December 24, 2009

Behind the scenes: Frankenstein, 1931

I love old behind-the-scenes photos, like this glorious shot of the Frankenstein laboratory set, taken in the sweltering summer of 1931. DVDs today always seem to come with a “making of” documentary, but there are very few backstage photos from bygone films, and a mere handful from this particular title, one of the most important and influential films ever made. These rare photos are silent witnesses, privileged glimpses into a distant, black and white past, laden with information and tantalizing clues.

A rickety ramp leads to a raised platform, and down again to the heart of the tall set, the tower laboratory where The Monster will ride up to the stormy sky on an elevator slab. At front, left, someone is standing in the dark. A technician, perhaps, or director James Whale? In the light beyond, a stagehand crouches under the tubular microphone hanging from its extension arm. To the right of the picture, wooden scaffolding, freestanding lights, and a pile of sandbags.

Who is the man standing at center? He looks like the camera operator seen in another backstage shot. Could it be cinematographer Arthur Edeson? High above, another man stands amidst overhead lights on an elaborate rig, the camera boom used extensively by Whale. This, probably, is an operator filming the lab from on high, though one is reminded of a quote from Boris Karloff, “In Frankenstein, during the laboratory scenes, I was never as nervous as when I lay half naked, strapped to the operating table. Above me, I could see the special effects men shaking the white-hot scissor-like carbons that simulated the lightning. I prayed very hard that no one got butterfingers.”

At center, the image is blown out by the intense lights focused on the set crowded with Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical gizmos. Someone is glimpsed there, perhaps Strickfaden adjusting his equipment, or Frankenstein himself, Colin Clive, dialing up the life-giving rays.

The set photo comes from the wonderful Universal Monster Legacy site, launched to promote the new version of The Wolfman, coming out in February. The navigation is sometimes balky, and fans will note a couple of minor mistakes — Lon Chaney’s 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame is illustrated with a poster from the 1939 RKO version with Charles Laughton, and a picture of Boris Karloff in his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein burn makeup is mixed in with the 1931 Frankenstein stills — but overall it’s a very handsome site with film clips and some truly eye-popping photo galleries. Most definitely worth a visit.

The Universal Monster Legacy site.

An interview with Boris Karloff.


Michael Jones said...

Add a bit of Gold & Myrrh to the Frankenstein and it's a perfect present for you know who.

Emme Toaye said...

I like the older photos they are just spookier in black and white.

The Mike said...

Very cool! Just found the blog, can't wait to dig into it more. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting the picture! Do you know if this set is still in existence? I thought I heard something about a fire in Stage 12 of Universal Studios, but I may be mistaken.

Pierre Fournier said...

Stage 12 is still standing and in use. FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN were shot there, but the sets themselves are long gone.