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XSECRET ORIGINS OF FRANKENSTEIN - CHAPTER 6 OF 18
KARLOFF THE UNCANNY

OPENING NIGHT! At long last, Universal's Frankenstein was about to be shown to the public. On the night of November 21, 1931, as audiences took their seats, they had no idea of the titanic struggles that had occurred during the making of the movie they were about to see.

Universal pictures had scored a huge hit with Bela Lugosi in Dracula, so Frankenstein was a logical project to follow it up with. Attempting to replicate their earlier success, Universal originally planned to cast Bela Lugosi as the Monster.

Frenchman Robert Florey was hired to direct the movie, and Lugosi donned the make-up (a different version than Karloff would use). They shot some test footage on the still-standing sets for Dracula.

EC's Shock SuspenStories #17 (Oct. 1954) ran a story called "In Character" a great roman à clef about actor "Boris Kardiff," a hybrid of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In the panels below, he's Lugosi. Jack Pierce, wearing his standard white lab coat, is called Marcel Duval. Here's how their make-up session was imagined, with art by the great Reed Crandall...
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But then Lugosi decided that doing a role with NO LINES, a part where his famous face would be almost totally obscured by makeup, would not be a good career move (Oh Bela!)...
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WHALE OF A TALE

"I'm an actor, not a scarecrow!" Bela declared. He rejected the role of the Monster as a part "any half-wit ext ra could play.”

Just a few days after Bela's test was made, Florey left the project. Englishman James Whale, a former newspaper cartoonist and Xtheatrical set designer, took over as director. Bela remained with the project for a few weeks before he was taken off the picture and put in Murders In The Rue Morgue.

Impressed with Whale's direction on "Waterloo Bridge," producer Carl Laemmle Jr. had offered Whale his pick of 30 different Universal-owned properties. Whale chose Frankenstein.

"I chose Frankenstein because it was the strongest meat, and gave me a chance to dabble in the macabre," Whale once explained.

Believe it or not, Whale actually had previous experience with the reanimated dead. Before becoming a director he was an actor, and in 1928, he appeared in a British play called After Death as a dead man who is returned to life by electricity. Whale's big break came soon after this, when he directed Laurence Olivier in the smash hit play Journey's End.

UNCANNY CASTING

The Frankenstein screenplay, written by Garret Fort and Francis Faragoh, was not much like Shelley's book. There were no narrators reading letters aloud, the just the straight-forward story of the Monster, his creation and his (supposed) termination.

Universal paid British playwright Peggy Webling $20,000 plus one percent of the gross to secure exclusive rights to her Frankenstein stage play, basing its film primarily on this version rather than the original source material, Mary Shelley's book. The story, as re-written for American audiences by John Balderston, drops many of the sub-plots and nuances of Shelly's novel, and Xconcentrates heavily on the sensationalistic, "mad doctor" aspects of the tale.

As detailed in previous issues of this series, Whale chose bit-player Boris Karloff for the role of the Monster after noticing him in the studio cafeteria one day. It was not Karloff's first film, by any means. It was actually his 81st.

Boris had already appeared in numerous silent films, plus several talkies. Like Whale, Karloff was English, and the two envisioned the role of the Monster the same way.

"Whale and I both saw the character of the monster as an innocent one," Karloff once said. "This was a pathetic creature who, like us all, had neither the wish nor the say in his creation, and certainly did not wish upon itself the hideous image which automatically terrified humans whom it tried to befriend."
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Boris Karloff and James Whale take a cigarette break.
CREATURE CORONATION

On the night of November 21, 1931, when audiences took their seats, no one knew quite what to expect. No one knew what the Monster was going to be like. They didn't even know who was was going to be playing the part, because the studio hadn't revealed Karloff's name prior to opening night. Audiences expected to finally see the actor's name in the movie's opening credits.

The lights went down. The movie began...

... and then, something absolutely uncanny happened. Something that has no parallel in recorded history. A strange hush fell over the world as all the monsters ever invented paused from their horrific work, took to their knees, and bowed their heads. Why? Because THEY knew. They knew that the Chosen One, the One they had spent countless eons waiting for, was about to arrive. They were about to crown their KING. His name?
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Now the audience was hit with the first surprise. The opening credits didn't say who would be playing the Monster! Just a big "?"
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Up to this point, people had only seen fleeting glimpses of the Monster on movie posters and in newspaper ads. This was 1931, and there was no television or internet to show previews. Despite his long resume, when Frankenstein premiered, Karloff was still considered an unknown, a subordinate to the movie's "real" stars, Colin Clive and Mae Clarke. At this point, the Monster truly WAS a question mark!

