Frankenstein

AFI Rank: #87
Year Released: 1931
Director: James Whale
Actors: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff

I watched Frankenstein and City Lights back to back as part of my quest to watch all top 100 AFI movies. It is fascinating that these two movies are both from 1931 and that they represent, in a way, a beginning and end point for two different styles of film. City Lights was a humorous Charlie Chaplin silent, and Frankenstein was a full-sound, visceral dark drama.

Frankenstein is based on the classic Mary Shelley novel which combines a number of powerful themes. This is not simply a "mindless monster" smashing a town for no reason. Instead, there are a wealth of fairly complex threads weaving through this. Dr. Frankenstein strives to play God with a brand new person literally of his own creation. He almost had what he wanted, too, but his hapless assistant somehow managed to get a criminal brain instead of a healthy one. The result is that the created-man becomes a "monster" - barely able to walk and unable to talk. But clearly the poor thing can feel. He does his best to lumber around and follow commands, but is tormented by the assistant. He shows kindness and pleasure with a little girl, but inadvertently drowns her. There is a great deal of power and pathos in the acting, in how he tries his best and life just does not treat him well.

And how about Dr. Frankenstein? He was a promising student but nobody understood his lofty goals. He feels exiled from society and misunderstood. He can't even confide in his bride-to-be. And after all of that, when he finally is about to prove how right he was, his assistant makes a mess of everything.

Many movies from the late 20s / early 30s feel dated now, when watched, but Frankenstein still holds its own, earning its #87 spot on the AFI top 100 list. The scenery is dark and moody. So many lines of dialogue here are now classics, embedded into our modern culture. Even scenes from the movie are now "stereotypes" that so many other films have used.

It's funny how cultural expectations can change over time, though. Every time I see the scene of the father leaving his tiny child all alone at the house - by a pond!! - I cringe. I could not imagine doing that with my own child. Maybe for people in 1931 that was a quite normal thing to do.

Interestingly, although written by a woman, the movie is definitely a story that focuses on men. We have the brilliant single-minded Doctor. His best friend who thinks it is OK to try to seduce away his wife-to-be. The wise professor who worries about his student. The non-understanding father who immediately assumes his son is having an affair. And then of course the innocent, maligned monster. Yes, there's Elizabeth, the one woman, but her role seems to be to be worried or to scream. Still, this seems to be a pattern for movies made around this time period - that it's pretty much an all-male main cast with one female in there to provide the soft, nurturing voice.

I definitely put this into the must-watch category, to see where strong drama movies came from, right as talking films were bursting onto the scene. And to think that The Jazz Singer was only four years earlier, which was the ground-breaking first partial-talking-film. This must have been a quite exciting time period to live in!

Highly recommended.

Buy Frankenstein from Amazon.com

AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100