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Written by Timothy Sexton
The overnight sensation that Frankenstein made of Boris Karloff was, in actuality, the result of eleven years of steady work in the movies dating well back into the silent era. Such an unknown quantity was Karloff that in the credits of the actor playing the Monster is listed simply as “?” The question mark was not chosen merely due to Karloff not being the original choice of Universal Studios execs to take on the part of the monster, however. Bela Lugosi—who had become another overnight star earlier in 1931 thanks to his performance in the title role of Dracula—had turned down the offer to play the reanimated creation of Dr. Frankenstein in part due to the character having literally no lines of dialogue, vocalizing only through a series of grunts. As a result, the likelihood is that Universal Studios execs held out little expectation for the audience latching onto the Creature as they did Count Dracula. Thus, “?” in place of the name Boris Karloff as the player of the Monster in the credits.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein
What is particularly peculiar about the character played by Colin Clive is that he is named Henry Frankenstein and has a friend named Victor. In Mary Shelley’s novel, however, his name is Victor Frankenstein and has a friend named Henry. The only explanation that seems to be offered for this choice is that it was felt that Victor might be a little harsh for American audiences. Seems questionable, sure, but one thing that is beyond question is what a terrifically modulated performance Colin Clive turns in Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Clive manages to take Dr. Frankenstein from melancholic to manic without ever giving up the mystery of exactly what makes him tick.
One of the things that makes Henry Frankenstein tick, of course, is his bride-to-be, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is given very little to do in the story aside from wait for the inevitable moment when she is attacked by the Monster. The predicted attack does take place and Mae Clark delivers big on the scream. While Frankenstein made a star of Karloff, it would be one particular scene in a quite different type of movie that would cement actress Mae Clark’s lasting legacy. Her was the face into which James Cagney pushed the sliced half of grapefruit in the seminal gangster movie The Public Enemy.
His name may be Fritz, but you might as well call him Igor…or, Ygor as it would actually come to be spelled. Many of Universal Studios’ horror film of the 1930s and 1940s would feature a hunchbacked assistant and while the character would go on to become the iconic figure of Ygor, the prototype was Fritz who, not coincidentally, was played by the same actor who portrayed the insect-devouring toady of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula earlier in the year. Fritz is the poor sap who makes the tragic mistake of delivering a criminal brain to Henry Frankenstein who was, truth be told, hoping for something a little less unpredictable.
Edward Van Sloane
Dr. Waldman is a character who appears in Mary Shelley’s novel, but his role is considerably enlarged for the movie version. Waldman first appears when Elizabeth goes with her friend Victor to see what is keeping Henry from being appropriately interested in their upcoming nuptials since Dr. Waldman was Henry Frankenstein’s favorite instructor back at the university. Waldman tries to warn Henry that Fritz’s unfortunate brain mistake is going to doom his grand experiment in reanimation, but Henry turns a deaf ear until the Monster attacks Elizabeth which in turns causes the good mad scientist to suffer a mental breakdown of sorts. All these events conspire to give the relatively minor character created by Mary Shelley to become the hero of James Whale’s movie version. Alas, Dr. Waldman is no Professor Van Helsing, whom Edward Van Sloane had also portrayed earlier in the year.
The most infamous scene in Frankenstein features Marilyn Harris as a young girl playing with flower by the water. The actual scene of the Monster throwing Maria into the water was originally censored from the final print of the film and thus the scene ended rather abruptly and enigmatically for anyone who saw the film either in theaters or on TV for decades after the initial release. The footage of Maria splashing into the lake would not resurface again until the movie was released on DVD.
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