Creature Feature! Part 3: We’ll See Whether I’m Crazy or Not!

I have mentioned, at some length actually, my mom’s influence in my love for the Universal Monsters.  As I sit down each week to write these installments, though, the depth of her influence — and the slow, subtle brain-washing — becomes more and more apparent, as memory after memory begins to unfold in my mind.

Click to EnlargeSo much of my childhood was devoted to the monsters, you see.  Besides the Remco Mini-Monsters and the Crestwood Monster books, Mom furthered my indoctrination with both the Mighty Men & Monster Maker, and the Pop-O-Matic! game Yipes!.

Those of you who had the MM&MM will instantly remember it, and remember how it worked.  For those of you who didn’t, a brief run-down:  there were a few dozen plates, featuring heads, torsos and legs, some belonging to good guys, and some belonging to bad guys.  You could mix and match and make hundreds of combinations.  You placed them in the left part of the toy, covered the plates with a sheet of paper, and traced over it with the crayon provided.  BOOM: instant mighty man, or monster.  I must have made hundreds of these, and our refrigerator was, at one point, absolutely COVERED with them.  The most fun, though, was when Mom would decide which plates to use, and she would trace it, and then it was MY job to bring it to life with colored pencils.  When I made the monsters, I’d make them as scary and villainous as I possibly could; when Mom did, though, they seemed somehow more human than my creations.  More sympathetic.

The complete opposite occurred, though, whenever we played Yipes!.  The object of the game was rather simple — much like Trouble!, you popped the bubble in the center, which turned a die and gave you the number of spaces you could move.  Your playing piece was a little boy, and you had to beat the other players to the center of the board.  Once there, though, you swapped out your piece for the monster, and then you chased the other players back to the beginning of the board.  If you passed one, you ate them, and they were out.  Points were awarded somehow, and the player with the most points after three rounds won the game.  Somehow Mom always ended up being the monster, and she was absolutely merciless.  She’d make these loud growling noises with every move, and actually said “Munch munch munch!” whenever she’d pass me.

A lot of that had to do with the way the monster looked, though.  It was crudely sculpted, sure, but there was no mistaking who it was patterned after: Frankenstein’s monster.

Bar none, hands down, Mom’s favorite movie monster was good ol’ Frankie.  When Halloween rolled around, we had a giant cut-out of Frankie on our closet door, little Frankie figurines littered here and there, and my house was NEVER without Frankenberry cereal.  But why him, in particular?  Besides the fact that I’m pretty sure that mom had a celeb crush on Boris Karloff (who, in all actuality, was a rather striking-looking man under all that make-up), it was actually the very nature of the character itself.

She felt bad for him, you see.  He never asked to be made, and it wasn’t his fault that the wrong brain was used.  He was treated poorly almost from the very beginning of his life, and lashed out in much the way abused children do.  It wasn’t his fault he was a monster — that’s just the way he was made.

Today, October 16th, would have been my mom’s 67th birthday.  I already mentioned in the first installment that this series is partly in her memory, considering that this is her birthday month.  It thus only seems fitting that tonight’s entry concentrates on her favorite movie monster, ever.

So, then, without further ado, I bring you tonight’s programming!

Click to EnlargeThe classic.  The icon.  The one EVERYONE thinks of when they think of Frankenstein’s monster.  Forget the films by Hammer Studios, forget the reprehensible Frankenstein Unbound by Roger Corman, and forget Robert DeNiro (and his goo-covered wang) in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation.

I don’t care what country you’re from — if you hear “Frankenstein’s monster,” you picture Boris Karloff.

But you almost didn’t.

In 1931, Universal Studios was raking it in hand over fist from the success of Dracula.  They optioned the rights to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, and Robert Florey was attached to direct.  His choice for the monster?  Bela Lugosi, who originally refused the role because it was non-speaking, and he felt that any extra could do it.  He also insisted that they use his make-up designs, which were rejected. (Purportedly, a 20-minute reel of test footage was shot with Lugosi in the monster make-up, but that, unfortunately, has more than likely been lost to the ages.)  He was then offered the role of Dr. Frankenstein, but studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. insisted he play the monster.  When Florey was replaced by James Whale, Lugosi was off the picture.  He spotted a young Karloff sitting in the studio commissary, slipped him a note offering the chance at a screen test, and the rest is history.

