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Analyzing “Expressiveness” in Frankenstein (1931)

In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. Along the way, Professor Berliner offers numerous aesthetic analyses of scenes, clips, and images from both routine Hollywood movies and exceptional ones. His analyses, one of which we excerpt here, illustrate how to study a film’s aesthetic properties.

In Hollywood cinema, style does more than deliver story information. It also increases the expressive power of a story by establishing mood, emphasizing the story’s meaning, enlivening characterization, enhancing the narrative’s emotional development, and intensifying the story’s cognitive and affective impact.

Take, for example, the scene in Frankenstein (1931) in which a father carries his daughter’s lifeless body through town. After the Monster kills the little girl, the father interrupts a festive outdoor celebration as other villagers carouse and dance. Story information alone emphasizes the intrusion of horror on the festivity, but the challenge for the filmmakers is to shoot the scene in a style that maximizes its expressiveness, both stressing the point of the scene and enhancing its emotional impact. The obvious solution would be to show the appearance of the father at the celebration and then cut to the villagers’ reactions, a stylistic choice that would clearly and immediately express the shock of the event. The film could sustain that moment for 5 or 10 seconds, cutting to various astonished villagers to fully express the transition from festivity to horror. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson and director James Whale, however, use an even more expressive stylistic solution, one that both communicates shock and extends the instant of transition for almost a minute of screen time.

The filmmakers stage the event so that villagers see the dead girl not all at the same time but rather one after another. In two long takes, lasting a total of 48 seconds, the camera tracks sideways and backward with the distraught father as he carries his daughter’s corpse through the celebration (video 5.2). The framing and deep focus of these shots enable spectators to witness again and again each moment when different villagers at the party first see the dead child, their expressions turning from merriment to gaping horror. Notice in figures 5.3 and 5.4, for instance, that all of the characters on the right side of the frame express shock on their faces, whereas the characters on the left side of the frame, who have not yet seen the father and the dead girl, are still celebrating; their faces, too, will soon turn to shock as the father and tracking camera pass them by.

Figure 5.2. Video clip from Frankenstein (1931). Featured on the companion website to Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

Figure 5.3. Still image from Frankenstein (1931). Pg. 93 of Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.
Figure 5.4. Still image from Frankenstein (1931). Pg. 93 of Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

The filmmakers have selected a staging and cinematography style that intensifies the emotional expressiveness of the moment by sequentially portraying, for dozens of characters, the instant of shock. This stylistic choice also enables the film to depict festivity and shock at the same time, rather than replacing one with the other, since at each moment during these two shots we see in the frame some villagers celebrating and others suddenly in dismay. Throughout the sequence, moreover, we hear some voices expressing shock (“Look, Maria!”) and others whooping and cheering in celebration. Talented filmmakers, such as Edeson and Whale, find creative techniques that enhance a scene’s expressiveness while conforming to Hollywood’s general stylistic parameters.

Featured image: Frankenstein (1931) movie poster. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

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