Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Modern Prometheus

Boris Karloff and Marilyn Harris in Frankenstein (1931)

The last film I watched this October was James Whale's Frankenstein, a film I've written about twice before. I don't have a lot to add to the last piece I wrote about the film, which went through the film scene by scene (not quite shot by shot). With a few minor revisions, I've reprinted that piece here. The trick or treaters were all gone by the time I put on Frankenstein, and I had settled in to watch the film while wrapped in a big fluffy bathrobe and with a cup of mulled cider at my side. It was a fine, fine end to the Halloween season, though, in truth, I keep the spirit of Halloween in my black little heart every day of the year. Even Christmas.

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken."
--Mary Wollestonecraft Shelly, preface to the 1931 edition of Frankenstein.

Note, this is heavy on images. My apologies

Frankenstein, 1931. Directed by James Whale. Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke.

Edward Van Sloane in Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein opens with a short “warning” from the producers, spoken by Edward Van Sloan. He steps out from behind a curtain, which immediately places the film at a degree of separation from our own prosaic reality and, indeed, from the reality of more naturalistic movies. The material adapted by Whale and his collaborators comes to the screen from the theater (from a dreadful stage adaptation by Peggy Webling), and the prologue retains the film’s origins on the boards. This is followed by a credit sequence that seems lifted directly from the Germans. A number of eyes swirl in the background as the cast and crew are listed. This has no relation to the action of the film that follows, and, indeed, it is the only part of the film with an underscore.

Colin Clive and Dwight Frye in Frankenstein (1931)

The film proper begins in a graveyard, as Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, lurk near a funeral. This sequence and the one that follows it, are a pure example of Caligarism. There is not a straight horizon in this sequence. The horizon line rises and falls at steep angles. None of the gravestones in this particular cemetery rise vertically from the ground. They are all at angles, as if the unquiet occupants of the graves have knocked them askew. The first look we have of Doctor Frankenstein is from behind a wrought iron fence. The fence is at odd angles, too, and even though Colin Clive and Dwight Frye as the doctor and his hunchbacked assistant are filmed straight on, the effect is the same as it would be if the shot were an actual dutch tilt. The sum of these shots, the way that they are designed, indicates derangement and madness, much as Caligari portrayed madness and derangement with its production designs. As Frankenstein and Fritz exhume the body, Frankenstein is positioned beneath the first of the film’s many memento mori, a statue of the grim reaper himself. The trip to the gallows that follows immediately afterwards repeats these motifs.

Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931)

A comparison between these opening sequences and the one that follows, where Fritz makes a trip to the medical school is instructive. The scenes at the medical school have a substantially different design. The setting of these scenes is strictly rectilinear, all straight lines and right angles. This is a place of reason and learning, and the shot compositions are all low-angled and upright. There is power and rightness in reason, the camera seems to be saying. This is one of the very few sequences where James Whale allows the humor his films are known for to enter into the action, as a skeleton on a string elicits laughter from the assembled students and Fritz’s behavior as he grabs the wrong brain elicits a chuckle from we members of the audience. But even in this bastion of learning and reason, we find more mementos mori: the bouncing skeleton and the cadaver, who is filmed from the same angle as Andrea Mantegna’s “The Dead Christ.” This last composition anticipates Whale's use of crucifixion imagery in The Bride of Frankenstein, but that's another matter entirely...

Frankenstein (1931)

The film next shifts to Elizabeth’s perspective. The first shot of this sequence features a picture of Henry Frankenstein flanked by a candle. The arrangement of objects in this shot resembles a shrine to someone who is dead. This is another memento mori, although Whale makes interesting suggestions by framing this around an image of someone who is alive. The content of the relationships in this sequence is interesting, too. Why exactly does Elizabeth prefer the effeminate Henry Frankenstein to Victor Moritz, who is altogether more masculine, more self-assured, and more approachable. And what, exactly, is the relationship between Moritz and Frankenstein himself? The film leaves these questions hanging in the air, but I can’t help but wonder if Whale is making a veiled reference to the laissez faire free-love triangle of Byron, Shelly, and Mary Godwin (ne’ Shelly). It’s certainly a possibility, given that Whale returns to this triangle at the beginning of The Bride of Frankenstein. But I digress. Elizabeth is the weakest part of the film. Mae Clark is just wrong for the part (I much prefer Valerie Hobson in Bride, and I prefer Madeline Kahn to any other actress in the part), and John Boles as Moritz seems a Clark Gable wanna-be. These scenes are set in an oppulence that seems thirty years out of date. The sets in these scenes and in the scenes between Elizabeth and the Old Baron Frankenstein, and during the wedding sequence later in the movie, seem culled from a fin de siecle art nouveau print by, say, Alphonse Mucha or Maxfield Parrish (there is a composition later in the film, as Elizabeth sits at the knee of a recovering Henry that seems to have been stolen whole from Parrish). The manifestly retro nature of these scenes suggests an essential conservatism, a life that Henry Frankenstein rejects while he is walled up in his laboratory.

