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Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster is 200 Years Old this Autumn

Culture Watch
tags: Frankenstein



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Forget the Presidents’ birthdays. This autumn is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic monster novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, the horror story that has scared the wits out of people all over the world as a book, play and film (55 of them)). To honor Shelley, and the big stitched together, flat-headed monster with the bolts in his neck, numerous organizations are staging one of the plays, showing one or more of the films and holding discussion groups that will focus on the Frankenstein book and what it has meant to literature, culture and film.

There are global celebrations all over the world. The Keats – Shelley Association of America is sponsoring “Frankenreads,” in which students discuss the Shelley novel. It has nearly 600 chapters in the U.S. San Jose State University, in Santa Clara, California, has an all year long festival that includes classes, lectures and even an examination of how students can use the monster to learn more about Silicon Valley technology. Stevens Institute, in New Jersey, an engineering college, is studying the Shelley book to explore how the 1818 work talks about the problems of the modern world. Stanford University’s yearlong celebration includes a performances of the play, a film festival, lecture series and an international Health Humanities Conference that explores the moral, scientific, ethical and spiritual dimensions of the monster. The University of Wisconsin at Madison will host a symposium on the book and films next week. Arizona State University has a yearlong series of lectures, classes and films plus a webpage with links to various other Frankenstein festivals. A new, musical version of the play Frankenstein is now playing at St. Luke’s Theater, in New York. Earlier this month, the museum of Modern Art in New York screened Hammer House: A Frankenstein Septet, which included seven films about the creature. Netflix is currently airing a new series, The Frankenstein Chronicles.

The biggest bash of all, Alive! Frankenstein at 200, is being hosted by the prestigious Morgan Library on Madison Avenue, in New York. In a sprawling and engaging exhibit co-sponsored by the New York Public Library, the Morgan has a huge, two gallery show on the Frankenstein legacy, numerous lectures on Shelley and her monster, a gift shop full of monster books, and a Frankenstein film festival. You love monsters? The Morgan Library is the place for you.

Things at the Morgan Library that you never knew about the Frankenstein legacy:

●  the wig worn by Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein is modeled after the hairstyle of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertari, whose tomb was unearthed in 1912.

●  Little Maria, the girl the monster meets when he frees himself from the Frankenstein mansion in the first movie, was NOT just tossed into the lake by him once, but three times. After the second heave the kid’s pushy stage mother insisted that she be tossed way out into the lake on a third try for a better shot. The director was so appalled at the mother’s insistence and the dreadful toss into the water that he cut the third scene and used the second.

●  As Boris Karloff, who played the monster, lay on the lab table awaiting his coming to life in the initial movie, he was afraid all the elaborate parts of the special effects in the set’s ceiling would fall down on top of him

●  Andy Warhol, yes Andy Warhol, was a big Frankenstein fan and produced a movie about him, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, in 1974.

●  Robert DeNiro starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1994.

●  one of the most enthusiastic monster fans was none other than crusty old J.P. Morgan himself, who rushed out and bought a first edition of the Shelley book, annotated by the author.

There are misnomers about the monster. “One of the great errors in perception of the creature is his neck. Those are not bolts (I made that mistake myself in the first paragraph of this story), but electrodes. “Nobody seems to understand that,” said Elizabeth Denlinger, one of the co-curators of the exhibit, at Sunday’s film screening. The other curator is John Bidwell. Denlinger also added that the movie make-up people decided to add excess wax to the creature’s eyes to make him look more formidable.

The Morgan exhibit in New York is marvelous, as enriching as a museum exhibit can get. It has everything, from full length films to short videos to original manuscripts to screenplays to colorful posters. They even added a 19th century science workshop to the exhibit to emphasize the science in the novel and movies. The scenes from Frankenstein movies can see on large screen television monitors. You can listen to the dialogue with headsets. The most interesting parts of the exhibit are the walls filled with lush movie posters, going back to the first sound movie in 1931 directed by James Whale and starring Karloff (the very first Frankenstein film was a 1910 silent). The walls are covered with poster from other films, such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. There is a French Frankenstein poster, too, plus Classic Comics books of several Frankenstein tales

The posters and numerous prints also illustrate themes of sex and violence. Poster after poster shows a scantily clad young woman being leered at lustily by the monster. The novel, and films, show numerous assaults on women by him. It is a theme that is just as strong today, sadly, as it was 200 years ago in literature and in the early days of film.

The museum also takes a long look at the science of the “enlightenment” age in which Shelley lived. She used a lot of science in her novel and so did filmmakers later. The monster was brought to life in the 1931 movie, set in 1818. A section of the exhibit points out that throughout America and in Europe a good thirty years earlier there were numerous experiments to do exactly that, so Shelley’s electric creation had been practiced already, although unsuccessfully.

It is noted in the exhibit, too, that many people saw the creature not as an ogre, but as a misunderstood victim of technology, medicine and a crazy doctor. “Over the years, thousands of children wrote expressing compassion for the great, weird creature who was so abused by its sadistic keeper that it could only respond to violence with violence. Those children saw beyond the make-up and really understood,” said actor Boris Karloff, who played the monster in several films.

There have been fifty-five movies about the monster in which he starred or played a minor role. These include Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Monster of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein and I was a Teenage Frankenstein. There was even a Frankenstein ’70 and for those who missed it, Frankenstein 80. You want quirky Frankenstein? How about Frankenstein General Hospital and Frankenhooker (yes, about them).

As for the novel itself…

Mary Shelley, the daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, were on a vacation with a friend, Lord Byron, in Geneva, Switzerland when the idea of Frankenstein came about. The three, bored, held a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary’s Frankenstein won. The two men encouraged her to write it as a book and it was an immediate hit, followed by a succession of plays and movies later. In 1818, it tapped into European fascination with ghosts, haunted old mansions, creepy Gothic literature and mysterious strangers. Shelly wrote it under duress because just prior to the vacation, her husband’s father, in anger, cut him off from any money. Tragedy befell Mary again just a few years later. Her children William and Clara, and then her step sister’s daughter Allegra died. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in a boating accident. 

The Morgan also has a Frankenstein film festival. Movies are shown in its huge, comfortable ground floor auditorium. Future films include The Bride of Frankenstein and Gods and Monsters (Sunday, November 4). There is also a lecture series.

So, if you want a truly historical scare, visit the Morgan or any of the many University events that are all part of a wild birthday bash for the monster with the mostest.


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