By Dennis Polkow
June 16, 1816 remains a legendary night in literary circles. A group of writers and their friends that gathered at Villa Diodati, Switzerland—including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon after to marry Shelley), Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori—were read stories aloud by Lord Byron, after which Byron suggested that each member of the group try to write a ghost story.
Although Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont lost interest in the contest, Byron himself wrote “The Vampyre”—itself a precursor to Bram Stoker’s later “Dracula”—and Polidori wrote a now-forgotten untitled story about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeping through a keyhole. Meanwhile, Mary Shelley wrote one of the most famous novels of all time, “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.”
Even with Mary’s famous literary husband pushing for publication of “Frankenstein,” no conventional publisher was willing to take the risk of releasing such a shocking tale of a scientist daring to create an artificial man—only to have it turn on him—to an unsuspecting public. By the time the novel finally appeared, response was immediate and overwhelming, and it quickly became one of the biggest and best-selling books of the nineteenth century.
Nearly two hundred years later, the story continues to tantalize, to fascinate anew since now, as then, it appears that we are on the verge of major medical “advancements” based on generating life out of death or from completely synthetic means. Whether this be in the form of stem cell research that seeks to advance disease treatment from the harvest of human embryos or cloning and the ongoing trajectory that life be more efficiently and conveniently generated by non-organic means, the only shift across two centuries appears to be better technology. It’s that resonance that brings two very different versions of it to two major stages in Chicago this week.
“Frankenstein” was such an extraordinary work for its time—indeed, though a Gothic novel, it is often considered to have virtually created the genre of science fiction—that there has been a great deal of skepticism over the years about how an unknown, unpublished 19-year-old girl could have come up with such a bizarre, twisted and forward-looking story all on her own.
Mary Shelley herself preferred the explanation that the tale had come to her in a single nightmare, no doubt largely inspired by her visits with Shelley to Germany and Switzerland the preceding summers.
Unlike the broken battlements from the old Universal horror films, the real Castle Frankenstein, which still stands, was actually an elegant medieval structure near the Rhine River that the Shelleys had visited in 1814.
Although one of the oldest and most respected families in Germany, none of the Frankensteins were themselves directly involved in the sciences. The alchemist Konrad Dippel, however, widely regarded as the model for Victor Frankenstein, was born at the castle in 1673 and used the name of the castle at the University of Giessen, as was his birthright.
Dippel was an unconventional theologian, philosopher, physician, alchemist and chemist of the time who was so fascinated with the way limbs, muscles and sinews were attached to skeletal frames that he practiced vivisection on animals and later on corpses. On more than one occasion Dippel was openly accused of grave-robbing.
The aim of these avant-garde experiments was to discover how life itself was transmitted through the various parts of the body, Dippel taking the widely held view of the time that the spirit of one inanimate body could enter into another. Thus it was magic as much as science that inspired Dippel, who created a medical elixir said to prolong life and boldly declared that he would die in 1801 at 135 years old. (He made it to age 61.) Dippel is a fascinating character, although today he is more remembered as a theologian than as a scientist.
Still, it is not difficult to imagine a young Mary Shelley learning of the futile attempts of Dippel to reanimate corpses, only to speculate, “What if?” Her imagination was further fueled by the bizarre weather of the summer of 1816 where temperatures remained cold throughout the Northern hemisphere and rain and wild lightning and thunderstorms were frequent due to the thick ash of a Turkish volcano that hung in the atmosphere for months. The resulting ferocious natural electrical charges influenced Polidori, Byron’s physician, to converse with the group about recent experiments by Luigi Aldini, the nephew of the founder of galvanism, Luigi Galvani.
Galvani’s infamous experiments of the 1790s had shown the animated effects of electrical current on disembodied animal parts, but his nephew Aldini was eerily doing the same with severed ox heads in public, complete with eyes and ears moving as if the animal had come back to life. In 1818, the same year that “Frankenstein” was first published, Aldini would cause a sensation by connecting wires from a massive copper and zinc battery to the head and anus of the body of an executed murderer before a group of surgeons. The result was that the adjoining muscles contorted wildly in every direction, at one point the right eye of the deceased man even opening.
Shelley had fictionalized what looked to the popular culture of the time to be the future: the mysterious new force of electricity appearing to restore and to be the very basis of life itself. “Frankenstein” so fascinated the public that, within Mary’s own lifetime, there were no less than three stage adaptations, each adding their own little touches, such as the new character of Victor Frankenstein’s assistant, named Fritz in one production, Igor in another. Copyright laws were such at the time that anyone could adapt a novel without author permission nor compensation.
