Monday, November 21, 2011

Psychobabble’s 80th Anniversary ‘Frankenstein’ Companion!

How do you do? I feel it would be a little unkind to present this article without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a film that helped establish the horror genre in the earliest stage of sound cinema by introducing one of its keys creatures, one of its key directors, and its ultimate star. The iconic power of Boris Karloff’s performance as that sad, sometimes sadistic Monster attracted legions of steel-hearted viewers to cinemas and inspired the generations of monsters that followed. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation — life and death—and its historical significance, artistry, and… well… pure fun have inspired many an article here on Psychobabble. In celebration of the Monster’s 80th birthday, I have compiled a companion collection of the most substantial Frankenstein writing that has appeared on Psychobabble over this site’s three years. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to… well, I warned you.

May 4, 2009: Frankenstein A - Z

Beginning with Dwight Frye’s chilling performance as the sadistic Fritz in James Whales’s Frankenstein, the hunchback assistant became as much of a mainstay of Universal Horror films as werewolves, vampires, and man-made behemoths. Less than a year before taking on Fritz, Frye played the similar role of Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). With Frankenstein he got himself good and type cast as a blathering, half-witted sociopath. Although Frye longed to return to the kinds of musical-comedy roles he played prior to first taking on Renfield in Dracula, he will always be remembered as the single greatest player of blathering, half-witted sociopaths ever to limp across a crumbling, Gothic, Hollywood set.

There have been more than 70 Frankenstein and Frankenstein-themed films. There could be 70 more (not an unlikely prospect) and none will ever feature a monster more iconic than the one created by Boris Karloff in the 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s timeless tale. That is a fact you can staple to your back, brothers and sisters, and I’m not just talking about
the flathead, bolt-neck make-up James Whale and Jack Pierce designed for Karloff to wear. I’m talking about the man’s performance. Karloff fashioned a character that was and is frightening, sensitive, and thoroughly poetic. This is essentially how the creature is depicted in Shelley’s novel, yet that monster was also pretty verbose. Karloff conveyed the monster’s complex emotional make-up with nothing more than grunts, growls, whimpers, and some stiff body movements. Londoner William Henry Pratt adopted his far more famous moniker to make himself seem “foreign” and “exotic”, but there was no disguising the Englishness of his dulcet, lisping accent and his gentlemanly manner. Karloff split time between acting in silent films and performing manual labor until his career-making turn as the Frankenstein Monster. Then there was no stopping him. The actor made more than 100 film and television appearances following his role in Frankenstein (for which he was listed as “?” in the opening credits). Unlike Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and so many others in his line of work, Karloff never once lamented being typecast in horror films. He was grateful for the work, and continued to give fantastic performances in The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Body Snatcher (1945) (in which he arguably does his best work), and many, many, many others. Boris Karloff may be synonymous with the horror film, but by all accounts he was one of the kindest men you could ever hope to meet.

Universal was born when German immigrant Carl Laemmle fell in love with the nickelodeon during a trip to Chicago in 1905. Laemmle soon purchased several such theaters, and a motion picture empire was underway. By 1912, Laemmle established Universal Film Manufacturing Company and began producing films of his own. One of the first Universal blockbusters was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring that “Man of 1,000 Faces”, Lon Chaney. Two years later, Chaney once again strapped himself with painful wires and prosthetics to play The Phantom of the Opera. The film made an impressive two million dollars for Universal during its first run (keep in mind that a movie ticket cost about 25 cents in 1925). While Laemmle bore no particular love for such macabre fare, he couldn’t ignore the amount of cash horror films raked in. In 1931, Universal released its first horror talkie, and Dracula proved to be another high-grossing sensation. The Golden Age of Universal Horror was at hand, so not wasting any time, Carl Laemmle Jr.—the true horror champion in the Laemmle clan—got to work on adapting that other 19th century Gothic horror classic, Frankenstein. As Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon said in the short doc The Frankenstein Files, “Frankenstein was the Jaws of its day”: a mighty box office draw and a must-see extravaganza that delivered state-of-the-art special effects, chills, and richly drawn characters. While films like Dracula and The Mummy were smashes, Frankenstein remained Universal’s hottest property, spawning numerous sequels and a wonderful parody featuring Abbot and Costello. The popularity of the classic Universal horror films has hardly waned over the years. Though not a critical success, The Wolf Man was given a make over in 2010, and a new Creature from the Black Lagoon has been on the drawing board for several years. Multiple remakes of Frankenstein are currently in the works. Outside the cinema, Universal’s monsters have found themselves on everything from toys to coffee mugs to water guns to salt & pepper shakers to dog costumes to just about any other product you can think of, ensuring that everyone can figure out a way to incorporate these grotesque icons into their most mundane activities.

