UNIVERSAL MONSTERS LEGACY – FRANKENSTEIN – MAN & MONSTER

by Jake on October 8, 2012

Colin CliveA smartypants will tell you that the name ‘Frankenstein’ is that of the man who made the monster, not the monster itself.

This is, of course, technically true. My argument is that the Monster is definitely the offspring of Frankenstein and, as such, is just as entitled to the name as his “father”.

Mary Shelley’s novel covers a wide range of topics: personal responsibility, womb envy, the heady stuff of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. But for our purposes, we’re going to talk about the monster in the movies, specifically the Universal films of the 30′s and 40′s.

The point of these articles has been the notion of how those Universal Monster movies have influenced the popular notion of the characters they portrayed. There is absolutely no case where this is more true than the Frankenstein story. Almost every idea we have of the Monster and his creator are directly attributable to these movies. Here are some things that are not to be found in the original novel: electricity as the method of animating the Monster, the Monster as a mute, lumbering, flat-headed (?) stitched half-wit who fears fire, the green skin (which isn’t technically a factor in the black and white movie, but many horrific scenes were shown with a green tint, which may be the source of this idea), the mad scientist with the hunchbacked assistant – okay, the hunchback thing is actually not technically part of the movies at first, but the origins are there – Igor (not what you think!) and, of course, the Bride of Frankenstein. All of this is really these movies.

The MonsterIt started off simply enough: ‘Dracula’ was a huge hit. Bela Lugosi had star power, and it was thought by the powers that be that the next project should be the Frankenstein story. Well, the script Lugosi was handed was an insult, really – just a story about a brutish killing machine – and the actor turned it down. While he was probably right to do so, this paved the way for his biggest competition for the king of horror title: Boris Karloff.

The final script was much better and, for whatever reason, James Whale was hired to direct. Whale was a truly gifted director, who made the most of the resources available to him. While ‘Dracula’ is memorable largely due to Lugosi’s performance, ‘Frankenstein’ is a real cinematic masterpiece: a brilliant result of great camera work, lighting, sets and performances.

A special note has to be made of Kenneth Strickfaden, here. He created the crazy electrical doodads for the lab scenes in these movies. Tesla coils, electrical Jacob’s ladders, just wonderful gizmos.

We all know the story: Dr. Frankenstein (in this case, Henry) creates a man from the remains of cadavers. His creation becomes a menace and it all ends badly. But the Monster, unlike Count Dracula, is a sympathetic creature. It’s not his fault that he exists, that he’s hideous, that he’s mistreated. You don’t exactly end up rooting for him, but you do feel sorry for him, even when he’s terrorizing the countryside (almost accidentally).

By the way, the lab assistant is not named Igor, but Fritz. He’s not a hunchback, either.

The movie ends in fire and the Monster is presumed dead. Henry Frankenstein is obviously killed as well, but then a happy ending was tacked on, which says he lived.

Elsa Lanchester as The BrideWhich he must have, because it wasn’t long before the sequel machine started rolling. It was fortunate that the same director and stars returned for ‘Bride of Frankenstein‘, which is hands down the best of all the classic Universal horror movies.

A lot has been written about ‘Bride’, and so I won’t rewrite it. The Christ imagery and the homosexual undertones have been dissected and analyzed ad infinitum. I will merely say it’s a great movie, beautiful to look at and a very superior sequel in every way. Elsa Lanchester as the Bride added another member to the ranks of the classic monster icons. The only jarring note is the prologue, where Mary Shelley (also Elsa Lanchester) is narrating the story to husband Percy and Lord Byron – Byron trills his R’s and chews the scenery magnificently! The fact that the scenery includes a telephone is best left unmentioned, as well as the fact that the story they’re talking about bears little resemblance to Shelley’s novel.

Henry Frankenstein is forced back to his old habits by Dr. Praetorius, who has managed to befriend the original Monster. Karloff’s Monster gets to speak in this film, and has the great scene with the ok’d blind hermit that Mel Brooks later used so well.

In the original novel, a female companion for the Monster was in the process, as it were, but destroyed before completion. In this movie, she is up and about, with a crazy Nefertiti hairdo and an inexplicable sex appeal. Or maybe it’s just me? Nah, shes hot. So HOT. Ahem.

She’s introduced to the Monster and, in a great dramatic moment, is horrified by him! This movie also firmly cemented the whole confusion of the name ‘Frankenstein’ with the Monster – after all, calling her the Bride of Frankenstein kind of makes clear that the Monster is called that, by this point.

Now, as far as the Monster is concerned, Boris Karloff IS him (it?) for 80 years, now. And indeed, Karloff played the part in the first three films – culminating in ‘Son of Frankenstein‘ which also starred Bela Lugosi as Ygor!

Ok, so maybe Ygor isn’t spelled like Igor, but it’s the same thing, right. Well…

Marty Feldman as Igor

Actually, Ygor was not a lab tech, nor a hunchback. He was a social outcast, a blacksmith who befriended the Monster. He DID have a physical affliction – Ygor had been sentenced to death and hung, but it didn’t take. His neck was broken, but he survived. So he did have a bent and crooked way of holding his head. So that’s close.

After this, Karloff hung up his Monster duds. But that didn’t stop the studio from making more movies! Perish the thought.

Fortunately, when it came time to make ‘Ghost of Frankenstein‘, Lon Chaney Junior was (SURPRISE!) given the role.

The major plot twist worth mentioning here is that by the end of the movie, the Monster is given Ygor’s brain – it now talks like Bela Lugosi! It also ends up blind. Yes, really.

This was the last stand-alone movie in the Frankenstein series. Up next was a movie that was the scream of the banshee for Universal Monsters: ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man‘.

In this one, Bela Lugosi plays the Monster – which is fair, since it has Ygor’s brain and all. BUT, Lugosi played the Monster as blind and able to talk. This was in keeping with the last movie, but continuity be damned, the studio decided to drop these elements and remove all mention of the Monster’s blindness or loquaciousness. So Lugosi’s performance was mocked for years, unfairly – he tends to play the part reaching straight out and groping around, because he’s playing a blind character. This notion of the Monster with arms outstretched has also become a part of the general public concept of the Monster!

Abbott & Costello Meet FrankensteinNext were the Monster Mashes: ‘House of Frankenstein‘, ‘House of Dracula‘ and ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein‘. In these, the Monster is portrayed by Glenn Strange, a big old strapping fellow, usually in Westerns. They finally cast a big burly action guy in the role, so for these, the Monster does . . . um, nothing much. Really. He’s just THERE, like furniture. Most of the time they’re trying to revive him and, when they finally do, it’s JUST long enough for him to lumber about briefly (usually through the use of footage from the older movies) and then be seemingly destroyed before the credits roll.

One fun thing: in the Abbott and Costello movie, there is a brief bit of dialogue from the Monster – looks like they decided to give him his voice back! It’s not much, but watching Strange’s Monster and Lugosi’s Dracula have a chat is great fun.

And then it ended. A lot of Frankenstein movies have been made since then, but the Monster as we know him us always Karloff: a wretched beast with the mind of a child, who does not understand how or why he came to be and is forever denied peace or friendship. Truly a great character in its own right, regardless of the liberties taken with the source material.

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