It’s hard to imagine now, but releasing a horror film was a huge risk in the midst of the Great Depression. Pairs of pants were a luxury and audiences were often apprehensive to see something so frightening that it could potentially result in them being soiled. In 1931, Universal Studios gambled big on an adaptation of Frankenstein and the rest is history. Audiences flocked to the theater and the country was pulled out of a depression thanks to the booming corduroy industry that emerged to replace the millions of pairs of pants that were ruined.
What was it about the film that captivated audiences? Conceivably, it was that Dr. Frankenstein exemplified that so long as it’s not sexual, there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing with corpses. Or maybe it was the monster’s legendary catchphrase, “Jerking off is a sin, but so is my existence, so baby, let the good times roll!” Most plausibly, however, is that the American people were transfixed by the poignant tale of how fucked up it would be if there was a guy whose head was perfectly flat on top.
When it comes to heads, there’s perhaps none flatter than Frankenstein’s monster’s. Even today, when I see his head, my mind goes wild with possibilities, envisioning all the dirty dishes that I could set down upon it if I didn’t feel like going into the kitchen. He’s bound to wander in there eventually and why should I have to get up when I’ve got a perfectly good monster to do it for me?
Part of the tragedy of Frankenstein’s monster is that he doesn’t take full advantage of just how flat his head is. If I was rocking a 180-degree cranium, you better believe I’d be standing on chairs so that I could gently press the top of my skull flush against the ceiling. Then I would just close my eyes and forget about my troubles for a while. Modern life is filled with so many stressors, it’s important to find time to relax.
As the movie demonstrates, having a head like that is not all joyous wonders and possibilities, though. For one thing, it scares the shit out of people less brave than me. It may shock you to learn that there was a time when the sight of his head left me with a feeling of unease. All I had to do was stare at a picture of him for twenty minutes a day. Nine years later, the pitch of my voice hardly raises when I talk about him anymore.
A missed opportunity for the film, of course, is that it doesn’t fully explore the intriguing paradox of having a head so weird that it needs to be covered by a hat, but being unable to find one that fits a head so fucked up. If I were him, I’d have grown a goatee. Would have helped draw the eye away from all that flatness.
But any faults are more than made up for by the film’s life-affirming message: be grateful for having a head that’s round on top and be kind to those who don’t. I wish I could say that I wouldn’t have joined the angry mob who wanted to kill ol’ Frankie, but I know that’s not true. I was watching the film in my living room and I still grabbed my torch and pitchfork and chanted “Kill the beast!” along with them. I got a little carried away.
Thankfully, I came back to my senses and remembered it was just a movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen before I accidentally dropped my torch and started what would become the largest fire in my small town’s history.
Even so, I’m somewhat glad that the fire happened because it helped me to realize what the film was about: heartbreak. Whether you’re a big green flat-headed monster being chased by an angry mob, or you’re a normal-looking guy being put on trial for arson, heartbreak is bound to intrude on your life. That’s why people connect with the film nearly a century later. The humanity of sorrow unites us all. We’ve just got to keep getting up every day and figuring out how to navigate it.
Ah, shit. I just read a newspaper article from 1931 that said everyone fell in love with Frankenstein because they were enamored with the monster’s blazer. They didn’t even notice how flat his head was. I guess that makes sense. You can’t deny the guy is a sharp dresser.