Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I need to reign myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty intense chase sequence, this pause in the action, almost like a fermata, really sticks in your memory—or at least mine. Karloff, for his part, communicates a rising rage against the only person whom he can hold responsible for putting him into this situation of pain and chaos.

For once, Clive’s character isn’t a ball of nerves. He really looks at what he’s made, as though he’s seeing it for the first time. I also think that I detect a certain amount of perverse pride in Henry Frankenstein’s eyes. Remember that scene where Waldeman and Frankenstein double-team the monster, trapping him while trying to administer a sedative? Well, now the tables are turned… Henry’s trying to get away from his monster and his creature clearly has the brain capacity to trap him. One can sense just a little undercurrent of ironic accomplishment. Not only has Clive’s Frankenstein made a man, but a man who can hold his own with his maker.

Frankenstein’s monster shows the capacity to learn and get the upper hand. He thus becomes his master’s greatest achievement and his greatest nightmare.

There’s also an odd “tag you’re it!” aspect of this scene. How many comedies give us this kind of scenario, with two characters faking each other out as they run around a desk or something? It’s a child’s game, really, and both Frankenstein and his creation are like children, causing harm and acting willfully without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.

To put a revolving series of bars between the camera and the character also adds a visual flamboyance to the stare-down and draws the viewer in with hypnotic movement. The cyclical motion is like a model or a concretization of the reciprocal gaze. With sound and image working in conjunction, the creaky, yet steady rhythm of the turning mill wheel both grounds the scene in a set pace and makes it uneasy, unsteady, in motion. Now, this turning wheel separating the creator and the creation suggests a perpetual tension and, at least to me, suggests the idea of the monster and maker inscribed in a dialectic relationship.

What an angle! Stunning visual means of conveying the collision-of-universes aspect of this death struggle.

The philosopher Hegel wrote about this concept of dialectic, of a pair of opposites (not just binaries, two things that are just at different ends of a spectrum) but opposites that are forever clashing—as epitomized by the master-servant relationship. The servant wants to rise and become the master and make the master his servant. The master wants things to stay just as they are. Even if you flip the positions, somebody’s going to be unhappy, because each wants “to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being.”

It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict, upheaval… and conflict again. It goes ’round and ’round. After all, why else do we, in English, say revolution for both upheaval and turning?

The mill wheel, interposing between the camera and the faces of the Frankenstein and his monster, drive home this tension of seeing oneself in the other and of trying to extricate oneself from that other. Creator and creation can’t really be separated though—they are mutually defined. The wheel connects them to each other on this visual level and allows us to feel this ineffable link, this potent, mythic moment of the pair tragically recognizing themselves in each other and recognizing that they recognize it.

On another, perhaps more obvious, level, the decision to set the conclusion of the film in a windmill also recalls Don Quixote. After all, the mad Don tilts at the most famous windmill in Western Civilization, because he believes it to be a monster. Robert Florey, who wrote the script for Frankenstein, added the windmill. It doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s novel, and, although the initially scripted scenes were heavily reedited, Whale clearly made the decision to make the gears of the building quite prominent. Now, I would certainly apply the adjective “quixotic” to Dr. Frankenstein and to his quest. In his character, the romantic and scientific traditions intersect to form an impractical genius who makes things he can’t cope with.

Highs and lows: extreme angles emphasize the fragility and volatility of Frankenstein’s genius. 

This turning windmill also makes us as viewers aware of a churning, orderly edifice in which Frankenstein and his beast suddenly find themselves. Now, I’m dancing on the jagged edge of symbolism here, but the mill creates the feeling that the movie is now inside a working, mechanical system.

Indeed, as the bars of the mill wheel pass between the camera and their faces, this interposing object recalls the zoetrope—one of the first pre-cinema moving image devices which gave the appearance of life by parading a series of images through a tiny peep-hole slot.

(Evidently, I’m not the first person to make this observation. After I pressed publish on this one, a rabid horror fan friend of mine directed me to a similar point in the work of Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, The Flying Maciste Brothers. Well, Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently…)

Now, what does Dr. Frankenstein want most of all? He craves to know how things work, what mechanisms of nature rule the world. The windmill reminds me of the suite of laws that hold together the universe—and continue to do so, in spite of whatever strange dreams man might dream.

“If I could discover any one of these things… I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

Frankenstein and his monster, however, both become heroic because they have the guts to stare into that mechanism: Frankenstein by choice, his creation by way of the calamitous existence that was thrust upon him. Their exceptional destinies are intertwined and the movement of the wheel seems to knit them together—as doubles, as a dialectical pair, as two individuals who madness and bad luck has rendered aware, whether rationally or intuitively, of the forces that govern the world and which, when tampered with, grind a human being to despair.

For me, the beauty of Frankenstein resides in the morbid, yet poetic way the film doesn’t just portray modernity, but also practices it. For instance, in true Gothic novels, one prototype being Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated Mysteries of Udolpho, any time a skull or skeleton pops up, we’re dealing with a key plot point or shock-value moment… and you have to wait for about 200 or so more pages for another one.

James Whale, on the other hand, constantly throws this kind of memento mori imagery at us. Even Dr. Waldeman, who presents himself as the healthy scientist, in contrast to Clive’s obsessive one, keeps a line of skulls on the back shelf of his study.

Or, consider the classroom scene preceding the brain theft, which opens with this droll, direct shot of a dead man’s feet.

There’s a very similar shot in Murnau’s Faust, with the feet of plague victim appearing disproportionally large in the foreground, but the effect achieves a grimmer tone there. The cadaver in Frankenstein possesses a good deal less dignity. He’s just served as a visual aid to a bunch of med students, and his feet poke humorously right into the camera, into the spectator’s face as it were. These med students even start to chuckle when, nudged by the gurney, an anatomical skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, bobs up and down. Whale depicts a world at least partially desensitized to the horror of death.

In place of the dreadful, foreboding atmosphere of Browning’s Dracula, Whale gives us a bizarre mixture of irreverence and fear. Frankenstein shows us a world in which death is not the master, but the servant. Death is the thing that we’ve learned to chuckle at and demean—even as we cower before it.

I think that a lot of this cynical attitude towards death comes from the director’s time in the trenches of WWI. A lot of gears were in constant motion on the front…

Like all great works of art, Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t allow a viewer to pin it down with a single meaning. The monster and his maker both win over our sympathy—and even the torch-wielding villagers do, too! But, for me, the crux of the drama occurs at that moment when the creature and his maker face off with a searing reciprocal gaze, separated by that marvelously evocative wheel that seems to both separate them and unite them. This visually stunning, revolving flourish elevates what could be a stagey, old-fashioned finale into a truly modern metaphor for the gears of the universe, for the mechanical man… and perhaps for that ultimate in life-creating edifices—the cinema?

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3 thoughts on “Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

  1. Reblogged this on nitrateglow and commented:
    I watched this magnificent film again last night. Nitrate Diva’s write-up from four years ago is divine, a wonderful close reading of a single moment in the movie which speaks volumes about its themes. Give it a read!

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