Mary Shelley may be the true creator of Frankenstein and his misunderstood monster, but the images that most of us conjure when we hear mention of the Big F are the doings of one James Whale. The dapper British filmmaker emerged from an impoverished London childhood, in which his propensity for art and literature made him an outcast amongst his fellow lads. He grew up to become one of the wittiest, most creative, and influential artists the cinema has ever seen. Whale preferred making lavish productions like Showboat (1936), but his greatest successes were his horror films. Each one is an unparalleled masterwork: Frankenstein, The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein, which many rate as the single finest horror film ever made. Whale’s wry approach toward making Gothic chillers was revolutionary, and with the exception of the original Frankenstein, they work just as well as comedy as they do as horror. Not only did he direct these iconic films, but he also designed the iconic look of Karloff’s monster, with its trademark flat head, neck electrodes, crudely stitched scars, and heavy brow. Since the monster would never have come to life without the brilliant contributions of make-up artist Jack Pierce, Pierce is often credited as the originator of the Frankenstein Monster’s look, but Whale was always quick to point out that Pierce merely recreated the director’s own sketches. Nearly as impressive as Whale’s achievements on screen was his bravery in living as an openly gay man during the early 20th century. Some speculate that his refusal to cower in the closet brought an early end to his career, although the commercial failure of his later work may be a more likely contributor. At the age of 66, he suffered a series of debilitating strokes that led to his suicide the following year. Whale drowned himself in his backyard swimming pool.

November 23, 2009: The 10 Essential Performances of Boris Karloff

1. The Monster in Frankenstein (1931)

The long-standing cliché has been that the Frankenstein Monster is a robotic walking-prop that does nothing but grunt and stomp around with its hands stretched outward like a somnambulist. This has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s career-defining work as the title creature in James Whale’s Frankenstein. In the 1931 classic, Karloff gives a sensitive, complex performance. The monster is both a murderous brute and an abandoned child, and it is his desire for direction and understanding that most informs Karloff’s work. As terrifying as that first jump-cut close-up on his horrific face is (and that shot remains terrifying despite that face being pasted on everything from T-shirts to paper plates throughout the following decades), the sight of the Monster groping at sunbeams yearningly is heart-rendering. The tenderness that Karloff brings to the scene in which the Monster sits by a pastoral riverbank to toss daisies into the water with a little girl makes his accidental murder of her all the more disturbing and infinitely sadder. Karloff famously refused to play the Monster again after his third go-round, surmising that it was on its way to becoming the walking-prop most people remember. He was right. Like all the greats, Karloff’s creation went out on top, and no one has ever or will ever usurp his status as cinema’s greatest interpreter of the Frankenstein Monster.


November 29, 2009: 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Boris Karloff

4. During a 1935 interview, Bela Lugosi, who was originally slotted to play the Frankenstein Monster, claimed producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., agreed to release him from the film if he could find a replacement actor. Lugosi then claimed that he scouted acting agencies until he found Karloff, and Laemmle hired the brooding Brit on his recommendation. Director James Whale's boyfriend, David Lewis, claimed he recommended Karloff after seeing the actor play a convict in the gangster picture The Criminal Kind. The truth is no one knows the exact circumstances behind Karloff's hiring.

5. While James Whale and Universal’s makeup wizard Jack Pierce deserve the bulk of the credit for the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster, Boris Karloff made two vital contributions to the celebrated creep: he suggested the heavy-lidded eyes after seeing Pierce’s original design and deciding the monster looked too alive, and he removed the bridgework in the right side of his mouth to create a hollow-cheeked appearance, which Pierce further emphasized with dark makeup.

6. Despite the Frankenstein Monster’s status as cinema’s most famous heavy, Karloff once remarked that much of the fan mail he received was from folks who wanted to offer the Monster “help and friendship.” According to David J. Skal’s book Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, Karloff described this as “one of the most moving experiences of my life.”

November 18, 2010: Review: ‘Robert Florey’s Frankenstein’ by Philip J. Riley

One of the better-known nuggets of horror-flick history is that Bela Lugosi was originally intended to play the Frankenstein Monster in Universal’s second great monster picture of 1931. Why Lugosi did not end up donning the flattop and neck-electrodes in the original feature-length Frankenstein is a matter of much debate—he either exited the role because he objected to playing a sexless, silent brute, or he was fired from the project much like Robert Florey, who was originally slotted to direct. Florey and Lugosi went off to make the less impressive Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) together, and James Whale was hired to helm Frankenstein with Boris Karloff starring as the Monster.