Click to EnlargeFrankenstein tells the story of young scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who originally studied to be a doctor but left the University when it no longer suited his needs or his quest.  When we first meet the good doctor, he is robbing graves and stealing corpses with his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), looking for body parts to use for his experiments.  Among those body parts is a brain stolen by Fritz, but, unbeknownst to Henry, there is a problem with the brain.

Waiting patiently at home for Henry is his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), who has not seen him in four months, even though she has received disturbing communiques from him.  Concerned, she and and Henry’s friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) travel to the University to meet with Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan).  They convince Dr. Waldman to go with them to help his former student, who they fear is in great peril.  Upon their arrival at Henry’s laboratory, they are initially shunned, but Henry ultimately insists they join him in witnessing the culmination of his work: the reanimation of dead flesh in a body crafted by his own hands.

Click to EnlargeThe experiment is, of course, a success, but there are problems.  Doctor Waldman reveals to Henry that the brain he used (stolen from Waldman’s lab, coincidentally) is the abnormal brain of a violent murderer.  The creation, originally placid and child-like, soon turns violent at the sight of fire, and must be chained.  The sadistic Fritz takes great joy in tormenting the creation, waving a torch in its face.  Overcome with fear and anger the creation breaks his chains, and murders Fritz.

This is too much for Henry to handle.  His creation, intended to be a testament to the power of science in overcoming death, has become a monster.  Elizabeth and Victor take Henry back to Castle Frankenstein, leaving behind Dr. Waldman to dispose of the maligned monster.  Naturally, the monster escapes, and begins to terrorize the countryside.

Frankenstein is a wholly-unique monster movie, based on a wholly-unique novel.  Unlike many of its contemporaries (and subsequent successors), Frankenstein paints its villain in a very sympathetic light. This is not simply some mindless creature, killing men and horrifying women. The monster is, essentially, a child, fascinated and delighted by many of the same things that would bring joy to children.  He smiles when the sunlight touches his face.  He laughs with a little girl when they toss flowers into a lake.  He screams when he is frightened.  

Click to EnlargeAnd none of that would be the least bit believable without the masterful acting of Boris Karloff.  No stranger to acting (Karloff had dome some 80 pictures prior to Frankenstein), Karloff brought a level of humanity and compassion to what is essentially a role consisting of little more than pantomime.  There is no dialogue for the monster (though he would gain the ability to speak by the sequel, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein), so everything he does is conveyed either through actions or expression.  His immortal performance certainly put to rest Lugosi’s belief that any extra in make-up could handle the role.  Though several other actors donned the flat-top head and asphalt-spreading boots after Karloff eventually surrendered the role (among them, Lugosi himself, in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), none of them ever managed to capture the complexity and the compassion that came so easily to Karloff.

Every bit of casting in this film, actually, was perfect.  Colin Clive is the quintessential tortured scientist, flip-flopping between mania and despair at the drop of a hat.  Dwight Frye, who portrayed Renfield in the previous year’s Dracula, shines as Fritz.  Edward Van Sloan, best known for playing Van Helsing (and Dr. Muller in 1932’s The Mummy), puts in a double performance here: as the level-headed man of science Dr. Waldman, and also as the narrator at the beginning of the picture, warning those who may be faint of heart that they may wish to leave the theater.  Naturally, he’s charming as both.  And Frederick Kerr nearly steals every scene he’s in as Henry’s strong-headed, bumbling father, Baron Frankenstein.

