Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the unconventional offspring of an unconventional couple: early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical anarchist William Godwin. At 16, young Mary ran off with married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next several years, the Shelleys (who married after the fortuitous suicide of Shelley’s abandoned first wife in 1816), along with Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Claremont, and Percy Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron made up an odd quartet, rambling around Europe, blowing through their ample inheritances, reading, writing, and philosophizing. Speculation about their free-love romantic couplings in various combinations can (and does) fill a book.
The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley when they were staying at Byron’s rented villa in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The well-known tale goes that Byron challenged all of his overly-intellectual guests to step down from the lofty heights of poetry and philosophy and write a good old-fashioned ghost story. From the germ of an idea about an obsessed young man who discovers the secret of bringing life to the dead, Shelley worked through that autumn and into the next year, creating a work of heavy philosophy cut through with a few streaks of very effective Gothic horror. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818 to a mixed critical reception.
Modern readers may be turned off by the interminable philosophical musings about the nature and purpose of existence, and by the fact that the Monster speaks…eloquently and at great length, sounding like John Milton. The Monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is not a “doctor” but a young chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The Monster is brought to life not in a massive, electrified laboratory, but in Victor’s student apartment (and Shelley is pretty damn vague on the details of the process). But lots of stuff that found its way into the movies over a century later is right there in the pages. Frankenstein’s obsession bordering on madness, hunting through the “damps of the grave…the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” to gather the parts needed for his experiment is one of the best sequences of the book. And when the Monster finally comes to life, Shelley’s description of his form is eerily familiar: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion, his straight black lips.” There’s even a sequence late in the book where Victor creates a “bride” for the Monster, but he never brings her to life.
A stage adaptation of Frankenstein hit the boards as early as 1823, and Shelley’s tale continued to be part of popular lore through the 19th century. A silent film version was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Hamilton Deane, who mounted the first stage version of Dracula in 1924, commissioned playwright Peggy Webling to adapt Frankenstein as a follow-up in 1927. Though not as successful as Dracula (Webling’s play never made it to Broadway), Universal was inspired to follow the same pattern, and announced Frankenstein as its next horror property to hopefully capitalize on the success of Dracula.
Writer-director Robert Florey had signed for a one-picture deal with Universal, and jumped on the Frankenstein project. (Florey had recently directed the Marx Brothers’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, for Paramount, and as he watched the Brothers’ performances he kept asking his assistant “This is supposed to be funny?” Florey was just not a comedy guy.) Working with writer Garrett Fort, Florey stripped Shelley’s overstuffed tale down to its bare essence, made multiple changes, and gave the story a solid and fast-moving structure. His work pleased Universal enough that he was assigned to be the film’s director. Bela Lugosi was set to be the Monster, much to his displeasure (see previous entry). Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were invited back, cast in roles similar to their Dracula parts. Waterloo Bridge’s Mae Clark was assigned the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. And Universal hoped rising star Leslie Howard would be the doctor (an official offer had yet to be made).
In June 1931, Florey shot a 20-minute test reel of Lugosi, Van Sloan, Frye, and a few stand-ins on the still-standing Castle Dracula set. Part of the purpose was to see how the heavy Monster make-up would appear on film.
And it appeared totally ridiculous.
The first make-up design for Frankenstein’s Monster was supposedly (the footage has disappeared) based on the German silent film The Golem, another tale about bringing life to dead material. Edward Van Sloan said Lugosi “looked like something out of Babes in Toyland.” Lugosi himself compared his look to a “scarecrow.” The most misguided element was described as a ridiculously wide, shaggy wig, as broad as Lugosi’s shoulders (think Roseanne Roseannadanna). Junior Laemmle reportedly burst out laughing when he screened the footage.
