Dwight Frye-days is a column where I will explore the films of Dwight Frye, arguably the first method actor and a personal favorite of mine. During October I will be exploring the horror films in Frye’s filmography. To celebrate the coming holiday of Halloween today’s movie will be the beloved classic Universal monster film Frankenstein starring Colin Clive (Mad Love, Bride of Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Mummy, The Black Cat, and many many more), Mae Clarke Lady Killer, The Man with Two Faces, Singin’ in the Rain), John Boles and his amazing eyebrows (Curly Top), and so many more including one of the greatest performances by Dwight Frye!
For this final Dwight Frye-days of October I felt it was only right to explore not only one of Dwight Frye’s best performances, but also one of the best horror films of all time. This classic film version of Frankenstein is considered by many to be the best of all the classic Universal monster films (along with two other Dwight Frye films Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein), but in the early days it seemed like it could end up much different. Throughout the casting process they had a problem with the casting of Frankenstein’s Monster, perhaps the most important role of the film, as originally Bela Lugosi was up for the role, but he was very adamant that he did not want to be typecast as a monstrous character and instead wanted to play Dr. Frankenstein. Eventually Lugosi left the film and Boris Karloff took his place, a wonderful choice, and Lugosi wound up playing the Monster in a later film (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man).
On top of that, the film was censored more than once for a few different scenes. One scene involving a girl drowning was deemed too dark and was edited to not show her death scene, which I consider a very key and important scene to the film. Another being when Frankenstein’s Monster comes to life Dr. Frankenstein utters the memorable and terrifying lines “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” for being “blasphemous” as it was vilified for considering him an equal to God. Eventually the scenes would be restored, thankfully, as not only are times different and things such as these don’t phase people anymore, but both of those scenes are incredibly important to the overall story on top of being deeply memorable.
The film Frankenstein follows a vastly different story than Mary Shelley’s original novel. Here, our doctor is one named Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and he and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are working on creating life through patching together body parts and organs of diseased humans into one creature. Fritz is tasked with getting the last remaining piece of the Monster, a brain, and as he attempts to take one he accidentally takes the brain of a diseased criminal. On the other side, Henry’s bride to be Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and her friend Victor (John Boles) are worried about Henry as he has disappeared and not made much contact since. After hearing that Henry is holed up in an abandoned building in the mountains, Elizabeth and Victor go to talk to him, taking with Henry’s old professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, Dracula, The Mummy) with them. Once they arrive at Henry’s they see that he has been working on creating life from death, quite obsessed with creating it actually, and during a storm that night he succeeds. After that is when the film goes from an interesting fantasy into a dark and bleak horror film about the darkness of humanity as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) goes from being treated nicely and carefully as a newborn child to attacked as a horrific creature.
Honestly there’s nothing bad about this film. If I genuinely had to pick it apart and think of something I would say it would have been nice to see a little bit of background as to why Henry was so intent on creating life. In the novel there are very clear reasons, but in this it’s not really explained, though arguably that makes it even more interesting. Instead of the desire to bring the dead back to life, Henry’s desire is to just create and be God, which is both fascinating and terrifying.
The whole film is really just fantastic. The acting from everyone is perfect, from the obsessed Henry played by Colin Clive, to the fiance worried about her husband but also curious about his work Elizabeth played by Mae Clarke, to Boris Karloff’s sullen and distraught Monster, to everyone even people uncredited such as the little girl who befriends the Monster in the second half of the film, and especially the wonderful Dwight Frye. The directing is fantastic, cinematography gorgeous, and the set designs are beautiful (the graveyard, the windmill, especially Henry’s laboratory). Everything about this film is beautiful.
The best thing about Frankenstein, though, has to be it’s story. Frankenstein is a story about a man playing God and creating life and how humanity treats that life just like everything else humans don’t understand: with fear, terror, and anger. Here we have a child, albeit a child in a large “adult” body who can understand and comprehend a decent amount of things, but a child nonetheless as it was just given life a day ago. It’s here and it exists, but due to Fritz being terrified of it he becomes angered. Fritz’s fear leads him to torture and terrorize the Monster with fire and whips, and the Monster becoming angry leads Henry to chain him up in the basement as opposed to scrutinize Fritz and help the Monster. From then on, the rest of the film shows how the Monster is learning and trying to comprehend things the way a child would, but instead of being treated like a child and taught how to do things and what is right and wrong, humanity sees him only by his outside; a monstrous being. Thus they fear and hates him. It’s an incredibly dark and tragic film that shows the true dark nature of humanity and that’s what I think makes it so beautiful. The film even goes so far to call him a Monster instead of something nicer, like a Creature for example.
I could go on and on about everything in this movie, but then I’d have no time to discuss the most important thing here: Dwight Frye! Frye’s performance here is monstrous (pun intended) as he plays Henry’s assistant Fritz. Fritz is a very deep character, being someone with a hunchback and most likely not feeling too highly about his physical appearance. It’s this that I feel grants him the power and anger to attack the Monster for being hideous; he is finally able to take out his anger on something that in his mind deserves it, and Frye plays it wonderfully. This is his only role that I genuinely hate him in — not because he’s acting poorly, but because he plays this evil and hateful character so well. He’s not over the top,; he’s just perfect, portraying someone who can go from a nice a helpful human to attacking and whipping the Monster with rage. This may not be my favorite of his performances (though it is very close) but it is arguable the very best performance of his career.
All in all this film is a must watch. Not only is it a must watch for horror fans, but it is a must watch for anyone who likes film in general. The film looks beautiful, is acted phenomenally, written so well and dark with so many layers to the characters and story, and Dwight Frye is perfect in it. It’s a classic horror film, and a classic film just overall. Everyone needs to see at some point in their life. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then you need to get up and get a copy immediately.
And that brings us to a close on October’s Dwight Frye-days! It’s been a blast, though, and I’ve been having way too much fun exploring the films of the phenomenal Dwight Frye that this will not be my last. However, there are only so many films in his filmography that I have decided to move it to every other Friday as well as explore his films of other genres. So stay tuned for next Frye-day, November 11th, when I check out our first non-horror Dwight Frye film A Strange Adventure (1932)