FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER is probably the most iconic literary character ever created. And though it’s really not possible to measure such a thing, the fact that any 5-year-old today can identify the creature by his flat-headed, bolt-necked silhouette alone goes a long way toward proving the point.
But, of course, the monster didn’t always look like that. In the original 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, he looked more like a Goth guitar player—albeit an abnormally tall one with sickly eyes. The more familiar “Boris Karloff” look would arrive over a century later, in 1931, with the release of Universal’s Frankenstein, courtesy of Hollywood makeup artist Jack Pierce (with an assist from Karloff himself; it was the actor who suggested the heavy-lidded eyes).
However the public’s fascination with the monster made from corpses took hold almost immediately upon publication of Shelley’s book, and endures to this day. Through endless adaptations, interpretations, and reinterpretations he’s been depicted as everything from the murderous fiend of Shelley’s nightmares to a friend of children (The Monster Squad), a goofy suburban dad (The Munsters), and a breakfast cereal spokesman (Frankenberry). He’s even been the star of his own comic books. The image above is from a series that launched in 1945 and ran for nearly a decade.
So ubiquitous has the monster been that one could make a hobby of researching his exploits and collecting the countless toys, model kits, books, posters, lunchboxes, Halloween decorations, Pez dispensers, and other assorted paraphernalia that bear his image. You can count me among that group. I first saw Frankenstein on television as a small child back in the ’60s, and I’ve yet to look away.
And so, with that, let us commence with 6 Funtastic Facts about the most famous of all monsters.
Boris Karloff and the screenwriters behind 1931’s Frankenstein forever established the Monster’s image as a man of few words—albeit well-chosen words like “Gooooood” and “Frieeeeend.” But this beloved version of the creature is every bit as likely to snarl, roar, or whimper as he is to speak. He’ll attempt to wave away things he doesn’t like with a sweep of the hand, which gives him a childlike quality that Stan Lee says partially inspired the Hulk. It has certainly inspired affection in generations of fans.
The Monster of Shelley’s novel, on the other hand, is highly intelligent and articulate, even elegant, in his speech, if not his actions. He goes on effusively about the torture of being regarded as a monster, and about his anger at Victor Frankenstein, the man who brought him to life and then abandoned him. As a reader, you can feel his alienation and pain in your own guts.
The Monster wants love, but he’ll settle for something else. As he says:
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
And you all know how that turned out.
Most fans know that Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of Frankenstein during a summer holiday in Switzerland as part a kind of literary parlor game involving Mary’s future husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and their host, the poet Lord Byron. But what’s not as commonly known is the fact that the story came to Mary in the form of what she called a “waking dream.”
The trio had spent many hours during that visit amusing themselves with German ghost stories. One night, Lord Byron suggested that they each concoct a ghost story of their own.
Mary struggled for days to come up with an idea. Then one night, during a conversation about the nature of life, Mary brought up the subject of galvanism (specifically, biological experiments in making dead muscles contract via electricity) and said “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated.”
Unable to sleep that night (understandably), she envisioned a scene that would eventually give the world Victor Frankenstein playing God with his famous Monster. As she wrote in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
From there it was just a matter of putting pen (or, quill) to paper and making history.
In retrospect, how fitting it was that a nightmare gave birth to an idea that would inspire so many nightmares.
As I mentioned earlier, the public’s fascination with Shelley’s Frankenstein was enormous. Not long after its publication, in 1823, an adaptation by playwrite Richard Brimsley Peake was mounted at the English Opera House in London that played to capacity crowds and went on to become a staple production for over 25 years.
As one critic wrote at the time, “The representation of this play on the stage is of astonishing, of enchanting, interest.”
The play’s success led to a second printing of Shelley’s novel, and is otherwise notable for the fact that it added the character of Fritz, the lab assistant who would eventually be played so unforgettably by Dwight Frye in the 1931 Karloff film. And that’s not the only aspect of this play that made it into the film. Presumption‘s Monster, referred to as “the Hobgoblin,” was mute, communicating through wild gestures and pantomime.
And so it was, that, with the very first adaptation of Shelley’s book, the re-interpretation of her Monster began.
Here’s an image of the 1823 handbill for Presumption.
The most iconic pop culture entity associated with New York City’s northernmost borough may be a baseball team, the New York Yankees (well, the Yankees and hip-hop), but Frankenstein’s Monster also enjoys a close association with the Bronx.
In 1910, when the “motion picture” industry was still in its infancy, the very first Frankenstein movie was shot in the Bronx at Edison Studios, owned by famed inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison. Running about 12 minutes, the self-described “liberal adaptation from Mrs. Shelley’s famous story” was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley (who would also go on to make one of the earliest adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol).
Though the film is most frequently referred-to as “Edison’s Frankenstein,” the man himself is not believed to have had much to do with the its actual creation. But he did own the studio. And though Shelley’s story was still firmly embedded in the public’s imagination at this point, nearly a century after publication, Edison’s film reportedly failed to do much business. It was believed to have been lost to history until the 1970s, when film collector Alois F. Dettlaff went public with a print he’d purchased years earlier.
The film now resides in the public domain, so you can find it anywhere. It’s weird and stagey and not in great condition, but it’s Frankenstein, and it’s a precious little piece of cinema history we’re fortunate to have. And, like me, it was made in the Bronx!
Hey, come to think of it, Edgar Allan Poe actually spent the last few years of his life in the Bronx.
But that’s a story for another article.
Yep, that is Boris Karloff pictured above, in full Jack Pierce makeup, swinging for the fences in a 1940 Hollywood charity game. It was the Leading Men (Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, and others) vs. the Comedians (which included the Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, the Ritz Brothers and the Three Stooges), and by all accounts the Monster was the star of the show.
Frankie, of course, played for the Leading Men, and the crowd went wild as he made his away around the bases, causing each funny infielder to “faint” dead away as he passed. And taking no chances with regard to his performance at bat, Karloff donned eyeglasses to the delight of everyone.
But alas, it was not enough. The final score was Comedians 5, Leading Men 3.
And in a related story, Herman Munster once tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Or the East Side Kids, or the Dead End Kids, depending on the era.
Actor Gabriel Dell (above) enjoyed a long career in front of the camera, but he also did a good deal of voice work—most notably (at least as far as I’m concerned) doing all the spoken-word performances for a now legendary record entitled Famous Monsters Speak.
The album was for years a regular mail-order offering in the pages of Famous Monster of Filmland magazine. Released in 1963, it features a pair of radio-style plays, one about a reporter’s harrowing interview with Count Dracula, and the other about a group of esteemed scientists who’ve gathered to hear a series of “crude recordings” Doctor Frankenstein supposedly made of his creation. Dell gives a spirited performance not only as both monsters but as most of the other characters as well. The stories are atmospheric and surprisingly creepy, and fortunately for Dell, the writer (Cherney Berg) opted for the more verbal approach to Frankenstein.
All things considered, that’s a lot more than 6 Funtastic Facts, but like I said, being into Frankenstein is kind of a hobby. And since you’ve read this far, I’d be willing to bet it’s a hobby we share.