In November 1931, as James Whale’s Frankenstein rolled out across America, its early box-office-busting run at Milwaukee’s Alhambra proved an effective forecast of the film’s national success. The theater’s newspaper ads appearing in The Milwaukee Sentinel and The Milwaukee Journal not only ballyhooed the film with vivid pulp prose — “A Daring Experiment into the Soul Chilling Unknown!”, they also celebrated its success — “Crowds! Crowds! Crowds… Acclaimed by thousands!... It Holds the Season’s Record!”.
Opening on Friday, November 20, the film had been teased for days. “To Be Revealed At Last!” ads read, and “The Like Has Never Been Known Before!”. By Tuesday the 24th, after blockbusting weekend business, ads were boasting: “The whole town is talking… Yet words cannot describe soul-chilling, blood-curdling Frankenstein!” On the 26th, local reviews were quoted, “Milwaukee movie critics got a big thrill!”.
On the 27th, the films’ second week began with an ad proclaiming, “Capacity crowds cheering this thrilling, chilling masterpiece… Unbelievably creepy conceptions brought to the screen in a manner that will make your hair stand on end!” On the 28th, ads crowed, “2nd smashing week! The city is wild over it! We wish we had twice the seating capacity!”
On Sunday the 29th, The Milwaukee Journal ran a listing of films in town, their titles followed by a simple description, like “comedy” or “romance”. Frankenstein was tagged as “An orgy of horror”. The same day, an ad for the Alhambra showed The Monster’s head, Elizabeth thrown unconscious across her wedding night bed, and spooky cartoon eyes that recall the strange drawn figures in the film’s kaleidoscopic opening credits. “We wish we could print this in red ink” the copy read, “Shout it from the house tops! Milwaukee has gone for this picture in a great big way!”
On December first, Alhambra ads warned, “Only 3 days remain in which to see this wonder picture!”. Two days later, a new ad announced, “Wide-spread enthusiasm carries this phenomenal picture into a 3rd Gala Week… Public fancy is completely intrigued… See it now!” Then, on December 4, a large ad showed The Monster in full stride, bursting through the page: “Here he is… so potent is his weird appeal that a clamoring public demands this picture for a 3rd Request Week”.
As the film played its third and final week, a December 5 ad used a tag line that would forever be associated with the film — Dare You See It? — answering, “Thousands and thousands have had the courage…!” On December 6, a warning read, “Absolute last 5 days… And attend now because it won’t be shown again in Milwaukee this year”, adding “What an Experience to Meet FRANKENSTEIN”. On December 8, a terse ad advised, “Avoid disappointment by seeing this picture now… !”
Finally, on Wednesday, December 9, the Alhambra ran an ad for its upcoming program, A House Divided with Walter Huston, with a notice for Frankenstein across the top: “Hurry… Today and tomorrow only… Then this wonder picture departs.”
Exhibitors would run similar campaigns across America and around the world. In an era when films were typically sold on booming ballyhoo and extravagant claims, Frankenstein stood apart, delivering on every promised chill and thrill. Frankenstein opened with a bang that still resonates today.