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Written by Timothy Sexton
Fire is powerfully engaged as a symbol throughout the entire Universal Studios Frankenstein movie franchise and that symbolic weight originates in the 1931 film that created the template for what was to come. One of the most iconic images in all of film history is that of terrified, ignorant villager chasing after the monster which has threatened their sense of normalcy with torches and pitchforks. In reality, none of the villages chasing after the Creature is carrying a pitchfork, but there are torches galore. Before getting to that image, however, Frankenstein will exploit the imagery of fire to cast it as a symbol of everything from the power capable of reanimating the dead to the power that even ignorant villagers can wield over powerful enemies who have become helpless as their captives. Fire even takes on some elements of psychological tool for modifying behavior: the Creature develops a neurotic response to fire as a result of primal confusion over its equitable ability to be used both positive and negatively. This neuroticism will be analyzed to a greater degree in the film’s immediate sequel Bride of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein the film helped set the template for all mad scientists to follow in Henry’s wake. Precedents had already been set that heavily influenced Frankenstein, especially Metropolis which also tells a story about a crazed doctor giving religion the finger as he goes about playing god by giving life to a machine. The imagery that is related to scientific innovation are placed in distinctive opposition to imagery associated with God, religion and faith. Frankenstein’s lab is populated by all manner of weirdly unfamiliar gadgetry running on electricity and producing irritable sounds and harsh lights whereas even the church graveyard in the opening scenes has a comforting familiarity to its inescapable creepiness. The imagery related to science subconsciously directs the audience to make the connection between it and Frankenstein’s increasingly madness.
James Whale takes great pains to insert into the discourse of Frankenstein the issue of how discernable physical imperfections are so often linked in the minds of the observer to character flaws that are merely perceived. Frankenstein’s assistant has a discernible hunch in his back and the perception that he also has a hunch in his character is ultimately revealed as accurate with his taunting of the Creature with a torch. The Creature presents the image of a being so overwhelmed by physical deformities that it must simply follow that his mental, emotional and intellectual states are equally misshapen. A perception revealed to be distinctly misplaced.
The images that are associated with one of the overriding themes of Frankenstein—that of the tragic consequences resulting from a lack of a communication—are some of the most powerfully rendered in 1930s cinema. Aside from the image of the Creature himself and the iconic scene of a manic Dr. Frankenstein on the verge of hysterical madness in realizing his dream of bringing a dead man back to life, the most lasting and persistent image from the movie is that of the Creature on the bank of a lake playing with a little girl and her flower. That moment of innocence soon turns horrific as the inability for the two to properly communicate with each other leads to her accidental drowning. The discovery of her body in turn leads to a communications breakdown that will target the Creature as a viciously psychopathic murderer. All of which traces back to the imagery of Fritz dropping the “normal” brain and thus forcing Dr. Frankenstein to insert an “abnormal” brain into the body he is trying to reanimate due to Fritz’s purpose decision not to communicate appropriately with Henry. While the Creature has no lines of dialogue in the movie, the images of his helpless and pathetically vain attempts to communicate through speech still retains all its original power.
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