Click to EnlargeBut I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to mention Mae Clarke, the actress who portrays Henry’s fiancee, Elizabeth.  Perhaps best known as James Cagney’s moll (and the unfortunate recipient of the infamous grapefruit-to-the-face) in The Public Enemy, Clarke is everything a man could hope for as Elizabeth: loving, doting, beautiful, and willing to go four months without seeing her man and without asking too many questions about it.  Clarke is wholesome, Clarke is gorgeous, and Clarke is the perfect actress for the role, which was — almost unbelievably — originally meant for Bette Davis.  I, for one, am quite relieved they went with Clarke.

Acting and casting aside, much of the film’s lasting endurance is due in no small part to the work of three men.

First on the list: director James Whale, one of the last auteurs of the era.  It was Whale who selected Karloff, and it was Whale who envisioned an alternate universe which mixed 19th and 20th Century influences, in which this film takes place.

Next: make-up guru Jack P. Pierce, who created the design for the monster.  Pierce took great liberties in his creation — in the novel, the creature appears mostly human; there are no electrodes in the neck, his head is not flat, etc.  But Pierce’s work is brilliant, and iconic, and I can not picture the monster looking any other way, EVER.

Last but not least: Ken Strickfadden, special effects master for the film.  Every machine, every lever, every Jacob’s ladder and sparking wheel and plasma ball that you see comes from the mind of Strickfadden.  His work in Frankenstein’s laboratory set the tone for the labs of mad scientists for decades.  (Also, interestingly, the machines that Strickfadden created for Frankenstein were later used by Mel Brooks in his legendary spoof Young Frankenstein, in 1974.)

I can see why this flick was Mom’s favorite.  A mad scientist, a love story, and a sympathetic creature.  Throw in some horrifying make-up and a few million volts, and you’ve got one of the finest flicks ever made.  If you don’t already own it, pick up Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, which features not only the original, but also Bride of Frankenstein (with the gorgeous ingenue Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clarke as Elizabeth), Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein (with Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster) and House of Frankenstein (with Glenn Strange as the monster).  You’ll be glad you did.

Ladies and gentlemen, in a special double-feature this evening, I present to you what is quite possibly the first horror movie ever made: 1910’s Frankenstein, produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company.  Yes — Edison as in Thomas, the Wizard of Menlo Park.

Believed to be a lost film since shortly after its release, a lone nitrate print of the film showed up in Wisconsin in the 1970s.  It was, however, to be years before the film was released to the general public.  I found a copy on youtube, and later purchased a copy on DVD from Graveyard Records, the company in Wisconsin that owns the print.  I had read about this version in the Crestwood Frankenstein book, and had waited more than a quarter-century to see it.  And it is terrible.

The film itself clocks in at a little over 13 minutes, which was a common occurrence with films of that era.  Charles Ogle stars as the Monster, with Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein and Mary Fuller as Elizabeth.  It was cheaply done, even for the era, and the acting doesn’t even match the calibre of performance one would typically find in a kindergarten play about the importance of dentistry.  One can’t even blame the time in which it was created, for you need only watch 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to see what could be accomplished at the time.

This film is, quite simply, hackery at its finest.  Phillips’s performance is overacted and hackneyed, even for a silent flick, with all the subtle nuance of an epileptic flea.  And Ogle’s Monster is oafish, and bumbling, and has all the believability of a Kroft puppet.  And Mary Fuller, while pretty, is utterly forgettable.

The only noteworthy feature of this version is that it is one of the only ones to have the monster actually be created, as opposed to being stitched together from corpses.  Here, using a batch of chemicals and potions, the monster actually rises out of a flaming vat.  To film this, the Edison company filmed a dummy burning, then ran the film backwards.

But for the completist, it’s a must-have addition to your collection.  I bought the DVD simply to have it, and to see if the film is any better on my television than it was in a YouTube window.  Sadly, it is not.  I would honestly rather have spent my time watching Blackenstein, or Frankenhooker.  But at least I have it.

So there you have it.  Frankenstein’s monster, my mom’s favorite, in both the best and the worst versions.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Next week: “…but as the rain enters the soil, the rivers enter the sea…”

Read Part One Here!
Read Part Two Here!

Leave a comment

Filed under Joseph F. Berenato

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s