Unlike the novel, the stage plays concentrated exclusively on the horrific nature of the story, the unnamed monster taking center stage. (Although already within Mary’s lifetime, audiences began confusing the creature with the name of its creator, a practice which continues to this day.) Stage versions of “Frankenstein” continued to abound throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and no sooner had Thomas Edison invented motion pictures before the first film version of the story was made, at Edison’s own studio in 1910.
Although another silent version called “Life Without Soul” appeared in 1920, it was Universal Pictures who would eleven years later make the cinematic version of “Frankenstein” that is still the equivalent by which all tellings of the tale across virtually all media are measured. Having scored a spectacular triumph in 1931’s “Dracula,” the studio immediately acquired the rights to film “Frankenstein” as a follow-up, basing its script on the Peggy Webling 1927 version of the play.
Successfully cast as “Dracula,” Bela Lugosi had succeeded in taking over the Universal horror mantle from Lon Chaney, who had died suddenly the year before. Lugosi was therefore contracted to play the monster in “Frankenstein,” although having been a straight dramatic actor back in his native Hungary, Lugosi felt that he should play the part of Dr. Frankenstein rather than the monster, but the studio insisted that in the public’s mind, as Dracula, Lugosi was already a “monster.”
Jack P. Pierce, Universal’s makeup wizard and one-time Chicago shortstop who had already clashed with Lugosi during the filming of “Dracula,” worked on a monster makeup for the temperamental actor and some test reels were shot on the old “Dracula” set which actor Edward van Sloan later described as “Babes in Toyland gone berserk.” Lugosi was removed from the project and given “Murders in the Rue Morgue” instead.
It was director James Whale who then “found” a 44-year-old truck driver and bit player on the lot named William Henry Pratt, who went by the stage name of Boris Karloff. Whale noticed Karloff eating his lunch in the studio commissary and began making sketches of his face.
“To put it in perspective,” says Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris, “ ‘Frankenstein’ was my Dad’s eighty-first film. He made 167 films in total, so nearly half of his career was spent in total obscurity. He had served his time and had learned his craft in repertory theaters in British Columbia and then in the States, eventually making his way to Hollywood where he was an extra in silent films for years and years. Finally, Dad got some bit parts, but did everything under the sun from shoveling coal to driving a truck to keep from starving to death while waiting for the next call.”
Karloff was delighted at the attention from such a major director as Whale and agreed to let Pierce experiment with him at will, something Lugosi had not permitted. Karloff even allowed Pierce to remove a dental bridge to give one side of the monster’s face a more sunken look. Three intensive weeks followed where Pierce experimented with various effects to transform the thin Englishman into a monster made from pieces of dead bodies.
Pierce did an extraordinary amount of homework in anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminology, burial customs and electrodynamics to create his startling makeup, which took six hours to apply and which has become such a familiar icon of pop culture that it is virtually impossible for most of us to imagine how truly horrified audiences were when they originally saw Karloff as the monster on screen in 1931.
Suspense had been further heightened by Karloff’s initial appearance coming nearly a half hour into the film, further fed by the film’s opening credits where there was simply a question mark where Karloff’s name should have been. “Frankenstein” was shot on a closed set for three months, Karloff being led from the makeup department with his head completely covered after an incident where a pregnant studio secretary had caught sight of him in makeup and fainted. Soon moviegoers would react the same way.
“My father would always say that it was thanks to the genius of Jack Pierce and his makeup that the monster became what it became,” says Sara. Yet there’s no denying that despite Pierce’s amazing makeup—which, having been conceived around Karloff’s features, was never as convincing on actors Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange who later portrayed the monster in the Universal sequels—it was Karloff’s acting through the makeup that made his performance so memorable. Karloff saw the monster as a lost child, and was able to convey that sense even through such heavy layers of makeup. “Children were not afraid of the monster and would come up to my father all the time and voice the opinion that the monster was the victim, and not the perpetrator,” says Sara.
Though there have been hundreds of “Frankenstein” films made in every language since—including a British-based Hammer Technicolor series and even Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro giving the role a shot alongside Kenneth Branagh in 1994’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”—the Karloff characterization is still the portrayal by which all others are measured. Indeed, after “Frankenstein,” Karloff would receive a rare honor in cinema, accorded only to the likes of Chaplin and Garbo: he would be billed simply by his last name.