Now we'll skip ahead a bit. In Shelly's novel, the Monster is a victim of society's abuse. In Whale's film, he is the victim of a tragic mistake: Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked lab assistant, Fritz, accidentally steals a jar containing a criminal brain — a brain of "violence, brutality, and murder" — which is transplanted into the monster. Presumably, Fritz removed the jar's huge label, which read ABNORMAL BRAIN, before presenting it to Dr. Frankenstein.
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The scene was parodied Crazy #1 (1953), art by Bill Everett...
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And also in in Humbug #4 (1957), art by Will Elder...
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The film's gothic scenery is spectacular, but the most memorable set, of course, is Doctor Frankenstein's device-filled laboratory. Here's a rare behind-the-scenes shot.
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Below, the set pictured as it appeared in the movie...
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...and an overhead view of the set.
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XSTRICKFADEN's PSUEDO SCIENCE

The pseudo-scientific machinery was created by Kenneth Strickfaden. When filming ended, Kenneth Strickfaden's glorious psuedo-scientific equipment was kept alive. It was re-used in several films, including Mask of Fu Manchu and Bride of Frankenstein, and also, decades later, in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, adding great authenticity to that perfect satire's recreated laboratory scenes.

Recalling the lab scenes, Karloff said, "I was never as nervous, during the entire filming, as when I lay half-naked and strapped to the operating table. Above, me, I could see the special effects men shaking the white-hot, scissor carbons that simulated the lightning. I prayed very hard that no one got butter fingers."
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ENTER THE UNCANNY ONE

With a flash of lightning and an exposure to "the great ray that gives life," the Monster comes alive. His bandaged hand moves. "IT'S ALVE!" The experiment is a success! But the creature's face is still bandaged. The whole movie had been leading up to the next scene, when astonished premiere audiences saw the face of the Frankenstein Monster for the first time.

Does a blast of horrific music announce the Monster's immortal first appearance? No! There is no musical soundtrack in the entire film. But his entrance does not need music to thrill and startle us. Almost silent, eerie, foreboding, mesmerizing. it is one of the greatest and most dramatic entrances in the entire history of show business. As audiences watched it, they knew a star was being born. A star and more -- a KING.

There's a three and a half minute clip below. I suggest you click it. CLICK IT! Click for your first look at the Frankenstein Monster. Click for Karloff the Uncanny! Click! And hurry. Here he comes! Turn out the light -- if you dare...

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DISSECTING THE SCENE

XThe King of Monsters has arrived. All hail the King!

Now reader, let's pause to review what we have just witnessed. Exhibiting a sense of drama born on the theater, director James Whale "turns out the lights," then has the Monster enter the room with his back to the camera, and slowly turn toward the audience.

A series of jarring edits, as roughly cut as the Monster himself, finally reveals the full horror of his face -- the grotesque facial make-up devised by Karloff, Whale, and Jack Pierce. The creature is perfectly ghastly, and every inch the Monster of your nightmares.

At first, the Monster acts like a newborn child. When told, he sits down nicely. When Dr. Frankenstein opens a skylight, he gets almost giddy in the sun's warmth, so unlike the chill of the grave.

Then the shutter abruptly closes, and the Monster displays a childlike sense of loss and mystification. He seems approachable, even pathetic. At first. Then, when threatened, his "abnormal brain" asserts itself, and he suddenly turns into a savage animal. A Monster! But was he really a monster?

Karloff didn't think so. He thought of him as a "poor brute" who had been brought into the world unbidden, and forced by circumstances to lash out at that which tormented him. Boris called him the "Creature" (this was years before a certain gill-head from the Black Lagoon took the name).

Girls, do you ever dream of the perfect wedding night? I'm betting what happens in the 15-second clip below is nothing like your dreams. In fact, it's probably a lot like your NIGHTMARES. You're probably afraid to click it. But click it you shall!
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You think that's scary? In the novel, the Monster actually KILLS her! But in the movie she lives, and a mob of angry villagers, lead by Doc Frankenstein himself, chases the Monster into the wilderness. There, the Creature meets his maker (Colin Clive)...
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What happens next? Well, see for yourself! The 40-second clip below contains another triumph of pantomime by the Uncanny One, who, in THIS film at least, never says a single word. Despite this, Karloff's exquisitely expressive face and commanding gestures speak volumes. The way he slowly rises up from behind the rock, like some unholy wraith, is horror at its finest. To the clip! It awaits your clickage.

