Skiffy Flix: Frankenstein

Have been busy the past few weeks with 1) family visits and 2) work on sfadb – the end is in sight. Very little reading in the past two months. But I have taken the occasional couple hours to watch old classic movies.

Today: the 1931 Frankenstein, which I’ve seen a couple times before, but not in decades. I’ll just post a few bulletized notes.

Sunday 29Sep19: some additional comments, and the bottom of the post.

  • The film is directed by James Whale, about whom a much later movie, Gods and Monsters, was made, with Ian McKellan as Whale.
  • The opening credits credit the source material to both a play and to the original novel by “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley,” because Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had been married to Percy Shelley. That’s how women were regarded, nearly 90 years ago, as attachments to their husbands.
  • The opening shot has a man — Edward van Sloan, who’d just starred in Dracula and stars here as Dr. Waldman — come onto the stage, as if in a theater, to address the audience, and advise them that the film might be disturbing, because, it is about a scientist “who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God” — immediately setting the conflict in homey terms, appealing to religious prejudices about scientific investigation and the supposed risks of “playing God.” I very much doubt these sentiments were in the original Shelley novel; but the film was made in 1931 Hollywood, and so appealed to American prejudices. Indeed, Wikipedia documents several examples of censorship or banning of the film.
  • Yet the central theme is not what it’s fear-mongeringly advertised to be: Frankenstein doesn’t “create” life in the sense of making something living from a petri dish of chemicals; he is reviving dead people. Or more precisely, reviving a collage of dead people parts.
  • I haven’t seen yet why the character names were changed from the novel, where it was Victor Frankenstein; in this film it’s Henry Frankenstein, and another character is given the name Victor. And Frankenstein’s assistant here is Fritz (not Igor as in Young Frankenstein).
  • The critical theme, it seems to me, is about the monster itself: innocently created, why does the film portray it as evil and violent? Well, because the crucial element of horror and thriller movies (and many stories) is that anything new and strange must be evil and dangerous. (Rather the opposite of science fiction’s presumptions.) The excuse here is that the brain used was a criminal brain. That’s doesn’t explain the monster’s physical power.
  • To the film’s credit the monster’s essential innocence is fully evident in several scenes, notably his encounter with a young girl at the lake. The monster’s innocence — it doesn’t understand the difference between tossing flowers into the water, and tossing in the girl — is tragic, but not evil. (And yet, the girl drowned from being thrown in a couple feet of water?)
  • This is the film in which the seemingly mad scientist cackles “It’s alive! It’s alive!”. This is the film in which the townspeople rise up with torches and chase the monster into a hilltop windmill and then burn it down.
  • It’s also about the scientist’s wealthy father, Baron Frankenstein, a dotty old man who’s only worried about his son’s marriage. The house they live in is lavish, with enormous drawing rooms and high ceilings and a large staff, lying at the edge, apparently, of a small village otherwise occupied by peasants. But lavish lifestyles depicted in films were one thing that drew people to the movies, in those days.
  • They key scientific premise, by the way, is that Dr. Frankenstein has discovered some new ‘ray’ beyond the ‘ultraviolet ray’, and this new ray is what brought life into the world, which he proceeds to prove through demonstration. He hoists the monster’s body up into the thunderstorm (it’s quite a grand set, actually) so that the electricity will activate the ray, apparently, not because electricity will directly bring the stitched-together corpse (back) to life.
  • The actors all speak in very flat American, almost New Yawk, accents, even when speaking German words (Herr as “hair”).
  • There’s virtually no music in the film, save at beginning and over the end credits.
  • The film is shot mostly on sound-stages, on those forced perspective sets you see in films of this era, where the stage rises and curves away at the back as if to suggest the other side of the hill is where a stage backdrop actually is. There’s one scene in which the cornered monster keeps turning as if to leap over a cliff, but he can’t because the stage doesn’t go back any farther.
  • The lake scenes were filmed at Lake Sherwood, just south of Thousand Oaks, northwest of LA.
  • Whale’s direction is occasionally very expressive, some of the closeup shots of the monster downright poignant, even if the editing there is abrupt.
  • The film ends with a wedding — as so many pulp SF stories of the day did — and a toast to the house of Frankenstein.

Later comments:

The Frankenstein story is famous, part of popular culture and known far beyond the field of science fiction, where it is regarded by some as the first actual science fiction novel (long before the idea of the genre of science fiction existed). Because it is about the idea of scientifically experimenting to see what the results are.

But I suspect the Frankenstein story endures because it confirms the fear many people have about what scientists do – the popular conception of the singular ‘mad’ scientist working alone in his lab – even if that was not the point of Shelley’s novel. This plot never seems to get old: scientist, not properly humble before the will and domain of god, creates something that gets out of hand, and then destroys him before the threat can become a danger to everyone else. Michael Crichton wrote this sort of story over and over, the story that fears discovery and change and whose resolution means defeating the change and returning everything to normalcy. There will always be conservatives and reactionaries for whom this story resonates.

At the same time, while I haven’t read Mary Shelley’s original novel in decades, I suspect that was not the simplistic message of her original novel, but that playwrights, and Hollywood, have simplified her book in a way to appeal mass audience prejudices. Just as, to take another example at hand, the idealistic themes of the original Star Trek series have become degraded and forgotten into the basis for standard Hollywood action/special-effects films.

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