The Gift of Life


Finest Christmas gift this year was the Universal Monsters Blu-Ray, which got slapped into the Maidstone player as soon as decency allowed. While Fiona was out and her brother was dozing, I previewed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, a snoozy film but a very fine transfer, with super-saturated Technicolor seeping from every frame.

Then, in the evening, FRANKENSTEIN! Roddy enjoys this one very much, and Fiona and I are big Whale fans. I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD, and now Blu. I’m not sure I’d watched it in the last ten years, though, so it all seemed quite fresh, helped by the munificent new detail…


Had we seen that the bouncy skeleton at the medical school has something clenched between his teeth? I don’t think so, and I’m still not sure what it is he’s got there: Fiona proposes a rubber surgical glove, I thought it might be a rolled-up piece of paper. You would need a screen as wide as Victor Buono’s ass to be sure, and we only have the James Coco model.


We saw the little dust-clouds stirred up by Karloff’s feet as he tries to escape. We laughed hysterically at Dwight Frye’s mood swings, his tiny walking stick which makes movement more difficult, and the way he pauses to pull up one sock before hurrying to assist at the monster’s birth. We gazed in wonderment at the sheer majestic scale of John Boles’ big dull head. We marveled at the fact that Edward Van Sloan, a Dutchman from Minnesota, choose to play a German doctor with a prissy Scottish accent.

Maybe it was the new clarity of the image, or the fact that I’d forgotten the original experience of viewing the film, or my arguable greater maturity, but the emotional arc of the movie, which is all Karloff’s, though smuggled in as a subtext beneath the romantic sufferings of Colin Clive and Mae Clarke (eyes scanning fearfully in search of approaching grapefruits) , hit home with greater clarity. I had remembered the sublime reaching for the light, and the scene by the lake with the little girl, but in isolation. I also remembered that Karloff spends a lot of the time snarling in an almost feline manner. But putting the famous moments in order and experiencing them again meant seeing how the monster moves from innocence through fear to anger. And realizing that the moment when the little girl offers him a flower inspires his first ever smile brings a lump to his throat.


Clive and Karloff stare at each other through the windmill’s central cog, and it resembles a giant wooden zoetrope: their POV’s blur into each other as the rotating timber flashes by — monster and maker become one, and mad science and cinema are conflated.

There’s also the horrible nastiness of the monster’s fate, burned to death in that windmill (he’s created in a mill too), when fire is his greatest fear. I’m glad Whale was to revive him, only slightly singed, to meet a death of his own choosing, blown to atoms. Of course Karloff played the part again, and the monster continued to lumber about after Boris kicked off his tar-spreader’s boots, but Whale’s diptych is a self-contained thing of beauty, and the characters are all finished with when he’s finished with them.

vlcsnap-2013-02-18-20h44m51s155All images come from the old DVD, I’m afraid.

Buy: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

16 Responses to “The Gift of Life”

  1. I’d never really considered Dwight Fry’e useless stick before. Fabulous. “Bride” is full of brilliant things but THIS is Frankenstein.
    Have fun with the set. Does it have Old Dark House?

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Here’s what’s amazing: (according to the Internet Movie Database), it was Karloff’s 76th film appearance, and he made 15 other movies in 1931. And Pratt was still credited with a punctuation mark, rather than his showbiz name.

    Whale was perhaps the most subversive director in Classic period Hollywood. Not even perhaps, _was_.

  3. Alas, no Blu-ray of Old Dark House yet. I think the film went out of copyright so in theory anybody could release it. The Kino DVD was a revelation when all I’d seen was the old Rohauer print, so a comparable upgrade could be startling.

    Frankenstein is TOTALLY subversive. Every line in the script is about Henry’s transgression in playing God, and his eventual redemption, but the imagery tells the story of the monster, and only comes to life for him, making him the truly sympathetic figure. None of this is overt in any way, but it truly is a different movie smuggled within the script of a more conventionally pro-society story.

  4. The character of the monster as played by Karloff (with significant help from Jack Pierce) is extraordinary. And one only has to watch the drop off in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN to realize how much Whale contributed to the greatest monster of them all.

  5. Colin Clive’s performance in Whale’s Frankenstein films is as one with his performance as Diana Wynard’s evil husband in Whale’s One More River He’s as eccentric as Dwight Frye.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    And Clive is just terrifying in Borzage’s HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (37). He was a damned soul . . .

  7. And he’s not all too sane in MAD LOVE.

  8. Clive is all the stranger for being cast in leading man parts. His best part may have been in Whale’s Journey’s End, where he brings his real-life inner torment to the surface. By the time of History is Made at Night he’s as emaciated as an Egon Schiele figure drawing, and a remarkably dark presence for a Borzage film.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Schiele ref: perfect.

    CC seemed to embody and enact the entirety of a surviving generation’s war trauma and post-war rage–he’s almost too uncontainable/uncontrollable on celluloid.

  10. Also the tragedy of sexual repression, his bisexuality disguised as sexual sadism in One More River, as monster-making in the Frankensteins, etc.

  11. Any thoughts on Condon’s GODS AND MONSTERS, while we’re in this neck of the woods?

  12. I loved it! Fictionalized, of course, but intelligently so, and made with real love for the subject. It’s the kind of thing I wish Brendan Fraser would do more of. In fact, I wish everybody did more of it.

  13. When you (or anyway I) type”Journey’s End” in the Netflix search engine, what they come up with is “Pokemon: Johto League Champion: Vol. 7.” Which I hope says more about them than it does about me.

  14. The Whale is a very primitive, stagy early talkie, but the play still works, and the movie ought to be available commercially, instead of just on the black market. It’s where it all began for Whale and Clive.

  15. kevin mummery Says:

    For some reason (facial resemblance?) as a youngster I always believed Colin Clive was Terry-Thomas’s father, or at least older relative…kind of fun to imagine Clive as Major Hitchcock in “I’m All Right, Jack”, with all his inner torment on display when dealing with Fred Kite and Ian Carmichael.

  16. They do have slightly similar voices, I guess. Identical plummy accents, anyway.

    By that logic, TT should have had the Rathbone role in Son of Frankenstein. He’d have fitted right in!

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