The original 1931 Frankenstein is a film rescued by film restoration. Before the 1990s it was television filler seen only in battered and prints with terrible sound. A much better appreciation could be had by looking at the beautiful stills of Jack Pierce's wonderful makeup work and reading magazine articles about details of the production. Famous Monsters of Filmland taught us to respect James Whale and consider the movie a classic, but to truly accept this fuzzy fossil required a lot of imagination.
In the 1990s a laserdisc release and then Universal's first DVD changed everything, with a new transfer from better 35mm printing materials, and newly restored visuals and dialogue that had been missing for 60 years. The reinstated scenes affirm Frankenstein as not only a great horror film but one of the better movies in film history, lending clarity to Boris Karloff's astonishingly evocative characterization. The movie goes beyond its premise of creating life from the dead to ponder the big questions: What is man's role in the universe, and why were we born to suffer?
If you haven't seen the original Frankenstein in the last fifteen years or so, here's what you've missed: When Henry screams "It's Alive!" he also declares that he now knows what it is like to be God ... a line originally deleted as blasphemous but reinstated from an early Vitaphone-style audio disc in the possession of Forrest J. Ackerman. (spoiler) Added scenes show Fritz torturing Karloff's traumatized Monster. When The Monster finally strikes back, we see the hunchback's hanged body. Most importantly, we now see the entire scene with Karloff and the little girl (Marilyn Harris), including his panicked reaction after he throws her into the water.
These additions clarify The Monster's true character. Although he's supposed to have a criminal brain, the monster is born as an innocent, a little confused but curious and certainly not malicious, at least not at first. He reaches for the light from above, clearly in need of something: Guidance? Acknowledgement? The Monster simply wants to know who he is and whether he's among friends or foes. When he meets his creator, his first action is to reach out to him as well, begging for human kindness and acceptance. Frankenstein turns away as if from a guilty shame, denying his 'paternity' and absolving himself of any responsibility for his creation. The pitiful monster becomes the property of the sadistic Fritz, who delights in finding someone to torment even more miserable than he.
The Monster in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's book was apparently a natural philosopher that proved a talkative mouthpiece for the author's ideas. James Whale introduced the idea of pathos, stressing the original's blasphemous presumptions. Just as Frankenstein creates and abandons his created Monster, God has created and abandoned mankind, which now struggles in its vices and cruelties, lost in the universe.
Anyone who has raised children realizes the overwhelming responsibility of serving as a loving role model, to give one's children security and a sense of self-worth strong enough to subsist in the world. The Monster reaches out for love and understanding and is taught only fear and hate. He's a victim, a terrified lost soul. When The Monster gestures toward the skylight, he may even be reaching out for God, looking for a sign, or anything at all that is positive. Whale is saying that The Monster is an abused child.
Fritz's cruelty drives The Monster to acts of violence and hatred. He also has terrible luck, the kind of luck that only happens to inexperienced romantics. His idyllic moment playing with a friendly girl and laughing in the sun lasts only about 20 seconds. He's not smart enough to realize that little girls don't float like flowers. From that point on The Monster is a dead duck. Nobody will understand him or even try to see beyond his ugliness.
Before the restoration it was logical to assume that The Monster was violent because he was ugly, or because of that faulty criminal brain. 1 The abrupt censor cuts made it look as if The Monster was going to seize little Maria and do God-knows-what to her; when she shows up dead in a later scene, the audience had good reason to assume the worst.
All of this only adds to the greatness of Boris Karloff's pantomime characterization. It's the most subtle, most human and most philosophically profound of the Universal monsters. The re-shot happy ending fools no one. The epitome of reckless ambition and bourgeois ignorance, Henry Frankenstein and his bride Elizabeth now seem unworthy. Our sympathies remain firmly with Karloff's Monster. The Mummy might resonate with colonial politics, The Wolfman is practically a fairy tale, and Dracula exploits the dark idea that forbidden sex is allied with Evil. But Karloff's Monster is the one most universally felt. He's a misunderstood outsider, a black sheep, an unwanted delinquent child, a Rebel without a Soul. No wonder every kid secretly identifies with him.
Universal's Frankenstein 75th Anniversary Edition is, like the Dracula 75th Anniversary Edition, a triple-dip from the golden video vault in Universal City. It looks the same or better than the very good 1999 "Classic Monster Collection" disc that knocked us all for a loop. The image is considerably worn and a few scenes ride a bit in the gate, but overall there is little reason to complain. I haven't seen the later "Legacy Collection" copy, but this third release does not use the overly zealous cleaned audio track, the one that dips to an unrealistic absolute silence when dialogue and effects cease. A natural light hiss comes through, just enough to remind us that our audio amps are still working.
The two-disc set retains the original extras and adds more. David J. Skal's excellent docu How Hollywood Made a Monster holds up extremely well, as does critic Rudy Behlmer's detailed commentary. Also returning are a poster and photo archive and the 1932 comedy short "Boo!" which uses lame Burlesque jokes to ridicule clips from Frankenstein, Nosferatu and The Cat Creeps.
The new material starts with Universal Horror, Kenneth Brownlow's excellent feature length docu that's also been placed on disc two of the concurrent Dracula 75th Anniversary Edition release. Karloff: The Gentle Monster is a career bio of the great actor using clips available to Universal without high licensing fees. Although the flashy editing transitions are tedious, the interviewees are allowed to express full thoughts in this docu as opposed to its counterpart on the Lugosi disc. Karloff's story also lends itself to better storytelling in the studio-controlled DVD added value format, which generally avoids controversial or negative content. New Wave did both new long-form featurettes.
New to Universal is Sir Christopher Frayling, who adds to his fine western commentaries with an academic yet entertaining assessment of the Frankenstein myth and the genesis of Universal's key monster. Frayling avoids over-intellectualizing and never makes statements that he can't back up with hard facts and reasoned arguments. His viewpoint is a fine complement for Mr. Behlmer's Hollywood-history track.
Until someone steps forward to tell us about some mistake that nobody has yet caught, Universal's Frankenstein 75th Anniversary Edition is a recommended purchase. Believe it or not, with the restored material the film is a good date movie. In what other fantasy does a horrible monster accidentally kill a small child, yet earns our complete understanding and sympathy?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Frankenstein 75th Anniversary Edition rates:
1. Of course, a brain pickled in formaldehyde can't be expected to function perfectly...
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