August 26, 2010

A Frankenstein Mystery


Here’s something unusual that I noticed as I was stepping through the DVD of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, making screen captures for the blog. It’s not a blooper, but rather something the Internet Movie Database might call a “goof”.

I think this could be a genuine “find”, something that has gone undetected for 79 years. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been reported until now.

I’ve isolated the scene, a mere 12 seconds or so, in a video clip. You might want to look at it first, see if you notice anything. Once I tell you what to look for, I guarantee that you’ll see it all the time, forever after.

Had a look? OK. Here goes…

Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), are making the last preparations before firing up the lab and zapping Boris Karloff to monster life. Frankenstein puts on some headphones and “listens” to the storm. “This time we’re ready, hey Fritz?” he says. “Ready!

Our scene comes next, at 15:40 on the DVD. Frankenstein, his back to us, leans over Fritz, who is crouching at center screen. To the left, we see part of The Monster on his slab, a stiff hand sticking out from under a blanket.

Here’s a shot of the scene, which I’ll use as reference…

During this brief scene, a small object streaks across the frame, traveling from upper left to bottom right, close to the actors. It is roughly the size and color of a piece of chalk. It has weight, it travels fast. There’s also an audible but somewhat delayed thunk that could be the object hitting the floor or bouncing off something.

Here’s the reference photo again, with inserts from 5 subsequent frames, a composite image indicating the path of the object…


I have highlighted the object in these five insert images, to make it stand out. If you look at the clip again, you should now be able to make it out. Speed makes it appear elongated and blurry. The object is rather faint when it enters the frame (images 1 and 2), but it is very visible as a white streak when it crosses a dark patch in the exact center of the frame (image 3). It nearly disappears when it crosses over Frankenstein’s white lab coat (4), but you can see it clearly again against the black background just as it flies out of frame, bottom right (5). Listen for the thunk.

Note how actor Dwight Frye reacts to the object. Just as he begins turning towards the slab, the object crosses directly overhead and you see his eyes go up. He seems to hesitate, just a brief instant, then recovers and points to The Monster.


Obviously, the crew was aware of the object. Frye sees it go by. Perhaps it was felt that nobody would notice, and the take was printed and edited into the film. Apparently they were right for nearly 80 years, until DVDs allowed us to look at the scene frame by frame.

So, what happened here? What is it? Garden-variety goof? A cigarette, chalk, a pencil? Did something break off the set? Did a crew member accidentally knock or kick something across the frame? Was it a joke, a trick played, something to surprise the actors? Or was this intentional?

Is this actually, in some awkward way, meant to be part of the scene? Or was it a signal given by director Whale — much like some directors were known to fire a gun to startle actors — meant to provoke a reaction from Frye, to make him turn and point at The Monster. The problem with this theory is that a signal was not required. Frye could easily act the scene, listening to Frankenstein and then turning and expressing surprise. He did not need a cue to jump out of his skin.

There are a number of bloopers, mostly minor continuity errors, in Frankenstein. In the dungeon scene where Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman prepare to ambush The Monster, the microphone throws a shadow that travels across the floor and up a wall, but I’ve never seen anything quite as curious as this object flung across the frame.

So, what have we seen here? What are we looking at? I’m posting this information on the Classic Horror Film Board where dedicated fans and experts congregate, and I’ll report any findings made there.

I’d be curious to know your thoughts about this scene. If you’ve got an idea, post a comment and share.


23 comments:

Christopher said...

My first thought was a paper wad like we used to shoot in school..Maybe they tested the Frankenstein electrical equipment before shooting this scene and that was some leftover debris loosened by the sparks falling to the ground?..Altho it does look like something was intentionally thrown.

Caftan Woman said...

I think it's a "Doctor Who" timey-wimey thing that was put there on purpose for you to discover. That's what I think!

You're right. Never look at it without seeing it ever again.

Sam Gilmore said...

Wow. Good catch. I have no earthly (or un-earthly) idea what it could be or why.

Anonymous said...

It sounds a lot like a golf ball hitting a piece of wood. An intentional cue from Mr. Whale to Dwight Frye to get him to look at Boris's hand. The only thing that sounds odd is that the timing in the print is off and you hear the flying projectile make contact before it hits the wood than it finally makes contact with it.

