Saturday, July 29, 2006

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

After the success of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), Universal Studios began production for an adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel about a scientist who recreates life. The production was originally to be directed by Robert Florey, and the monster was to be played by Dracula star Bela Lugosi. However, Florey was later replaced by rising director James Whale, and Lugosi backed out of the role since there wasn't a single line spoken in the monster role, hurting his ego. Boris Karloff was given the role of the monster and the rest, as cliche as it may sound, is history. James Whale's Frankenstein, despite its substantial difference to Shelley's novel, is the most enduring version of the tale. Ahead of its time, the film remarkably put a sympathetic human trait to the monster, blurring the edges of the notion that monsters are purely evil. Here, the monster is portrayed as misunderstood child, not a terrorizing fiend.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), kicked out of medical school for his insane obsession of creating life, has holed himself in an abandoned watchtower with Fritz (Dwight Frye), his hunchbacked assistant. Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), Henry's fiancee, and Victor (John Bowles), his best friend, have become worried over Henry's long absence and decided to see what he's up to. They bring along Henry's professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to the watchtower where they witness the birth of Frankenstein's monster (Karloff).

The film offers us two variations of the monster. The most obvious one is of course, Frankenstein's creation and the other is Henry Frankenstein himself. In one of the film's early scenes, Frankenstein and his assistant are shown waiting on a burial and right after the mourners have left, the two start exhuming the remains in frenzied abandon. Thereafter, they steal a corpse tied to a post, and finally, the assistant robs from the medical university a freshly harvested brain (of a criminal, though). Whale shows Frankenstein as utterly insane, equal to being blasphemous. Frankenstein's obsession is not entirely for mere discovery, but for being equal to God, as shown when his experiment was accomplished and with disquieting glee, he announces that he knows how he feels to be God. Whale's Henry Frankenstein is not merely a mad scientist, but an insatiable beast. He represents man in its most insatiable, whose inability to be satisfied has caused him to puncture the threshold of what is moral, all in the name of science.

Once Henry Frankenstein recovers from this insanity, he becomes less interesting. Thus, Whale focuses his attention to the other monster and depicts him with touches of humanity despite its terrifying exterior. We first see the monster in a scene where Henry Frankenstein tries to show Dr. Waldman that there is nothing evil with his creation. Truly, the monster's first sequences show him as a child with very little motor skills and cognitive understanding. Like a toddler learning how to walk, he carefully steps toward his father, Frankenstein. This culminates in one of the film's most beautiful scenes where Henry Frankenstein opens a window, and the monster, attracted towards the light, stretches his arms to gather the illumination. It is a scene that summarizes the conflict within the monster: it is inherently a product of twisted morality, but is in itself, searching for light. That scene also foreshadows a more important sequence that will follow, where the monster commits murder, not out of spite or out of his brain's criminal tendencies, but out of childlike innocence.

Whale's tragic depiction of the monster may probably be understood as a reflection of his homosexuality within the conservative social framework of the thirties. It's a valid point as Shelley's novel depicts the monster as what it really is, a murderous monster. However, the more interesting reading of the monster's humanity is the fact that the monster is indeed just a child, and because of its imposing features, is misunderstood by everyone except, initially by its creator, and another creature of innocence, a little girl who welcomes the monster undaunted, but attracted to it as if it were a peer. The monster's attraction towards beautiful things, and its violent reaction towards pain and fear are mere attachments of its supposed youth.

Frankenstein became Whale's ticket to success. Despite having directed a few features before it, it was Frankenstein that put him in the map, and deservedly so. Whale's direction here is sublime. His imagery ranges from beautiful to simply poetic. Another masterfully directed sequence is when a father walks by the town, carrying the lifeless body of his daughter. He starts alone, and Whale shows the shocked faces of the townpeople who were only a few minutes ago, joyfully celebrating. Slowly, the the single man multiplies and turns into a whole mob of angry townsfolk out to destroy Frankenstein's monster. The monster's demise is much more poignant: a little misunderstood child, wailing and crying, trapped inside a burning windmill surrounded by the same townspeople who have judged it as evil way before understanding what it truly is.

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