How wise then, in the Hypocrites’ season-opening stage version of “Frankenstein” that opened last Friday and is playing through this Halloween weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, that adapter and director Sean Graney chooses to embrace the Karloff cinematic portrayal rather than futilely attempt to ignore it. Most adaptations have to, not only because the stage still cannot replicate what could be done on film even back in 1931, but Universal Studios still jealously holds the copyright to every aspect of the film, especially Jack P. Pierce’s makeup. How clever then to simply show the film while the Hypocrites play out their adaptation; apart from the spoken cautionary prologue, Dr. Frankenstein’s pondering of the mysteries of life and death immediately before the Monster’s initial appearance, and grunts from the Monster and repeated screams from one of its would-be victims, the complete film unspools silently. Yet for all of the myriads of times that most of us have seen it over the years, most of the audience—sometimes even performers included—could not take their eyes off of it, particularly when Karloff was on screen.(See the review in Stage.)
When Mel Brooks made the film version of “Young Frankenstein” at Twentieth Century Fox in 1974, Universal could do nothing as Shelley’s story had long been in the public domain and parody, even of a copyrighted and iconic film, is considered fair use. Although you would never know from the credits, the idea itself belonged to Gene Wilder, who wrote the basic outline for himself to star as the doctor but who enlisted Brooks to fill out gags and to direct. Given the extraordinary success that Brooks had with transposing “The Producers” from screen to stage and back again, making a Broadway stage musical out of “Young Frankenstein” became his next project.
The monster had always liked good music, but Brooks had fought Wilder on the idea of the monster doing a song-and-dance routine with the doctor, for many of us, the funniest scene in the movie as the poor monster does his best to mumble through the chorus to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Brooks wisely paid an extensive royalty to the Berlin estate to keep the number in the Broadway musical version, but insisted on dumping any remnant of the original Gothic score by John Morris that had so effectively parodied the Hans Salter and Franz Waxman Frankenstein film scores, and its haunting violin theme so vital to the plot in favor of musicalizing the story itself in Tin Pan Alley style. The show opened in late 2007 to mixed reviews and closed sixteen months later, but an elaborate national tour opened last month that is making its way to Chicago this week, running from November 3 through December 13 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre with Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley reprising their Broadway roles as the doctor and monster.
Universal made no less than eight Frankenstein films from 1931 until 1948, Karloff appearing in four of them, including his last film appearance as the monster in 1938’s “Son of Frankenstein” where the aging actor turned 50 on the set, as well as playing a mad scientist in 1944’s “House of Frankenstein.” Before his 1969 death, he donned the Frankenstein monster makeup for one last time in a 1963 television cameo appearance on a “Route 66” Halloween episode filmed near O’Hare Airport with Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr.
Did Karloff regret—as Bela Lugosi had—being stereotyped as a “monster” and a “horror star”? “Heavens no,” says Sara. “He affectionately called the monster ‘my baby,’ and recognized that he never would have become the household name that he became without that role. He always said that, ‘a typecast actor is a working actor,’ and how jolly lucky of a fellow he was to be typecast so that his name and face came to mind when a certain kind of role came up, which kept him working all of his life.” Sara admits that she used to enjoy traveling around with her father, watching people’s reaction in recognizing him. “It was particularly fun in elevators,” says Sara. “They would look once and then do a double take and quietly elbow the next person in absolute shock and disbelief.”
Despite Karloff’s ability to shock even without makeup, Sara is cautious to emphasize that Karloff was nothing like his sinister screen persona in his private life. “His passions were cricket, gardening and reading,” says Sara. “He was educated in English schools and was very cultured and well-read, the antithesis of the roles that he played. He was soft-spoken and modest, gentle and generous, and truly concerned with the plight of his fellow actors. One of my father’s proudest accomplishments was to have helped form the Screen Actors Guild, which was a very dangerous thing to do at that time. But having struggled for so many years before his success, it was a cause very dear to his heart and he served on the board for thirty-five years.”
Has Sara, who says that she “sleeps with the lights on,” ever been frightened watching any of her father’s classic roles? “I had to watch ‘The Black Cat’ in three screenings because I don’t like scary films,” Sara admits with a sigh. “Sometimes when we watch one of those really scary ones, I have to leave the room a few times. But I have a friend—Ron Borst, who owns Hollywood Collectibles—who calls up and says, ‘Now Sara, I’m coming over with a film, and we’re gonna leave all the lights on, and I’m going to hold your hand. You can sit through this.’ Even so, when the music builds, I’m outta there.”