not to say there aren’t invaluable bits of information found here, but expect lots of film theory and LOTS of snobbery. Who knows? Maybe Rudy Behlmer, who is featured here, likes to check his brain at the door with the rest of us. Checking brains at the door. Frankenstein’s monster. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but probably not a very funny one.

Let’s get the commentary started, shall we?

Frankenstein (1931)

commentators: Rudy Behlmer (film historian)

1. The “warning” at the beginning of the film was added late in the film’s production as pro-active measures towards religious groups getting up in arms about the film’s theme of man taking control of what is believed to be God’s power. Famed director John Huston, a staff writer for Universal at the time, wrote an early version of the warning. No word on if there was anything about “stinking badges” or not.

2. The “?” in the opening credits for the person playing The Monster is reminiscent of the story’s first stage production, held in 1823.

3. Behlmer notes the several variations on the Frankenstein story between Mary Shelley’s original novel and the different versions, both staged and filmed, throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. The historian gives a brief description of the night Shelley conceived of Frankenstein and runs through the history of the novels’ success. The story of that night can be seen in Ken Russell’s nightmarish and likely inaccurate Gothic from 1986.

4. 1823 not only saw the first production of Frankenstein performed for the stage, there were five different versions of the story being put on that year, some of them taking the story into the comedy genre. The creation sequence and Frankenstein’s assistant, named Fritz in this version, were not in the original novel but additions to the story from these first staged productions. This character was written as a mute in early drafts of the screenplay. Fritz taking an “abnormal brain” to put into the creature was also a late addition to the screenplay, and Mel Brooks thanks you.

5. Whale chose Mae Clarke for the role of Elizabeth without a second thought, as he had previously worked with the actress in Waterloo Bridge. Said Whale about the casting, “On Frankenstein, I asked for Mae Clarke for Elizabeth because of her intelligence, fervor, and sincere belief that Frankenstein would claim the public interest.” Behlmer notes the only other actress considered for the role was Bette Davis, but producer Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t think she had sex appeal. Kim Carnes would disagree.

6. Talks of Universal adapting Frankenstein to the screen were underway even before their version of Dracula released in February of 1931. Their version of Dracula was an adaptation of a staged version of Bram Stoker’s original novel courtesy of Peggy Webling and John Balderston, and the success of the film led them to take the same approach to Frankenstein. Screen rights for the play were bought from Webling and Balderston for $20,000.

7. Tests were done on the sets left over from Dracula to see how Bela Lugosi would fare as the Monster in this film, and the actor was announced as playing the part as early as April of 1931. The test went through the Frankenstein story up to and including the Monster awakening on the table. Other actors from Dracula filled in for the roles, as well. The makeup on Lugosi is said to have been reminiscent of Paul Wegener’s title character in The Golem, a film about a monster created out of clay who is brought to life by a Jewish rabbi, and Laemmle Jr. said in an interview the sight of Lugosi in the makeup made him “laugh like a hyena.” Lugosi didn’t want to play a mindless, speechless brute, and reports are that he showed up to the test with an air of arrogance. Early drafts of the screenplay also had the Monster as a much less sympathetic part. Lugosi passed.

8. The creation of a mate for the Monster was how the Webling/Balderston staged version originally ended, as does Shelley’s original novel. Several variations occurred to the staged version between 1823 and 1930, when Universal went looking for their next, big, horror classic. The ending with the mate had been cut in that time and doesn’t make it to the screen until The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.

9. Frankenstein’s special, electrical equipment was created for the screen by Kenneth Strickfaden, an electrician in the industry who created electric pyrotechnics for films from the ’30s all the way to the ’70s from spare parts of automobiles and electrical odds and ends. Said the special effects electrician, “The styling all depended on what kind of junk I had at hand.” Some Hollywood jobs are just outright awesome.

10. Whale: “I consider the creation of the Monster to be the high spot of the film, because if the audience did not believe the thing had been really made, they would not be bothered with what it was supposed to afterward. By this time, the audience must at least believe something is going to happen. It might be disaster, but at least they’ll settle down to see the show.”

11. Local and regional censor groups cut out lines of dialogue where Frankenstein exclaims he knows what it’s like to be God. The Hays Code promptly cut the lines out of every version of the film when Universal re-released it in 1937.

12. The old mill Baron Frankenstein refers to – and is later seen in the film’s climax – was originally written as the location for Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. This was changed to the abandoned watchtower seen as the doctor’s lab now, but the mill location stayed in the script for the story’s climax. Also, Baron Frankenstein’s reference is now considered a movie flub, so good job on that one, Whale.

13. Makeup artist Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff would meet for hours every evening in the weeks leading up to the film’s production to go over the Monster’s look. Karloff had a bridge of molars removed from his right side, and the actor sucked in his cheek. Pierce then shaded this. The color of the makeup was a blue-green combination, which, when put on human skin and shot with black and white film, gives a grayish look. Supposedly, it was Karloff’s idea to give the Monster extremely heavy eyes, making the creature look as if he is only partially aware of what’s going on around him.

