In 1930, Universal Studios lost $2.2 million in revenue. The studio, reeling and on the verge of potential bankruptcy, had thrown the dice and produced Dracula, starring a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, in 1931. Dracula proved to be the studio's salvation, earning a $700,000 profit (Universal's biggest money-maker in '31). Buoyed by the studio's Dracula success, Carl Laemmle Jr., the head of of production, immediately ordered more horror films. This was to be a turning point in Hollywood history.
During Hollywood's Golden Age, MGM was to be "the" studio for musicals, Paramount "the" studio for comedies, Warner Brothers "the" studio for dramas, and now, Universal would take its rightful place as "the" studio for horror films. Although no one at Universal knew it at the time, they were about to produce what would reputedly go down in history as the most iconic and beloved horror film in the history of motion pictures.
The original (and logical) choice to play the title role was, of course, the now red hot Bela Lugosi. But while Bela did want to be in Frankenstein, he had his eye set not on the monster role, but instead on the role of his creator, the doctor, Henry Frankenstein. Colin Clive, however, was already a given to be cast as the doctor, which left the monster for Bela to portray.
The popular Hollywood legend is that Bela was, indeed, offered the Frankenstein monster role, but he turned it down because the role carried with it no dialogue. And this did play a part in Bela's decision, but there is more to the story.
The monster in the original script for Frankenstein was nothing like the one we are familiar with today. In Robert Florey's original adaptation, the monster was a heartless brute, basically nothing much more than a killing machine, lacking any human interest or pathos. Bela read the original script and angrily stated: "I was a star in my country and I won't be a scarecrow over here!"
After Bela was scratched from Frankenstein involvement, both he and Robert Florey (who was to direct) were placated with the film Murders of the Rue Morgue (1932) instead.
As a sidebar, Bela Lugosi was to eventually play the Frankenstein monster. Over a decade later, in 1943, he took the role in the film Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr. In this film, Frankenstein did indeed speak, handling Bela's original objection, but sadly, at early screenings Bela's Hungarian accent played more funny than terrifying and caused audiences to titter, not quiver in fear. Bela's dialogue was cut out of the finished film, and Bela himself (who had played the monster as being blind) only appeared in a small portion of the finished movie.
British director James Whale, who had been imported to America by the Laemmle Brothers at Universal, took over the helm of Frankenstein. It was Whale who basically threw out the original Frankenstein script and concept and rewrote and amended it. (the original Frankenstein script had worried the suits at Universal from day one.)
A 44-year-old unknown, journeyman actor from England was soon signed to take over the lead as the monster. His name was Boris Karloff.
Although many factors contributed to the huge success of Frankenstein (writing, direction, other cast members, cinematography, special effects, et al), it was clearly the amazing sympathy, vulnerability, pathos and gentleness of Karloff that most heavily factored in the film's immortal appeal (particularly with female viewers, who are generally not as "into" horror films as their male counterparts).
Makeup man Jack Pierce, a Greek immigrant, also figures heavily in the Frankenstein film's legend. It was Pierce's idea to give the monster his now legendary flat head, drooping eyelids, loose and unkempt costume and bolts in his neck (often mistakenly referred to as bolts, they're actually electrodes). None of these physical facets were a part of Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel Frankenstein, but after the film's success were to become standard, both in films and in people's minds.
Pierce was known to be often temperamental and extremely stern, but during production he and Boris had a very friendly relationship. Pierce used a greenish-gray greasepaint to coat Boris's face and hands (which was deliberately designed to come across pale and ashen on film). Boris was so cooperative that he even agreed to remove the partial bridgework in his mouth, in order to give the monster his hollow, sunken cheek look.
Boris spent four hours in the makeup chair each day of filming. The Frankenstein outfit weighed an unbelievable 48 pounds. Each of his boots weighed 11 pounds (or 13 pounds, depending on the source.)
