CHARLOTTE, N.C.: At the age of 19, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later married poet Percy Shelley, published The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Her unusual novel later became known simply as Frankenstein. Now, some two hundred years later, Mary Shelley’s fantastic tale remains as intriguing to virtually everyone on the planet as it was when it was first published.
Though critics and filmmakers didn’t egard Frankenstein as a “horror” film when it premiered in 1931, Frankenstein remains heralded as one of the best motion pictures in American cinema history. Loosely based on Mary Shelley’s original 19th century novel, Frankenstein, The Movie, was the top box office film of 1931. However, the “horror” genre as applied to movies like this one, did not come into existence until 1934.
At age 44, Boris Karloff, who portrayed the monster in that famous film, was then a virtual unknown in Hollywood, figuring, perhaps, that his best years were already behind him. That was until Bela Lugosi, best known on-screen as Dracula, turned the role down because there were no speaking lines. Lugosi’s mistake proved to be Karloff’s catalyst to fame. He created one of the great film characters of all time.
In tribute to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Myth Trivia looks at some of the trivial highlights involving the famous 20th century picture that immortalized one of the world’s most famous cinematic monsters.
A PR Poster of great worth
Since the 1931 release of Frankenstein, a rare six-sheet PR poster for the movie. Featuring Karloff as the Monster menacing Mae Clark (who played Elizabeth in the film) this poster today is worth more than $600,000. That makes it possibly the most the valuable movie poster on record. A private collector now owns the original.
Speaking of Elizabeth, filmmakers initially considered Bette Davis for the role. They also scheduled Leslie Howard to portray Dr. Henry Frankenstein. But, as always in Hollywood, things changed. Mae Clark and Colin Clive got the final nod to play these characters in the film we know and love today.
Bela Lugosi makes a questionable career choice
Regarding the role of “the Monster” that Bela Lugosi rejected. Lugosi considered himself (and was considered) a star of such epic proportions in his native country – then the Kingdom of Hungary (now Romania) – that he rejected the offer to play the monster. He proudly proclaimed he had not come to America “to be a scarecrow.”
Lugosi eventually did play the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman in 1943, accepting the part because the monster had speaking lines in the film. Ultimately, all his speaking scenes in this film ended up on the cutting room floor anyway.
Though Mary Shelley never wrote about the scientific techniques required to bring the monster to life in her novel, the use of lightning as the creative agent in the film became an integral part of film culture and history. As a result, in every adaptation of the story in the history of cinema, save for two, the monster experiences an electrifying rebirth. As for those remaining two films? In both Frankenstein: The True Story (1974), a made-for-tv version and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) the method used to animate the monster was ascribed to an unspecified chemical process.
Oddly enough, the electronics in the original film and in later versions suggest a time period around the late 1880s. However, Shelley set her novel in the early 1800s. At that time, electrical technology as depicted in the original film was not advanced enough to to power the process that brings the monster to life.
Of particular interest to film buffs: Mel Brooks used the same equipment in his 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein that filmmakers used in the original 1931 film. In so doing, Brooks gave Ken Strickfaden an onscreen credit for his electronic designs. Strickfaden did not receive any screen credit for his 1931 efforts.
Fun trivial fact: Arguably the most famous line from the original movie is Colin Clive’s hysterical cry, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Today, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranks this line as the 49th most famous quote in American motion picture history.
How to make (up) a monster
Actors often must show up on set in the very early AM. That’s because their make-up sessions can take hours. Karloff’s monster make-up took four hours to apply. Worse, his shoes weighed 13 pounds each and his costume weighed in at a hefty 48 pounds. Shooting, by the way, was done in the heat of summer. Karloff was a trouper.
The Frankenstein monster: Credit where credit is due
In later years, Boris Karloff often referred to the monster as “the dear old boy.”
Yet Karloff was so unknown in Hollywood when the film was released that he did not receive an invitation to the film’s December 1931 premiere. In fact, Karloff’s name does not even appear in the opening credits of Frankenstein. Instead, the actor portraying “The Monster” is simply listed as “?”.
Fortunately, however, Karloff did receive proper recognition for his groundbreaking role in the closing credits.
A little bit country?
And finally, country music lovers might be interested to know that Frankenstein was Johnny Cash’s favorite film. Was Boris Karloff the inspiration for Man in Black, Flesh and Blood, Hurt, I Walk the Line or Ring of Fire?
One thing is certain, however. Boris Karloff had nothing to do with A Boy Named Sue.
—Headline image: PR Poster for “Frankenstein,” the Hollywood original (1931).
Public domain image – never under copyright notice – via Wikipedia entry on the film.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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