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Frankenstein (1931);
The Mummy (1932)

Frankenstein (1931)
June 8, 2012 - 7:30 pm
author James Curtis, "James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters."

New print!

Frankenstein (1931)

Directed by James Whale

Carl Laemmle Jr., appointed head of production at Universal by his father in 1928, had ambitious plans to upgrade feature output and compete for the prestige market. By 1931, consigned to smaller budgets, but having scored a surprise hit with the sensationally popular (and economically-produced) Dracula, “Junior” began preparing Frankenstein as a follow-up.

Screenwriters Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh adapted Peggy Webling’s British stage version of Mary Shelley’s story but managed to crystallize the novel’s essential themes and emotions. From their economical narrative, director James Whale, new to horror, summoned an exquisitely pitched story to quicken the blood. From its chilling opening images of grave-robbing to its hyper-electrified creation scene (still a jarring spectacle of design and theatrics) to the climactic confrontation between the monster and his maker, Frankenstein peddled passion: that of a scientific genius longing to play god, and of his unfortunate, synthetic creation, reaching out for beauty, tenderness and ultimately, revenge. As portrayed by fiery Colin Clive and icy Karloff, these passions prove so much more interesting than the moral hand-wringing of Frankenstein’s fiancée (Mae Clarke), best friend (John Boles) and teacher (Edward Van Sloan), it is hard not to sympathize with both genius and monster. Nay-sayers at Universal worried that audiences might recoil from the macabre story of a man created from cadavers; the film actually opens with a spoken prologue by character actor Van Sloan, inviting audiences to think twice before subjecting their nerves to “such a strain.” Audiences, however, responded with the same enthusiasm that met Dracula the season before, vindicating “Junior” Laemmle, creating a permanent icon in the misshapen monster and a star of Boris Karloff, as well as solidifying Universal’s predominance in, and commitment to, the horror genre.

—Shannon Kelley

Universal Pictures. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Based on the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Screenwriter: Garrett Fort, Francis Edwards Faragoh. Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson. Editor: Clarence Kolster. Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan.

35mm, b/w, 70 min.

The Mummy (1932)

Directed by Karl Freund

The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 created a sensation around the world. Extensive press coverage of its excavation, exhibitions of the pharaoh’s artifacts, and rumors of an ancient and deadly curse kept public interest high throughout the decade. Such context made it a natural for Universal to continue its run of monster movie hits with The Mummy.

After the success of the previous year’s Dracula and Frankenstein, horror was firmly established as a viable and lucrative genre, and the public’s fascination with Egypt was matched by its interest in the recently discovered talents of Boris Karloff. Universal gratified demand for both with this chilling tale of a cursed mummy reanimated by an ancient spell. Karloff ’s portrayal of Imhotep, the ancient Egyptian priest driven to possess the modern-day incarnation of his long-lost love, is as unforgettable as his bandaged visage. Creating the iconic look of the moldering monster was no small feat; Karloff endured an arduous process in becoming Imhotep. Under the exacting eye of makeup wizard Jack Pierce, the full-body application of rags, clay, and spirit gum for the opening scene reportedly took eight hours. The mummy’s subsequent masquerade as Egyptian scholar Ardath Bey is played with understated menace, demonstrating the range of Karloff ’s talent.

The Mummy broke new ground in several ways, featuring an original story written expressly for the screen, rather than looking to established literary works for supernatural subject matter. The action is handled with restraint by acclaimed cinematographer Karl Freund, in his first directorial effort for Universal. Tantalizing shots of trailing bandages and shadowy misdeeds stoke the imagination, building up to the vivid scenes of Imhotep’s past demise and present fate. While Edward Van Sloan and David Manners reprise familiar roles as occult expert and callow suitor, Zita Johann’s leading lady departs from tradition by managing to save herself, albeit with the help of a vengeful Isis. In its ambitious mix of archeological adventure and supernatural thriller, The Mummy built upon the success of previous horror films while establishing the legitimacy of the genre in its own right and making its own enduring contribution to the pantheon of Universal monsters.

—Nina Rao

Universal Pictures Corp. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Screenwriter: John L. Balderston. Cinematographer: Charles Stumar. Editor: Milton Carruth. Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan.

35mm, b/w, 78 min.