Frankenstein is undoubtedly one of if not the most recognizable creatures to haunt the big and little screen. The make-up used in the Universal Frankenstein films is still associated with Frankenstein’s monster despite numerous adaptions during the silent era and throughout the proceeding decades. One would be hard pressed to find a media that Frankenstein’s creature has not impacted in some way. From movies, comic books, models, toys, television, lunch boxes and breakfast cereal, Frankenstein’s creature has had perhaps the longest and most substantial impact of any fictional character in history.
Frankenstein first lurched into the public imagination in 1818 making him the oldest of the Universal monsters and even after 200 years on the prowl there is no indication the he is losing his foothold in the horror realm. It is for this reason that Frankenstein’s creature is considered by many horror fans to be the king of monsters. Although Frankenstein 1931 was not the first horror film produced, it’s success at the box office as well as the success of Dracula released earlier the same year that made Universal Studios leader in the Horror genre during the 30’s and 40’s.
“The monster not only gave me recognition as an actor it created for me a certain niche, which has given me a career” Boris Karloff once said of Frankenstein's creature.
In late 1931 in darken movie theaters across America, audiences watched as Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Waldman in the film, steps from behind a closed curtain and gives a friendly warning to the audience:
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle [the producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation - life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even - horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to - uh, well, we warned you.”
This short monologue set the tone for the film. Shocking? Horrifing? It certainly was at the time. Riding on the heels of Dracula's box office success, James Whale's Frankenstein, starring ColinClive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff as the monster opened on 4 November 1931. Critics praise the film and moviegoers flocked to the theaters earning Universal Studios huge profits. It was voted one of the best films of the year by the New York Times and earned Universal Pictures millions while the production cost was only $ 262,000. Although not the first horror film by any means, it would be the film that would have the longest and deepest impact on the horror genre. There would be many more films to follow none of which would have the impact that Frankenstein had had. Now nearly a century later Frankenstein is considered one of the best films of 1931.
In 1930 Universal Pictures bought the rights to the play Frankenstein written by Peggy Webling which was adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley for a whopping $20,000 plus 1 percent of the worldwide gross, this of course was during the beginning of the Great Depression when the average income was under $2000.00 per year. It was writers Francis Faragoh, Garret Fort, John Balderston, Robert Florey and John Russel who turned the play into one of the most chilling screenplays of the 1930s. Robert Florey and John Russel did not receive them credit for their contributions in writing the screenplay.
It took three and a half hours to apply the monsters makeup, which according to Karloff was a very painful ordeal. Originally Bela Lugosi was approached to play Frankenstein's creature. However after several makeup tests and intense negotiations Lugosi decided to decline the role. It should be noted that the role that Lugosi was offered was an entirely different from the role Karloff would accept. At the time Lugosi was offered the part the final script had not been completed and at that time Frankenstein's creature was simply a mindless killing machine. Lugosi upon declining the role stated "I was a star my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here." However in 1943 Lugosi would play the role of Frankenstein's creature in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.
Frankenstein is unique in that there is no clear-cut hero or villain for that matter. It is Henry Frankenstein's blind determination that leads him to construct a creature he cannot control. When Henry Frankenstein turns his back on the being he has brought to life, the creature finds himself thrust into a world that he does not understand and is totally unprepared for. The creature although enormous in stature and strength is lacking the intellectual and emotional maturity to interact with society. Frankenstein's monster not only becomes the villain but also the victim. Although he had no speaking parts in the film Karloff did a tremendous job projecting the creature's fear and frustration. Karloff’s performance earned him critical praise, legions of fans and launched the career that would last for decades.