Dracula changed the horror landscape for Universal Pictures in 1931. For Carl Laemmle Jr, it was vindication for his idea of creating more horror pictures. The dark auditorium was the most perfect place to scare an audience. Within only 48 hours of its release at New York’s Roxy Theatre it had sold over 50,000 tickets turning Dracula into Universal’s largest release of 1931 and in doing so, made Bela Lugosi an overnight star. For Carl Laemmle Jr, the head of production at Universal, another horror film needed to be made as soon as possible. It was time to bring Frankenstein to the screen once again. Mary Shelley’s novel was already used to such treatment. Following its publication it had been made into Operas and plays for the theatre. The novel was also adapted into a short silent film starring Charles Stanton Ogle as the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. With a new era of talking movies, Laemmle Jr believed that it was time for the novel to return to the cinema screens. With Bela Lugosi, the studio believed that they had found their actor to star in their new adaptation. Lugosi hoped that he would play Dr Frankenstein but Laemmle had other ideas. He wanted his new star to play the monster that was created by the Doctor. The director, Robert Florey, also brought ideas to the table that would see a departure from Shelley’s novel. He saw the Monster as a simple killing machine similar to Ceasre from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari who was controlled by Frankenstein himself. Lugosi hated the idea. “I was a star in my country,” Lugosi said, “and I will not be a scarecrow over here!" Whether Lugosi left the project of his own free will or not is up for debate. Either way, replacements for both Lugosi and Florey were needed to be found.
“Your face..” Whale told him, “...has startling possibilities.” William Henry Pratt, the man who had never been the star and whose career could have been largely forgotten was about to become one of horror’s most iconic names. His stage name was Boris Karloff and he had just been cast as Bela Lugosi’s replacement to play the monster.
Jack Pierce had already done enough to impress Carl Laemmle Sr. With Lon Chaney being seen as the master of Horror make up, Pierce had a lot to live up to. He had already produced the make up for The Monkey Talks in 1926 where he turned Jacques Lernier into a simian who could communicate. He had also produced the make up for Conrad Veidt stirring grin in The Man Who Laughs a make up effect that is said to have inspired the creation of Batman's arch villian, The Joker. The death of Lon Chaney had opened a void in the world of horror make-up that Pierce was ready to fill and with Frankenstein's creature, Pierce would produce one of horror's most iconic monsters. Pierce was seen by many as a stern and at times, bad tempered individual to work with. Yet in Karloff, Pierce had found the perfect sitter for the enduring process of his makeup creativity. The relationship between the two men was strong. For Pierce, it was a million miles away from his time working with Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula. Lugosi and Pierce did not get along with the actor insisting on doing much of his own make-up.
Karloff's make-up ordeal would last for four hours. Pierce opted for a rectangluar head for the creature highlighting the fact that the creature was assembled from other body parts. It gave the feel that re-inserting another man's brain was far from a straightforward procedure. The electrodes on the side of the neck, used to conduct the electricity in order to bring the monster to life, also added an unique look to Pierce's creation. The protruding brow was seen as a characteristic of criminality. The creature's head was built up with cotton, collodion and gum, and green greasepaint, which was designed to look pale on black-and-white film, was applied to his face and hands. Karloff was a patient sitter for Pierce, yet one make-up effect was all of Karloff's own making. The creature's sunken cheeks were all down to Karloff. The actor had a dental bridge on the right side of his face. In removing his bridge, Karloff's right cheek sank where the bridge used to be. It gave the monster an extra special touch of decay. With the look of the creature now complete it would be up to the direction of James Whale and his actor to create something not just horrific but also one that was almost sympathetic. In Whale's eyes, the greatest horror was not to be welcomed as who you actually were. To become what society expected of you, rather than to express your true self.
Whale lived his life as an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Whilst he never went of his way to publicise his homosexuality, he did little to hide it living with his partner, David Lewis. Perhaps that is why he was drawn to Frankenstein. The creature, who for no fault of his own was now alive and being urged to go against his natural instincts, not even knowing that what he was doing was even wrong. Karloff and Whale, would both show that Frankenstein was so much more than a piece of iconic make-up. Karloff portrays the creature initially as childlike and gentle, only to be later goaded into violence. In his childlike state he is scared of the world around him and even more so of fire as Igor enters the room with flamed touch. Karloff might have been playing a monster but even a monster can gain some sympathy. In doing so, Karloff shows us the creature as an outsider in a confusing new world. Something all three men responsible for this piece of horror actually were. Karloff understood all too well that looking different made a difference. His performance shows the creature as a victim rather than the perpetrator. Even when the creature does kill a little girl who was throwing flowers into the lake it is almost like he just wanted to play not knowing the consequences of what he had done. It would be a scene that would cause the censors in 1931 to demand a cut before the creature threw her into the lake. It would be 50 years until audiences saw the whole scene.
When Frankenstein was released in December 1931 at the Mayfair Theatre in New York City, it made just over $53,000 in it's first week. It would go on to become a massive hit for Universal. It would also become a critical hit for the studio. The New York Times would say: "Beside it Dracula is tame and, incidentally, Dracula was produced by the same firm." FiIm Daily called it a "gruesome, chill-producing and exciting drama" whilst Variety magazine highlighted Karloff calling his performance "a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism." John Mosher of The New Yorker may have been a bit more critical of the movie but there was no denying that for him the make up the star of the show by saying that: "The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster." With another commercial and critical feature behind him the rise of the Universal Monsters beckoned with James Whale, Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff all being critical to its future success for the studio. They would all return for the movie's sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, only this time it would be Boris Karloff headlined as the film's star. More sequels would follow but without Karloff and Whale. The Bride of Frankenstein would be Whale's final time helming the property but his fascination with Universal's new monster movies would continue with The Invisible Man. Karloff, the man who Hollywood nearly forgot, would go on to make further Frankenstein movies including The Son of Frankenstein alongside Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would play Ygor complete with make-up by Jack Pierce. The times had changed and Lugosi had now changed with them too. Karloff would see Lon Chaney Jr take over the role and later Bela Lugosi himself as the franchise began to fade in the 1940's. It proved that there was only one man who could play the creature with the same heart as he did in 1931. The monster where three outsiders came together to make a masterpiece of Horror movie history.
This article first appeared in Inside History: A History of Film. You can get Printed and digital copies of the magazine from our online store.