When Florey and Garrett Fort wrote the Frankenstein screenplay, they did so under the impression that Lugosi would be monstering it up as the Monster. Philip J. Riley brings us this original draft as part of his “Alternate History to Classic Film Monsters” series, which I’ve often praised on this site. Robert Florey’s Frankenstein is not as impressive as the previous installments in the series, although that is hardly Riley’s fault. The problem is that this script really isn’t that drastically different from the one Whale filmed, making it less historically valuable than totally unique works such as Nina Wilcox Putnam’s Cagliostro or Bernard Schubert’s Wolfman vs. Dracula.

Although a 170-page script should be bursting with revelations, considering that the released film was a mere 69 minutes (the rule of thumb is that a single screenplay page equals one minute of screen time), it only reaches such epic length due to Florey and Fort’s tendency to over-describe their scenes. The climactic hunt for the Monster creaks along for nearly twenty pages. The boldest difference between script and film is a sexually charged scene in which the Monster stalks a peasant couple tussling in their bedroom. The relationships between Elizabeth and Victor Moritz, and Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman, are also more complex in the script. Much to the script’s detriment, the scenes in which Fritz culls a madman’s brain for his boss and the Monster has a fateful encounter with a little girl by a riverbed are far more simplistic than those that wound up in Whale’s film. The Monster is far less sympathetic and the script is decidedly humorless with a completely downbeat ending that might have kept Bride of Frankenstein from being born. Satisfyingly, a lot of these problems are acknowledged in the rather insightful script notes included as an appendix at the end of Riley’s book. A second appendix finds Fort defending his script, even though he didn’t really have a leg to stand on. Fans of Riley’s series will certainly want to add Robert Florey’s Frankenstein to their collections, even though it is a relatively unenlightening read. Hey, not every lost script can be R.C. Sheriff’s Dracula’s Daughter.

Get Robert Florey’s Frankenstein at here.

April 25, 2011: Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Part 2: The 1930s

10. Frankenstein (1931- dir. James Whale)

Mixed reviews be damned; Dracula was a massive blockbuster for Universal. Not knowing how long the public’s zeal for supernatural thrillers would last, the studio didn’t waste a second in following it up. Before 1931 was over, studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr., had acquired another stage play adapted from a classic Gothic horror novel. Rewritten for the screen by Dracula-stage-play scribe John L. Balderston, Frankenstein made the writer’s adaptation of Stoker seem positively faithful. Gone is the chatty, philosophical creature in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel. Gone is the arctic wraparound story. Gone is the monster’s vaguely alchemic creation. Gone is his demand for a mate (but not for long). In are a slew of elements soon to become monster movie staples: a hulking, mute beast, his animation by lightning, the hunchback assistant, the angry villagers with their torches and rakes. Director James Whale, who was none too thrilled about his monstery project or the horrific path on which it set his career, brings an artist’s eye to the film’s subtly distorted design. Some aspects of Frankenstein are lazy: its abrupt conclusion, Frankenstein Senior’s tiresome comic relief (how did such a buffoon sire such a scary mad genius?), the noticeable wrinkles in the sky backdrop during the climactic monster hunt, the way Frankenstein survives his bone-shattering fall from the windmill. Many are unforgettable: Fritz’s brain manhandling, the dizzying creation sequence, the Monster’s first appearance in a series of unnerving jump cuts, his tragic encounter with Little Maria, the brilliant parallel shots of the Monster and his creator glaring at each other through the windmill’s spinning gears. Most important is the film’s central performance. Boris Karloff created an almost entirely sympathetic creature. Despite his lumbering gait and iconic necro-make-up (designed in collaboration by Whale and Universal’s resident mad scientist, Jack Pierce), there is an undeniable sadness in those half-mast eyes, making for a particularly poetic “villain” at the center of a world full of fear-addled, bloodthirsty villagers and mad doctors. Colin Clive, as the title doc, also proves a more interesting monster-foil than Edward Van Sloan did in Dracula (Van Sloan is relegated to a minor role in Whale’s film). Most will acknowledge that there was one Frankenstein film that topped the first one, but the original, along with Dracula, formed the bedrock upon which all future monster movies would be built.
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