Saturday, October 30, 2010 - 09:05
(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of irregularly-scheduled columns by Managing Editor Byron Brewer, mainly dealing with classic and not-so-classic sci-fi/fantasy/horror films and their denizens. Mr. Brewer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CosmicBookNews.com. He welcomes both raves and opposing views.)
Man as God: A theme as old as time itself, and certainly one well used in works of science fiction and horror. Perhaps there is no greater example than Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein and the classic 1931 Universal Pictures film based on the book starring the immortal Boris Karloff as the Monster.
Most of us know the story – from the movie, if not from Shelley’s classic – and the Monster has made his way into several areas of media. But unless you are viewing its great sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, there are few movies more chilling than this James Whale-drected classic.
The film begins with Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman) stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a "friendly warning" before the opening credits:
We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. 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 – uh, well, we warned you.
In the opening credits, Karloff is unbilled, with only a question mark being used in place of his name. This is a nod to a tradition of theatrical adaptations billing the monster without a name. Universal had not revealed in advance who was playing the monster, and had not released any pictures of the monster in order to conceal his appearance. Karloff's name is revealed in the closing credits, which otherwise duplicate the credits from the opening under the principle that "A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating."
There was controversy around this point originally, as some part of the management of Universal built up the suspense of who was playing the creature to gather interest in the film as Bela Lugosi was still largely thought to be performing the role of the creature up until the time of the film's release. Some papers were erroneously still listing Lugosi as the performer. Some were coming to see if Lugosi had changed his mind and recanted to star in the film despite some published statements to the contrary, most notably the still famous "electric beam eyes" poster which still credited Lugosi as the monster and showed the creature without the now famous flat head, neck-bolt makeup (created by Universal Studios make-up artist Jack Pierce. Pierce also created Lon Chaney's Wolf Man make-up and Karloff's Mummy make-up as well). Others state it was because the film would cause the ruin of the performer in the role and wanted to minimize said actor's liability, for the original film went against the censor boards of the day.
Lugosi was originally set to star as the monster. After several disastrous make-up tests, the Dracula star left the project. Although this is often regarded as one of the worst decisions of Lugosi's career, in actuality the part that Lugosi was offered was not the same character that Karloff eventually played. The character in the Robert Florey script was simply a killing machine without a touch of human interest or pathos, reportedly causing Lugosi to complain, "I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!” However, the decision may not have been Lugosi's in any case, since recent evidence suggests that he was kicked off the project, along with director Florey. Ironically, Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline and only after Lon Chaney Jr. complained bitterly about the possibility of him doing double work through trick photography to appear as both the Wolfman and the Monster in the film for about the same pay rate. Chaney had already appeared as the Monster in the previous Frankenstein film, Ghost of Frankenstein, directly succeeding Karloff in the role.
As was the custom at the time, only the main cast and crew were listed in the credits. Additionally, however, a number of other actors who worked on the project were or became familiar to fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Burgomeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the Monster accidentally kills in ne of the film’s most famous scenes; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria's father.
Kenneth Strickfaden designed the awesome electrical effects used in the creation scene. (“He’s alive! He’s alive!!) So successful were they that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as "Strickfadens." It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Telsa Coil built by the then-aged Nikola Telsa himself. According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff in the electrical "birth" scene as Karloff was deathly afraid of being electrocuted from the live voltage on the stage.
There is no musical soundtrack in the film, except for the opening and closing credits.
The film opened in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on Dec. 4, 1931, and grossed $53,000 in one week.
Controversy as well as popularity surrounded the film. The scene in which the Monster throws the little girl into the lake and accidentally drowns her has long been called into question regarding taste. Upon its original 1931 release, the second part of this scene was cut by state censorship boards in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York. Those states also objected to a line they considered blasphemous, one that occurred during Frankenstein's exuberance when he first learns that his creature is alive. The original line was: "It's alive! It's alive!! In the name of God! Now I know what it's like to be God!” Local censor boards cut or obliterated "Now I know … "
Originally, Kansas refused to pass the film without dozens of cuts. Universal sent censor representative Joseph Breen there to urge them to reconsider. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and Frankenstein was shown in that state.
As with many films that were reissued after strict enforcement of the Production Code of 1934, Universal made cuts from the master negative; the deleted sequences were unseen for years. For a 1937 reissue of the film, these cuts included:
• Frankenstein's line, "Now I know what it's like to be God!", was obliterated by a clap of thunder on the soundtrack.
• Some footage of Frankenstein's assistant Fritz taking sadistic glee in scaring the Monster by waving a lit torch near him while the Monster is shackled in chains.
• Close-up of a needle injection was removed.
• In the scene of the Monster and the little girl tossing flowers into the lake, the second part of the scene was cut, beginning at the moment he extends his hands to pick her up.
These censored scenes were not shown for decades; in 1986, MCA-Universal restored the shots of Fritz tormenting the Monster, close-up of a needle injection and Maria being thrown in the water while the full "Now I know what it feels like to be God!" line wouldn't be fully restored until 1999.
Then as today, the classic Frankenstein received universal acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time.
After the boys and ghouls get done ringing the doorbell Halloween Eve, give it a try. But for some, you might want to consider Waldman’s warning!