Richard J. Anobile’s Film Classic Library edition of Frankenstein was one of the most unusual and beloved of all Frankenstein film books. Back in 1974, it was invaluable. Today, made hopelessly redundant by home video technology, it is a curio, an artifact of a not so long ago bygone age.
In the Seventies, Anobile was a high profile film writer and editor of very popular and entertaining scrapbook-like celebrations of The Marx Brothers (Why a Duck?), W.C.Fields, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. With titles that included The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Psycho, the bold concept of The Film Classic Library would delight those who, back then, called themselves “film buffs”.
The principle was explained right on the series' distinctive silver covers (see above). The books were composed of frame blowups taken directly from a celluloid copy of the film, arranged in sequence and captioned with dialog. Essentially, the film was meticulously laid out on paper. Here, for the first time, you could study a film in great detail; you could examine every set, every character in costume and makeup, as they appeared in the film.
The whole concept of the Film Classic Library went out the window with the arrival of videotape. With VCRs you could own a film, view it at will, freeze-frame images, watch in slow motion or step through scenes frame by frame. With today’s digital copies, we can study films in even more exacting detail but, in their time, Anobile’s books were extraordinary sources of information.
Anobile’s short introduction, while rightfully praising Boris Karloff’s poignant performance, is surprisingly unkind to James Whale, whose direction he calls “primitive at best”. Whale is cast as being hampered by his theatrical background and unable to exhibit any feeling for the film medium. The action, according to Anobile, is stagebound and ludicrous, with the actors “overgesturing” as if playing to the back rows and scenes are filmed “in medium or long shots with Whale never giving the close-up any thought”. Though Anobile notes the innovative use of panning, showing a character’s reactions while the speaker is offscreen, his opinion of Whale is so poor as to pronounce this pioneering effect as “a matter of chance” adding, “His work does not exhibit a good knowledge of screen direction or film technique.”
It is a curious reading of a film which, most reviewers would agree, hums along at a good clip and still packs a punch, with a frequent use of closeups, including famous ones such as the focus on the Monster’s hand indicating “it’s alive”, and the 3-step zoom-in introduction of The Monster, culminating with an intense, extreme closeup of its gaunt face and piercing eyes.
Unexpectedly, Anobile’s Frankenstein still provides one important piece of information. Published 15 years before censored scenes were found and restored to the film, the book is a document of the film as it was seen for over 60 years, in theatres and on television, prior to the restoration. The clips found in the late Eighties were mostly trims, brief but significant clips of violent struggles, a hypo stab to the back, shots of Fritz leering into the camera as he taunts The Monster with a flaming torch and, most famously, the scene where Boris Karloff’s Monster throws little Maria into the lake, and his panicked flight after she fails to surface. Anobile noted that the lakeside scene was listed in the studio’s film continuity but assumed, as anyone would have, that it was lost.
As shown in the book, The Monster and Maria play with flowers by the lake. Running out of daisies, The Monster reaches for the girl and we cut, jarringly, to a scene of dancing villagers. Anyone who saw the film prior to its 1989 restoration will remember The Monster’s sudden lunge towards the child and how abrupt and disturbing the cut was.
An interesting side note: The Frankenstein cover uses the one existing shot of Boris Karloff in a test makeup, with "horns" on his forehead. The photo, likely never meant for public viewing, has become ubiquitous, appearing on film posters and book covers ever since the film was first released, back in 1931. Also worth nothing: The Film Classic Library books were laid out by Harry Chester, a New York-based book and magazine designer who served as production manager on Famous Monsters of Filmland and other Warren titles.
Richard J. Anobile’s Film Classic Library edition of Frankenstein was once — and only too briefly — an essential reference book. After home video made its rigorous format unnecessary, the author went on to produce more vibrant “film novel” or “photo story” adaptations, combining screen captures and comic book-like word balloons, for such films as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and Alien. He is active today as a film producer.
With thanks to Max Cheney.