When it comes to the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the piece of trivia that everyone seems to know is that Bela Lugosi was the original choice to play the Monster.
As the story goes, Lugosi had just finished filming Dracula and Universal’s Carl Laemmle felt that it would only make sense for Lugosi to play the lead role in Universal’s second horror adaptation. Not only would Lugosi be firmly established as Universal’s favorite monster but it would also reunite him with Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye, both of whom played prominent supporting roles in Dracula. However, the story continues, Lugosi turned down the part when he saw that the monster wouldn’t have any dialogue.
Well, the story is partially right.
The truth of the matter is that Frankenstein was one of several books to which Universal had the rights. And when Lugosi learned that one of the studio’s directors, Robert Florey, was interested in directing a film based on Mary Shelley’s novel, he did meet with Florey to say that he was intrigued by the idea of playing the monster. Lugosi even did a makeup test, one in which the proposed look of Lugosi’s monster reportedly owed much to 1920’s The Golem. As a director, Florey was heavily influenced by German expressionism so it makes sense that he would look to The Golem for inspiration.
Lugosi eventually lost interest in the role, not because of the lack of dialogue but because he felt that he wouldn’t be able to give a good performance while made up to look like the Monster. His face would be barely visible and, as an actor, Lugosi naturally wanted to be recognized. Lugosi had no objections to the script because the script itself hadn’t been written. When Lugosi lost interest, so did Florey.
Instead, the project was taken on by director James Whale, who specifically asked for the project because he felt it would be a change-of-pace from the war movies that he had been directing. Universal suggested John Carradine for the role of the Monster. Whale, however, spotted Boris Karloff sitting in the studio’s cafeteria and specifically asked him to test for the role. Karloff, with his imposing frame but gentle manner, more aligned with Whale’s version of the Monster as essentially being a child who is easily angered but ultimately more of a victim than a victimizer.
From the start, Whale also wanted Colin Clive to play Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke to play Elizabeth. The studio, who wanted at least one star in the film, tried to convince him to go with Leslie Howard as Henry and Bette Davis (who, at that time, was just starting her career) as Elizabeth. While the studio was willing to substitute the more glamorous Clarke for Davis, they were a bit less enthusiastic about Colin Clive as Henry. If Whale was that opposed to Leslie Howard, the studio suggested, how about Bela Lugosi instead?
As we all know, Whale held firm and he eventually got Colin Clive. Still, it’s interesting to imagine Frankenstein with Bela Lugosi, in the role of Henry, bringing Karloff’s Monster to life. Personally, I think Whale made the right decision. Lugosi would have been a bit too obviously sinister for the role of Henry Frankenstein whereas Colin Clive really nailed the characterization of Henry being an essentially good man who allowed his own obsessions to get the better of him. Still, it’s interesting to imagine a Frankenstein that not only reunited the stars of Dracula but which included Boris Karloff as well! Not only would it have been Lugosi and Karloff’s first film together but who knows? Perhaps if a Lugosi-Karloff version of Frankenstein had been as successful as the Clive-Karloff version, Lugosi and Karloff would never have started their rivalry and Lugosi could have escaped the Dracula typecasting that hampered the rest of his career.
Though they didn’t share the screen in Frankenstein, Karloff and Lugosi would go on to appear in several films together. Unfortunately, unlike the universally beloved Karloff, Lugosi’s career would be sabotaged by his own addictions and personal demons. Lugosi would eventually get his chance to play Frankenstein’s Monster in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Unfortunately, that film is considered to be one of the weaker of the Universal horror films and Bela really didn’t get much of a chance to make a huge impression as the monster. (He was right about the difficulty of being recognized under all that makeup.)
Bela Lugosi would die in 1956, at the age of 73.
Boris Karloff passed away 13 years later, at the age of 81.