Immediately, following his success in Dracula, Bela Lugosi had hoped to play Dr. Frankenstein in Universal's original film concept. However, the actor was expected by producer Carl Laemmle Jr. to play the monster (a common move for a contract player in a film studio at the time) to keep his famous name on the bill. After several disastrous make-up tests (said to resemble that of Paul Wegener in The Golem), the Dracula star left the project.
Although this is often regarded as one of the worst decisions of Lugosi's career, in actuality, the part that Lugosi was offered was not the same character that Karloff eventually played. The initial director was Robert Florey, who had re-characterized the monster as a simple killing machine, without a touch of human interest or pathos, unlike in the original Shelley novel. This reportedly causing Lugosi to complain, "I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!" Florey later wrote that "the Hungarian actor didn't show himself very enthusiastic for the role and didn't want to play it." However, the decision may not have been Lugosi's in any case, since recent evidence suggests that he was kicked off the project, along with director Robert Florey, when the newly arrived James Whale asked for the property.
Whale had been imported from England by the Laemmles and given a free hand as to his choice of projects at Universal. He was immediately attracted to Frankenstein and greatly revised the script and conceptualization of the project, which had troubled the management, back toward a monster with some humanity within, in keeping with Shelley's original story.
Actors who worked on the project either were, or shortly became familiar to the fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Bürgermeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; Dwight Frye as Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, Fritz; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria's father. Kerr died a year and a half later.
Kenneth Strickfaden designed the electrical effects that were used in the "creation scene". They were so successful that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as "Strickfadens". It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the inventor Nikola Tesla himself.
According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff during the creation scene, as Karloff was afraid of being burned by sparks being thrown off the arcing electrical equipment simulating lightning. Although he was partially covered by a surgical drape, Karloff's abdomen was otherwise exposed during the scene and the high-voltage arc "scissors" threw white-hot bits of metal when they were used to create flashes.
The film opened in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on December 4, 1931, and grossed $53,000 in one week.
Florey and Lugosi were given the Murders in the Rue Morgue film, as a consolation. Lugosi would later go on to play Frankenstein's monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline (in the original shooting script the Monster spoke, cancelling Lugosi's initial objection to the part, but his filmed dialogue sequences were cut prior to release, along with the premise that the Monster was blind, which was the way Lugosi had played it).
Other than during the opening credits, a short section where a village band plays on screen, and the final credits, there is no musical soundtrack to the film.