Here’s something unusual that I noticed as I was stepping through the DVD of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, making screen captures for the blog. It’s not a blooper, but rather something the Internet Movie Database might call a “goof”.
I think this could be a genuine “find”, something that has gone undetected for 79 years. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been reported until now.
I’ve isolated the scene, a mere 12 seconds or so, in a video clip. You might want to look at it first, see if you notice anything. Once I tell you what to look for, I guarantee that you’ll see it all the time, forever after.
Had a look? OK. Here goes…
Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), are making the last preparations before firing up the lab and zapping Boris Karloff to monster life. Frankenstein puts on some headphones and “listens” to the storm. “This time we’re ready, hey Fritz?” he says. “Ready!”
Our scene comes next, at 15:40 on the DVD. Frankenstein, his back to us, leans over Fritz, who is crouching at center screen. To the left, we see part of The Monster on his slab, a stiff hand sticking out from under a blanket.
Here’s a shot of the scene, which I’ll use as reference…
During this brief scene, a small object streaks across the frame, traveling from upper left to bottom right, close to the actors. It is roughly the size and color of a piece of chalk. It has weight, it travels fast. There’s also an audible but somewhat delayed thunk that could be the object hitting the floor or bouncing off something.
Here’s the reference photo again, with inserts from 5 subsequent frames, a composite image indicating the path of the object…
I have highlighted the object in these five insert images, to make it stand out. If you look at the clip again, you should now be able to make it out. Speed makes it appear elongated and blurry. The object is rather faint when it enters the frame (images 1 and 2), but it is very visible as a white streak when it crosses a dark patch in the exact center of the frame (image 3). It nearly disappears when it crosses over Frankenstein’s white lab coat (4), but you can see it clearly again against the black background just as it flies out of frame, bottom right (5). Listen for the thunk.
Note how actor Dwight Frye reacts to the object. Just as he begins turning towards the slab, the object crosses directly overhead and you see his eyes go up. He seems to hesitate, just a brief instant, then recovers and points to The Monster.
Obviously, the crew was aware of the object. Frye sees it go by. Perhaps it was felt that nobody would notice, and the take was printed and edited into the film. Apparently they were right for nearly 80 years, until DVDs allowed us to look at the scene frame by frame.
So, what happened here? What is it? Garden-variety goof? A cigarette, chalk, a pencil? Did something break off the set? Did a crew member accidentally knock or kick something across the frame? Was it a joke, a trick played, something to surprise the actors? Or was this intentional?
Is this actually, in some awkward way, meant to be part of the scene? Or was it a signal given by director Whale — much like some directors were known to fire a gun to startle actors — meant to provoke a reaction from Frye, to make him turn and point at The Monster. The problem with this theory is that a signal was not required. Frye could easily act the scene, listening to Frankenstein and then turning and expressing surprise. He did not need a cue to jump out of his skin.
There are a number of bloopers, mostly minor continuity errors, in Frankenstein. In the dungeon scene where Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman prepare to ambush The Monster, the microphone throws a shadow that travels across the floor and up a wall, but I’ve never seen anything quite as curious as this object flung across the frame.
So, what have we seen here? What are we looking at? I’m posting this information on the Classic Horror Film Board where dedicated fans and experts congregate, and I’ll report any findings made there.
I’d be curious to know your thoughts about this scene. If you’ve got an idea, post a comment and share.