Part 1: Early Dramatizations and Dwight Frye
When one thinks of Frankenstein – not the book itself or any one specific adaptation – but as a collective mythology, there are a few specific set pieces that spring to mind. Naturally there’s the Gothic castle and the gloomy laboratory, but one trope that seems unparalleled in its ubiquity is the presence of an “Igor,” a hunchbacked assistant to the doctor. No such character ever appeared in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but her tale of horror and hubris has been dramatized for almost two hundred years, and it has been filmed for almost a century, and various hunchbacks and lab assistants have appeared in those adaptations. Why, though, has the idea stuck? Why have hunchbacks become so endemic to Frankenstein stories? “Igor” now fits in as seamlessly as the doctor and monster into cartoons and parodies like Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Gary Larson’s Far Side comic above, and even a Whose Line is it Anyway? sketch.
Observe in that sketch how Greg Proops immediately understands what is expected of him when he’s assigned the role of Igor. From the feral posture to the gratingly unctuous personality, the recognition of what it means to be “Igor” is instant, but Frankenstein films have had many different hunchbacked lab assistants over the years. These “Igors” are of varying loyalty (from devout to treacherous) and can possess markedly different personalities from their peers. Most curiously, there is an egregious shortage of these characters actually named “Igor.” The aim of this analytical survey is to inspect how each of these different characters and their films contributed to the recognition and evolution of “Igor,” to observe how these portrayals gradually coalesced into one collective archetype, and also to uncover exactly how “Igor” became the name so concretely associated with such a diverse role. As Frankenstein’s cinematic history and related media is trawled for these characters, let there be a secondary goal of finding an “Igor” that exhibits everything expected of the archetype:
- They must be hunchbacked.
- They must be a lab assistant and/or servant to a Dr. Frankenstein.
- They must, of course, be named Igor.
These criteria may seem obvious, but despite the richness of Frankenstein’s cinematic history, finding an “Igor” that meets these qualifications is a monstrously difficult task.
Before we continue, some semantic clarifications: when “Igor” is written in quotes, it refers to the conceptual stock character. When the name is written without quotes, it is being used as just that, an actual name (or not the name) of a specific character. Additionally, in this writing, “Dr. Frankenstein” will always refer to a character named Frankenstein, and the “the monster” refers to Frankenstein’s monster, but “Frankenstein” alone will refer to the franchise, like the Universal series, Hammer series, and any other forms of media bearing the name Frankenstein and/or containing characters associated with the mythology.
As stated before, an assistant character of any kind is nowhere to be found in Mary Shelley’s novel, but the concept was invented far earlier than the dawn of film: “Igor” has roots in the numerous dramatizations of Frankenstein staged after its original publication. A character named Fritz appears in Richard Brinsley Peake’s 1823 melodrama Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein as a stuttering simpleton at Dr. Frankenstein’s side. Presumption was the first ever dramatization of the novel (and just five years after publication!) and it was followed by a swarm of imitators; from musical comedies to terrible dramas, adaptations of Frankenstein were in vogue in the nineteenth century. Each adaptation added original characters and trimmed excess from the book to make the plot more palatable for theatergoing audiences, and it’s not hard to see why when one remembers that the book is mostly comprised of brooding ruminations. Some other adaptations included assistants by other names (like Strutt, from Thomas Hailes Lacy’s 1867 Frankenstein: or, The Man and the Monster) but to my knowledge, none of them were necessarily hunchbacks nor were any named Igor. Whether an “Igor” or not, giving Dr. Frankenstein an assistant – especially one like Peake’s Fritz – was the easiest way to not only give the doctor someone to talk to, but to also provide comic relief and exposition in an otherwise grim and mysterious story.
As the twentieth century came, Frankenstein plays continued to be produced, but the book was soon adapted for the fledgling film industry at the same rabid rate. Three Frankenstein films were made in the silent age of cinema, one each in 1910, 1915, and 1920, but only the earliest has survived; the other two are considered lost films. As far as the record shows, none of these early films contained an “Igor” and all portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as working alone. When the industry embraced sound, Universal Studios turned towards the existing abundance of Frankenstein plays for one suitable to adapt to film. Although heavily revised by studio screenwriter John L. Balderston, it was eventually Peggy Webling’s 1927 play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre that was acquired, and in 1931, made into Universal’s iconic feature Frankenstein.
Relevant to our analysis of “Igors” throughout history, the 1931 Frankenstein film features Dwight Frye as Fritz, the hunchbacked crony of Dr. Frankenstein. Frye’s character bears some similarity to Fritz from Peake’s Presumption, in that they are both bumbling, jumpy fools in subservient roles, but the film’s Fritz is much crueler than Peake’s and much less central of a character. This Fritz doesn’t have any comical monologues, instead, his dialogue is relegated to scant yelps and complaints made while hovering around Dr. Frankenstein. Fritz’s biggest contribution to the plot is his bungled acquisition of an “abnormal brain” for Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment. Given that Dr. Frankenstein was actively searching for only the most optimal parts, such a mix-up would never have occurred under his conscious watch. The inclusion of an assistant character for Dr. Frankenstein is necessary in this adaptation because without Fritz’s error and consequential lie of omission, that brain never would have gone into that body. Fritz’s second-biggest contribution is breaking the seal on the film’s body count, hanged by his own whip, and only because it’s what catalyzes Dr. Frankenstein’s decision to destroy his creation. That’s another thing about “Igor” characters: more often than not, they are perfectly expendable.
n his performance as Fritz in what is still the most iconic Frankenstein film of all time, Dwight Frye may have singlehandedly affirmed the place of hunchbacked assistants in the Frankenstein mythology. Frye would also appear in the film’s sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (another Balderston script directed by Whale) as Karl, a grave robber hired by the unscrupulous Dr. Pretorius. Although a similarly subservient role, Karl severely differs from Fritz, especially in that he doesn’t have a hunchback. He is also one half of a whole, forming a duo of dependents with another hired hand named Ludwig (played by Ted Billings).
Another notable role of Dwight Frye’s was in 1931’s Dracula as Renfield, the count’s brainwashed servant. Renfield bears little similarity to Fritz or Karl, but as if by transitive property through Frye, managed to contribute to the “Igor” archetype as well. In the movie, Renfield frequently calls Dracula his “master,” a very specific word that has wormed its way into how an “Igor” addresses his employer. Frye’s slow, breathy speaking style as Renfield has even become one of “Igor’s” standard voices (the others being either feral growls and yelps, or a Peter Lorre impression). Greg Proops as Igor channels both of these vocal tics in the Whose Line sketch above, in both the way that he speaks and refers to Colin Mochrie as Dr. Frankenstein: “A triumph, master! A testament to your genius, master!”
In the early days of Frankenstein film, Dwight Frye’s various performances acted as the first depictions of “Igor” still relevant today. Although his role in 1931’s Frankenstein is still the most important, Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula are not without their significance. These performances as Fritz, Karl, and Renfield made Dwight Frye the first iconic “Igor” in the same way that Boris Karloff became synonymous with the monster. The actual name, however, didn’t appear in the Frankenstein mythos until the third film in the Universal series, 1938’s Son of Frankenstein.