PROFESSOR: And here, the abnormal brain of the typical criminal. Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobe as compared to that of the normal brain, and the distinct degeneration of the middle frontal lobe. All of these degenerate characteristics check amazingly with the history of the dead man before us, whose life was one of brutality, of violence and murder.
The professor is giving a little lesson on eugenics. Eugenics was the belief that some folks had good awesome genes which made them good and awesome, and other people were degenerate and less awesome. So the professor here is saying that criminals are criminals because they have degenerate brains.
Or, to put it another way, criminals are criminals because they're less than human. Eugenics used to be popular in the U.S.—and Hitler picked up on it as an excuse to kill Jews and black people and everyone else who he considered to be eugenically inferior to the German people. So, in the long run eugenics did much worse things than that poor criminal brain in its jar.
WALDMAN: The bodies we use in our dissecting room for lecture purposes were not perfect enough for his experiments, he said. He wished us to supply him with other bodies and we were not to be too particular as to where and how we got them. I told him that his demands were unreasonable. And so he left the University to work unhampered. He found what he needed elsewhere.
Frankenstein wanted to steal people's corpses without the consent of their families. That's a bit of an ethical no-no, and Waldman wouldn't go along with it. So Frankenstein, our "hero," got a shady assistant and went off grave-robbing. That's criminal—but nobody ever even suggests that Frankenstein should maybe be punished or go to prison or even be given a stern talking-to. If you look like a monster, people want to punish you. If you've got good looks and are related to the Baron, you never get treated like a criminal…no matter what nasty things you do. Moral: make sure your dad is a Baron, and then do whatever you want.
WALDMAN: The brain which was stolen from my laboratory...was a criminal brain.
FRANKENSTEIN: Oh, well. After all, it's only a piece of dead tissue.
Is the criminal brain really to blame for all the bad things the monster does? It's really not clear. Maybe Waldman is right and the criminal brain is dangerous. Maybe Frankenstein is right, and the brain is just a piece of tissue. The film flirts with the idea that criminals are born via bad brains. And then it flirts with the idea that criminals are made by mistreatment. But it never chooses between them; in the end, you don't know whether it's the brain that makes that monster tick.
ELIZABETH: Where is Dr. Waldman? Why is he late for the wedding?
Dr. Waldman's dead, of course, strangled by that nasty monster. So, okay—murder is criminal; no doubt about that. But the monster only strangles Waldman in self-defense; the doctor is trying to cut him open and examine his insides before killing him once and for all.
Similarly, the monster kills Fritz because Fritz's tormenting him. These are not cut and dried criminal acts; a jury might well acquit the big guy for either one. If the monster is a criminal, it's only because people attack him and…well, treat him like a criminal and a monster. He becomes what they have decided he's going to be. They made a monster, so he acts like a monster.
LITTLE MARIA: See how mine floats.
[the Monster picks her up]
LITTLE MARIA: No, you're hurting me! No!
The monster tosses Maria in the pond, drowning her. Drowning a child: that's not something you can approve of. But is it a criminal act? He seems to be trying to play with her; he thinks she'll float like the flowers they've been tossing in the water. This is both the scene which convicts him as a criminal, and the scene which suggests he's innocent, like a child. Basically, the monster is bad because Frankenstein's a bad parent. If only he'd loved his monster more, it wouldn't have had to come to this.
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.
Part of Frankenstein's madness is that he's obsessed with creating life—he's madly ambitious. But the mad ambition links up with another madness: paranoia. Frankenstein hides himself away because he's afraid someone will steal his secret formula for creating life. He thinks he's become like a God…but then he's afraid someone else will steal his God-ness. Ambition and pettiness get all jammed up together, and so he ends up running off with Fritz when he could stay at home with Elizabeth. Bad judgment, Frankengoober.
WALDMAN: Only Evil can come of it! Your health will be ruined if you persist in this madness.
FRANKENSTEIN: I'm astonishingly sane, doctor.
WALDMAN: You have created a Monster and he will destroy you.
Frankenstein's kind of too sane; he is super-duper-reasonable. He uses science to create life, when no one else thinks he should be able to. It works—he's right and everybody else is wrong…but disagreeing with everyone else still makes him kind of mad. He's be a lot better off if he were less right, didn't know how to make a monster, and just stayed home warm and safe and got married. Better to be a boring mediocrity than a genius, as far as Frankenstein's concerned.
FRANKENSTEIN: But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn't care if they did think I was crazy.
Frankenstein wants to discover the secret of the universe, even if it means everyone shuns him. But then it turns out that the secret of the universe is a big old monster who growls and kills people. Maybe not worth being considered insane after all. Whoops.
FRANKENSTEIN: Quite a good scene, isn't it? One man crazy, three very sane spectators. Yes!
Part of being insane is that Frankenstein apparently realizes he's in a film. And, as he says, crazy people make for a good cinema scene. Colin Clive as Frankenstein grabs all the background scenery and just shoves it in his mouth and chews. "It's alive! It's alive!" Say what you will about mad scientists: they make good movie mayhem.
ELIZABETH: You'll soon feel better when you get out of here.
FRANKENSTEIN: It's like heaven being with you again.
ELIZABETH: Heaven wasn't so far away all the time, you know.
FRANKENSTEIN: I know. But I didn't realize it. My work. Those horrible days and nights. I couldn't think of anything else.
ELIZABETH: Henry, you're not to think of those things any more.