Mae Clarke and John Boles in Frankenstein (1931)

The scene where Elizabeth and Moritz meet with Dr. Waldeman is filmed in much the same manner as the other scenes in the medical school: a rectilinear design, consisting mainly of bookshelves. A hint of derangement creeps into this scene, though. Whale has placed a striking memento mori into these shots: a line of human skulls along the entire length of one of his shelves. This foreshadows Waldeman’s complicity in Frankenstein’s experiment later in the film, and foreshadows his death at the hands of the monster.

Edward Van Sloane, Mae Clarke, and John Boles in Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein’s laboratory is another exercise in derangement. None of the bricks of the walls follow a straight course. None of the walls themselves rise vertically; they all rise at odd angles. The shadows create unnatural forced perspectives. The electrical equipment is filmed at low angles, slightly tilted. This is a place of madness, the design is telling us. The principal memento mori in Frankenstein’s laboratory is the unliving body of the creature himself, mostly hidden under a sheet during the first sequence.

Frankenstein (1931)

Colin Clive and Dwight Frye in Frankenstein (1931)

This is followed by the creation scenes. These scenes are directly influenced by Metropolis and the creation of the false Maria. The method by which Mary Shelly’s creature was created is not described in the book (though galvanism is suggested). Whale’s creature is raised up to the cosmos during a raging thunderstorm and exposed to the life-giving ray beyond the ultraviolet. The arrival of Waldeman, Moritz and Elizabeth on the cusp of the experiment gives Frankenstein the opportunity to expound on his theories in a convenient piece of exposition. As I was watching this sequence, as Frankenstein expounded his theories, I couldn’t help but wonder if the screenwriters hadn’t been reading Lovecraft. The cosmic implications of what Frankenstein says here seems drawn more from his cosmos than from Mary Shelly’s cosmos. This also gives Colin Clive the opportunity indulge in a sneering monologue to his guests, as all good mad scientists must.

Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931)

As I said, this scene derives from Metropolis, but the morbid nature of the creature and the way it is filmed transform it into one of the cinema’s great scenes. The way the light from the electrical equipment lights the faces of Frankenstein and his assistant throws them into stark chiaroscuro, rendering them as one might see faces in the woodcuts of expressionist artists like Max Beckmann or Emil Nolde. It’s an effect that Caligari suggested but was never able to realize on screen. At the conclusion of this scene, we come across one of the film’s casualties: During Frankenstein’s rant that “It’s alive, it’s alive!” he proclaims that “Now I know what it’s like to be God.” This fell victim to the production code. Although Colin Clive can be seen mouthing these words, the actual sound has been fuzzed. Even in restored editions of Frankenstein, these words are no longer spoken. The sound discs for Frankenstein still exist, so this omission is doubly vexing. I'm told that the current edition of the film has restored this, but I haven't seen it.

Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931)

After this, we get some local color with Frankenstein's father, the Baron. His scene is one of the two sequences in the film where Whale lets his sense of humor out for a walk. The Baron, and his dismissive attitude toward the Burgomeister is pure comic relief.

