Dr. Heinrich “Henry” Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a brilliant young scientist who has been conducting electrical experiments in the hopes of re-animating a corpse. With the help of his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), Henry assembles body parts from various sites such as graveyards and gallows, and one night — using the power of lightning to charge their electrical mechanisms — they are successful. However, Henry soon realizes that playing God has consequences and attempts to rectify the mistake he has made before his creature (Boris Karloff) causes any more damage.
Prompted by the success of Dracula (1931), Universal decided to go ahead with Mary Shelley’s gothic tale and initially wanted Dracula star Bela Lugosi to play either Dr. Frankenstein or the Monster. However, the actor proved to be unsuitable for either role and eventually left the project, being replaced by Boris Karloff. The film was released in November of 1931 — a mere nine months after Dracula — and although Universal had achieved massive success with that film the studio was nervous as to whether or not Frankenstein was going to be a success. However, Frankenstein proved to be a huge box office sensation opening to even greater acclaim and financial success than Dracula.
Although the film was produced and released during the Pre-Code era, it did not escape controversy. The famous line: “It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” was considered blasphemous and many states demanded that it be removed. To work around this, a loud clap of thunder was substituted causing the line to become garbled and indistinct. Also, the second half of a scene in which the monster accidentally drowns a little girl by throwing her into a lake was cut by state various censorship boards. Much like many Pre-Code films which were reissued after the stringent enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Universal had to make various cuts to the master negative. In some places, such England, the film was virtually cut in half whereas in others it was simply not shown at all.
One of Universal Pictures first “Universal Monsters,” Frankenstein was a success on every level and propelled the studio towards the forefront of early horror cinema. Deemed by many to be one of the best, if not the best film of 1931 upon viewing one would be hard pressed to disagree. Though many times removed from Mary Shelley's novel, and inescapably dated and primitive by today's standards, the film remains a tremendously impressive masterpiece. Frankenstein may not be able to shock audiences as it did in 1931, but it is tight, brisk, and memorable, deservedly a classic if there ever was one, and it set the standard by which all other Frankensteins will be judged.
Directed by — James Whale
Produced by — Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Written by — Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Mary Shelley (story by)
Starring — Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff
Music by — Bernhard Kaun