When, exactly, was James Whale’s Frankenstein released? All sources, all the books I’ve seen, and the IMDB, all point to November 21, 1931. However, spelunking the newspaper archives of the times, I have found that Frankenstein actually opened in Milwaukee a day earlier, on November 20!
Was Milwaukee given the unofficial premiere or did the film open elsewhere on the 20th? It makes sense to open on a Friday for a weekend rollout. For that matter, where, exactly, did the film open on the 21st, a Saturday?
Milwaukee’s Alhambra theater cranked up the ballyhoo a week earlier: “To be revealed at last… No one has ever seen the like… Weird, Wonderful!” All the ads point to it’s Friday, November 20 opening, and insisting that “It will not be seen in Milwaukee again this year!”
The ad shown above appeared in the Milwaukee Journal of Wednesday, November 18. The copy, “The Picture That Public and Press Have Been Breathlessly Awaiting” speaks to the very real anticipation over a film said to be scarier than Universal’s springtime hit, Dracula. Earlier, on November 10, syndicated gossip columnist Mollie Merrick had fired up the suspense, reporting: “A pre-view audience made up of stoic press members were a bit pale around the gills when the film reached its conclusion. When it was pre-viewed in Santa Barbara one hears of fainting women, irate men and sobbing children” adding, “the film contains no sex-appeal whatsoever. It’s plain grand-guignol material, and you are warned about it before it unfolds.”
Note how Boris Karloff’s name, amusingly misspelled, has already moved ahead of the film’s big-name stars, Clive, Boles and Clarke. Boris, even before anyone has seen the film, is proclaimed as Lon Chaney’s Successor… Only more weird!
The film would go on to play a smashing three-week run at the massive Alhambra (3000 seats!). By the time it made it’s highly publicized December 4 opening at the Mayfair in New York, Frankenstein had already mauled box-office records across the nation.
Frankenstein was a hit, and let the record hereafter show that it opened not on the 21st, but on Friday, November 20, 1931.
I’ll have more on the Milwaukee Alhambra’s wonderful ad campaign later this week.