John Boles, Mae Clarke, and Frederick Kerr in Frankenstein (1931)

After this, Frankenstein verbally fences with Waldeman, wherein Waldeman lets slip the fact that Frankenstein has used a criminal brain for his creation rather than a normal brain. Frankenstein gets another soliloquy about his scientific aspirations here, and it's interesting to note how many things he mentions that we not only know about, but that we knew about in 1931. Scientific literacy is not high on this film's list of virtues, though I can give it a pass given this film's setting in a not-specific mittel-European past tense. Then we get the arrival of the monster, heralded by a sinister clomp clomp of his boots. The first appearance of the monster is another of the cinema’s great moments. Boris Karloff backs into the room and slowly turns around. The camera zooms into his face with three abrupt cuts.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

His face is shocking. His heavy-lidded, sunken eyes are lifeless, his sunken cheeks are cadaverous, and his expression is the expression of the dead come back to life. In this shot, the reality that this creature is an undead construct is hammered home. That Karloff is subsequently able to win the audience’s sympathy for this creature is nothing short of miraculous. He begins to do this almost immediately afterwards, when he attempts to grasp the light that streams in from the high window that Frankenstein opens above him. There is something pathetic about the movement of Karloff’s hands, something poignant about a creature that has existed in darkness for so long that he instinctively tries to hold on to the light.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Colin Clive and Mae Clarke in Frankenstein (1931)

Both Fritz and Dr. Waldeman are murdered by the monster. Fritz represents Frankenstein’s derangement, Waldeman represents Frankenstein’s reason. The monster destroys both of them. (as a side note, I’ve always thought that Waldeman’s death was wholly deserved; he knows that the monster is dangerous, but does not take precautions against the monster waking up, the fool). I have some reservations about even calling Waldeman's death a murder, given that he was preparing to dissect the monster while it was still alive. It's easy to look at Frankenstein as a scientist with corrupted morals, but what does that make Waldeman? The monster's reaction to this seems entirely reasonable when faced with a man holding a scalpel over him.

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloane in Frankenstein (1931)

When the creature is in the light, it seems positively benign. But when it goes back into the dark, it becomes a raging monster again. It can be argued that the creature represents an externalized expression of Frankenstein’s own id. When Frankenstein is holed up in the gothic confines of his laboratory, the creature is in darkness, tormented by Fritz, desperate to escape. When Frankenstein escapes to his wedding bower, the creature escapes too, and is shown smiling for the only time while holding the flowers that the little girl gives to him. He is in full sunlight during this scene, while Frankenstein himself is basking in the love of his bride to be. When the monster commits a crime that externalizes Frankenstein’s crimes in the community at large, he retreats back to the half-shadows of the woods and proceeds to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding by visiting his sins upon him.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff and Marilyn Harris in Frankenstein (1931)

The murder of the little girl could be said to represent Frankenstein’s impending happiness as a married man. The creature murders that, too, even though it doesn’t mean to. This sequence is remarkable: There is genuine joy in the creature’s face as the girl makes friends with him. The whole thing is a sunlit idyll, undercut by the nature of the creature. The audience watches this scene with a mixture of sympathy and panic. We KNOW that the creature is going to do something awful, and we feel horrified as he does it before our very eyes. The look on the creature’s face as he turns back to the camera is a mirror of what the audience feels. He can’t believe he did it, he can’t believe it can’t be undone. This is another sequence that was a victim of the production code, fortunately restored on most current presentations of the film. It just goes to show that the code didn’t care how central a scene was to a film’s artistic integrity, if it angered the blue-noses, out it came...

Mae Clarke and Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931)

The scene that follows finds Elizabeth plagued by a psychic vision of something coming between them. Watch what happens to the shots of Frankenstein himself when it becomes clear that her fears are real and that the monster is in the house: angular shadows begin to appear, and derangement invades the conservative bastion of his father’s house. The scene between the creature and Elizabeth is a marvelous metaphor for a clumsy suitor, inarticulate and lumbering before his lady love, and forms one of the reasons audiences have identified with the monster over the years. This is the other scene where Whale lets his sense of humor color the scene. The pax de deux between Clarke and Elizabeth, with her screaming, then the monster grunting, then her screaming, and then the monster grunting again is too well orchestrated to be an accident. It's funny. This is one of the few scenes in the movie that calls to mind a specific line in Mary Shelly's book. "...but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night."

Boris Karloff and Mae Clarke in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)Mae Clarke in Frankenstein (1931)

Immediately after this sequence, with Elizabeth comatose from the shock of being tormented by the creature, the REAL sins of his past are visited upon him as the drowned girl’s father carries her body through the streets.

