For those who enjoyed the Jaws Randomised post, or those who hated it so much they’d love to see me crash and burn again, I’m taking another stab at formal analysis of three randomly selected frames from a movie, as instigated by Nick Rombes at Digital Poetics. Nick seems to be getting a lot of fascinating mileage out of it (look at how interesting he makes a forgettable film like About a Boy seem), and I’m quite taken with the technique, too. Today’s film, to keep it orthodox, is James Whale’s Frankenstein. The three frames must be chosen by computer. I use a random number generator to choose me three minute-marks from a DVD of the film, then discuss only the information I can glean from those images. So, let’s get started. Frankenstein is 67 minutes long according to my DVD edition, so I enter 1-67 into the generator, and I get: 36, 48 and 58. That sounds like the scenes will be bunched together, but I don’t know until I fire up the disc and start grabbing those frames, beginning with…
… this. I hope my luck stays this good; a wonderful shot encapsulating so well the conflict between the scientist and his unruly creation. It also affords us a good gawp at the stolid chunk of one of Universal’s massive, magnificent studio sets. This shot lasts for 40 seconds, with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, left) and Dr Waldman (Edward van Sloan, right) trapping the monster by luring him through the door: one of them will distract him while the other injects him with a heavy sedative. At this stage in the struggle, though, all three of them are poised, shoulders hunched, ready for the eruption of physical violence that is about to come. The monster’s cowering is odd: he’s easily more powerful, and has no real incentive to enter the room. His body is driven by a series of conflicting impulses, zapped into uncomprehending life by a bolt of lightning, twitching from attack to retreat, fear to fury, with lurching rapidity.
After making his escape, the monster has a brief idyllic interlude by a sparkling lake with Little Maria. He is imitating her, tossing flowers into the water and watching delightedly as they float on the surface. So far, he has only been seen in shadows, growling and pummeling stuff in the brick fortress of Frankenstein’s lab. To see him in broad daylight, outdoors and playing with flowers with a baby’s gurning grin on his face is quite a shock. It will be short-lived. Not until the sequel will he find a friend and manage to hang out in the open air without killing stuff.
On its release in 1931 in the US, the film was passed uncut by the federal censor, but several state censors could and frequently did cut out objectionable moments. For the 1937 re-release, Universal were forced to cut the conclusion of this scene, which was not restored until a 1985 restoration for TV broadcast: Karloff tosses Maria into the lake to see if she too can float like a flower (she can’t – she drowns), a simpleton’s mistake connecting objects and environments due to their basic similarities (Maria doesn’t look like a flower, but maybe the monster sees her like one, as delicate and pretty as the petals he holds in his hands) rather than distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects: he himself is trapped between life and death, so it makes sense that his actions should articulate that confused duality, that mortal category error.
No telling of the Frankenstein story would be complete without an angry mob thirsty for monster blood (except, of course, Mary Shelley’s original book…). That fierce and inexorable lateral movement across the frame depicts the unstoppable march of the crowd. Their torches are reflected in the water to double up the force of the flames that Karloff’s monster fears so much. Fire had been used to control him with fear. Now it will be used to burn him up. This proliferation of flames is a nice metaphor for mob mentality – each flame marks out one member of the crowd, but once fueled, it can spread independently without control, taking on a mad, ravenous life of its own. I’m not sure why the guys in the boat think they’re going to get there any quicker, but it does suggest that everyone is eager to get there by any available means and start torching someone.
- Review at the superb Frankenstein Films.
- Tim Dirks’ review at Filmsite.
- Review at The Stop Button.
- Stephen Jacobs’ article on the writing of Frankenstein.