Not long after, James Whale decided he wanted Frankenstein. Universal wanted a happy James Whale. Florey was unceremoniously dumped. Nor did Whale want Leslie Howard as Dr. Frankenstein. He insisted upon having his intense leading man from Journey’s End, Colin Clive. The studio acquiesced, and Clive was flown in from London. (Studio gossip maintained that the bisexual Clive was Whale’s lover. And Leslie Howard did indeed go on to stardom, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.) Nor was Whale happy with Bela Lugosi. For the Monster, he wanted one of Universal’s most notable character actors, Boris Karloff.
Keep in mind, Lugosi never wanted the part in the first place, and it’s hard to blame him. Florey’s first-draft script gave the Monster no nuance or pathos, he was presented as merely a mindless killing machine (a persona he would return to later in the series.) And the unintentionally funny test reel didn’t help. But despite his insistence over the years that he turned down the role, in all likelihood Lugosi was replaced with Karloff at Whale’s insistence. (In Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, film historian Gregory Mank credibly maintains that the super-professional Lugosi would have done the part in spite of his misgivings had the decision not been taken out of his hands.)
Whale and crew began filming Frankenstein on August 24, 1931, while southern California was in the grip of a sizzling heat wave. Boris Karloff labored mightily under the weight of his costume and (brilliantly re-designed) make-up as the sun pounded down on the “Little Europe” portion of the Universal backlot. Interior shooting offered no relief, as the bright lights illuminating the sealed-off sound stages often pushed temperatures toward 115°. Universal’s largest stage, Stage 12, was used for the towering laboratory set. Kenneth Strickfaden designed the lab’s iconic electrical equipment, sparking and buzzing their way into film history. Whale drove his sweaty cast mercilessly. A bucket was provided in the corner of the set for urinary relief. One grueling 25-hour shooting day (September 28-29) as Whale struggled to stay on schedule may have planted a seed in the exhausted Karloff’s head which resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild a few years later.
But Jimmy was getting results. Despite his horrific visage, Karloff’s Monster was ultimately a figure to be pitied. In a tremendous job of physical acting, Karloff conveys the Monster’s confused suffering quite convincingly. In his words, he played the Monster “as though Man had been deserted by his God.” Colin Clive, a neurotic, blackout alcoholic prone to fits of nervous hysteria in real life, is riveting as Henry (no longer “Victor”) Frankenstein. Clive raves with insanity gleaming in his eyes during the moment of creation, and later evinces a broken shell of a man as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has wrought. Edward Van Sloan is authoritative as Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye adds another unhinged eccentric to his resume. Much like Lugosi did with Dracula, here Frye creates the very template of the crazed, hunchbacked lab assistant with his portrayal of “Fritz” (no, not “Igor” just yet) that would be imitated for decades to come.
Filming wrapped on October 3, and Frankenstein was released in December 1931. It boasted a full-length score by Berhnaud Kaun, one of the first Universal releases to have that distinction. Despite a prologue featuring Van Sloan warning the audience of the terror to come, Frankenstein was considered even more shockingly horrific than Dracula. Sequences that were considered too shocking were snipped out after the film’s initial run — the Monster throwing a little girl into a lake and (accidentally) drowning her, and Clive’s shouted, blasphemous comparison of himself to God would be missing from the film until its video release far in the future.
Like Dracula, the film was a runaway success. Junior Laemmle ordered up more monster movies. (Other studios, naturally, followed suit. Paramount’s 1932 take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde snared an Oscar win for Frederic March, to this day the only performer to win Best Actor for a pure horror film. And RKO’s stop-motion triumph King Kong was thrilling audiences by March of 1933.)
The conundrum of what to do with Bela Lugosi and Robert Florey was seemingly solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Florey would adapt and direct a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy murder mystery Murders in the Rue Morgue that would star Lugosi as the sinister Dr. Mirakle, a solid leading role that would capitalize on his twisted magnetism. The problem was, Murders in the Rue Morgue (February 1932) ended up being…just not very good. Lugosi, sporting a ratty wig and unibrow, does not hold an audience spellbound here the way he does as Dracula. The “mystery” is a little silly (spoiler: the gorilla did it).
