Dec. 4, 1931—Universal Studios consolidated its growing fame as a creator and marketer of a new film genre with Frankenstein. Though its grand opening had taken place in Santa Barbara, Calif., in late November, its New York premiere on this date presaged an enthusiastic embrace of its hideous monster by a public living through a different kind of horror: the Great Depression. More than 76,000 watched the show at the Mayfair Theatre that first week before it opened to wider release.
Most interesting to the studio, of course, was the film’s profit margin. Universal couldn’t compete with major studios such as MGM in lavish spectacle, but it hoped to keep going with movies produced cheaply but distinctively. Frankenstein represented the triumph of that strategy: made for only $250,000, the film returned $12 million upon its release.
Frankenstein took even more liberties with its source material than the Universal release that opened up the talking-picture horror film in earnest earlier that year, Dracula. Unlike the monster in the 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the unloved creature onscreen compounded his ugliness with a pathetic inability to communicate, a virtually nonstop series of grunts and growls.
That vision of the character did not please the actor who had just achieved a career-making triumph with Dracula and who now stood to play another fearsome creature: Bela Lugosi. The former European matinee idol appeared in a 20-minute test reel for the part while still on the set of Dracula, but he was not happy about playing a non-talking role, complaining that he did not come to America to “play a scarecrow.” He much preferred the real Frankenstein—not the product of reanimated life, but the obsessed (and verbose) scientist who created him. It didn’t help that his proposed makeup design for the monster was rejected by Universal.
Universal, then, decided to look elsewhere for an actor to play the monster. It didn’t have to look far—a 44-year-old Briton spotted in the studio commissary by director James Whale, and offered a screen test on the spot. The actor, Boris Karloff, already in Hollywood for a decade, with roughly 80 films to his credit, still hadn’t made his mark with the wider public, so he jumped at the role. It only made his career, so much so that he called his character “My Dear Friend.”
That’s not to say, though, that it was easy to play. To start with, there were heavy boots (13 pounds each) he had to clomp around in, attached to steel struts that gave the movie monster his distinct lurch (as opposed to Shelley’s creature, whose frightening speed allows him to effortlessly elude captors). His dark, poorly-fitting suit was a nightmare to wear in the August heat. And Whale demanded take after take of Karloff lugging Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein up the hill toward the windmill for the movie’s climax, leaving Karloff with back problems so severe for the rest of his life that he would require three major operations.
Above all, there was all that make-up—3½ hours to put on, an equivalent time to take off. The makeup Lugosi wanted for the role—a mass of dark hair, clay-like skin—would have been simpler to endure by comparison.
Most of what is seen onscreen—the template for the popular image for the monster since then—came from Jack P. Pierce, the Universal makeup whiz who later came up with similarly indelible designs for the title characters in The Mummy and The Wolf Man. Even before working on Karloff, Pierce researched anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminal history, criminology, burial customs and electrodynamics. From that point on, he used grayish-green greasepaint on the skin, contrasting with the gray tones of the normal characters; electrodes protruding from the neck; and for the forehead, cotton and collodion (a foul-smelling liquid plastic). (See this post from nine years ago from the blog "Frankensteinia" on the marvels this makeup magician came up with.)
While often insistent on getting his way, Pierce accepted two suggestions by Karloff. First, the actor took out his dental bridge, giving one cheek a sunken look; second, upon Karloff’s remark that wide-open eyes created a stronger (erroneous) suggestion of human life, Pierce crafted droopy eyelids to underscore the impression of reanimated flesh. The second innovation made all the more remarkable Karloff’s performance, as he had to suggest the monster’s alternating pathos and malevolence without wide-open eyes that could express his feelings.
But the movie’s impact may have owed as much to its scenic and sound design as its extraordinary makeup. Frankenstein could only have been made several years into the talkie era, when Hollywood not only had enough time to absorb the style of German Expressionist films but also to experiment with sound.
The shadows and unusual angularity characteristic of directors Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) figure prominently in Frankenstein’s graveyard and castle scenes—environments that became commonplace in later horror cinema. These scenes also form a huge part of the movie's vertical orientation, climaxed by the monster reaching for the sun.
To heighten the ghoulish proceedings, a microphone in the coffin amplified the sound of the grave dirt hitting the lid; the “Castle Thunder” sound effect was used here for the first time; and the reanimated monster was introduced in full earnest to the audience when they could hear his heavy footsteps but not see his body.