In the history of the movies, there are few actors and roles linked as indelibly as Boris Karloff and Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff had been acting in the movies for a decade by the time he donned Jack Pierce’s make-up in director James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” (which debuted 80 years ago this December) but it was the monster that made him a star. In return, Karloff made Universal’s (and Jack Pierce’s) version of Frankenstein’s monster an icon for the ages. Mary Shelley may have created the character in her 1818 novel, but its Pierce’s make-up and Karloff’s portrayal – the flat head, neck bolts, ill-fitting suit coat and heavy platform boots – that dominate the popular conception of him.
When Universal Pictures set out to make “Frankenstein,” it was to star Bela Lugosi, capitalizing on his “Dracula” success. However, after a few failed make-up tests, Lugosi left the project. Whale brought in 44 year old character actor Karloff, who created a movie monster for the ages. The monster doesn’t speak in the first Frankenstein film, but Karloff’s performance is a masterpiece of movie acting. Universal Pictures had thought the film would make Colin Clive (as Dr. Henry Frankenstein) a star, but instead audiences took to Karloff’s monster. Karloff’s monster, shuffles and lurches, moans and grunts, smashes and strangles and whimpers in fear. The image of the monster reaching for the light coming through the open ceiling seems to imbue the murderous brute with a spiritual yearning. The most shocking moment comes when the monster drowns a little girl as they play beside a pond. The monster is bewildered and confused that little Maria does not float the same way the flowers they had been tossing in the water had. The movie’s script had taken a turn from Shelley’s novel, attempting to take away any humanity from the character of the monster, to make him a monster that could simply be seen as dangerous and bad and needing to be killed, but somehow Karloff got through to audiences anyway. As the townspeople revel in burning down the old mill with the monster inside, chances are even 1931 audiences were sad to see the monster go.
The film was a hit and Universal went on to make several more Frankenstein films, with and without Karloff. The first of these, “Bride of Frankenstein,” also directed by Whale and starring Karloff and Clive, is the rare sequel that equals or surpasses the original. It’s also one of the loopiest horror movies ever made, with an introductory sequence of Shelley, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley sitting around on a stormy night to set up the sequel with her telling them that the story didn’t end the way they thought but — there was more! From there we re-enter the story of the monster, Henry Frankenstein (It’s unclear why the doctor’s name was changed from Victor, his name in the novel), and his bride Elizabeth. Now add a second “mad scientist,” Dr. Pretorius who also has learned how to create life and wants to team up with Frankenstein to create more creatures. Frankenstein wants no part of it, so Pretorius kidnaps Elizabeth to coerce him. Meanwhile, the monster, who had survived the first film’s fire thanks to an underground well is roaming around the countryside on a rampage. Luckily for him, he stumbles upon a blind hermit who feeds him and begins to teach him to speak. Yes, this is the sequence parodied so brilliantly by Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman in Mel Brooks’ great “Young Frankenstein,” but even the original scenes are hilarious (“Alone – baaaad! Friend – gooooood!”). Ultimately, the monster is detained long enough by Pretorius and Frankenstein so he can watch them create his bride – a female monster played by Elsa Lanchester (who also played Mary Shelley in the prologue). However, she doesn’t take much of a shine to Karloff’s monster (“She haaaaate me!”) and he decides to blow up the lab and all inside it, being nice enough to let his creator, Frankenstein and Elizabeth run to safety first. (Frankenstein’s monster here has clearly advanced to the mentality of an adolescent male – when the girl you like doesn’t want to get together with you, hey – flip that switch and melodramatically blow everyone up.)
Although Karloff would play a variety of roles throughout his long film, stage and television career, he would always be linked to the horror genre and to Frankenstein in particular. However, he was always appreciative of the role that made him a star. As he said, “The monster was the best friend I ever had.”