This is technically part two of my Frankenstein post which I published here on Friday in honour of the 200th anniversary of this book. But there was so much to talk about with this particular character, I thought he deserved a Never Underestimate post!
Something I’ve always found fascinating about Frankenstein’s many and various adaptations is the inclusion of the rogue character Igor. He’s as a pervasive a character as the Mad Scientist himself with the notable problem that Igor never appears in the book. In a world of characters types, some so old they span the length of human storytelling, Igor is a very young character and so we can actually track its twisty development over the last hundred or so years.
Igor was born out of the black and white monster movie era and has become intricately linked to Frankenstein. On film, the character was first seen in the Universal Studios 1931 film Frankenstein (and the subsequent movie series). Except he isn’t because Dwight Frye‘s hunchbacked lab assistant portrayal was actually named Fritz. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. Fitz was lifted from an 1823 play by Richard Brinsley Peake called Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein.
But there has been a clear evolution in this character, which I think splits into two categories.
The Bumbling Fool
Probably the most traditional of all the Igors, this character is simple and there to be told what to do. Usually by throwing some sort of lever and or switch. They’re usually faithful to their respective Doctor Frankensteins but are rarely any help against the inevitable vengeful villagers.
The early Igors (or Fitzs) were in this category when they were simply a Lackey. Such as Richard Brinsley Peake’s Fritz, they mostly served as someone for the Mad Scientist to expound to and to react in fear to the Creation.
It wasn’t until the movies that the bumbling idiocy became the comic relief.
While many may argue that an Igor falls under the Lacky type, I would argue that there is a very specific aesthetic which defines the Igor and makes him markedly different from a simple Lacky such as Tolkien’s Wormtongue. Maybe it’s true to say that not all Lackeys are Igors, but all Lackeys who work for Mad Scientists are. In Young Frankenstein, upon meeting Fredrick Frankenstein for the first time, Igor takes it as a given that he will be working for him. “My grandfather used to work for your grandfather… of course, the rates have gone up.”
The characteristic Igor hump is an interesting feature and is likely a hangover from their portrayal as the Lackey. The snivelling snoop became a hump (possible through poor posture) and consequently, the typical image of an Igor is with a hump. However, not all Igors have humps and yet are still recognizable as an Igor. This is usually because of their proximity to a Mad Scientist. In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rif-Rif is most definitely and Igor type and while he has a stooping gait, he doesn’t have a hump.
Smarter than their Masters
This type of Igor really began as a subversion of the traditional, before coming into its own. These Igors have learned from their predecessors and realised that when the mob come knocking, loyalty to the insane Doctor isn’t a great life choice.
They understand their place in the grand scheme of things and are mysteriously absent when things start going wrong. The Igor of the 2004 Van Helsing movie with Hugh Jackman took this a step further. The Igor here has no loyalties, except to the biggest bully on the playground, leaving Doctor Frankenstein’s service and now serving Dracula.
In this movie, when he’s asked why he feels the need to torment other creatures, he responses “It’s what I do.” Which isn’t only your classic smartass response, but pretty characteristic of the portrayal of Igors. Motiveless and often devoid of any manner of backstory, aiding the Mad Scientist and tormenting the Monster is just what they do. It’s a call back to the traditional scene in the old Monster movies were Igor would deliberately torment the Monster, usually causing it to go on a rampage.
Terry Pratchett’s race of Igors embodies this type. The Igors of the Discworld are intelligent and gifted surgeons, who despite usually being the smartest person in the room, stick to the hallmarks of their heritage. Scars of surgery (despite being talented enough to avoid scars), a deliberately put upon lisp and a deferential attitude to their Masters. They also know when to leave the service of their Masters and conveniently always know where the secret back doors are.
To prove how self-referential the Igors are, Pratchett’s Igors have an uncanny ability to appear behind their Masters in a blink of an eye. Something that Reacher Gilt in Going Postal attempts to solve by placing a bear trap directly behind himself before calling his Igor. This feature, however, isn’t typical of the black and white movie Igors and is likely a reference to the Young Frankenstein Igor who appears behind Frankenstein on the ground in a second from the roof a building.
So Igors have sidled their way onto the gothic scene with barely anyone noticing and they’re certainly here to stay. From Terry Pratchett’s race of Igors, to Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of a fully fleshed out and gifted surgeon Igor Strausman, to the classic shambling of Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. After Daniel Radcliffe more substantial role as Igor, it will be interesting to see if there is a future for this unusual character.