Introduction to Frankenstein (1931)

This post reproduces the text of a talk that Dr Jamie Callison delivered to the Bodø filmklubb on 23 October:

James Whale, Frankenstein (1931)

As you’ve heard, we’re gathered here today to celebrate the two-hundredth birthday of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. You may have come to these celebrations intentionally by signing up for one of the Frankenreads events advertised at the university or inadvertently by virtue of being a regular member of the film club here. Whatever the reason you’ve come, you’re very welcome.

I’ve been asked to say a few words about James Whale’s 1931 film, Frankenstein, which is an adaption of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. I want to present this film, oddly perhaps, as a reflection on some processes of social and intellectual change associated with what is variously described as the modern, modernity or modernisation, and which, in one popular chronology, is linked to responses to the First World War.

Now, chronologically this may appear to be a surprising move. What, you may think, has an adaption of a novel celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary got to do with the modern world? How can it reflect on the events of the twentieth century when the author of the text on which it was based died 150 years before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated? I will run with your hypothetical objections for a moment here.

In explaining your surprise, you might choose to emphasise aspects of the outdated science upon which both Shelley’s novel and Whale’s adaption rest. The early twentieth century saw, on the one hand, the birth of specialised biological sciences and, on the other, the growth of a popular interest in vitalism – or the idea that there was vital impulse that drove all life. In the popular mind, vitalism became associated with the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1907 bestseller Creative Evolution.

The scientific interests of Henry Frankenstein in the film we are about to watch concern galvanism. This is the study of the stimulation of muscles with electric shocks, and here, taken to the extreme, the idea that electricity could shock inert matter into life. Such a belief is an outlier at the turn of twentieth century. The film’s interest in galvanism replicates that of Shelley’s novel, and it is an interest that dates back to trends in scientific thought at the end of the 1700s rather than to the 1900s. Modern interests thus seem to be far removed from this consciously archaic scientific background.

What is nevertheless entirely current about the film is the second scientific plot. Early on in the film, we see Frankenstein struggling to find a brain for his creation. He visits the gallows first and finds the neck of an executed criminal broken, which – he claims – renders the brain useless for his purposes. His next attempt is to send his assistant Fritz to the medical school of his former mentor, Dr Waldman. As Fritz approaches, Dr Waldman is giving a lecture using two props: the normal brain of a law-abiding citizen, and the abnormal brain of a criminal. After the lecture is over, Fritz breaks in and attempts to steal the normal brain but drops it, shattering its container and sending the brains tumbling out onto the floor. He then contents himself with the abnormal brain – an incident he doesn’t mention to his master.

In his lecture, Waldman not only links so-called deviant social behaviour to biological causes but also carefully classifies humanity accordingly. In this, he replicates twentieth-century scientific interest in eugenics or the study of the health and quality of the human gene pool. It was a scientific field of study that became closely linked to public policy through the first half of the twentieth century. Infamously, it provided a scientific justification for the Nazi’s polices of racial cleansing against the Jews and the Roma and the involuntary euthanasia and sterilisation of those deemed unfit or degenerate.

In the film, Fritz steals the abnormal brain for Frankenstein, but doesn’t inform him of its status; Frankenstein only learns of its history from Waldman later and after he is brought his creation to life. The information is shared during a debate as to whether the creature should be protected or euthanized. The debate is cut short by events in the narrative, but the information shocks Frankenstein and leads to his becoming notably less willing to defend his creation. A creation with a criminal brain is evidently less worthy of protection. If – in the film – it is Mary Shelley’s science that creates the creature, it is modernity’s science that condemns him. Indeed, the final quarter of the film concerns a mob carrying flaming torches in pursuit of the monster. This part of the film affords a parallel with the lynching parties, themselves justified on eugenic grounds, of the then contemporary USA.

The creature kills at least three people during the course of the film: the first two following provocation, and the second somewhat inadvertently. Yet Boris Karloff’s sympathetic portrait of the creature sits oddly with the prominence the film affords the creature’s criminal heritage. The creature shows his vulnerability in the way in which he winces and cringes on being confronted with fire, and a childish glee in being shown how to play.

This characterisation runs against the well-known publicity for the film. For instance, the movie’s advance teaser poster carried the tagline ‘Warning! The Monster is loose’. This leaves us in no doubt that it is the appearance of this hideous creature, unable to control himself, that is supposed to terrify and a shock the audience. Indeed, Frankenstein is one of the most famous monster movies of all time.

Yet, for me, watching the film again in preparation for this talk, history intervened. It was difficult, if not impossible, to block out the innumerable twentieth-century attempts to classify minorities as others in order to better facilitate persecution. Viewed in this way, the horror lies not so much in the appearance of the monster as in the behaviour of his creator, namely Dr Frankenstein, and his hard-won efforts to compartmentalize; to separate, that is, his home and family life from the work he has done in bringing the creature to life. There are, for instance, notable visual juxtapositions in the film between the monster’s murders and the luxury of Henry’s home. It is possible to view the film today in a way that traces the horror generated by the movie to not so much the monster as to the behaviour of the Frankenstein family.

I invite you to see for yourselves as we now watch the movie.