August 24, 2010

The Cemetery Skeleton

On August 24, 1931, James Whale began shooting Frankenstein, starting with the opening scene from the movie.

The camera pans across a row of mourners at a gravesite. Old women sobbing, a child lost in thought, grief-stricken men. The camera slides past them to the last figure, a hooded skeleton.

The skeleton is an ancient and enduring symbol of death. Death’s Head skulls and crossed bones were often carved into headstones and full skeletal figures appeared as statuary alongside trumpeting angels and weeping stone maidens. Skeletons might appear in sad repose or leaping heavenward, shrouds dropping from their shoulders. In the Middle Ages, the image of the dancing skeleton mocked life’s brevity.

Frankenstein's cemetery skeleton stands off to the side, boxed in with pickets, its bony hands resting on the hilt of a sword. The bleak, sparse set suggests a pauper’s graveyard, with an expressionistic dead tree, a plaster Christ on his calvary cross and a few wooden grave markers stuck at crazy angles. Behind a rickety fence, Frankenstein and his impatient assistant crouch in hiding. As soon as the ceremony is over, the funeral party gone and the gravedigger retreating downhill, Frankenstein and Fritz spring into action, undoing the burial, liberating the fresh corpse from its all too brief interment.

The cemetery skeleton is the first hint of frights to come, yet it is more than just a lugubrious prop. The grim sentinel stands prominently screen right, a witness to desecration, through the entire sequence where Frankenstein and Fritz dig up and raise the coffin. In a telling gesture, Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, concentrated on his urgent task, blithely throws a shovelful of graveyard dirt square into the skeleton’s face. It’s a James Whale moment, of course, darkly humorous, but it is also a signal of Frankenstein’s maniacal focus on the job at hand, unconcerned with the consequences of his acts. As a symbolic gesture, it illustrates Frankenstein’s disrespect for Death itself.

The cemetery skeleton returned for a cameo in the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. It is seen briefly in the graveyard when the agitated Monster upends a tall gravestone and climbs down into a crypt, seeking refuge among the dead where he feels he belongs, only to encounter that other famous graverobber, Dr. Pretorius. The crucified Christ statue is also seen, a case of props re-used, unless this is meant to be the same cemetery as the one that opens Frankenstein.

I wonder if the cemetery skeleton was trotted out for bit parts in other movies, or if it quietly haunted the Universal prop department, undisturbed, between Frankenstein assignments. I wonder what became of it.


Arbogast said...

I love this. It's like something I'd write! The highest compliment!

Emmy said...

I just saw Frankenstien like two days ago, and I totally remember this scene. Awesome :)

Christopher said...


The Vicar of VHS said...

I never considered whether it was meant to be the same graveyard in BRIDE as in the first movie, but wouldn't that also be a neat symbolic image? If we presume that Dr. Frankenstein got most of the meat for his monster from that graveyard, it's only natural (so to speak) that, having been maltreated by the second life he never wanted, the Monster returns to the graveyard where he briefly rested in pieces, and in fact RE-ENTERS the grave! "We belong dead," indeed.

Great post, as always!

Douglas McEwan (author of THE Q GUIDE TO CLASSIC MONSTER MOVIES) said...

I have ALWAYS assumed it was supposed to be the same graveyard. Obviously it's near what is the village of Goldstadt in FRANKENSTEIN, but becomes "The Village of Frankenstein" by SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and of course, represented the monster returning to his roots. I mean it always seemed so obvious to me that it's never occurred to me there would be any question about it.

Gambrinus Glubbe said...

My late brother once commented how cool it would be to gave something like that on your grave. It would only get vandalized by goths though. Needless to say, even if I could have afforded such a dread-inspiring work of art, the (Orthodox Jewish) cemetery management would have looked askance at it.

We (double headstone for twins) did get something nice though, based on a .jpg I found of a headstone from an old Czech cemetery. But modernized and streamlined quite a bit cut costs and fit the surrounding monuments and the general ethos of the place.