I watched “Frankenstein” (1931) last night, as it was one of those immeasurably frustrating nights when I couldn’t sleep. No, this movie obviously can’t be considered frightening by modern standards — but I still had fun finally seeing a Universal Pictures monster movie I’ve heard about all my life.
Here are a few fun Frankenfacts, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The makeup effects for Boris Karloff’s monster might seem simple by today’s standards, but people went nuts for them in 1931. I can’t imagine what a Depression-era filmgoer might think of a modern tv show like “The Walking Dead.”
If you think Hollywood relies too heavily on cheesy sequels today, take a look at the B-list stuff that followed this classic movie: “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942), “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” in 1943 (which was also a sequel to 1941’s “The Wolf Man”), “House of Frankenstein” (1944), and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). Dr. Frankenstein’s monster also showed up in “House of Dracula” (1945).
“Frankenstein” has something else in common with “Dracula” — the talented, hyperactive character actor, Dwight Frye. Here he is the scene-stealing assistant to the doctor — he is Dracula’s minion, Renfield, in the other film.
Frye’s character is not named “Igor,” as countless homages and references to this movie might lead you to believe. His name is “Fritz.” There is a deformed, graverobbing henchman named “Ygor” in the later “Son of Frankenstein,” and I am guessing the two movies are just easily conflated in popular memory. Also … the mob of townspeople never storm Frankenstein’s castle with torches and pitchforks. They instead chase the monster to an abandoned windmill at the top of a mountain, and destroy him there. (I am guessing that the denouement I thought I’d see also comes from a sequel.)
I … might have noticed a major plot hole for the movie. (Yes, I realize that it is almost certainly absent from Mary Shelley’s 1918 novel, which I have not read). The townspeople want to hunt down the monster for his accidental drowning of little girl. But … how did they know the monster was even involved? We are shown nobody witnessing the tragedy. In fact, how do the townspeople even know that the monster exists — and that it was loose from the laboratory if its birth? Granted, I might have missed something — it was a sleepless night for me, after all.
Let me close with two observations:
The castle housing Frankenstein’s laboratory would be a wicked cool place to live if it were properly renovated. Think about it. You’d need to wire it everywhere with reliable heat and electricity, and then somehow keep it dry — no small feat for an abandoned castle. But could you imagine how amazing it would be to have a home office there? A library? A home theater? A dining room? You could have a whole Victor von Doom thing going on.
I really want to see “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” I think that will be next for a sleepless night.
W. H. Auden called the mid-twentieth century The Age of Anxiety. It was the title of a book-length epic poem that won him a 1948 Pulitzer Prize, and it depicted his perception of the loneliness and isolation of the mid-twentieth century. (I have not read it.)
Auden set it in a bar in New York City. (He actually immigrated there in 1939; many casual poetry readers are unaware that he had dual citizenship with Britain and America.)
I wonder what Auden would think of the early 21st Century, here at his adopted home. I t started with the September 11 terror attacks and has arrived at a pandemic that has killed 443,000 Americans (along with nearly 94,000 back in his native Britain). Evictions and unemployment have predictably risen right along with the deaths.
And America seems the closest now to civil war since … the actual Civil War began in 1861. (We did, after all, see one side storm the Capitol to attack its democratically elected government.)
I’ll bet our anxiety could give Auden’s a run for its money.
The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay.
Dabbling in old time radio inevitably brought me to “The Shadow” — a character I’d heard about periodically when I was growing up. My Dad had been a fan of the radio program and film serials when he was a kid, and he was fond of rattling off that tagline you see in this blog post’s headline. (The radio shows were broadcast in to the mid-1950’s, long after they started in 1937.) I also remember the character from the truly unfortunate 1994 feature film with Alec Baldwin, which I actually saw in the theater with my college girlfriend. (The less said, the better. About the movie, I mean.) The Shadow is also cited periodically as an influence in the creation of my own favorite iconic dark detective, Batman.
The Shadow has a loooooooong, varied and occasionally confusing history – spanning radio, pulp magazines, comic books, television and film. He’s still being portrayed in comics. DC Comics released a crossover with Batman last year that looks interesting, and the incomparable Matt Wagner produced a couple of books in 2015 and 2016 that I’d love to get my hands on. (He fights Grendel!!!)
The radio shows are a lot if fun, just like the antique horror and mystery programs that I’ve linked to here at the blog. And, just like those, they’re easily found on Internet. (How my Dad might have marveled at that!) They’re definitely more campy. And I suppose that makes sense, as they seem aimed at children, whereas the horror shows seem intended for general audiences or just adults. The period commercials for Blue Coal are a weird glimpse into the past, too. If I had to name one thing that I found annoying about all of the old time radio shows I’ve found, it’s the omnipresence of that damned organ music. (Was it just a cultural staple of the time?)
If “The Shadow’s” stories are a bit hokey, the show’s voice acting and production are just terrific. I particularly like the actor performing The Shadow for the episode in the first link below — “Death is a Colored Dream” (1948). I believe it is Bret Morrison. (And I was surprised to learn that the famous Orson Welles only voiced the character for a year or so a decade earlier.)
But what’s most interesting is the character’s inception. He didn’t start out as a character in a story at all … “The Shadow” was simply the name of the generic host for a series of unrelated mystery stories comprising “The Detective Story Hour” in 1930. After a surprising fanbase developed around the creepy-sounding host (voiced at the time by Frank Readick, Jr.), people started asking for stories featuring “The Shadow” at the news stand. Street & Smith commissioned writer Walter B. Gibson to write up some tales featuring a supernatural detective; the first came out in 1931. The iconic character was just sort of made-to-order for confused customers who might have thought he already existed. That “Shadow” later arrived at the airwaves in 1937, with Welles voicing him.
Seriously, though, I totally need to get my hands on “Grendel vs. The Shadow.”
Photo credit: Cover of the pulp magazine Avon Fantasy Reader (November 23, 1948, no. 8) featuring Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard, via Wikimedia Commons. This issue was registered with the US Copyright Office and given registration number AA107687. Searches at the US Copyright Office and online copyright renewal databases have not revealed any renewals of this issue by Avon Novels or its variant names—Avon Publishing, or Avon Books