Guest post by De Witt Douglas Kilgore.
When Universal Pictures released the second of its horror classics, Frankenstein, in November of 1931, no one could have imagined the vast cultural shadow this apparently modest motion picture would cast. Its initial popularity prompted a series of sequels and licensed properties that helped define the “monster movie” genre of B-movie cinema through the 1960s. The film’s creative reimagining of Frankenstein’s creature became an enduring cultural icon, partially eclipsing the political and social concerns of its romantic literary source. The movie refashioned Mary Shelley’s 19th-century nightmare into a parable of 20th-century science gone berserk.
In this, the 200th year of the original 1818 publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, there are a wide variety of theories as to why her story has survived several decades of cultural change. However, this film, helmed by English director James Whale, is an important reason why. In the eight decades since its release it is Whale’s version of the story that we first encounter instead of Shelley’s original. The novel cuts less of a figure than the film and its cinematic, televisual, and theatrical children. And these productions only scratch the surface when we include comic books, cereal boxes, and Halloween costumes. That tremendous cultural trove is well represented by the Lilly Library’s current exhibition, Frankenstein 200: The Birth, Life, and Resurrection of Mary Shelley’s Monster. Be sure to drop by, marvel, and snag a copy of the exhibition catalog written by its curator, Rebecca Baumann.
While the 1931 Frankenstein is not the first cinematic adaptation — an honor which goes to a 14-minute 1910 film directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios — it has lingered in the popular imaginary for three reasons: 1) the electricity-powered creation sequence, 2) the make-up design that set a fashion for how Frankenstein’s creature should look, and 3) Boris Karloff’s initially uncredited, mute, but weirdly sensitive performance as “The Monster.” All three refashioned Shelley’s Gothic invention into a moving metaphor of the Modern Electric Age.
What does this cinematic invention mean to us? Just about everything, it seems. He is comic, as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948) and Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974). He is pathetic and tragically frustrated as in Whale’s eloquent sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), or more recently, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). He is the goofy family man and working stiff Herman Munster in the 1960s sitcom The Munsters (1964-66), or he is the giant robot/superhero Frankenstein, Jr., from the Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon of the same decade. Finally he is Franken Berry, the cheerful face of a strawberry-flavored cereal originally released by General Mills in 1971. This is not an exhaustive list. You can easily come up with your own sightings. In this welter of cultural production the film and its story are barely visible. It is clear, however, that the image it created persists and is well loved. All of this may be why we feel — despite knowing better — that the creature, and not Victor, is the real Frankenstein.
So, why have we remained involved with this two-century-old story? Why do we keep returning to it, recreating it, reinventing it? I’ve got some theories. But I’m sure you have some of your own. Please come see Indiana University Cinema’s showing of James Whale’s masterful cinematic creation on October 28, 2018 at 1 p.m. and let’s give them a spin. We won’t mind if you come in costume!
This screening of 1931’s Frankenstein is sponsored by the SF (Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction) Research Collective and IU Cinema.
De Witt Douglas Kilgore is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003). His recent work includes “This Time for Africa!: Afrofuturism as Alternate (American) History” in Afrofuturism in Time and Space edited by Lisa Yaszek and Isiah Lavender III, forthcoming from Ohio State University Press, and “A Cinema of Consolation: Visualizing the War on Terror in post-9/11 Cinematic Science Fiction Invasion Fantasy,” in The In/visibility of America’s 21st Century Wars (2017).