June 17, 2008
In 1816, on the evening of June 16 and late into the night, the very concept of Frankenstein was first seeded.
In the spring and summer of that year, the extreme weather conditions created by the massive Tambora volcano explosion blanketed Europe with violent thunderstorms. Out on Lake Geneva, at Cologny, the vacationing Lord Byron and his guests were confined within the walls of the Villa Diodati. As rain poured and thunder cannonaded across the Jura, Byron, his physician John Polidori, his friend Percy Shelley, Shelley’s companion and wife to be Mary Godwin, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont gathered around the fireplace and entertained themselves as best they could.
On that appropriately stormy night of June 16, Byron read aloud from a book called Fantasmagoriana, a 1812 French translation of a German collection of ghost tales. Influenced by the stories — as described in the book’s subtitle, of specters, revenants and phantoms — Byron suggested a game. “We will each write a ghost story”, he said.
As Mary wrote in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, “I busied myself to think of a story, a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.” It would take a few days before inspiration struck, as Mary claimed, in a waking dream. The first reference to Frankenstein would appear in her diary on June 24.One hundred and fifteen years later, in 1931, writer-director Robert Florey and a skeleton crew assembled on the leftover sets from Dracula, the stairs cleaned of their cobwebs and the parquet redressed with lab equipment, to shoot the legendary — and lost — Frankenstein test reel, with Bela Lugosi as The Monster. Rehearsals were held on June 15, filming proceeded on the 16th and 17th. Though accounts differ wildly as to Lugosi’s appearance in makeup, the test, reportedly twenty minutes long, was the talk of Universal. Within ten days, James Whale had exercised his power at the studio and taken over from Florey, and the project was on its way.
Frankenstein was inspired by a book of quaint ghost stories and a parlor game for bored and excitable intellectuals. On the very same day, one hundred and fifteen years later, Robert Florey directed the screen test for the first talking Frankenstein picture.
The first event was the genesis for Frankenstein. The second one made Frankenstein an icon.
Fantasmagoria is available again, complete and in a new English translation.