Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Halloween Watch: Frankenstein (1931)

My Halloween viewing is a little slowed by the arrival of Luke Cage on Netflix, but Sunday night TCM presented a Frankenstein Triple Feature.  They'll be showing Frank movies all October on Sundays (and Christopher Lee, star of the month on TCM, will be Mondays, so check for Hammer Horror).

This year marks the 85th Anniversary of the release of James Whale's screen classic, Frankenstein (1931).   So, I appreciate the Franken-centric approach to Halloween that TCM is going for all month long.

Turner Classic kicked it off right with the three Frankenstein pictures that defined the monster and mad scientists for the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  They showed the Universal movies that started with the 1931 Universal feature, Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as "The Monster".  Then, of course, TCM went right into Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.*

I've seen Frankenstein numerous times since first watching the film back in college, and I've written on the topic often enough that I've given Frankenstein it's own tag on the site.  I'm a fan, and I watch the movie at some point every October.

As always, you notice things maybe you didn't catch upon previous viewings, or things stand out to you more on a viewing at this point in your life that didn't previously land with the same impact.  There's not much left for me to say on Colin Clive's mad performance - still the high bar for this sort of thing, unbeaten still 85 years later.  Or Karloff's pitiable performance.  One could easily do a lot of psycho-social analysis when it comes to the fact that "the monster" is far from the loathsome, murdering fiend that's generally associated with the character and is, instead, intended to be a near innocent put upon by the less than favorable circumstances of his creation and care by his creator.  And, yet, most people see that face and say "oh, he's a scary monster".  It's a pretty basic thing to question - but it says a lot about the cosmic "us" that most folks still see the creation as a "monster".

But on this go-round, one of the bits that really stood out for me on this viewing included a pair of scenes or lines.

The first takes place after the "the monster" has been created and Henry has fled the tower.  The creature has grown quickly beyond Dr. Frankenstein's understanding or capacity to control (thanks to the constant torture at the hands of his assistant, Fritz).  The Monster has killed Fritz, and so Dr. Frankenstein incapacitates him, believing that his mentor, Dr. Waldman, will remain behind to dispose of the wretch (spoiler - doesn't work out for Dr. Waldman).

Back home, Henry prepares for his wedding with Elizabeth, ready to move forward with his new life and forget the past.  In the minutes prior to the ceremony, someone raises a glass, toasting for fond wishes for an heir to the Frankenstein family name - "to the health of a son of the house of Frankenstein".

There's a cut shot to Henry Frankenstein in which he blanches, looking ill.  And while you could take it as a lot of things - Henry feeling guilty about his own bad health and wreckless past, it's hard not to see it for what it is.  Henry has a son.  One he's left behind, ordered dead, one about which he'll be tortured and torture himself.  There is a son of the house of Frankenstein, and he is the product of Henry's obsessions.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with my 9th grade English teacher, the superlative Ms. Fort, who, I don't remember why, was talking to just me and a couple other kids about the original novel which we were reading at the time.  She pointed out "what do you think would have happened had Dr. Frankenstein taken the creature by the hand and walked him out into the world?"

Being just 14 or so at the time, the words hit like a thunderbolt.  I am unsure how to say how much the idea impacted me not just in regards to the book, but writ large.  It's the underlying current of the novel and film.  Frankenstein's mistake wasn't necessarily in creating the wretch (although it's a less than ideal place to start), but in rejecting that which he'd created.  What is the role of the father whose creation is not what he expected?

The film closes with Henry Frankenstein convalescing at home in Elizabeth's arms (but in the distance) as Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father, presented with another glass of the wine his grandfather laid down, makes a toast.  "Here's to a son... to the House of Frankenstein."

It's a pleasant enough ending, and we can read the Baron's meaning as a toast to his son who is safe and home and likely now to live a quiet life (the sequel will blow that idea to hell).  But it's roughly the same toast from earlier in the film - the one that made Henry recoil.  It's an odd enough ending to the movie, and seemingly tacked on to reassure the audience that all is well, this monstrosity has been struck down.

But I suspect James Whale meant something else in his toast - maybe a salute to Henry.  But also a salute to that son who went up in a blaze in a windmill, the townsfolk shouting, hounds baying below, keeping him trapped within...  I have my suspicions.

Anyway, happy 85th birthday to a great film, and one I'll never tire of watching.  To a son of the House of Frankenstein.

*Next week we'll see 3 more Universal Frankenstein pictures (plus some other interesting looking horror scattered around the schedule).

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