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‘It’s alive!’ and on the big screen again

by Jim Longworth

In this day and age of cinematic slashers, giant anacondas and 3-D piranhas, the idea of a man created from human body parts seems pretty tame. But on Nov. 31, 1931, the piecemeal image of Frankenstein’s monster was shocking to theatre goers. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall wrote, “Frankenstein aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings… it is a morbid affair.”

Frankenstein broke all box-office records for 1931, made a star of Boris Karloff and spawned numerous sequels, spin-offs and spoofs. But save for a few re-releases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Frankenstein has been absent from the big screen. Until now, that is. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, in honor of Universal Studios 100th birthday, Turner Classic Movies is presenting Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein on a double bill in select theaters across the country, two of which are located here in the Triad. The Brassfield Cinema 10 on New Garden Road and the Greensboro Grande Stadium 16 on Northline, both in Greensboro, will show the two horror classics one time only, at 7 p.m. The films will be accompanied by pre taped introductions and interviews featuring TCM’s Robert Osborne, Karloff’s daughter Sarah, Bela Lugosi Jr. and award-winning make-up artist Rick Baker.

Though produced by the same studio and directed by the same man (James Whale), Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are as different as night and day. The original is devoid of music and humor, while the sequel is replete with both. In the first film, the monster is mute and threatening. In the follow-up, he gets to talk, smile and smoke cigars. Karloff, it should be noted, was opposed to the campy changes to his alter ego, which were abandoned in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.

Of course, Karloff wasn’t even the studio’s first choice to play the monster. Bela Lugosi was originally slated for the role because of his success in Dracula earlier that same year. But Lugosi backed out because he felt the heavy make-up and lack of dialogue would prevent him from demonstrating his acting skills, which were considerable. And though the monster was mute, censors weren’t. In order to get the film into general release, Universal had to delete a few scenes, including one where the monster kills a little girl, and another in which Dr. Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) proclaims, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” Both scenes were returned to their rightful place when the film was restored for the home video market.

The screenplays for both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein were adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel and, in fact, the author is portrayed in the opening scene of the sequel. But Shelley could not have possibly imagined the lasting impact her creation would have on popular culture nearly 200 years later. The Frankenstein legacy is one of timeless entertainment, and, in that regard, the film, like the monster himself, can never really die.

Say what you will, but the 1931 Frankenstein is still one of the most frightening movies ever made, so much so, that Universal filmed a pre-credit sequence, in which actor Edward Van Sloan issued a warning to theatergoers. Van Sloan had played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and portrayed a similar role as Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein. His remarks included the following: “We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to… well, we warned you.”

A few years ago, a friend of mine took my wife Pam and me on a private tour of Universal Studios, and my favorite part was walking through the European Village where so many horror films had been shot. I strolled down the cobblestone streets where Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney once walked, and I felt a close kinship to them and their movies. I often wondered what it would have been like to watch those giants on the big screen. Now, I’ll finally have that opportunity, and nothing will keep me away from the theatre next Wednesday — not even Dr. Waldman’s warnings. I know what you’re thinking: Why would anyone in his right mind pay good money to be scared? I don’t know. Perhaps I just have an abnormal brain.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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