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Frankenstein (1931)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/07/06 06:40:16

"Not yet topped, 75 years later."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED WITH LIVE MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT: Universal, of late, has been looking for ways to market its classic monsters to a new, young audience. They've recently announced a series of sequel novels from Dark Horse Press; they've inflicted bad Stephen Sommers movies on us. I can't help but think that the best way would also be the most cost-effective: Get some prints into theaters during slow months, and let the audience see just how good these films are.

It's not a flawless plan; I've got no doubt that there would be a lot of people laughing at the dated performances and talking back to the screen. But that's okay; it gets them in the theater, and gets them paying attention. And even if the audience is initially disrespectful, James Whale's lean, efficient filmmaking will stick with the audience, as will Boris Karloff's immortal performance, which many may only know from stills or parody.

The story, for those who somehow avoided Mary Shelley's novel and every other film version, has brilliant young doctor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) obsessed with the creation of life. He sews a man together from pieces of corpses, and animates it by harnessing a lightning strike, but in the harsh light of day sees it (Karloff) as not a man, but a monster, and abandons it to return to his pretty fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The monster, however, escapes its imprisonment, seeking out its creator, leaving a path of violence in its wake.

Karloff's performance is more than a makeup job; though this is a sound movie, he delivers one of the great examples of silent acting. He lurches from place to place, a creature built for bulk and power rather than delicacy. He gains our sympathy by being childlike, and picked on by Frankensteins little homonculus of a lab assistant (Dwight Frye), but also reminds us that children need to be watched and guided. It's a performance that isn't subtle, but doesn't seem any less genuine for its broadness

The rest of the cast is, to be fair, not as good as Karloff; only Frye really makes his character memorable. It's evidently just more fun to be the bad guy, and Henry Frankenstein never becomes the pathetic or disreputable character that the novel's Victor Frankenstein does; after the madness of invention wears off, he's too willing to accept blame and become a man of action. Indeed, one could argue that Henry's greatest sin is not the hubris of trying to usurp God's role as the creator of life, but not keeping tight enough control over his underling: How does this story end if Fritz swipes a healthy brain, and doesn't taunt the monster with fire out of spite?

As a screening-specific aside, it's interesting to note how much music can help or harm a movie. Frankenstein has no underscore; these wouldn't be seen until two years later, with King Kong. Composer Michael Shapiro sought to remedy this, performing his score live while the film was projected onto the screen at the Coolidge Corner Theater, and the result is rather less than the original film: It's an obvious, cringe-worthy score, and its reliance on musical clichés makes the scenes they're scoring seem silly. To be fair, he was playing a score written for an orchestra on a synthesizer, but the end result is irritating.

So, show this on the big screen, on film and unmolested. Seriously, Universal - a 75th Anniversary Dracula/Frankenstein double feature would run about two and a half hours and play well in multplexes, especially during a quiet month (September or early October?). Not doing so is just leaving money on the table.

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