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OH, MY ACHING BACK!

Several scenes required Karloff to carry grown men around like rag dolls, most notably the ending sequence where the Monster carries his creator up a winding wooden staircase in an old windmill (see photos right and below). The exertion involved in filming these scenes almost Xruined Karloff.

The stiffness and enormous weight of his costume, plus the burden of carrying a grown man up a flight of steps, over and over again until the shot was captured, was exhausting and quite painful.

It left Karloff with life-long injuries that would require three separate back surgeries over the years. He never complained about it, though, nor did he ever utter a word of complaint about being "typecast." He was fully aware that being typecast as THE KING OF MONSTERS wasn't such a bad thing.

"That poor, dear, abused Monster is my best friend," Karloff once said.
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The movie ends with the Monster's fiery destruction, a scene depicted by painter Den Beauvais in the Dark Horse comic book Universal Monsters Frankenstein.
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THE UNCANNY ONE'S SECRET

Karloff's portrayal of the Monster has to rank as one of the finest in screen history. It's one of those "empty the dictionary of adjectives" kind of performances. Astonishing. Sensational. Brilliant. Phenomenal. And the one word that attached itself to Boris -- UNCANNY. Why? For one very good reason. Because he IS uncanny.

His Monster is a towering figure, yet one so small. Emotion flows out of him in torrents. He awakens a whole array of feelings deep within us. We want to run from him. Yet we also want to help him. He is hideous, yet somehow beautiful at the same time. He seems like something out of our worst nightmares, yet we can't help but feel sorry for him. He is a masterpiece of complexity.

"I had to portray," Karloff once wrote, "a sub-human of little intelligence and without speech, still getting over the sympathetic qualities of the role."

As The Monster, Karloff combines seamlessly with his gothic, impressionistic surroundings. He makes the movie. His hypnotic persona almost leaps off the screen, even today, with a visceral cinematic impact the likes of Jason and Freddie can only dream about.

How did Karloff do it? I'm going to tell you his secret. Calling all stars of the latest torture-porn movie! Attention all Final Destinations, Jigsaws and Human Centipedes! Here is the Uncanny One's secret: It's called "acting." Learn it well, and one day YOU TOO may be as good as Boris Karloff. If you live to be 1000, that is. Good luck with that.

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XBRIDES OF "FRANKENSTEIN"

In real life, Boris Karloff was no monster. He was a mild-mannered, amiable gentleman. He's seen above with his wife of 23 years, Evelyn. "My wife is a woman of great taste," Karloff used to say. "She has seen very few of my pictures."

And it was true. The couple didn't even know each other when Frankenstein was being filmed, in 1931, and Evelyn never saw Xher husband's most famous movie until the 1960s. By the way, gossip alert, Evelyn was not Karloff's first wife. Surprisingly, she was actually his sixth!

Karloff had been married no less than five times before he wed Evelyn. You practically need a scorecard to get the stats correct. A list of Karloff's wives: Grace Harding (1910-1913); Olive de Wilton (1915); Montana Williams (1920); Helene Soule (1924-1928); Dorothy Stine (1928-1946) -- with whom Boris had a daughter, Sara, his only child (pictured left) -- and finally, Evelyn Helmore, who he married in 1946.

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In the Mystery Photo below, Karloff and a little girl check out some horror comic books. You may have seen this photo before. The child is NOT Karloff's daughter Sara. Who is it?

"I am the little girl in the photo. I am Lynne White. I lived in the Malibu Colony when I was little. The photo was taken when I was five. My good friend's father was a photographer, and they needed a little girl to pose. It was taken at the Malibu Colony Drug store."