Lugosi’s two-picture deal with Universal was completed, and no one seemed interested in re-upping it. Barely a year after being one of Universal’s top stars, Lugosi found himself at loose ends as the studio — and audiences — beat a path to Boris Karloff’s door.
Boris Karloff wasn’t always Boris Karloff, King of Horror. Once he was William Henry Pratt, the youngest child of a large well-to-do family, born in Camberwell, South London in 1887. His elder brothers all opted for distinguished careers as British diplomats in the foreign service. It was the family trade. But Billy Pratt wasn’t interested in any of that, preferring sports (especially cricket) and theatrics. His father abandoned the family not long after his birth, and his mother died soon after that. There was enough money left so that Billy could be educated in the finest boarding schools, and he made an attempt at King’s College, London. Wanderlust got the better of him, and in 1909 at the age of 21, he cashed in a small inheritance and hopped a ship to Canada.
He worked his way across the Canadian tundra as an itinerant day laborer. When he reached Vancouver, he remembered how much he loved performing, and attending stage shows (mostly in lieu of attending his King’s College classes), and picked up some theater work at a small traveling stock company. He chose “Karloff” as a stage name under the mistaken belief it was an old family name on his mother’s side. He chose “Boris” because it went nicely with “Karloff.” (Keeping his real name as an aspiring actor wasn’t an option — “prat” was an English term for butt or ass, as in “pratfall.” But he never legally changed his name. He signed all important documents “William H. Pratt a.k.a Boris Karloff.”) Work in many other stock companies followed, mostly in Canada and the upper Great Plains states in the U.S. These fly-by-night traveling players never provided enough to live on, and Karloff continued to work a variety of odd jobs, most of them heavy labor. He was denied enlistment for World War I due to a heart murmur and a lower back that was already going bad. He ended up in Los Angeles in early 1919, and took what work he could in the silent pictures as an extra or bit player, while loading and unloading bags of cement from a truck on his off-hours. His star rose, not quickly, but steadily. His looks were striking and he was noticed by casting directors. He had deep olive-brown skin thanks to an East Indian grandmother, a very lean but powerful physique (he was just under six feet), and piercing dark eyes that could be either soulful or terrifying, depending on the part. (As a bonus, when sound came to films Boris boasted a rich and rounded speaking voice, a product of his good education, with just a touch of a distinctive lisp.) Through the 1920s, he carved out a niche for himself as sinister villains, henchmen, and the occasional native chief.
According to Hollywood legend, James Whale “discovered” the unknown bit player and part-time truck driver Boris Karloff while dining at the Universal commissary. The truth is, Boris hadn’t driven that truck in quite some time. In the summer of 1931, he was living in a nice house in the Hollywood Hills, and was earning a decent living in ever-growing supporting parts. He had just earned rave reviews as a psychotic convict in the Howard Hawks’ prison thriller The Criminal Code. He had also just completed another meaty role for Hawks as a rival gang leader in the ultra-violent Scarface, which would sit unreleased for a year due to problems with the censor. In fact, Boris was probably recommended to Whale by Whale’s domestic partner, producer David Lewis, on the basis of The Criminal Code.
So Boris was doing just fine. But Frankenstein would rocket him from a character actor specializing in villains to an international superstar practically overnight. Even though he was forever typecast as a horror actor, it never bothered him. Remembering two decades of paying his dues in literally back-breaking ways, he would often remark “A typecast actor is a working actor.” And Boris loved to work.
Stardom never went to his head. Literally everyone who worked with him commented on what a gracious, sweet-natured gentleman Boris Karloff was. His English friends never failed to refer to him as “dear Boris,” and the adjective practically became part of his name. (Still, one wonders what happened with the string of ex-wives he left in his wake. The official count is five marriages, but some speculate it could be as many as seven. As Gregory Mank pointed out, “Dear Boris” didn’t always mean “Saint Boris,” and old Hollywood insiders say the actor was very aware of the effect his immense charm and exotic appearance had on women, and he used it — a lot.)
