#59. Frankenstein (1931)

Strange to think that James Whale’s Frankenstein was released the same year as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and that both movies have come to stand as equals, both in terms of quality and influence, even though Frankenstein is so much the better of the pair. I think an average moviegoer of the 1930s, if shown these two movies back-to-back, were asked to guess which of the pair would yield the greatest legacy, they’d have said Frankenstein. It’s livelier, the monster is more interesting and complicated — the whole thing looks better, too, with top-notch shadowplay and lighting, elaborate sets, action. And the pacing is certainly leagues beyond Dracula‘s — which isn’t a bad movie but, jesus, it’s too slow to bear.

But I think a big part of my fondness for Frankenstein comes from a weird feeling kinship with Henry, the doctor/hero, insofar as the Thousand Movie Project kinda feels like my own monster, taking shape but not yet given life (even at the time of this writing I still haven’t launched the site), and people are telling him (Henry) that what he’s doing is weird or stupid but he just says fuck it, goes on doing his thing, and then what happens next is particularly interesting, if you’re aboard with this whole doctor-as-discouraged-artist metaphor, because what happens is he succeeds, eureka!, the creature comes to life and then, what, it destroys the people who doubted its creator. It’s the artist’s revenge! Not that I’m looking to hurt the people discouraging me, I frankly don’t give it much thought, but definitely a sizable portion of my ambition can be traced back to spite.

frankenstein 2
I don’t have much to say about Karloff’s performance as the monster except that it’s amazing, that it ages well, and that we’re all lucky Bela Lugosi turned down the role on grounds of wanting to be able to speak.

Another one of the resonant ideas to be taken from Frankenstein, by extension of that last metaphor, is the way that, while creating something, the final product is often (perhaps always) way different than what you set out to make. Something always disrupts your plans — just as Fritz (the doctor’s assistant, played by Dwight Frye — who played Dracula’s right hand man, Renfield, in the same year) has to put an abnormal brain in the body as opposed to the regular one he was told to get. Same as the way this movie Project has turned into basically a diary with occasional talk about movies.

Another thing this movie touches upon is the way that, if you’ve made something powerful, it takes on an identity of its own. I worry a lot about if this Project will be received at all, not so much about how. I guess I just wanna feel like there’s somebody at the end of this line. And yet I know that, if it is received, it’ll kinda cease to be what it was when I started.

Anyway. What’s so great about Henry’s accomplishment with creating the monster, I think, is the fact that he went through with it despite the ridicule and dissent of basically everybody in his life. Obviously it went horribly wrong and people died and Henry himself was thrown from a windmill — but still. I admire the nerve. I found one of his monologues pretty interesting too:

Have you ever wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you ever wanted to look beyond the clouds, the stars, or to know what causes the trees to burn, and what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy.

frankenstein 1He’s got a point. I think the story has a lot to do with the erelationship between creator and creation. The discourse applies to the relationship between God and man, artist and art, but also parent and child.

There’s also something here about the lesser remarked-upon pitfalls of ambition. The way a person’s ambition to create something, or achieve some great status, might blind them to the consequences of it. If I finish this Project I will have given unredeemable years of my life over to it. But given the way I’ve been looking at myself and my work these days, having gotten so many rejections, I’ll probably just be pleased with myself for having gone the distance, done something creative that hasn’t been done before. Perhaps by that point the audience for these essays will have come and gone. maybe it won’t have been there in the first place. But for me, at least, there’ll be something to look at. A beast of so many parts. And for me, at least, it’ll be alive.

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2 comments

  • “Perhaps by that point the audience for these essays will have come and gone.” Just noticed, mirabile visu, that death is quietly infixed into audience-hood. Are you excavating esoteric teachings—quintessences, if you will—from the hoi-est of polloi books? It all makes sense now. Your project is a concatenated commentary on Plato’s allegory of the cave—what Larry McMurtry, former Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, called The Last Picture Show. But it obscures and occults itself with a diary format, and only reflexive anxieties about reception of your hidden wisdom, whose being-toward-hiddenness is uncannily analogous to the being-toward-death of Plato’s freed prisoner, allow us a glimpse of truth: “the Thousand Movie Project kinda feels like my own monster”; “I worry a lot about if this Project will be received at all”; “If I finish this Project I will have given unredeemable years of my life over to it.” I suspect that your Dracula and Frankenstein reviews are actually an encrypted, two-part exegesis of The Island of Lost Souls (1932), a movie whose absence from the list is so odd it must mean something.

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    • Now that you mention it, yeah, it’s kinda strange that Island of Lost Souls wouldn’t make the list when, for example, we’ve got three Eisenstein movies that can really only be distinguished from one another by how further each one strays from coherence.

      As for the death of the audience, and the Project being a bigscale recreation of Plato’s more cryptic stuff — you stand, Frip, ahead of me again.

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