So what's the mystery? Well, to begin with, the spinner has a giant Comics Code sign on its top, yet the EC books in the spinner were (quite famously) NOT code-approved! And what drug store in this era carried only horror books? This HAS to be a fake...
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...and it IS! Shown below is the original photo, displaying a much more believable variety of comics, a selection typical of what might actually be found in a drug store spinner in the Fifties. Mystery solved! And using the comics, we can even DATE the photo...
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BELOW: The comics seen on the spinner above. I couldn't find the right issue of Children's Playmate Magazine, the top book on the rack, so I used another issue to give you the idea. The rest are exact matches, all from early 1958. A surprisingly Dell-heavy spinner, isn't it, comic fans?
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MONSTER KIDS

The Monster's fan base, unexpectedly, included children! Karloff loved children, and, even when he was decked out in his frightening Frankenstein outfit, children loved him too. They didn't see him as a monster, they saw him as a fellow child -- an innocent, awkward pawn constantly abused by a cruel world not of his own making. Kids loved the Monster, and today many of his grown-up fans call themselves "Monster Kids." (Not to be confused with Lady Gaga's fans, "little monsters.")
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"I received sack-loads of fan mail," Karloff once wrote, "Mostly from young girls. These children had seen right through the make-up and been deeply moved by sympathy for the poor brute." Below, more panels from Crazy #1 (1953), art by Bill Everett...
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MONSTER HIT

The Monster was also a big hit with another unexpected age-group: Teenagers. In 1931 teens were nowhere near the dominant force they would become in the Fifties, as exemplified by James Dean's personification of teen angst in "Rebel Without a Cause." Nevertheless, America's perpetually-alienated teens identified closely with the perpetually-alienated creature. Teens loved the Monster.

The first World War, fought from 1914-1918, changed America forever. Thanks to medical advances, soldiers were sometimes able to survive severe wounds, and even dismemberment. When they returned home, the public was exposed, for the first time, to the horrible disfigurement of people they loved. This was one reason why the story of a disfigured outsider struck such a chord with general audiences. EVERYONE loved the Monster.

MONSTER BOX OFFICE

XAs we all know, Frankenstein was a huge blockbuster. It made Karloff an international superstar. His "star" star, one of two -- the other for his TV work, including the Thriller TV series -- is pictured on the right.

Frankenstein, done on an 18-week shooting schedule for around $290,000, grossed a colossal THIRTEEN MILLION DOLLARS world-wide! It was the top box-office hit of the year.

Universal finally signed Karloff to a long-term contract. The actor of the "question mark" had been revealed, and his name was Boris Karloff. He was a sensation, an overnight superstar.

"At last I'll know where my next breakfast is coming from!" Karloff joked.

Karloff's brother Ted wrote him, "I hope you're saving every farthing you can get your hands on, my boy, because this obviously can't last much longer." Little did he know.

BELOW:
A page from Famous Monsters of Filmland #22 showing four reasons why Karloff never had to worry about breakfast again.
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Karloff also appeared live in impressive runs of stage productions of Arsenic and Old Lace as well as Peter Pan, playing Captain Hook. In one of his last films, Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, he played an aging horror film star.

Most actors consider themselves amazingly lucky if they get the chance to create a truly immortal character. The Uncanny Karloff didn't create just ONE immortal character, he created at least four! Eat your heart out, almost every actor who has ever lived.

To rub it in, let's list them. If they are truly immortal, you should already know exactly who they are, without explanation. Their names alone should tell the tale. And they do! There's...

(1) The Frankenstein Monster...

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(2) The Mummy!
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(3) The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!
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Yes, Boris was full of surprises. The one-minute clip below is guaranteed to delight you with what is unquestionably THE most entertaining twist ending of Boris Karloff's entire career. To dig it, all you have to do click it!
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When he wasn't busy grooving, Boris hosted the Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery book for Gold Key Comics. The series ran for 95 issues, from 1963 to 1980. Issue #24 was the last one published during his lifetime.
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After battling emphysema for a number of years (all those cigarettes!), Boris Karloff passed away at his home in England on February 2, 1969. Famous Monsters of Filmland did a massive tribute issue (below, left), and in 1997, Karloff was honored in a very unique way -- with the "BORIS KARLOFF FRANKENSTEIN" stamp!

Karloff has been gone now for more than four decades; yet he has never been forgotten, not even for a single day. Reader, 42 years after YOU have passed from this veil of tears, will YOU be as well remembered? I doubt it!
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We said Karloff created at least four iconic characters.
CLICK BELOW to find out who iconic character number FOUR is!
(It isn't even Karloff himself, yet it IS.)
We close with Robby's personal tribute to the King of Monsters...
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