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.