Study Guide

Frankenstein Cast

  • Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive)

    Frankenstein, Mad Scientist

    Swipe left on Henry Frankenstein. There are more red flags on this guy than in a World Cup match between Switzerland and Turkey.

    For one, his occupation is "mad scientist," and you do not traditionally want to be hanging out with mad scientists. (They'll only end up hurting you emotionally, or hooking you up to machines and dumping green bubbling potions down your throat and stealing your brain.)

    But the fact that Frankenstein's a machine-hooking, potion-pouring, brain-stealing scientist isn't the only reason he's a jerkbag. His profession's only the tip of the iceberg. He has, as his teacher Dr. Waldman says, an "insane ambition to create life," and in his monomaniacal pursuit of his goal, he throws ethics aside, and then jumps up and down on top of them. He demands the university give him dead bodies and, as Waldman says, " [is] not to be too particular as to where and how we got them."

    That means Henry's asking to cut up dead folks without getting the permission or consent of loved ones. Nice guy, eh?

    Most other things he does are equally jerktastic. He abandons his fiancée with hardly an explanation, because he's terrified that someone will steal his ideas:

    FRANKENSTEIN: You must have faith in me, Elizabeth. Wait, my work must come first, even before you. At night the winds howl in the mountains. There is no one here. Prying eyes can't peer into my secret...I am living in an abandoned old watchtower close to the town of Goldstadt. Only my assistant is here to help me with my experiments.

    So, basically, he's so worried about someone eavesdropping on his mad scientist shtick that he hides away from Elizabeth with sneaking, nasty Fritz. You are who you hang out with, Frankenstein.

    Frankenstein is unethical, he's selfish—and he's also full of himself. You know the rule that states that people who are rude to waiters are usually horrible to everyone? Well, Frankenstein orders around Fritz without so much as a "please."

    And he's not only a raging dirtbag to his employees; he's also a literal megalomaniac. As the monster springs to life, he shouts:

    "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"

    (Hoo boy.)

    Colin Clive plays Frankenstein with a flamboyant wild-eyed fervor in early scenes; he's delusional. What did Elizabeth see in him, anyway? Cut off that engagement and get far, far away, girl. He's no good for you.

    Frankenstein, Marriageable Fella

    But Hollywood loves a good change of heart almost as much as it loves a rags-to-riches story. After the monster comes to life and starts killing people, Henry switches his tune. Suddenly he's not interested in robbing graves and being God. He feels bad for Fritz getting killed, though he never seemed to care about the guy before. ("Poor Fritz, all my fault" he says in regret.)

    And he decides that he'd rather be with Elizabeth than lock himself in a lab sewing dead body parts together. He tells her:

    "It's like heaven being with you again."

    To which she claps back, with a touch of exasperation:

    "Heaven wasn't so far away all the time you know."

    And once Henry leaves the castle, he's like a new man. Instead of stealing dead bodies, he makes preparations for his wedding. (Guess DIY centerpieces are almost as fun as DIY monsters.)

    Even when things start to go wrong, and the monster escapes and threatens the village, Henry acts not like a mad scientist, but like a hero. He leads villagers to fight the big bad guy, and ends up confronting his creation alone and with courage.

    From mad scientist bad guy, he's transformed into romantic lead good guy. Sewing a monster out of dead bodies and then watching various people get murdered was a growth experience. He became a better, more compassionate, less incredibly wacko dude.

    Hey man, whatever it takes.

  • The Monster (Boris Karloff)

    Argh. Grrr.

    Some monsters are suave. Some monsters are chatty, and full of lengthy monologues. And some monsters end up coining catch phrases.

    Sadly, Frankenstein's monster isn't the kind of monster you want to have a lengthy convo with. In fact, it's impossible to have a conversation with he guy—he's a growling, arghing, can't rub two words together kind of monster. He says, "Grrrr" and sometimes, "Rowr," but that's about it.

    But what does it mean to have a monster that can't talk to you?

    Well, it makes the monster seem not very human. The monster's stitched together from dead body parts, and has a human brain, but it seems more like an animal or pet than like a person. In fact, Dr. Waldman says:

    "Kill it, as you would any savage animal."

    To Waldman, the monster's like a mad dog or beast. Destroying him isn't "murder" (as Henry calls it) because the monster's not a human being. The monster is an "it."

    Grrr? Argh?