Frankenstein (1931)

What follows is a hounding of the monster by angry villagers. Frankenstein is himself among them (he leads the villagers who are searching the mountains), which is ironic, given that they might as well be hounding Frankenstein himself. On the other hand, in the original print of the movie (prior to alterations made to prints still in circulation in 1935 to accommodate a sequel) Frankenstein and his creature both meet their demise in the windmill. The last scenes of the film almost represent a silent interpretation of the central conflict in Mary Shelly's book. If the scene on the mountain top where Frankenstein faces his creation had been filmed in the arctic, it would be all of a piece. The climax in the windmill seems more rooted in the movies, again hewing to an expressionist aesthetic. The two shots of the monster and Frankenstein through the gears of the mill are particularly evocative if you're inclined to read visual compositions symbolically.

Colin Clive in Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

The print of the film that I watched for this review feature the ending where Henry Frankenstein survives his fall from the windmill and is shown recovering at his father's house. The original version of the film was not so forgiving of him, perhaps contributing to the many problems with film had with the censors both before and after the code was enforced. If I view Frankenstein on its own, as a singular film (which is impossible these days), Frankenstein has to die. It's the price of his hubris and it's how the novel ends. The monster, by contrast, has to live. This is something that the original version of the film fumbles a bit, but I suspect this was included as a crumb to the censorship boards nationwide. If so, it didn't work. It was still a widely-banned film. The fact that it survived into the production code era is a testament to the mark it made on the public consciousness, and, of course, to the piles of money it made for Universal. It's one thing to ban a marginally successful film like Men in White or Female, it's quite another to ban a box-office juggernaut. Frankenstein and his monster have always been good at fending off angry villagers, after all.

I’ve always preferred this film to its sequel (I also prefer Son of Frankenstein, but that’s neither here nor there), mainly because it is more overtly frightening than The Bride of Frankenstein. The lack of a score amplifies many of Whale’s effects and gives the film a breathless, neurotic quality that is absent from the other Universal horror films that followed it. And Karloff gives one of the great performances in this movie. I had forgotten just how good Karloff is here--over the years, I’ve let his work in movies like The Body Snatcher, The Black Room, and even The Bride of Frankenstein blind me to the accomplishment of his signature role. It’s iconic, and all the more remarkable for its complete lack of dialogue; one of Karloff’s greatest gifts is that menacing/half lisping voice of his, and even deprived of that tool, he proves himself at least the equal of Lon Chaney.

In any event, Frankenstein remains one of the essential horror films. Hell, it’s one of the essential films of any type, and echoes from Frankenstein continue to reverberate through the cultural echo chamber even eighty years after the fact.

Final Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 33

First Time Viewings: 23

And so ends this year's October Challenge.

October Challenge Banner Thing version


Timothy S. Brannan said...

Awesome way to end the challenge!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I know, right? I oughta end every challenge with one of the great Universal horror films. Maybe The Mummy next year.

Laura said...

This is one of the best write-ups of Frankenstein I've ever read. The scene by scene take on the Monster as Frankenstein's id (with Fritz as his derangement and Waldeman his reason) was masterfully done.

"I prefer Madeline Kahn to any other actress in the part". This is true.

I hold a very special place in my heart for Bride of Frankenstein due to fond childhood memories (including a still active idolatry of Elsa Lanchester), but Frankenstein definitely trumps any sequel when it comes to, well, spooks. The atmosphere of impending doom is unbeatable.

And yes, The Mummy would be a perfect follow-up for next year!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I think The Mummy it will be. Possibly with a side order of The Black Cat. Need some Lugosi in there, too. This depends on how I spend my Halloween next year, of course.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent piece. I've seen this film countless times, many of them while calling myself a scholar, and your post here has shown me things about it I never noticed before. Kudos!

I too have always preferred FRANKENSTEIN to BRIDE OF. When I got to see them back-to-back on the big screen last year thanks to the TCM extravaganza, that preference was driven home even more. It seems to me that compared to BRIDE, with its copious comic relief (too copious for my tastes) and odd interludes (Praetorious's creations, Elizabeth's overwrought dream synopsis, etc.), that the original is a tightly wound watch, clicking along with relentless narrative precision. There's hardly any wasted moment, something that cannot be said, I think, for the sequel, in spite of all its greatness.

FRANKENSTEIN's also more frightening of a movie, which is always a plus for me.

Sorry I missed the 30 Days of Halloween while it was going on. I'm reading your adventures now and adding many movies to my to-watch list. Happy belated Halloween!