In the Trenches with James Whale: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) is commonly considered the best of James Whale’s two Frankenstein films and while I absolutely love Elsa Lanchester’s iconic performance as the hissing she monster, I prefer the original. There are a number of reasons why I tend to gravitate towards FRANKENSTEIN (1931) over its sequel. First and foremost, it takes itself more seriously and in turn, it’s the scarier film. The fog-shrouded cemeteries are more sinister and the stylized sets seem more threatening. Without any notable soundtrack, the film can still generate genuine fear, unease, and dread and in this age of overwrought scores that force audiences to bend to their will, I treasure silence in my horror cinema.

FRANKENSTEIN also gives more screen time to the inimitable and undervalued Dwight Frye as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz. And Boris Karloff delivers a sensational wordless performance as the stitched-together monster loaded with pathos and purpose. I also must single out Colin Clive’s taut interpretation of Dr. Frankenstein, which has been repeated by lessor actors so often that it has become much too easy to take it for granted.

Don’t get me wrong, I love BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN too but over the years I’ve found myself returning to James Whale’s original film more often and with each subsequent viewing I discover more things to admire.

Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN has been analyzed countless times as a mother’s lament, an intriguing tale of outsiders trying to find their rightful place in the world and a homosexual allegory reflecting Whale’s personal struggle with his own sexuality. While these interpretations provide viewers with a lot of fascinating food for thought, in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the film as a WWI parable that reflects the director’s own experiences during the Great War as a second lieutenant in the British Army.

As readers may or may not know, Whale came from a working-class family and fought his way through the ranks to become an Army lieutenant. His military career was cut short in 1917 when he was captured by German soldiers on the blood-soaked Western Front and he spent the rest of WWI in a prisoner-of-war camp. During his lengthy internment, Whale divided his time between directing, writing, producing, and starring in his own theatrical plays in an attempt to entertain his fellow troops, and when the war ended he decided to pursue a career on stage.

Whale’s directing talents eventually landed him in Hollywood and in 1931 Universal offered the budding filmmaker a 5-year contract. His first film for Universal was the WWI drama WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931) and it was warmly received by audiences as well as critics. Universal studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. was so impressed with the success of WATERLOO BRIDGE that he offered Whale the chance to choose his own directing project next and Whale selected FRANKENSTEIN. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although his career in Hollywood was short-lived, Whale made several important and impressive films after FRANKENSTEIN including THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), SHOW BOAT (1936), and the highly controversial antiwar film THE ROAD BACK(1937), which was butchered by Universal before its wide release under pressure from Hitler’s government. This hostile falling out led to Whale permanently parting ways with Universal and he finally retired from filmmaking in 1941 at the age of 52, just 10 short years after the release of FRANKENSTEIN.

Looking back at Whale’s career now it’s hard not to feel cheated. He had some amazing successes in a brief period of time but in some ways, the young, bright British lieutenant never really left the trenches. When Universal started taking film editing suggestions from the German government he must have felt as if his old war enemies had followed him to Hollywood.

The Great War, career disappointments, mounting health concerns, sexual frustrations, and various other personal problems finally caught up to Whale in 1957 and he committed suicide by diving into the shallow end of a pool. His death was tragic and deeply unfortunate but the films he left behind offer us a window into his troubled world.

On its murky surface, FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a WWI drama but it is possible to catch a glimpse of Whale’s shell-shocked sensibility revealing itself in this remarkably dark and thoughtful production.

The battlefields of WWI

FRANKENSTEIN opens with a macabre scene inside a cemetery. Mourners are laying someone to rest but Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz soon emerge from the shadows to dig up the corpse. As they begin to bury their shovels into the jagged uneven ground it’s easy to imagine the two men on a battleground digging trenches. Did Whale want viewers to make that connection?

That stunning moment is followed by another scene involving a hanging corpse. It’s worth pointing out that hangings were commonplace during WWI. Deserters and spies were regularly strung up to die and in some cases, mass hangings were used as a form of fatal torture to deter the enemy. When Whale wasn’t fighting for his life inside the trenches he may have witnessed a hanging or its consequences.

Of course, the terrain similarities aren’t exactly coincidental. Whale reportedly used Universal’s original set from ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1931) during the making of FRANKENSTEIN as well as THE INVISIBLE MAN but one has to wonder if that was intentional on his part? Whale had a lot of control over the production of his early films so I suspect that he was aware of the impact that this sharing of set-pieces might have on audiences. Conscious of it or not, Whale brought Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale up-to-date by linking it to the horrors of modern warfare.

The resurrection themes that run through FRANKENSTEIN must have also appealed to a man who had witnessed war. As Dr. Christiane Gerblinger points out in her intriguing essay, James Whale Frankensteins: Reanimating the Great War, young men in Britain entered WWI with an almost blind sense of duty and naiveté. They assumed that they were immune to death or somehow immortal. Of course, this wasn’t the case and millions died during one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. However, the idea of sacrificing oneself to the greater good was ever-present in WWI and a soldier’s death was commonly greeted with admiration and applause.

Dr. Frankenstein’s desperate quest to reanimate the dead is easy to sympathize with if you’ve witnessed the kind of massive and indiscriminate loss of life that occurs on a battlefield. It’s possible that Whale’s own anti-war feelings as well as his innate desire to reunite with his dead comrades influenced his decision to make FRANKENSTEIN.

One of the most remarkable scenes in FRANKENSTEIN is the horrific and tragic murder of little Maria (Marilyn Harris). The patchwork monster, sewn together from the remains of decaying corpses, has our pity when he reaches out to the young girl and takes her hand. We’ve already witnessed the monster being rejected by his maker and we’ve seen him tortured by the fire-wielding Fritz. He is fighting his own personal battles but the creature seems victorious and free of malice during his playful interaction with Maria until he thoughtlessly throws her in a lake and she sinks like a stone.

The monster clumsily attempts to save her but it’s too late so he stumbles into the woods staring at his own badly scarred and blood-tinged hands in disbelief. He seems to be following orders from some unseen commander and in that incredibly grim moment the audience is faced with the horrific task of sympathizing with a child killer.

Is the monster supposed to resemble a shell-shocked soldier whose actions are motivated by trauma? James Whale knew that the men and women who fight our wars rarely walk away unscarred. He was also well aware of the fact that children are too often the casualties of war even if they’re not the intended target. Little Maria could be a sad symbol of all the innocent lives lost in WWI or she could just be the monster’s most sympathetic victim.

There is no right or wrong answer. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN is open to many interpretations but it can also simply be enjoyed as one of Universal’s greatest horror films and a groundbreaking adaptation of Mary Shelley’s timeless gothic horror novel. It’s a classic monster movie that keeps on giving and you can currently catch it streaming on Youtube, iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at in 2013