Jack Pierce, Monster-Maker
The diminutive, jut-jawed man in the surgical smock was known to be irascible and ill-tempered. But if you were lucky enough to become one of Universal’s horror stars, you had better make your peace with him because you were bound to spend hours in his company as he found ever more ingenious ways to torture you. This was Jack Pierce, who is most often credited with creating the iconic look of the Universal monsters that has reverberated through the ages.
The Monster’s squared-off skull and neck bolts…the Bride’s Nefertiti hair with the streak of white…the Wolf Man’s furry face and fanged underbite…all from Pierce’s original (and copyrighted) designs. Pierce was a Greek immigrant (born Janus Piccoula in 1889), and had been working for Universal since the 1910s in a variety of capacities, but by the mid-20s was heading the make-up department after picking up a lot of techniques from Lon Chaney.
Like most people, the cranky Pierce found himself charmed by Boris Karloff as the two worked on Pierce’s first great creation — Frankenstein’s Monster. The original make-up donned by Lugosi in the screen test was a bust, so Pierce went back to the drawing board. In the end, Karloff was subjected to an appearance that required over four hours to apply and almost two hours to remove. Pierce’s favorite medium was Lon Chaney’s old standby of cotton and/or cheesecloth soaked in collodion. Collodion is a (highly flammable) mix of nitrocellulose and alcohol. A skilled hand can shape and mold collodion-soaked cotton into realistically hideous facial features, that will harden after sculpting and be a good medium for the application of colored greasepaints. Pierce built up the Monster’s brow and flattened skull with layers and layers of this stuff, topped with clamps and bolts attached with spirit gum. The greasepaint was then applied to create shadows and contours, and the Monster’s ghastly pallor. (Why was the Monster always depicted as Martian green? Because after several tests, Pierce discovered a pale green best replicated the gray tone of dead flesh on black & white film. Some color photographs taken on the set were published, and the Monster was green in the public’s imagination forever after.) Mortician’s wax was applied to his eyelids to deaden his stare. Karloff removed his dental bridge to create the Monster’s sunken cheeks. He was fitted with steel rods to stiffen his legs and back, a double-quilted jacket with too-short sleeves to create the illusion of great size, and massive asphalt spreader’s boots that weighed thirteen pounds each and made the average-sized Karloff appear well over six feet tall. The costume weighed close to fifty pounds, and the intensely physical production (especially where he had to carry Colin Clive slung over his shoulder for take after take) caused the already-lean Karloff to sweat off over twenty pounds, and destroyed what was left of his lower back. He spent the rest of his life dealing with chronic pain.
The results were startling enough that Karloff wore a veil as he walked across the lot from his dressing room to the set. Co-star Mae Clark was so put off she confessed to Boris she didn’t know if she could get through their scene together in which the Monster menaces Elizabeth in her bedchamber. The solution was typical Karloff (who was professional enough to know where Clark’s eyeline was in the shot): “When you turn around, my left arm is up-camera,” he told her. “Focus on my little finger — I’ll be wiggling it — and you’ll know it’s just Boris in make-up.” One person who wasn’t put off was seven-year-old child actress Marilyn Harris, who played the ill-fated Maria, drowned by the Monster in a lake because he believed the pretty child could float like a flower. On the morning the cast and crew were to travel to the location up at Malibou Lake, Karloff was already in full costume…and everyone was trying to avoid sharing an hour-long car ride with the hideous Monster.
“Mr. Karloff,” said Harris, tugging his shortened jacket sleeve. “I’ll ride with you.”
“Would you, darling?”
And off they went to a long, hot day on location. The first time the little girl is tossed in the lake, it wasn’t far enough and she didn’t sink convincingly. She was understandably reluctant for a second take, so Jimmy Whale offered her anything she wanted to get her to do it again. She whispered something in the director’s ear, and went off to dry out her costume.
