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On Nov. 21, 1931, Universal unveiled Frankenstein in theaters, adapting a novel that was at the time an unproven commodity on the big screen. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “Frankenstein 100% Shocker – Old Horror Tale Full of Thrills,” is below:
You’ll never tell anything about this one from a preview. A preview can only determine the continuity, the photography, the sound — the acting and the direction. All of these Frankenstein has — in perfection. It is the story itself, its effect on a paying audience, the word-of-mouth that will go out that will determine whether or not Universal has the greatest shocker of all time — or a dud. It can be one or the other; there will be no in-between measures. Here is the story:
Frankenstein is a young medical student. He is interested in what makes for life, what brings the fruit upon the trees, why one son of a mother is an honest and upright man, another a criminal, maybe a murderer. His experiments carry him along until he is obsessed with the unholy desire to create life in his own image. But he fails to reckon with God.
From graves, the scaffold, from the university laboratory he steals bodies — parts of what were once human beings. From a lecture room he steals the brain of a criminal. Then, one night, as the elements rage in an electrical storm, he puts his theories — and the body he has assembled — to the supreme test. He believes the great ray which first gave life to a squirming mass of slime in a puddle of rain water at the time of earth’s beginning lies in the lightning which pours from the heavens.
The thing that never lived, the horrible monstrosity of a man — the monster of his creation — does take on a robot form of life. He has given it everything — except pity, humanity, love.
From its first day it sets out upon a career of terror and murder. Try as they might to tame it, to civilize it, to teach it, the monster goes on killing. The young doctor gives way to the great strain and is taken home. Finally the monster escapes into the countryside and kills a little child, the only human that had ever been kind to it. This time it seems to realize what it has done. What pity the thing is capable of showing, it shows here. Then, on the wedding day of the young doctor, the monster gets into the bridal home, attacks the bride-to-be and again escapes. This time the entire village is set to trap and kill it. High up on the mountain they find “the thing,” but not until it has captured and carried away the doctor whom it has snared from out of the posse. In its flight it seeks safety in an old mill. Here the mob comes and, failing to capture “the thing,” they set fire to the building. In its rage the monster throws the body of its creator into the mob and, trapped in the flames, it burns to death.
And there you have the story. Is it entertainment? Only theatre-goers can give that answer. We venture the opinion that this production of Frankenstein will cause more talk, no matter how that talk points, than any picture that has been made in years.
By the same token the production brings to mind these questions. If any or all of them prove correct — Universal has something worth while for the experiment it has made with Frankenstein.
Will Frankenstein be another Dracula?
Has Universal, in the person of Boris Karloff, discovered a successor to Lon Chaney?
Is James Whale, who now has Journey’s End and Waterloo Bridge to his credit, one of the great directors of picturedom?
Is there a place in theatre for pictures of the type of Frankenstein, the coming productions of Jekyll and Hyde by Paramount, and Freaks by MGM?
Colin Clive as the doctor and Boris Karloff as the monster give tremendous performances. No matter what you think of the picture, you can take nothing from these players for the performances they have turned in. They are magnificent.
James Whale has done a great job in his direction. This is not an easy thing to direct — just how far to go in playing upon an audience’s credulity, it’s sympathy, it’s nerves. Whale seems to have gone far enough, but not too far. The chances are the director will win the good opinion of the critics for this job.
The adaptation to the screen of such a story was obviously a task of extreme difficulty, and it speaks volumes for the ability of Garrett Fort and Francis Edwards Faragoh that they were able to turn out such a finished piece of work as is this screen play.
John Boles, Mae Clark and Frederick Kerr give good performances in insignificant parts. The balance of the cast is adequate.
As a story Frankenstein dates back to 1831 — for one hundred years it has remained alive in the interest of those book readers who go in for ghost stories. Now we’ll see if these same people go to motion picture theatres. — originally published on Nov. 3, 1931.
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