When I was little I thought Igor came from the story of Frankenstein.
When I was a teenager I thought they created Igor for the film.
Now that I’m an adult I have no goddamn idea. The “Igor” of the 1931 Frankenstein… was not called Igor, his name was Fritz. So where did this rambling, pivotal, yet utterly disposable character come from? Is he really a 20th century Universal Studios creation or is there something more to this embodiment of the strange, the gatekeeper to monstrosity and unnerving manservant that we call “Igor”.
Its an iconic image, the obsessed mad scientist connecting the wires to his creature and the machinery that presumably has something to do with the whole process. He might cackle, he might yell to the heavens, he might even wear steampunk goggles. But in this equation of the isolated man and his dangerous obsession, there is often a third party, someone to flick the switch. Enter Igor.
His character generally fills at least one of these three roles:
- The other that acts as a buffer between the doctor and his creation, such as in the 1931 brain mix up, we can blame almost anything on Fritz in his role as the assistant.
- The humanity to the Doctor’s crazed monstrous mania. He is in on the project, and tries to stop the Doctor or appeal to his better nature, in vain.
- A human exposition facilitator. In the novel of Frankenstein which features no assistant, the primary story telling of the creation process occurs over a large passage of time and through Victor’s narration. So without an overarching voice narration, an assistant can ask the questions that will allow the Doctor to fill the audience in on what is happening.
Presumption; Or the Fate of Frankenstein (1823)
Richard Brinsley Peake’s stage adaptation would set up some the more outlandish and comedic elements of the modern Frankenstein myth. In this play Victor’s friend Henry Clerval from the novel and the new character invented for the play, Fritz, assist him in his experiments. This allows for a broad distribution of blame for the subsequent events rather than all the responsibility lying at the feet of Doctor Frankenstein. Fritz also functions as an audience surrogate or even narrator in many parts.
Fritz (Dwight Frye) is definitely a scapegoat and entirely expendable. The criminal brain mix up is a game changer, it takes the blame away from Frankenstein, and places the emphasis on nature rather than nurture. He is a low stakes victim and by virtue of his cruelty towards the Creature and unfortunately due to his appearance. The ablist judgements at play in portrayal of Fritz and his successors give the audience an excuse to dislike the assistant right from the outset, which I think we can all agree is an issue and deeply problematic.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
We are introduced to Bela Lugosi’s Ygor. Ygor also has a physical impairment which was the result of an attempt to hang him for grave robbing. The former blacksmith can control the “Monster” making him a formidable opponent for Frankenstein’s son. The cultural othering of Ygor or the assistant as being a different nationality and therefore strange.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
This time played by Marty Feldman, and named Igor, this comedy portrayal of the assistant would shape our understanding of the character forever. His exaggerated and unnerving appearance combined with Feldman’s incomparable and unsettling performance has buried the “Igor” deep into our collective cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth.
We will be watching Victor Frankenstein soon. I’m excited to see how Daniel Radcliffe deals with the somewhat intangible legacy of Igor.