December 12, 2007

The Selling of Frankenstein

When Universal released Frankenstein in the winter of 1931, exhibitors were offered a cornucopia of promotional materials and stunt ideas that promised to “Roll Up Monster Grosses!”. These were the days of Barnumesque ballyhoo, haphazard and unsophisticated by today’s advertising standards, but unashamedly exuberant and enormously engaging.

Frankenstein’s poster line came in a surprising variety of painterly styles. One version shows The Monster’s face in expressionistic black and red. Another depicts The Monster with curious clamped “horns” on his forehead, inspired by this photograph of an early, unused makeup test. The glorious six-sheet litho pictured at top, shows a very human-looking Monster, with natural skin color and no neck bolts. “Let the monster look from every billboard”, exhibitors were told. “His face is your good fortune!!”.

Theater owners were prompted to create their own displays. Universal provided instructions on how to carve up posters and make shadow boxes with flashing lights animating cut-out lightning bolts and The Monster’s punched-out eyes. A “Marquee Monster Display” would use frosted green bulbs to throw an eerie halo around The Monster’s electric head. For lobby display, Universal suggested borrowing medical equipment like test tubes, retorts, alcohol jars and anatomy plates, but cautioned exhibitors to “Use judgment. Do not display anything repulsive”.

Contests were proposed, such as writing a supernatural story or drawing The Monster’s face, with newspaper or radio “hook-ups” for maximum publicity. A book “tie-up” (When did tie-ups become tie-ins?) was arranged with Grosset and Dunlap, publishers of a new edition of Mary Shelley’s novel illustrated with scenes from the film.

Publicity stunts were encouraged. There are stories of theaters parking an ambulance out front and nurses patrolling the lobby, smelling salts at the ready. On opening day, “plants” would jump out of their seats, scream, and run up the aisle in a panic. A “Robot Ballyhoo” stunt involved sending a man out in the streets in dark clothes, green powder makeup and black rings under the eyes, carrying a sandwich board reading "I am looking for my master... FRANKENSTEIN!" Universal specified that the man “should walk with a mechanical step”.

The posters, displays and “showmanship accessories” were made available to exhibitors through film exchanges and licensed contractors for mere pennies. At auction today, surviving posters go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Frankenstein is one of the most desirable titles in collector circles.

Value aside, if I had my pick of original 1931 promotional items, I’d go for the delightful die-cut cardboard streamer that promised “to give your front and lobby that “Frankenstein” flash!”. Note the neck bolts have been moved to the temples on The Monster’s head, probably the first instance of the switcharound often favored by cartoonists to this day.


Max the drunken severed head said...

Some incredible finds, Pierre! A wonderful post! Thank you for this bit of monster scholarship!

tomztoyz said...

That 1st poster you show with Frankie looking at the girl. I've never seen that before & it's really beautiful. I have a friend, named Steve, who is a HUGE CRAZY Frankenstein Fan...I'll have to tell him about this blog. It's really well designed. Keep up the good work.

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Thanks, Tommy

Anonymous said...

If you like these things, there's more in the pressbook found in the Magicimage edition of the film (not sure if its still in print).