Monday, October 24, 2011
Every Halloween I remember my favorite Monster. The one, the only, the best of the best, the one that inspired countless others…the original Frankenstein from James Whale’s 1931 classic. With its black and white design and Boris Karloff in heavy makeup, I have adored this film since I was a boy. I can remember watching the monster on the Creature Feature theater, broadcast in NY on Saturday night, channel 5. (Fans of Creature Feature may remember a different time and channel?) Years later I realized “Frankenstein” was the proper name of the monsters creator, not the monster himself, but over the years has come to suffice for the monster’s moniker.
Karloff made three films in as the monster, then other actors stepped in. Bella Lugosi, Glenn Strange, and others perpetuated the grand character. Frankenstein the monster has become so exposed and embraced, one can easily look back to see its many inspirations in entertainment and pop culture.
In the late 60’s and mid 70’s there was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon “Frankenstein Jr.,” which paired “Franky” the robot with a boy scientist to fight super villains. A smile grows over my face as I remember Fred Gwynn as Herman Munster in the 60’s TV show “The Munsters.” My sister once said I hid behind the chair when Herman was on screen, but I don’t buy it. I was probably hiding my crush on Marilyn.
There were the Cooper Frankenstein costumes for kids. You remember them – a plastic mask with an elastic string, and a cheap, nylon jump suit with a picture of the character on the chest (the costume would never endure the whole length of trick or treating without tearing itself to shreds). The claymation classic “Mad Monster Party” by the genius Rankin-Bass studio included the monster and his mate - a claymation Phyllis Dyer (comics legend Harvey Kurtzman co-wrote the screenplay!).
The Brits had their own film version, with Christopher Lee in the Hammer horror films.
I remember my sister and I staying up late on New Years Eve (not a stretch in my house, where we held a family New Year’ Eve party in the basement each year) to watch the 1973 television version called “Frankenstein: the True Story.” IT starred Michael Sarazin, David McCallum, Sir Ralph Richardson, James Mason and Jane Seymour!) Years later I read Mary Shelley’s book, to find the “True Story” was drastically different.
Also splitting from the original story, was when “The 4:30 Movie” aired Japanese monster week, where in addition to Godzilla, they broadcast “Frankenstein Conquers the World” (Frankenstein grows into a giant caveman! Weird!)
After Sunday mass we scrambled for the 11:30 AM annual “Abbot and Costello meets Frankenstein,” which even my kids love. Mel Brooks reached new hysterics with “Young Frankenstein.”
Polar Lights made a model kit combining the Monster with a hot rod called Frankenstein’s Flivver. Aurora made “Glow in the Dark Monster Kits” with the greatest box illustrations! I had assembled many of them by covering everything in Duco cement glue lumps.
Perhaps my biggest anticipation was the seeing the comic book ad for a “7 Foot Frankenstein” that would reach out and grab my friends when they visit my room. Drooling, I cut out the coupon (painful for me, a comic book lover since birth) and gave it to my dad, who plunked down a few quarter to order it via mail.
I fantasized about how Frankenstein and “Boney The Skeleton” would come to life in my room every night, eschewing my mothers concern that I would have nightmares. When the day arrived, I was disappointed when the manufacturer sent me two Bony the Skeletons because the Frankenstein was no longer in stock. To make matters worse, the 7 foot “poster” was made of polyethylene – basically a plastic sheet. Not what I had in mind. I expected Karloff himself. That was one great ad!
Allen Ormsby, a filmmaker and special effects artist, taught me how to make a Brown Bag Frankenstein in his Scholastic Book classic. I know my mom has a picture of me in my paper mache Frankenstein headgear somewhere in her closet… I wore it to school with pride. What I would give to find that picture.
Comics master Bernie Wrightson’s scratchboard and pen illustrations for the Mary Shelley book to this day are unequaled in skill. They inspired me to illustrate countless pen and ink creations, as I toiled away for many hours into many nights illustrating classic tales for my portfolio. (I subsequently “discovered” other pen and ink masters like Franklin Booth and Joseph Clement Coll.).
Frankenstein, wherever you are, this Halloween and every one hereafter, in your many incarnations and inspirations, I will always be astonished by your monstrous myth, empathy and enduring appeal.