Frankenstein, 1931. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L Balderston, Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh, and based on the stage play by Peggy Webling (from Mary Wolsencraft Shelley’s novel). Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark.
This film is all about atmosphere, large beautiful sets with extreme lighting and deep shadows. The performances are largely too big, Dr Henry Frankenstein is, from the start, ranting and raving about his experiments, but we don’t get any of the motivation or context from the novel. The surrounding characters are pretty languid overall, horrified and then very placid. There are several very talky scenes where nothing of note is discussed and Dr. Frankenstein’s father, the Baron, is the type of bumbling old man character who is constantly mumbling his lines, stage direction, and possibly line notes while wandering around the scene or performing some bit of “eccentric” stage business.
The real draw here, past James Whale’s exceptional visual direction, is Boris Karloff creating a sympathetic and sometimes frightening character through movement and grunts. Even under a great deal of makeup, he has glorious expressions (and his sunken cheek look came from him removing his partial bridgework). There are several iconic scenes that are due the combination of Whale and Karloff. One is the Monster’s encounter with a young girl, where they are laughing and tossing flowers into the water. When he is out of flowers, the Monster, no more than a grotesque child himself, doesn’t want to stop playing. So he tosses the girl into the water. Then, terrified by her screams and death, he runs away. Another is the fiery climax, which in a great departure from the novel, the creature apparently perishes in a burning windmill and Dr. Frankenstein perishes after leaping from the windmill into the crowd (the source for all future depictions of pitchfork wielding villagers).
More later …