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The Celluloid Monster
The reshaping of Mary Shelley's story began almost from the moment it first appeared. The 1931 Universal Studios production of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, capped more than a century of variant tellings of the original story. Compared to Shelley's sensitive, articulate creature, Universal's was crude and unformed. But the sheer power of Hollywood image-making gave him an impact as great or greater than Shelley's, and made him into an icon of popular culture.

Just as Shelley's story was shaped by the science of the day, so was Hollywood's influenced by some of the scientific and pseudo-scientific preoccupations of its day, including eugenics, robots, and surgical transplants.

Escaping Shelley's Frame

In 1823 Mary Shelley's father told her of an English Opera House production of a play entitled Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. Though inspired by her novel, the play departed from it freely--as playwrights, filmmakers, and political cartoonists have done ever since. Shelley's original novel, memorable for its story and ambitious in the large questions it poses, has invariably been simplified and distorted, sometimes almost beyond recognition.

The Monster in Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, 1823

The actor T.P. Cooke played the monster in this 1823 stage adaptation of Frankenstein. His make-up left him, by one account, with a "shriveled complexion, lips straight and black, and a horrible ghastly grin."

Hollywood Produces Frankenstein

Would Americans attend "horror films"? The success of a stage version of Dracula, the story of an aristocratic vampire, helped convince producers at Hollywood's Universal Studios that they would. In 1930, Universal bought film rights to Peggy Webling's Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, which had premiered in London three years earlier. An obscure English actor, William Henry Pratt, who went by the stage name of Boris Karloff, played the monster in Universal's adaptation of the Webling play. Karloff's success in Frankenstein made him a star. The film itself became an almost instant classic of a new genre--the horror movie.

Boris Karloff Being Transformed into the Monster

In posed studio portraits, Boris Karloff looks like many another conventionally handsome movie actor; make-up artist Jack Pierce made him into the monster. Pierce's three months of research into anatomy and surgery convinced him that a surgeon determined to transplant a brain would cut the top of the skull straight across, hinge it, pop in the new brain, then clamp it shut. Hence, the monster's flat, squared-off head.

Boris Karloff as the Monster in Frankenstein

Frankenstein earned rave reviews, was named to top-ten lists, and made lots of money; the production cost $290,000 in Depression-era dollars, and earned more than $12 million.

Boundary Crossings in 1931

In the years before Universal Studios released Frankenstein in 1931, scientists seemed poised to penetrate once-sacrosanct boundaries between life and death, a prospect that continued both to trouble the intellect and thrill the imagination. Newspapers and magazines speculated freely about one day reviving the dead, achieving immortality through the use of artificial organs, and altering the genetic shape of future generations through eugenics. The Universal film responded to these themes in popular culture.

1935 Article: "Can Science Raise the Dead?"

In the 1930s, American chemist Robert E. Cornish killed a dog with nitrogen gas, then revived it. Emboldened by this success, he vainly sought access to men executed in the chamber. These efforts to revive the dead got widespread press coverage during the 1930s.


Spurned by his creator, Mary Shelley's monster kills for revenge. The movie monster, on the other hand, kills because he's been given the brain of a criminal. Early in the twentieth century, "biological determinism" was in the air; heredity, more than environment or education, the idea went, caused social problems. Proponents of eugenics wanted to improve the human species through compulsory sterilization of criminals, the mentally retarded, and others deemed social misfits. Some two-thirds of Americans were said to support such measures.

The Brains of Criminals

Do you see the "sex pervert" in brain no. 590? Such overly neat links between biology and destiny were intellectually fashionable in the 1920s, in the period just before Universal Studios released Frankenstein.

Feature Creature

It may be hard to appreciate, but the many Frankenstein toys, masks, comics, and other objects and images in existence all pay tribute, of sorts, to a cold-blooded killer. These products of merchandising genius hint at menace, a creature out of control--yet never too much menace, never too out of control. Each makes the Frankenstein monster into a more one-dimensional version of Mary Shelley's creature. Each, in its small way, helps complete his transformation into a cultural icon.

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