On take two, she nailed it. A completely committed and quite athletic belly flop into the lake, long hair and petticoats a-flying. (Seriously, watch that scene again. You’ll feel like giving Marilyn Harris a round of applause.) And what did she want for the do-over? A dozen hard-boiled eggs. (Her abusive stage step-mom had her on a strict diet. Whale sent her two dozen hard-boiled eggs.) Sadly, the scene was cut out of the film for over fifty years.
It wasn’t long before James Whale and Boris Karloff were collaborating again, on The Old Dark House (October 1932). The basic story was already a well-used trope — a huge storm strands several frightened strangers in a creepy old house filled with eccentric (possibly dangerous) inhabitants. Whale infused the proceedings with the darkly humorous touches that raise the story above its cliched origins. Karloff receives top-billing (in an all-caps mononym — KARLOFF) for what is essentially a small supporting part — the scarred and mute butler, Morgan. Though steeped in a spooky atmosphere, The Old Dark House was more dark comedy than true horror.
Once the film was wrapped, Whale set out to challenge himself yet again, committing himself to The Invisible Man, a troubled project already in production (much like Frankenstein had been.) Karloff returned to the shadowy, cobwebbed world of the undead and solidified his position as the King of Horror by taking on the title role in The Mummy.
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy had no literary antecedents. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb the previous decade, and rumors of a subsequent curse on its discoverers, prompted this supernatural tale of the wrath of ancient Egyptian spirits.
The great cinematographer Karl Freund would make his directorial debut with The Mummy, although many credit him with ghost-directing most of Dracula. Freund was 300 pounds of Teutonic fury contained in capacious pants held up by heroically overworked suspenders. He was an abusive dictator of a director, and didn’t last long in that capacity, eventually going back to his beloved cinematography, where his lights and cameras never talked back. Whatever his personal shortcomings, Freund’s technical skill resulted in The Mummy being one of the best-looking films of the early 1930s.
The Mummy was also another triumph for Jack Pierce. Karloff only appeared in full mummy make-up in the opening scene, but what an appearance! It was the heaviest, most uncomfortable, and had the lengthiest application process of any Pierce make-up, and that’s saying something. On top of strips of collodion, cotton, and spirit gum applied to Karloff’s face, Pierce added several different shades of yellow, brown, and gray greasepaint and painstakingly filled in shadows and crevices with eyebrow pencil. Karloff’s hair was slicked back with beauty clay, and Pierce carved little cracks into it, then filled the cracks with rubber cement. About 150 yards of acid-rotted, oven-baked linen was then wound around his body, and he was placed under heat lamps so the whole get-up would harden, discolor, and begin to flake. The finishing touch was a dusting of Fuller’s earth (a kind of powdered clay).
The process took eight hours, a loyal assistant holding a teacup or cigarette to Karloff’s lips as needed. The actor could not speak and could barely move, but dutifully reported to the set to film The Mummy’s remarkable opening sequence. He collapsed under the hot lights at least once, forcing Pierce to split the wrappings down the back to allow Karloff’s skin to breathe. By 2 a.m., Freund had all the shots he needed, so the full mummy make-up was never repeated, much to Karloff’s relief. He called it the “most trying ordeal of my life,” and pointedly noted that Pierce had neglected to add a fly to the wrappings’ crotch area.
Karloff spent the rest of the film in much lighter make-up (only four hours in the chair!) as Ardath Bey, a wizened old Egyptian scholar and alter ego of Im-Ho-Tep — the decaying mummy in the film’s opening — obsessed with finding the reincarnation of his ancient bride. In the cast once again was Edward Van Sloan as a wise professor type, and Dracula’s David Manners as the leading man. Dwight Frye was unavailable, so the typical “Dwight Frye” role of the archaeologist’s assistant who witnesses the mummy coming to life, and goes stark, raving mad as a result went to Bramwell Fletcher. (“He just went for a little walk…”) The female lead was Zita Johann, who was so fed up with Freund’s abuse, and the movie scene in general, that she quit the business soon after.
