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Written by Timothy Sexton
“Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning.”
Edward Van Sloane is actually the actor who plays Dr. Waldman, Henry Frankenstein’s favorite instructor during his college days. Frankenstein opens rather unusually with a supporting actor stepping outside of his character to directly address the audience. The opening scene continues with Van Sloane promising that what audiences are about to see will thrill and shock them before warning that it may also horrify them. After effectively shrugging off responsibility by reminding them that they were, after all, warned, the story proper kicks in on one of the creepiest cemeteries in film history.
"Herr Frankenstein is a most brilliant young man, yet so erratic he troubles me."
From the mouth of Edward Van Sloane again, but this time in his guise as Dr. Waldman, tumbles forth this bit of foreshadowing early on in the film. Henry Frankenstein is not immediately recognizable as being overcome with a personality disorder that at least borders on point where Histrionic and Narcissistic cross paths with psychopathy of a higher order, so Waldman’s assertions of Frankenstein’s erratic nature is not immediately obvious.
"The very day we announced our engagement, he told me of his experiments. He said he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity. There was a strange look in his eyes, some mystery."
Elizabeth, Henry Frankenstein’s fiancé, contributes to the growing tower of foreshadowing that the young doctor is up to something not quite right. The words of Waldman and Elizabeth combined to produce a portrait of a person definitely on the edge of normalcy and the fact that these descriptions arrive courtesy of the two people whom Henry Frankenstein is closest to only reinforces audience expectations that the words of warning from Van Sloane should perhaps not be taken as mere marketing propaganda.
"What's the matter with my son? What's he doing?...Why does he go messing around an old ruined windmill when he has a decent house, a bath, good food and drink, and a darn pretty girl to come back to?"
And now Henry’s own father weighs in to add some rather concrete details to the foreshadowing. What, one must wonder, could be so incredibly fascinating at an old windmill that a virile young man would choose to hang out there at night rather than come home to a pretty and eager wife?
“And here, the abnormal brain of the typical criminal. Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobe as compared to that of the normal brain, and the distinct degeneration of the middle frontal lobe. All of these degenerate characteristics check amazingly with the history of the dead man before us, whose life was one of brutality, of violence and murder.”
Even Dr. Frankenstein himself adds to the texture of the foreshadowing of his insanity to come early in the film. While in the guise of his normal, respected scientific doctor persona, he provides not just an examination to his students of the difference between a normal and abnormal brain while also indicating exactly what kind of problems the insertion of such an abnormal brain might be likely to cause if such a brain were utilized in her darker, less respectable scientific pursuits.
“Dr. Waldman. I learned a great deal from you at the University about the violet ray, the ultra-violet ray, which you said was the highest color in the spectrum. You were wrong. Here in this machinery I have gone beyond that. I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.”
After much speculation, Henry Frankenstein finally confirms the suspicions laid out in the foreshadowing that all is not right with him. These lines confirm the worst; Dr. Frankenstein has passed over the line of merely a bit not right and into the realm of pure insanity. What he is actually suggesting with these words addressed to his mentor is nothing less than an assertion he has learned the secret of becoming a God!
"Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light?"
Henry is chiding Dr. Waldman for being, well, essentially for being an old fuddy-duddy. The scene serves to underscore that all the great scientific advancements of the past few centuries would not have been possible without challenging the greatest assumptions of humanity. Where does science draw the line when it comes to issues of morality? Which is the greater evil: failing to advance humanity because of current arbitrary codes of morality or advancing humanity while contributing to destruction of long-held traditions and conventions of morality and ethics? With these word, Henry is staking his claim as the future of science and relegating Dr. Waldman to the dusty archives.
"See how mine float?"
Maria is a little girl whom the Creature created by Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments can truly call his first friend. She invites him to play with the flower she has picked; play that involves tossing the flower into the lake to watch them float. Misunderstanding that everything does float is what the act that leads to the Creature being hunted down like a monster, not engaging in malicious harm. The Creature tosses little Maria innocently into the water, fully expecting her to float like the flowers. She does not. Instead, she sinks and drowns and the result eventually is the sight of the people of the village hunting the Creature down with torches and pitchforks until he becomes an unwarranted victim of a lynch mob.
“It's alive, it's moving, it's alive! It's alive, it's alive, it's alive! It's ALIVE! Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to BE God!”
The “It’s alive. Alive!” part was named the 49th most memorable quote of the first 100 years of American film by the American Film Institute. The delivery of the quote by actor Colin Clive is one of the most memorable in American film as well. A manic insanity punctuated by a brief glimpse into a desperately true admission by Colin Clive during this moment is, in a very fundamental way, the genuine climax of the film. Such is the height of hysteria that is reached with the incontrovertibly sacrilegious assertion by Henry Frankenstein that he knows what it is like to be God that the line almost becomes inaudible and can be easily missed by distracted viewers. Which would be a shame because from that moment on, Frankenstein is really just a crime thriller dressed up in Expressionist horror clothing.
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