January 28, 2010

Frankenstein Stomps The Box Office

Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, appear stunned by the monster-sized feet on the laboratory slab. Perhaps it was the green toenails that did it. Anyway, those big dogs explain the big boots! The idea may have been to spare us the sight of The Monster’s head, but I can’t help wondering if the artist didn’t make it funny on purpose. The illustration looks like a gag waiting for a caption. Anyone?

Back in the Thirties, movie houses would change their programs twice a week, with film studios barely keeping up with the demand for a continuous stream of product to satisfy a huge pool of avid filmgoers. A new film would typically play three or four days, with only the more popular titles getting extended play or moving to another theater and on down the chain to second-run houses. It is a testament to the monumental success of James Whale’s Frankenstein, released nationwide on Sunday, December 6, 1931, that the film was a rare, held-over feature in theaters across North America. By mid-week, Frankenstein had broken attendance records everywhere and exhibitors were re-booking the feature and adding showings late into the night.

Thrill Picture Is Held Over” ran a headline in the San Jose News, December 9, on the same page as the bigfoot ad. “The extension of the ‘Frankenstein’ engagement” the article said, “is indefinite”.

There’s no doubt about it,” the article continues, “the public just ‘goes’ for mystery, horror and the unusual! Best proof of that statement is furnished by the new American Theater, where the phenomenal success of ‘Frankenstein’ has caused the management to hold the picture over… Thousands have attended every day, thrilled to the marrow by the unearthly spectacle of the young scientist making a man from parts of bodies of the dead. And the big scene, where life is brought to the composite body, is believed to be the greatest thrill the screen has ever known.

We are reminded that talking pictures were still relatively new when the reviewer states, “Sound means a great deal to ‘Frankenstein’. The crash of the mighty electrical storm… places each member of the audience in an isolation of the terrifying din. The clatter of the spark… intensifies the drama.

Reading like Studio ballyhoo, the article goes on to say, “…the monster, as played by Boris Karloff, is a marvel of the make-up artist’s art. No more gruesome, awe-inspiring figure has graced the screen. And the dwarf, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, is no less a repelling figure. The direction… in the hands of James Whale… leaves nothing to be wished for. Suffice to say that it makes of this unbelievable tale a plausible screen narrative, and one actually believes what he sees!

In closing, the article states, “Another announcement of interest is the booking of John Barrymore’s latest picture, ‘The Mad Genius’, for the near future.” It’s worth noting that Karloff had an uncredited bit part in the opening scenes of The Mad Genius, shot prior to his stint on Frankenstein. In all, Karloff made 16 pictures in 1931.

The New American Theater of San Jose, California, where Frankenstein played, opened as the Hippodrome in 1918. It featured a spectacular vertical entrance, tall and narrow, with a long corridor-lobby leading to a 1682-seat auditorium done in the Spanish-Gothic style. The building went through a number of renovations and name changes, becoming the United Artists Theater in the Forties and on until it was demolished as part of the city’s downtown redevelopment plan. The site has been a parking lot for over 20 years now.

The storied San Jose News, founded in 1883, became the San Jose Mercury News a century later, after a 1993 merger.

And side note: This post wins me a bet! Some time ago, my friend Max, of the supremely silly Drunken Severed Head blog, threw down the gauntlet. Amused by how I was able to tie Frankenstein to seemingly unrelated subjects, like volcanoes or the invention of the bicycle, Max challenged me to make a post about “Frankenstein’s toenails”. This is it. Max pwned.


Max the drunken severed head said...

I'm beginning to think you ARE Frankenstein's Monster. You appear to be invincible!

And of course, you have that criminal brain, and all.

The Vicar of VHS said...

The illustration looks like a gag waiting for a caption. Anyone?

"He vould have an enormous schwanzstucker!" ;)

wich2 said...

How prescient of the film's rebirth in the '70's, to have The Monster staring hypnotically at a Lava Lamp...

Max the drunken severed head said...


Fritz stared, thinking, "He's gonna need Dr. Scholl's help as much as Dr. Frankenstein's!"

Emme Toaye said...

The feet were big blocks loaded with lead on the bottom in case he had problems with his inner ear imperfections and had to adjust the balance and because the two legs were from two different corpses and did not match in length. The bottoms of the boots were lined on the soles with a magnetic device so one could switch it on and disable the monster while he was on the steel table, such precautions were well advised.

Christopher said...

Fritz should have a thought bubble over his head showing a pair of Skis is what hes thinking..

Mike Curtis said...

I don't care if he bought the Deluxe Spa package---I'm not giving him a pedicure!

Anonymous said...

"The storied San Jose News, founded in 1883, became the San Jose Mercury News a century later, after a 1993 merger."

This is a bit inaccurate. I was a paperboy for that paper in the early 1970's and it was already the San Jose Mercury News at that date.