Following hard upon the Valentine that was Bela Lugosi’s immensely popular portrayal of Count Dracula, Universal Studios execs were doubtlessly giving thanks nine months and a week later for the early Christmas gift that was Boris Karloff’s unexpectedly poignant performance as the Creature brought to life by the title character in the original version of Frankenstein. By the close of 1931, Universal was as synonymous with monster movies as Warner Brothers was with gangster flicks.
As horror was not considered one of the more respectable movie genres in 1931, the job of directing Frankenstein went to the relatively untried and unknown British import to Hollywood, James Whale. After Lugosi turned down the chance to follow up his great success as the elegant and urban Count Dracula by hiding his face beneath heavy makeup and having no dialogue to speak except for grunts, what many viewed as the thankless role of the Creature went to Whale’s fellow Briton, Boris Karloff. Despite having been continually employed by Hollywood for more than a decade, Karloff was still considered such an unknown quantity (with little expectation that being all but recognizable behind the Creature’s gruesome makeup would change things) that he was not even invited to attend the film’s official premiere.
Despite taking some significant liberties with the Mary Shelley novel that was its source material, and despite being a lowly monster movie produced by one of the minor studios living in the shadow of the big five major studios of the era, and despite scarcity of any recognizable names or faces among its cast and even despite losing big box office in receipts in Kansas where it was banned on claims that its depiction of cruelty was proof of its moral bankruptcy, Frankenstein went on to become not just the biggest grossing movie release in 1931, but the biggest grossing movie by a landslide. The second biggest grossing movie of 1931 was the lavish spy thriller Mata Hari produced for twice the cost of Frankenstein by Hollywood’s biggest studio—MGM—and with its biggest star, Greta Garbo, in the title role. The figures: Frankenstein: $12,000,000. Mata Hari: $931,000.
The wildly improbable commercial success of Frankenstein helped Boris Karloff become one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars for the next four decades, spawned six official sequels produced by Universal Studios while paving the way for Dr. Frankenstein and his creation to become two of the most filmed characters in the history of cinema. Frankenstein has made the trip from becoming one of Hollywood’s all-time most unexpected blockbusters to a certified film classic added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress on the occasion of its 60th anniversary and chosen by the American Film Institute the 56th most thrilling film ever made. That long, strange trip also contributed to American pop culture by cementing in the minds of millions the iconic face of the Creature that is never physically described by Mary Shelley in her novel as well as creating confusion between the name of the Creature and the mad scientist who gave him life.