Mae Clarke played the film's female lead "Elizabeth" (Bette Davis was also reputedly considered for the role) and was probably the hottest movie personality in the cast at the time of filming. She had recently gained her own film immortality a few months earlier as the woman in whose face Jimmy Cagney shoves a grapefruit in the classic gangster film Public Enemy (1931).
Mae confided to Boris that she would be petrified when he came towards her in his creepy makeup. Boris empathized and told her that when he menaced her in the film to watch for his pinky finger. He said he would wave and wiggle his pinky at her, out of camera range, and this would be their special, personal signal that it was just Boris, not really a scary monster.
Seven-year-old Marilyn Harris played the little girl the monster throws into the lake, drowning her in the process. It was feared that little Marilyn would be terrified of Boris in his scary get-up, too. But when the cast and crew were driving to film on location, Marilyn ran over to Boris in his car (already in full costume) and asked him "May I ride with you?"
Boris smiled and happily replied, "Would you, Darling?"
In the scene where Marilyn was thrown in the lake, director Whale shot the scene several times, but still needed just the right take. Marilyn agreed, and Whale told her that if she did the scene, he'd give her anything she wanted. The perfect take was finally executed by Marilyn, and she asked Whale for a dozen hard-boiled eggs, her favorite snack. Whale gave her two dozen.
Marilyn's "drowning in the lake" scene was later edited out of the film in some states; it was considered to be a bit too graphic for contemporary film-going audiences. Later-day viewers seeing this version of the film in theaters or on television were often baffled as to how the little girl who drowned in the lake was put into that situation.
Colin Clive was billed first in the film's credits and given the name Henry Frankenstein. The original name of his character in the Shelley novel was Victor, but this was considered too severe and unfriendly to American audiences
Colin delivered the film's most immortal line, when he brings the monster to life and shrieks "It's alive! It's alive!" His original line was actually "It's alive! It's alive! Now I know what it feels like to be God!" The last line was edited out of existing versions of the film because it was considered too blasphemous. The line was later restored, but is partially obscured by the sound of castle thunder. Incidentally, Frankenstein was the first movie ever to use the familiar "castle thunder," now a horror movie staple.
Although almost everyone believes Dr. Frankenstein's crippled assistant is named "Ygor," Dwight Frye, who plays the hunchbacked aide, is named "Fritz." In the film, he walks with the aid of a cane.
Kenneth Strickfaden was responsible for all the electrical effects used when Frankenstein is created in the doctor's laboratory. According to one source, Boris was afraid of getting hit with the flying sparks in the creation scene and Strickfaden actually stood in for him. Strickfaden was not given billing in the film's credits. Ironically, a lot of the equipment used in Frankenstein was used again by Mel Brooks in his 1974 parody Young Frankenstein. Although James Whale did not give Strickfaden onscreen credit in his 1931 film, Mel Brooks did in Young Frankenstein.
Frankenstein premiered at the Mayfair Theater in New York City on December 4, 1931. It collected $53,000 in its opening week. Filmed for less than $300,000, by June of 1932, Frankenstein had already chalked up a profit of $1.4 million. Released in December, it was to be the highest-grossing movie of 1932.
In a possible example of contemporary sexism, author Mary Shelley is credited not as such, but as "Mrs. Percy Shelley" in the film's credits.
Boris Karloff is billed as "?'" in the film's opening credits. He is, however, given proper credit as "Boris Karloff" in the closing credits. He was to reprise his soon-to-be legendary role in both 1935's Bride of Frankenstein and 1939's Son of Frankenstein.
The last time he ever donned his legendary Frankenstein makeup for the camera was in a 1962 appearance in the television show Route 66. Although not seen on-camera, Boris did supply the voice of Dr. Baron von Frankenstein for a stop-motion animated film called Mad Monster Party? in 1967. Boris always referred to his most famous character as "the dear old boy."
Boris was to become quite possibly the most famous horror movie actor in cinema history. Universal Studios considered him so unimportant and irrelevant at the time of the Frankenstein premiere, he wasn't even invited to attend.