The essentials – Frankenstein (1931)

William Henry Pratt

A name can conjure up an image of a person – Take Troy McClure from The Simpsons for instance. With a name like that he could be nothing other than a square jawed, clean living hero. Similarly Dickens’ Bill Sykes could be  nothing other than a brutal low life.

But what about William Henry Pratt?

That was the name Boris Karloff was brought into the world with – In 1909, Pratt travelled to Canada and began appearing in stage shows throughout the country; and some time later changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”. Some have theorized that he took the stage name from a character a mad scientists no less,  in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy  called “Boris Karlov”. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films.

It was James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein that made Karloff a star, but this movie came at the end of a decade and more of backbreaking stage work, silent movies and menial labour.

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.

Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play the creature but the actor, then a considerable star after the success of the Dracula movie, wasn’t happy to play a part with no dialogue, and so he quit the production. “I was a star in my own country,” Lugosi told reporters. “I will not be a scarecrow over here.”

Indeed plans for Lugosi in the role were so advanced that advertising posters, feature the actor in the role, had already been released. Take a look at the poster here which shows how different Lugosi’s make up would have been. Lugosi actually went through several make up tests before leaving the production. Of course Lugosi would play the role years later in Frankenstein meets the Wolfman.

Karloff though was brilliant in the role and all these years later it is impossible to think of anyone else bringing the creature to life in the way Karloff had. Bela Lugosi couldn’t do it, nor could Christopher Lee, Robert DeNiro or any of the others who have tried over the years.

In Karloff’s hands the creature created by Frankenstein went in a direction even the film’s director, James Whale couldn’t imagine. It became a sympathetic character – this patchwork creature made from the dead was childlike, innocent as it shuffled upon ill coordinated limbs. Immediately Karloff’s representation of Frankenstein’s monster became firmly lodged in the collective consciousness. Even today artists and film makers use Karloff’s monster as the blueprint for any new creation. For instance think of the TV show, The Munsters – Herman certainly wasn’t based on Christopher Lee’s version of the monster and even sebsequent editions of Mary Shelley’s novel used a Karloff-alike figure on the covers.

So how does the  movie hold up now? Is it watch-able by the post slasher film fan? Well yes – it has a charming quality all of its own but it still has the ability to suck the viewer in so that the story becomes very real, and for the duration of the movie that slightly creaky monochrome world exists within our imagination.

A classic of the genre that no serious fan can do without.

Even now, in the age of hi definition and Blu-Ray – “It’s alive.”

One Response to “The essentials – Frankenstein (1931)”

  1. Jerry House Says:

    That Pyramid edition shown was the first edition of Frankenstein I ever read.

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