    Here's the thing, though: none of us started out being able to chat, crack jokes, or sing karaoke. When we were babies, the only thing any of us could do was wail, scowl, and projectile vomit. And Frankenstein's monster is, after all, a newborn. He's just come into the world.

    And instead of meeting adults that slap some diapers on his and read him Goodnight Moon about a jillion times, Mr. Monster meets humans that want to kill him.

    Boris Karloff never talks in his role as the monster. But he gives the creature a lot of pathos and emotion. This is particularly true in the scene where Frankenstein first brings him into the light. "So far he's been kept in complete darkness," Frankenstein explains. And, when the monster's allowed to see the light, he reaches up his arms, as if he's trying to hold it, or get out of the castle. And then the monster sits down when Frankenstein asks it to. "You see? It understands," the doctor declares with joy.

    The moment when the monster most seems like a child is when he encounters Maria, a real child. "Will you play with me?" she asks, and they have a little playdate throwing flowers into the lake—until the monster gets confused and throws Maria in as well.

    This murder is an accident; the monster doesn't realize that Maria will sink. But it's also significant because it shows that the monster can learn, much like a human child. He's playing, and as he plays he's picking up the rules of the world. Maria throws something in the water, and then the monster throws something in the water. That's imitation and education.

    Maybe, the monster could even learn to talk…if Frankenstein was willing to put in the time.

    The monster inability to talk doesn't make him an animal; it just makes him ignorant. He can't speak because no one's shown him how. And if that's the case, then the fault lies not in the innocent creature who doesn't know better, but in his dad, who never bothered to teach him kindness, or language.

    "I made him with these hands, and with these hands I will destroy him," Frankenstein declares. But before he destroyed him, did he try to teach him anything? Every time the monster says, Argh! it's a reminder that Frankenstein didn't take the time to teach him to say Hello.

  • Fritz (Dwight Frye)

    Wait, shouldn't that be Igor?

    Yes, the assistant to Dr. Frankenstein is usually thought of as "Igor." He doesn't appear in the original novel, but in later film versions he is in fact called "Igor." Here, though, he's plain ol' Fritz.

    Hey Fritz, no one likes you.

    Why doesn't anyone like Fritz? Well, the twisted, deformed, nasty dude is a perfect example of middle management. Frankenstein bullies him and makes him do all the unpleasant work. It's Fritz who has to climb up the gibbet and cut down the corpse, and then, for his trouble, Frankenstein gets all huffy with him:

    "The neck's broken. The brain is useless! We must find another brain."

    You can just see Fritz rolling his eyes and thinking, Who's this "we"? I'm the guy that's going to have to find that brain, while you sit off to the side and make cranky comments, Frankenstein.

    Frankenstein bullies Fritz—and so Fritz bullies whoever he can in turn. And who can Fritz bully? The monster.

    You'd think Frankenstein would want his amazing new creation treated well, but he's unwilling to do any actual work himself, and that means that it's up to Fritz to watch him —and amuse himself by scaring him with fire and beating him. When the monster finally lashes out and kills Fritz, Frankenstein admits he knew what his assistant was doing:

    "He hated Fritz. Fritz always tormented him." 

    So why didn't you do something to stop it, genius? That's bad management for you.

    Fritz's unpleasant, ugly, and nasty. But that begs the question, why did Frankenstein hire someone so unpleasant, ugly, and nasty? The answer is that Frankenstein wanted to do unpleasant, ugly, nasty things without getting his own hands dirty.

    Remember, Frankenstein is a Baron's son; he's used to having other people do the yucky stuff for him. Fritz—and a bunch of other people—die because Frankenstein wanted to play in the muck. But Frankenstein himself emerges unscathed. It's always middle management that suffers, while the big boss gets to marry and have little Barons happily ever after.

  • Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan)

    Good old friendly Dr. Waldman recommends eating an apple a day, taking your vitamins, getting eight hours of sleep a night and…murder.

    At first it looks like Dr. Waldman—Henry's old medical teacher at the university—is a bastion of morality, good advice, and properness. He says Henry's grave robbing is bad, which seems like a sane, reasonable position to take. In fact, Dr. Waldman comes across as the good scientist. He doesn't have the "insane ambition" he points out in Henry. He's clear-eyed, and realizes immediately that the monster "will prove dangerous."

