From Teenaged Dream To Cultural Icon: Let’s Hear It For Frankenstein!

FRANKENSTEIN, from left: John Boles, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Edward Van Sloan, Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, 1931
Everett Collection

“I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — 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.” So wrote a remarkable young woman named Mary Godwin (later Shelley) about one of literature’s most memorable creations, which two centuries later has lost none of its fascination or power. What would this teen author have thought of the wildly varied interpretations dreamed up by a legion of writers, actors and directors, to the delight (and sometimes mockery) of countless fans around the globe?

FRANKENSTEIN, Charles Ogle, 1910

Everett Collection

Certainly it would have been fascinating to witness her reaction to the earliest film adaptation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s unholy creation in Thomas Edison’s 1910 silent feature, starring Charles Ogle as The Monster. Granted, it took certain liberties with the plot, as the scientist’s bride survives her encounter with the creature (formed largely from chemicals in a cauldron rather than stitched-together corpses), and the ghoul fades into oblivion at movie’s end, conquered by the strength of the doctor’s love for his mate. But he still looks sufficiently unhallowed.

Frankenstein actors

Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, as we most commonly picture him today, with a flat head and neck bolts, has the hulking height of Shelley’s yellow-eyed, thin-skinned original, but not the verbal fluency or intelligence. Boris Karloff, who starred in 1931’s Frankenstein, was the first sound adaptation of the novel, would reprise the role twice for Universal Pictures, followed by Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange. And modern Franken-fans have a smorgasbord of viewing choices. Is the freak a mindless killer or a tortured, wandering soul? A tap dancer who charms audiences to the tune of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1974’s Young Frankenstein) or a dim-witted but well-meaning family man (Herman Munster)? How about the guy who beats up Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil in 1964’s cartoon short Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare, the X-rated twist given us by Andy Warhol, and the critically panned Blackenstein, described by author Michael Weldon as “a totally inept mixture of the worst horror and blaxploitation films”?

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, top from left: Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive; lower left, top to bottom: Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff; bottom right: Valerie Hobson, 1935.

Everett Collection

We can only guess whether Mary would have chuckled or groaned in authorial despair. But surely her woman’s heart would have sympathized with the monster’s suicidal grief at Elsa Lanchester’s screaming rejection of her groom (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935), or been indignant at Sting’s attempt to control Jennifer Beals’ Eva (The Bride, 1985). Surely she, too, would have been astonished at how a writing challenge among vacationing friends and discussions between poets before a fire sparked a host of critical essays, what has been called the first science-fiction novel, and her own literary immortality. The fun hasn’t stopped, either. 2015 brought us yet another Frankenstein, in which married scientists bring fully grown “Adam” to life — with, of course, disastrous results. Dang it, Mary, will they ever learn?

Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is Airing on TCM Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at 8pm ET, and Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 at 3:45pm ET. Streaming: Peacock (free, with subscription); Buy/Rent on Apple TV+, Redbox, Vudu

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