"James Whale… has wrought a stirring grand-guignol type of picture, one that aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair… that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.”
— Mordaunt Hall, New York Times.
On this day, December 4, in 1931, James Whale’s Frankenstein premiered at the Mayfair Theater in New York City. Crowds lined up in Times Square despite the cold rain. A week later, the Mayfair reported box office earnings of $53,000, and a record-breaking seven-day attendance of 76,360. The film went into wide release on December 6 with similar success in every market.
Frankenstein clocked in at a tense 67 minutes. It has been well documented how the film had been trimmed, prior to release, of a few seconds worth of perceived excesses. The cuts included supposed blasphemy in invoking God, a violent struggle when The Monster is first subdued, a hard blow to The Monster’s head, close-ups of Fritz terrorizing The Monster with a torch, an hypodermic stab, and the notorious drowning scene, all of which were miraculously preserved and edited back into the film 58 years later.
It appears that there are a few more cuts belonging on that list. An early trailer for the film — visible on YouTube — includes two brief scenes that have been called “outtakes”, arguably trimmed for length or pacing, yet these scenes are distinctly violent moments and they might have been culled for the same reason the other, better-known scenes were removed, i.e. to tone down the mayhem. For example, the trailer shows a brief but nasty struggle as a grimacing Monster throttles Frankenstein when they meet on the mountaintop.
Another scene shows The Monster rising from the dissecting room floor and rapidly exiting the frame. This last take suggests that the sequence where The Monster sits up and grabs Dr. Waldman by the throat, which cuts there, actually continued, morbidly, as The Monster fought or strangled the old man to the ground.
Reporting on Universal’s restoration efforts in the June/July 1989 issue of Films in Review, Greg Mank wrote, “The restored version… adds only about a minute to Frankenstein. Still, the new footage gives an eccentric, strangely sadistic spice to a beloved film…”. The scenes in the trailer support that statement. The restored cuts and the still missing elements glimpsed in the trailer suggest that James Whale’s original vision called for rougher action and a more vicious Monster.
Yet for all the cuts made, still more were demanded by civic and religious groups as the film rolled out across North America and the World. In England, among other censored scenes, the entire sequence where The Monster menaces Elizabeth in the bedroom was removed. The film was banned outright or delayed pending severe censorship in many countries, including Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Australia.
Such was the power of James Whale’s Frankenstein, unleashed 76 years ago today.
Watch the early trailer on YouTube.
Read the original review by Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, December 4, 1931.
Read the original review by Alfred Rushford Gleason in Variety, December 8, 1931.
Poster image courtesy of Jean-Claude Michel.