EXCERPT: “The Features Are Not Important.”

Peter Cushing, "The Curse of Frankenstein," 1957

(The Curse of Frankenstein [1957] spends a lot of time ruminating about physiognomy. From Chapter 5 of my new e-book The Curse of Frankenstein: A Dissection, available for Kindle.)

Victor inspects an eyeball pinched in a forceps, using a magnifying glass that inflates his own striking blue eye to a cartoonish size. He never blinks once. (Cushing himself spoofed this moment in the “backwards bookstore” scene in 1984’s Top Secret!, one of his last screen roles.)

In Curse, it’s Victor’s right eye that’s distorted — the same that will become a focal feature of his finished creation. Frankenstein sees the entire picture with this eye; in his Creature, the eye is blind.

Victor appears satisfied, but a rap at the door disturbs him. Paul announces himself, and Victor suppresses a small grin at his arrival. Despite his refusal to assist in the laboratory, despite his long-discontinued role as tutor, Paul continues to live here at Schloss Frankenstein. Victor asks him why, but her already knows the answer: his concern for — his attraction to? — Elizabeth.

It’s time to share what Victor’s built from the work they conducted together. He lifts one end of the tarp now covering the clear tank, and what Paul sees there — something we do not see — horrifies him.

Victor shrugs away the aesthetics. His creation may look ugly, but it’s the accomplishment — “creating a being that will live and breathe” — that truly matters. Paul is horrified by the revolting assemblage of parts. “This can never end in anything but evil,” he warns.

This provokes a discourse from Victor on principles of physiognomy. “One’s facial character is built up of what lies behind it.” He seizes up a skull from the workbench, an illustrative Yorick. “In the brain. A benevolent mind, and the face assumes the patterns of benevolence. An evil mind, then an evil face. For this, the brain of a genius will be used, and when that brain starts to function within the frame, then the face and features will assume wisdom, and understanding.”

Paul demands to know where this brain is to come from. Victor regards him like a predator as he answers only, “I’ll get it.” Paul turns away in disgust and fear.

Victor’s lecture draws on the best junk science of the 19th century. Aristotelian writings nodded in this direction — that the character of a man is shaped by his outward appearance; that a man’s character could be determined by a study of his face — and eventually gave rise to the popular theories of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). This thinker’s Essays on Physiognomy (orig. Physiognomischen Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe) became a Continental bestseller after its collected edition appeared in 1778, partly for its rich illustrations by the likes of William Blake.

Practically none of his observations are grounded in rational inquiry. The “science” of physiognomy remained in vogue during the time period portrayed in The Curse of Frankenstein, and persisted afterward in other forms, finding 20th-century expression in the ectomorph/endomorph/mesomorph body typing of William Herbert Sheldon. Some eugenics movements, needless to say, got even more distasteful.

Pete Townshend — Face Dances Part 2

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