The Mummy hit theaters in December 1932, and got a much kinder reception than the identically-titled Tom Cruise turkey of 85 years later. Many old-film buffs cite it as their favorite of the Universal monster movies due to its unconventional story and atmospheric visuals.
The Invisible Man
It’s hard to call The Invisible Man a monster movie…or even a horror movie, really. The original novel by H.G. Wells is considered science fiction. But since it was directed by James Whale at the height of his horror phase, and a remake was slated to be part of the Dark Universe, here it is. The central character is certainly horrific — a scientist who self-administers his mysterious new invisibility serum, which has the unfortunate side effect of turning him murderously insane. And the implications of what a psychopath can do while invisible are also pretty scary.
The scientist, Dr. Jack Griffin, spends most of the film with his head wrapped in bandages, peering out from dark goggles, so whoever played the part needed to have a distinctive voice. (Universal naturally wanted Karloff for the part, but the studio penny-pinchers had failed to live up to a pay raise clause in his contract, and Karloff refused to work for the studio until the situation was resolved.) Whale was intrigued by an obscure, sleepy-eyed, short-statured English stage actor named Claude Rains, who had just recently failed a theatrically over-hammy screen test for RKO. Whale deemed him perfect for the part. “I don’t give a damn what he looks like!” Jimmy railed. “That’s how I want him to sound!” By now, giving in to Whale’s demands was an established pattern with Universal, and The Invisible Man would be Rains’ film debut. He did indeed have an outstanding voice, excelled in the part, and went on to a distinguished film career. Whale raided his Old Dark House cast and put Gloria Stuart into the role of Griffin’s estranged and ultimately terrified fiancee.
The photographic trickery that created the illusion of invisibility is still impressive today. Once Griffin is totally disrobed, it was purely a voice performance from Rains. But when he’s only unwrapped his head and taken off his gloves, we see what seems to be an empty suit walking about. Universal visual effects expert John P. Fulton achieved the illusion by filming Rains in a black hood and black gloves against a black background. The footage was then combined with a shot of the background location via a matte process.
The Invisible Man was released in October 1933, and hailed as another stylish triumph for Whale. Rains’ performance was praised despite his face not being shown until just before the final fade-out.
(While The Invisible Man was in production and Karloff’s lawyers were wrangling him a new deal with Universal, he made his first trip back to England after a 24-year absence to make The Ghoul for the Gaumont-British Cinema Pictures. He was nervous about how his very staid, respectable stiff-upper-lip older siblings would react to his career choice. Much to his relief, they seemed delighted to have a movie monster in the family and gave their little brother a hero’s welcome. He visited England almost every summer from that point on.)
Sequels were not the automatic response to a successful movie the way they are now. But Universal was desperate to have Whale and Karloff (happy with his new and much more lucrative contract) re-team and re-visit the world of Frankenstein while they were still riding high on critical plaudits and hot at the box office. Both men were reluctant to do so. Whale disliked repeating himself, and Karloff, though he loved his “dear old Monster” as a character and for what it did for his career, did not love the lengthy process of becoming the Monster. Universal promised Whale he could make the film any way he wanted with no interference. Pierce promised Karloff a streamlined make-up process. Both ultimately agreed in principle to a sequel. But other projects put the proposed Return of Frankenstein on the back-burner for at least a year. Whale directed a scandal-among-the-British-upper-class drama called One More River, based on a prestigious novel. The sophisticated critics’ circles approved. Audiences across America did not.
And someone got the bright idea of teaming up Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, finally brought back into Laemmle’s faemmle after over two years in the cinema wilderness…
Up next…Boris vs. Bela…The Bride, the Daughter, and the Son(s)…and the Wolf Man…