    When Henry cockily responds, "Poor old Waldman. Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous?" he emphasizes that Waldman is the sober, cautious, reasonable one. Not all scientists want to unleash monsters on the unsuspecting countryside just for a thrill.

    But is Waldman really such a good guy? It's he who advocates destroying the monster, even though Henry protests with the blunt statement: "It's murder." And then, Waldman tries to dissect the monster while it's still alive…which seems both cruel and reckless. Maybe Waldman suddenly decided he wanted to do something dangerous after all. Bad move, buddy.

    There's the off chance that Waldman didn't know the monster was alive when he started cutting it; he does say earlier that he plans to see it "painlessly destroyed." Still, however you look at it, Waldman messed up.

    Henry may be a mad scientist, but it's not just the mad scientist who causes trouble. Waldman, the sober, sane scientist is the one whose miscalculation, and possible cruelty unleashes the monster on the unsuspecting village.

    Scientists: even when they're sane, you can't trust them…at least according to Frankenstein.

  • Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke)

    Oh, look, it's a pretty Hollywood heroine who is in love and faints. How original.

    (To be fair to Elizabeth, she faints because her fiancé is a psycho who has reanimated a corpse…and then the reanimated corpse menaces her. We'd faint, too.)

    But even with her very extenuating fainting circumstances, there's not much to Elizabeth as a character. She spends the whole film talking about how much she wants to get married, taking a break only to faint when the monster comes after her. If she ever thinks of anything other than Henry, you don't get to hear about it. 

    She's kind of…dull.

    And Henry seems to know she's dull. He keeps putting off his marriage and the happy Hollywood ending, in order to go run around collecting dead bodies and hanging out with Fritz. Elizabeth says:

    "The day we announced our engagement, he told me of his experiments."

    It's like Frankenstein is using the experiments in order to put off dealing with his engagement. And of course, his most important, passionate relationship in the film isn't with Elizabeth; it's with the monster.

    It's worth pointing out here that director James Whale was gay. He never married; instead, like Frankenstein, his most important emotional relationships were with other men, especially with the Hollywood producer David Lewis.

    You could see Frankenstein, then, as being all about how Frankenstein doesn't want to get married. Poor Elizabeth, in this reading, isn't really a person at all; she's just a stand-in for life that all men circa 1931 were supposed to lead. She symbolizes the life that Frankenstein's running away from.

    Elizabeth doesn't get to be an interesting character because Frankenstein is about men hiding away with men—and how that leads to tragedy and panic in the village.

  • Minor Characters

    Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr)

    The Baron is pompous, self-satisfied, and, supposedly, adorable. He struts about and tells people to go hither and thither and gives the servants champagne to celebrate his son's wedding because the good wine is "wasted on 'em."

    He's sure of himself and his position and of his power, and you can sort of see why Henry has decided to go off to create monsters. Better to stitch dead people together and hang out with Fritz than to spend your life with this pompous, boring, snobbish oaf.

    Ludwig, Maria's Father (Michael Mark)

    Ludwig is the salt of the earth peasant whose grief justifies the rampage against the monster. You'd think part of his anger, and everyone else's, would be directed against Henry, who's the idiot who created the monster in the first place, and then compounded the error by letting said monster get away. But maybe Ludwig doesn't know it's all Henry's fault. It's the sort of thing the nobles don't tell the peasants.

    Maria (Marilyn Harris)

    Sunny lil' Maria is the adorable girl that the monster tosses in the lake. She's innocent and tragic, and teaches children the important lesson that you shouldn't play with monsters made out of reanimated corpse parts.

    Victor Moritz (John Boles)

    Victor is the handy backup protagonist. Henry Frankenstein tells him:

    "You stay here and look after Elizabeth. I'll leave her in your care, whatever happens."

    Then Henry runs off to fight the monster and gets killed.

    Or at least, he got killed in an early version of the film. Audiences didn't like that, so the filmmakers changed the ending. Suddenly, there's no need for a back-up protagonist anymore; Victor doesn't have to take care of Elizabeth, because Henry's still around. As a result, Victor's role seems completely pointless. Why is he there? Who needs him? Poor Victor; he spends the whole film looking vaguely noble and superfluous.

    Herr Vogel, the Burgomaster (Lionel Belmore)

    Herr Vogel sucks up to the Baron and tells the peasants what to do. He's middle management, in other words. Kind of like Fritz (see Characters: Fritz).