After the monster kills Fritz, Frankenstein comes to his senses. Suddenly, he's not mad at all anymore; it's like he's a completely different person. Madness is presented as a passing illness, but also as a choice. Frankenstein gave up on his fiancée, and chose to defy the natural order of things. That made him mad. But once he goes back to the fiancé, all is well again. Madness is less a problem inside Frankenstein than it is a problem with his relationship to society. All he needs to do is take off that lab coat, and his brain starts to work right again.
ELIZABETH: The very day we announced our engagement, he told me of his experiments. He said he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity. There was a strange look in his eyes, some mystery. His words carried me right away. Of course I've never doubted him but still I worry. I can't help it.
Henry coincidentally gets caught up in his experiments just as he proposes to Elizabeth. Or is it a coincidence? Maybe Henry has some serious commitment issues. Yes, sure, I'll marry you…but first I have to just run off and make a monster. See ya. It seems a little too convenient.
Remember, too, that director James Whale was gay. Henry's decision to race off to spend time with Fritz could just be bad judgment…but it could also mean that he's not interested in marrying a woman—a fact which most people in 1931 would have kept carefully hidden for fear of prejudice.
VOGEL: What I really want to know is, when will the wedding be, if you please?
BARON FRANKENSTEIN: Unless Henry comes to his senses, there'll be no wedding at all.
VOGEL: But Herr Baron, the village is already prepared.
BARON FRANKENSTEIN: Well, tell them to unprepare.
Henry's wedding isn't just important to his family; it's important to the entire countryside. Marriage in the film is a symbol of social order and harmony. Frankenstein's refusal to marry ends up throwing the whole village out of whack. (Again, you could see this as a kind of fear that homosexuality will cause society to crumble—or perhaps as making fun of that fear.)
BARON FRANKENSTEIN: I understand perfectly well. There's another woman—and you're afraid to tell me. Pretty sort of experiments these must be.
The Baron suspects that Frankenstein is sleeping with someone other than Elizabeth, and that he doesn't want to get married because he is unfaithful. The truth is that he is unfaithful, kind of. He's putting his own ambition ahead of Elizabeth—he's fallen in love with a monster, which is maybe worse than if he'd just taken up with another woman.
FRANKENSTEIN: There can be no wedding while this horrible creation of mine is still alive. I made him with these hands, and with these hands I will destroy him. I must find him. [to Victor] You stay here and look after Elizabeth. I leave her in your care, whatever happens. Do you understand? In your care.
In the original version of the film, Henry dies, and Victor ends up with Elizabeth. So this is the moment where Henry hands Elizabeth over to his rival. You might think, hey, Frankenstein, you jerk: you don't get to decide who she marries. But Frankenstein isn't going to listen to you.
Remember, the whole film is about him trying to create life by resurrecting dead bodies, rather than by just getting married and having a kid. He wants to control stuff, especially stuff having to do with women, like birth and marriage. Really, it's hard to know what Elizabeth sees in him.
BARON FRANKENSTEIN: Well, as I said before, here I say again, here's... Here's to a son... to the House of Frankenstein.
MAID: Indeed, Sir. You too, Sir.
This final line of the film lets you know all is well with the world. Henry's getting married, he'll have kids, and he'll make them the normal, natural way, without the electricity and dead bodies. Marriage restores order, and even the maids are happy. (Though, for a less cheerful take, look at "What's Up With the Ending?")
EDWARD VAN SLOAN (AS HIMSELF): We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein. A man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death.
The introduction to the film suggests that the unfettered pursuit of science is overly prideful, and leads to Frankenstein's fall. But the film itself is more ambivalent. Is Frankenstein flawed because of his pursuit of science? Or is the problem that he treats the poor monster badly, and treats Elizabeth badly, and is generally an unpleasant guy? Is it the science that's the problem, or is the problem that Frankenstein is not a nice person?
FRANKENSTEIN: The neck's broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain.
Most people would be a little grossed out by the corpse with the broken neck. But Henry has that Mr. Spock matter-of-fact callousness. Welp, this corpse won't work, let's find another. That's the way those cold-blooded scientists roll—in search of brains.
FRANKENSTEIN: Don't touch that! Dr. Waldman. I learned a great deal from you at the University about the violet ray, the ultra-violet ray, which you said was the highest color in the spectrum. You were wrong. Here in this machinery I have gone beyond that. I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.
The other name for "the great ray" is "goofy sci-fi gibberish." It's like hyperspace or warp drive; it's nonsense. The scriptwriters just put random words in there to cover up the fact that the science here is complete silliness. It's mumbo-jumbo mysticism.
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!
VICTOR: Henry—in the name of God!
FRANKENSTEIN: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!
This dialogue actually got censored in some versions of the film, because it was considered blasphemous. Of course, the point here is that Frankenstein is insane and impious in defying God.
But you can see the film censors point; after all, the guy did create life. The movie both scolds Frankenstein (like Victor) and presents him as having near divine power. Science is bad because it gives you too much power—but then, who wouldn't grab at too much power?
FRANKENSTEIN: Dangerous? Poor old Waldman. Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light?
This doesn't sound like scary science, does it? Maybe Frankenstein should have tried one of these projects. Spend your life figuring out why trees bud or building a better telescope; that should work fine. But no, instead you had to start with the research project that involved cutting up corpses and making monsters. Everything would have been okay if you'd just reorganized your research priorities, Frankenstein.