Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) thinks he has stumbled unto the secret for bringing the dead back to life. At night, he and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) toil away in an abandoned, secluded building and stealing corpses to experiment on. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) becomes concerned about his strange behavior and arrives at his secret laboratory just in time to see him successfully bring the Creature (Boris Karloff) to life. It isn’t long before Frankenstein decides the Creature could be potentially dangerous and must be destroyed.
Before he is completely certain the Creature has been killed, Frankenstein leaves to get ready for his wedding. The Creature kills Frankenstein’s assistant and escapes, finding his way to a nearby town. He meets a young girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who invites him to float flowers in the lake with her. When he runs out of flowers, he throws Maria in the water, thinking she will float too. When she doesn’t float, the horrified Creature runs away to the house where the wedding is to take place, frightens Elizabeth, and escapes again. When the villagers find out what has happened to Maria, they band together with torches to hunt the monster down. Dr. Frankenstein joins the mob and when the Creature finds him, he drags Frankenstein to an abandoned windmill. The villagers corner him there and burn the windmill down.
Frankenstein is my personal favorite of the Universal horror films. It’s an extremely intelligent horror film and it’s interesting to see a horror movie that leaves you sympathizing with the Creature. I really don’t like referring to the Creature as a monster because Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster here. The Creature never asked to be brought back to life, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and all he can do is react in very primal, visceral ways and nobody around him understands that.
Boris Karloff is absolutely genius as the Creature. Although Frankenstein is not a silent film, Karloff’s performance is a testament to how much an actor can do without actually saying anything. When you take a performance as brilliant as Karloff’s and combine it with that unforgettable makeup by Jack Pierce, you get a truly unforgettable character. The story of Frankenstein has been adapted for the screen many times over the years, but Karloff remains the most famous actor to play the Creature for a very good reason.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moment
After the creature is first brought to life, Dr. Frankenstein declares, “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
Compared to some other movies turned out during the glorious pre-code era, Frankenstein might seem pretty tame in comparison. Sure, it lacks the gratuitous undressing, gangsters, and innuendo that other pre-codes have in spades, but it’s an excellent example of another big part of the production code: issues surrounding religion. Many censors objected to anything that portrayed religious leaders in an unflattering light (The Miracle Woman and Rain are prime examples of that) or anything that could be seen as blasphemous. Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to play God most certainly fell into the “blasphemous” category, specifically his line about knowing what it feels like to be God. This line was edited out when Frankenstein was re-released after the production codes were being enforced and wasn’t fully restored until several decades later. Note how the concept of playing God is quite explicitly condemned in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.
Censors also took issue with the scene where the Creature throws the little girl into the water. Many people thought this scene was too violent and gruesome and cut the part where we see the Creature actually throwing the girl into the water. Personally, I think actually seeing the Creature throw the girl into the water is way less disturbing than to leave it showing the Creature reaching for the girl and letting the imagination run wild.