‘Tis the season to give it up for Frankenstein by Pat H. Broeske
As a longtime Hollywood journalist with special interest in genre films and TV, I’ve gotten to interview a slew of famous frightmeisters – Vincent Price, Stephen King, George A. Romero, John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis instantly come to mind – so when Debra asked if I might like to contribute to her blog, I said, “Fangs!” Or rather, thanks! See, I couldn’t pass up the chance to give a shout-out to a supernatural mystery character who is a staple of the season, and one of the most compelling literary creations, ever. I’m talkin’ Frankenstein, who this year celebrates his 200th birthday.
Hard to believe that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was just 18 when she and her poet-philosopher companion-BF Percy Shelley (whom she later married), and friends including the poet-politician Lord Byron, famously gathered at Lake Geneva, where they competed to see who could author the scariest saga. Four years later, in 1818, Mary anonymously published “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.”
(Attesting to the power of the writing “prompt,” another attendee of that soiree, physician John William Polidori, went on to publish the short story “The Vampyre,” the great-granddaddy of vampire literature.)
Over the years Mary Shelley’s life and writings, including essays, short stories and biographies, have been celebrated and analyzed; she herself has been the subject of biographies, even feature films (including a recent dud). But if Mary, daughter of a philosopher and pioneering feminist, remains a woman of intrigue, her legendary creation towers over her. And not just because he’s eight-feet tall.
In fact, Shelley’s Gothic novel doesn’t actually give a specific name to the creature re-animated from dead body parts. The title refers to his scientist-creator. It was only with the passage of time that “the monster” came to be known by his master’s surname. Likewise, interpretations of the story have varied with the decades, during which he has emerged ubiquitous.
He’s been depicted as sensitive and eloquent, as a rampaging killer, as a haunted outcast rejected by his creator. Thanks to those crazies Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, he’s even donned top hat and tails to sing and dance to the irresistible tune, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” (The latter via 1974’s “Young Frankenstein.”) You can find him and/or references to him in comics, graphic novels, video games, music videos, the toy industry, even breakfast cereals. (Franken-Berry, anyone?) Then there are all the books and short stories starring Frankenstein/Frankensteinian creations. And that’s just a short list. Heck, he’s even a verb! Ever find yourself “Frankenstein-ing” something, to alter its original make-up?
The enduring Frankenstein-fest owes much to Hollywood, and most influentially to Boris Karloff’s affecting performance in the 1931 classic, “Frankenstein.” (You might be surprised to know that the monster’s film debut came years earlier, in a 1910 short film from Thomas Edison starring Charles Ogle.) At an antiquarian book fair held earlier this year in Pasadena, Karloff’s daughter spoke about the fan letters sent to Universal Pictures by kids who identified with Karloff’s creature. “They knew what it was like to want to be accepted,” said Sara Karloff.
Boris Karloff went on to reprise his role in two more films (“Bride of Frankenstein” and “Son of Frankenstein”), while other actors stepped into those giant shoes in subsequent features including “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Yeah, filmmakers have been decidedly inventive when it comes to re-animating the creature for the screen. Consider: “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein,” “Frankenstein’s Daughter,” “Frankenstein Created Woman,” “Dracula vs. Frankenstein,” the sexy “Flesh for Frankenstein” (aka “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”) and the charming “Frankenweenie,” in which a grief-stricken boy resurrects his dead dog, Sparky. And there are lots more where those came from.
Same with the monster’s many manifestations – too numerous to count – on TV. (Gotta give a nod to the pater familias of “The Munsters.”)
Parodies, satires, romance, serious drama. The big guy has done it all. And he’ll doubtless continue his popular rampage. And to think it all started with a book, and a little inspiration. Who knows, maybe a bolt of lightning was also involved.
A Southern California native, Pat H. Broeske is an author-journalist-sometimes TV producer specializing in Hollywood & Crime. She is the co-author (with Peter Harry Brown) of the best-selling biographies, Howard Hughes: The Untold Story and Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley. Her first fiction, the short story “The Fast and the Furriest,” featuring a Hollywood protagonist, was published last year in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Her website is at http://pathbroeske.com/