In those days I'm pretty sure that the sound track wasn't part of the film stock yet, it was on a 33 and a third rpm record and they aren't synched quite right.

Emmy said...

I've often heard of directors doing little things on the set to scare the actors to provoke more intense reactions, like not warning them of something, such as the dead horse head being real in The Godfather or Eddie's body in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Because the actors don't know to expect this stuff, it does make their reactions more realistic because they are REAL.

As for this, its obvious that the thrown object startled Frye, and I will say it makes his reaction a little more realistic, because now he looks really on-edge. (And wouldn't you be if you were in a dark lab on little sleep, creating a creature?) Great find! :D

zencat said...

Wow. I've never noticed this. Great catch. Strange.

Max the drunken severed head said...

I still say it's a petulant Bela Lugosi throwing a rock. ;)

Daniel said...

LOL@Max's comment.

I have never noticed it before but sure will now whenever I watch it!

C K said...

It seems deliberate to me. I noticed that right after the audible thud, the thunder comes in immediately. So, perhaps this was a cue to the sound department when to lay over the thunder in the soundtrack, which would have been done after shooting. I've seen some these machines that were used in early talkies, and they are huge!! I'm pretty sure that the sound effects would have to have been added later. Just getting the dialog on the set was the major task of live shooting. It really looks like someone may have shot something along a angle that was assumed that viewers wouldn't pick up on. Just a thought.

Or it could be aliens.......

I had such a lovely time reading this. Wado (Cherokee for Merci)

Arbogast said...

It was clearly a ghost orb, people!

Uranium Willy said...

Pretty intersting find whatever it turns out to be.

Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

Elizabeth said...

I STILL think it was a case of a flying Woodbine... (g)

Christopher said...

its a wonder that it didn't bop poor Colin on the beezer.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Maybe Whale wanted Frye to look a different way, but b/c of all the noisy electrical equipment, he couldn't get the actor's attention and thus had to resort to throwing something? Those spark-throwers were some noisy machines, no doubt. Anyway, all guesswork on my part, but a fascinating catch and discussion.

This is why Frankensteinia rules all of horror blogdom. :P

Mr. Cavin said...

Really, Vicar. This is awesome, Pierre Fourier. Until anybody proves somebody has ever seen this phenomenon before you, I think you've got the naming rights. Might I suggest "Pierre's Comet"?

Psycho Sue said...

this is so fascinating! not to mention how cool are you for finding this, hidden in plain sight all these years! my theory is that it fell from the set. since everything was so low-fi it wasn't worth re-shooting a good scene for, perhaps. So fascinating!

cairnsdavidster@gmail.com said...

I think the "tock!" sound may be caused by the headphone cable striking the table leg, or by some other part of the actors' movements, since it does seem out of synch with the UFO's probable landing time.

It seems highly improbable to me that Whale would signal to actors or crew by throwing something into shot. He could easily startle them or produce a reaction by throwing the object somewhere the camera wouldn't catch it.

A possible explanation that hasn't been suggested, although I don't quite buy it: the object is intended to be there and is part of the action. A shot showing Pretorius or somebody throwing the object was filmed and not used.

I lean slightly towards the idea that the object was hurled across set by electrical apparatus or a malfunctioning piece of equipment, and it was judged that the take had not been ruined so they didn't bother about it.

D Cairns said...

Pretorius? I have the wrong film. And obviously there's nobody else in the room in Frankenstein who could have thrown something.

Anonymous said...

awesome find

Mykal Banta said...

A bug flying through the bright light much closer to the camera than actors. The thunk is unrealated. Frye is not reacting to it - merely acting the scene.

Anonymous said...

This has been covered at the CHFB before...

Mr. Cavin said...

Anonymous: if you are talking about the discussion here, then that's just Pierre bringing the phenomenon of the Unidentified Frankenstein Object to the forum's attention to begin with, the very day he posted this article, and using elements from the very same. Pretty sure Frankensteinia has the discovery rights here.

Pierre Fournier said...

Well, I suppose someone else might have found this independently, but I made a deep search (net and print publications) and could find no mention of it anywhere. Then I checked with a handful of Frankenstein and Universal experts before I posted here and on the CHFB, and all told me it was news to them.