Frankenstein was only the third film that James Whale directed and even at that he was actually only hired as the “dialogue director” for his second movie, Hell’s Angels to assist the other neophyte director who hogged all the credit for that film: Howard Hughes. With that in mind, the directorial influence wielded by Whale in the crafting of Frankenstein is curiously detached from the craft of filmmaking and centered primarily upon the art of filmmaking.
Which is by no means to suggest what James Whale did not bring cinematic technique to adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel that still makes it the most influential adaptation of Frankenstein in film history. What many people fail to realize is that the second classic horror film released by Universal Studios in 1931 was—like the first film—more an adaptation of a stage play adapted from the source novel than it was a straight adaptation from that source. Both Dracula and Frankenstein are in effect film versions twice removed from the novels upon which they lay claim. One need only compare the smoothly moving camerawork of Frankenstein with the stagy immobility of the lens in Dracula to realize that Whale’s contribution to the artistry of the movie was more than matched by his talent as a craftsman. Even so, what really differentiates the two films is the far more penetrating psychological influence over its main subject that Whale demonstrates.
That producers expected little audience identification with their “monster” in Frankenstein can be gleaned by the fact that not only did they cast an unknown, but they didn’t even list the actor’s name in the credits. Universal Studios likely expected little more insight into what it hoped would become its second popular monster of 1931 than that its extraordinary makeup succeed in terrifying audiences who would keep coming back for more. Whale, on the other hand, saw Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in an entirely different light. The “monster” in the film he saw was not the creation deemed ugly and abnormal and deviant and dangerous, but all those who immediately rejected that poor pitiful creature precisely because he was deemed ugly and abnormal and deviant and dangerous. It took a special ability to identity not with the masses but with the outsider to see Frankenstein’s creation from this perspective. An ability that James Whale possessed.
That ability was possessed due to James Whale seeing himself in the “monster” that Dr. Frankenstein created. Not seeing himself as something monstrous, but rather as seeing himself as something persecuted. Whale’s affinity and empathy for the creation of Henry Frankenstein stems from his homosexuality which automatically placed him on the fringes of polite society in the early 1930s. The view of homosexuals as dangerously deviant monsters representing such a threat to society was even more ingrained when Whale was preparing to direct Frankenstein than it is today and even today many homosexuals face the threat of being hunted down with torches and pitchforks in not completely figurative terms.
Whale was charged with creating a monster to be created by Dr. Frankenstein which would rival their popular vampire Count Dracula in the number of seats occupied by moviegoers forced to cover their eyes to keep away the terror unfolding before their eyes. What Whale delivered in conjunction with the actual creation of Mary Shelley otherwise almost completely absent from the screenplay and the perfect casting of that unknown actor whose name isn’t even listed in the credits—a fella goes by the name of Boris Karloff—was far less a dreadful monster than a gentle and misunderstood victim of the real monsters in the movie: the mad scientist that first created and then rejected him and the villagers quick to jump to the worst conclusions about the nature of something they deemed evil only as a result of appearances.