14. In an earlier draft of the screenplay, Fritz the hunchback assistant doesn’t torment the Monster intentionally but accidentally unnerves the creature with fire when he tries to light a match. Dr. Frankenstein then uses a box of matches to thwart the Monster away, but the assistant maliciously kicks the creature after.

15. Behlmer notes the popular choice of referring to the Monster as Frankenstein. In fact, in Webling and Balderston’s versions of the play in the 1920s and 1930s, the Monster is referred to as Frankenstein on a number of occasions by various characters.

16. Among the many changes in the screenplay that came from the final writer on the film, Francis Edward Faragoh, including giving Fritz dialogue and moving Frankenstein’s laboratory from the mill to the watchtower, both Frankenstein and the Monster were developed into more sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters.

17. The creation of the Monster was an invention for the film, different from Shelley’s original novel and the staged versions of the story. In Shelley’s original novel, the details of Frankenstein’s experiment are left completely out, his manner of bringing a dead body back to life totally vague. See, this is what causes filmmakers to introduce electric eels into certain versions of the story.

18. This take on Frankenstein was the third put to film but the first after sound was introduced to the artform. The first was a 15-minute version filmed in 1910, a loose adaptation of Shelley’s novel with the Monster appearing as a furry hunchback a la Quasimodo with a white face. This version, produced by Thomas Edison, had the Monster created via chemical experimentation and the creature being defeated by the “power of love.” Behlmer refers to this Edison Studios version of Frankenstein as the first horror film.

19. Other versions of Frankenstein prior to this were the 1915 feature version called Life Without Soul, which featured a Monster without makeup. The third version was an Italian short called The Monster of Frankenstein. There are currently no known copies of either of these films available.

20. In Weblin’s version of the story, the Monster accidentally kills a dove and discards it in the lake, but the bird floats. Later on, the Monster goes out on a boat with Frankenstein’s young, crippled sister, a character not found in the novel or the film, and throws her in the water thinking she will float, as well. She drowns instead.

21. Marilyn Harris, who plays the young girl the Monster throws in the lake, was not a good swimmer at the time the scene was filmed. Despite the safety of rowboats nearby, Whale had the actress get thrown into the water by Karloff several times to ensure the shot. As with the scene of Frankenstein proclaiming what it’s like to be God, this scene was censored first by local censors and then by the Hays Code for the film’s 1937 re-release.

22. Behlmer notes the odd choices in location and time period for Frankenstein, as the clothing comes from different eras, there are no vehicles or telephones anywhere in the film, and the act of hanging bodies in a courtyard for public viewing wasn’t done in Europe after the turn of the 20th Century. Notes between a studio head and screenwriter Garrett Fort show that the studio even wanted all of the characters to speak in perfect English, getting rid of any indication it takes place anywhere in Western Europe. Fort felt that with names like Frankenstein and locations like Goldstadt, it couldn’t take place anywhere but Germany. The writer felt that changing the film’s location would force them to change the film’s title, as well.

23. Several local and regional censors requested cuts made on Frankenstein upon its release in November of 1931 even after it had gone through the Production Code Hollywood had in place at the time. Countries that outright rejected the film were Czechoslovakia, Italy, Sweden, Belfast, and South Australia. England made its own set of cuts upon the film’s release there. Regardless, Frankenstein ended up becoming a monster success. Forgive us this pun.

24. The end of the film was changed just before its November release to give it a more uplifting ending. Initially, both Frankenstein and the Monster perished in the fire at the mill, but reactions at test screenings caused Universal to reshoot a happier ending showing Frankenstein alive and with Elizabeth. This new epilogue was shot after Colin Clive had already returned to Europe, and a new actor was used in the single long shot in which we see the doctor.

Best in Commentary

“Of 30 available stories, it was the strongest meat and gave me a chance to dabble in the macabre. I thought it would be amusing to try and make what everybody knows as a physical impossibility seem believable. Also it offered fine pictorial chances, had two, grand characterizations, and had a subject matter that might go anywhere, and that’s part of the fun of making pictures.” -Behlmer quoting James Whale on why he did Frankenstein

“God bless the old boy. Without him, I would have been nowhere.” -Behlmer quoting Boris Karloff on what he thinks of the Monster

Final Thoughts

As expected, a film historian commentary is loaded to the gills with information, both new and obligatory bits that most have known for years. Still, Behlmer never slows with the information on Frankenstein he’s culled together over the years. Much of it is interesting. Some of it has the historian repeating himself, and listening to a subjective third party talk about a film can easily get bogged down under the weight of facts over personal insight.

Behlmer presents the facts with a scholarly air, but it quickly begins feeling like a professor lecturing. It’s still better than having no commentary at all.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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