‘It’s alive!’ must be among the most famous exclamations in cinema history, but the scene is less often quoted in full:

Henry Frankenstein: Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive… it’s alive!

Victor: Henry! In the name of God…

Henry: Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!

Blasphemy aside, that’s a lot of ‘it’s alive’s. The reason it doesn’t sound idiotic is because of the delivery by the young English actor Colin Clive. The passion, inflexion and variation he gives to the somewhat repetitive line makes it positively musical. He is one of a group of incredibly talented individuals who arrived at Universal in the early 1930s and helped instigate one of the most important movements in American horror: the age of the Universal monster.

The early days of sound cinema include some timeless movies, but there was also a certain degree of trial-and-error needed before all the edges were smooth. Todd Browning, an old hand at silents, developed Dracula for Universal in 1931; after Lon Chaney’s death from lung cancer the previous year, and despite the studio’s stance against him the role eventually went to Bela Lugosi, who turned in one of the most famous performances in cinema. The movie was a big hit for the studio, and effectively kicked off the Universal Horror franchise that would pump out movies fairly steadily for the next couple of decades.

However the cream of the crop is not Dracula, nor was the movement’s finest director Todd Browning. Dracula was based on a stage version of the novel, and many of the later dialogue scenes are rather dull and stagy (the silent scenes are simply filmed like silent scenes, by the great photographer Karl Freud, and retain their power). After that movie’s success the studio’s next choice for adaptation was Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel Frankenstein, the plan being to have Lugosi star in a film written and directed by Robert Florey. First Lugosi was demoted from Frankenstein to his monster, and then, depending on who you listen to, either left or was dropped along with Florey.

They were replaced by James Whale, an English director known for his stage work, and Boris Karloff, whom Whale had spotted one day in the Universal canteen. Resident make-up artist/genius Jack Pierce was brought in to design the monster’s face, and did what may be the most famous make-up job in movie history. The flat head, heavy eye-lids (suggested by Karloff), the electricity terminals (later misconstrued as bolts) and lumbering gait are simply what one thinks of when picturing Frankenstein’s monster.

Hollywood has always been full of outsiders of some description. Clive was a talented young British alcoholic. Director James Whale, also British, was openly gay. Jack Pierce was Greek. Even Carl Laemmle, who owned the studio, was German. Karloff was English, raised in Canada, of Anglo-Indian heritage. If it sounds like I am being reductive it is important to remember what these distinctions might have meant in the 1930s; it may be partly why in this and its brilliant sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), as well as terrifying the audience, the monster gains the audience’s sympathy.

Of course, we know that audiences, especially children, who love movies like this really love the monsters; that’s why they featured in so many movies, while the surrounding characters were expendable. Had Colin Clive not died two years after “Bride” he may proved an exception, but then his character remains interesting because he is half way between the squares and the freaks: a manic, obsessive personality trapped inside a gentle, caring husband. The sequel also introduces Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger): another outsider, he is gleefully blasphemous and, pretty clearly, as queer as a coot (sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar). Interestingly, Clive’s Frankenstein is saved at the end of “Bride,” but the monster does not let Pretorius go: ‘We belong dead,’ the Creature tells him.

While the sequel is rightly celebrated for its humour, camp appeal and intelligence (and, with Elsa Lanchester, unusual sexiness) I think one of the several reasons the original continues to work so well is the sparseness of music. Like Dracula, it only has a score over its credits, existing as it did somewhere between the days of music for silents and the later, more nuanced scores. Phillip Glass has provided a score for Dracula more recently, but I think the silence of passages of Frankenstein – most notably the moment we first see the creature – is essential, and keeps these scenes fresh.

There are other great moments, and images. The drowned girl, followed by the heartbreaking shot of her father carrying her through the town’s celebrations – along with the reference to ‘being God’ in the famous speech this was cut from many initial prints, and it’s still pretty horrible. Frankenstein and his creation staring each other down in the windmill. Mae Clarke being stalked around the drawing room (Karloff was always lumbering after women in drawing rooms). Its influence can be felt on virtually every version of the story told since, from the design of the monster to the use of lightning to give it life, to its realisation that we all have a bit of monster in us.

The film was an even bigger hit than Dracula, and Universal had a firm hold on the American horror market of the ‘30s, though that isn’t to say other studios didn’t make interesting horrors. As well as the other Universal classics (The Mummy, Son of FrankensteinThe Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House) Paramount made perhaps the most famous versions of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931, and The Island Of Dr. Moreau in 1933 (re-titled Island of Lost Souls, the movie stars Charles Laughton and Lugosi and was banned in the UK for years). In 1932, Todd Browning went to MGM to make his most notorious movie, Freaks (also banned in the UK for years). But Universal Studios were dominant, and Karloff’s monster, along with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man, took its place in history.

For my extensive history of the Golden Age of the Universal Monster movie, click here.

Previously:

Nosferatu and the 1920s

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the 1910s

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This article was first posted on October 18, 2011