March 11, 2010

Frankenstein in Australia

One of the earliest caricatures inspired by James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) appeared in the The Sydney Mail, May 18, 1932, accompanying a review of the film.

At the top, perfect likenesses of Colin Clive in his laboratory smock and his scruffy assistant, Dwight Frye, debate Edward van Sloan as they hover over the shrouded shape of the reclined Monster. Down the side we see the fateful windmill, bloodhounds on the trail and knocked-out victims strewn about. The main caricature features a deadpan Monster throttling Clive and van Sloan.

Cartoonist Harry Julius (1885-1938) was a major Australian artist and a pioneer in multiple fields. A noted editorial cartoonist, he also ran an early and very innovative advertising agency, he introduced comics to Australian newspapers, and he is celebrated as the first Australian film animator. His Cartoons of the Moment series of one-reelers popular through the First World War years would often start with Julius himself seen sketching outdoors or working in his book-cluttered office. Using stop-motion photography and animated paper cutouts, the one-reeler would follow the cartoonist’s pixilated hand as the satirical cartoon came together from scratch to its final, punchline caption.

Julius’ first love was theatrical cartooning, and the Frankenstein piece is done in the genre’s narrative style, with scenes and multiple characters.

The accompanying review of the film, by Iris Norton Dexter, is also a standout, but for vastly different reasons. Ms Dexter demolishes Frankenstein as “slapstick drama”, at best “an old-fashioned thriller” and a “mildly interesting” film that cannot hold its own next to the “convincing thing” that was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “Universal,” she writes, “still refuses to accept Paramount’s idea of casting good, reliable actors in pictures of the thriller and shriekie type.”

Frankenstein, like its companion piece Dracula, we are told, is “a mere mechanical attempt to horrify, without the added conviction of reasonable acting, construction, and treatment”. Colin Clive is dismissed as “a very homely and affected actor, stiffly incapable of capturing the true feelings of Frankenstein, the scientist.” Mae Clarke is “out of place” in the film, given “nothing to do save hammer on doors” and plead with her fiancée “to desist from his godless practices.” John Boles “has even less to do”.

Of Boris Karloff, while allowing that he makes “a terrifying monster”, Ms Dexter states that he is an actor “whose ugliness has doomed him to play Lon Chaney roles”.

Not entirely immune to Frankenstein’s rhythm, Ms Dexter writes, “The film is not without its thrilling moments of a ghastly nature”, singling out the creation scene — “the final test” where The Monster comes “to awful soulless life” — and the film’s conclusion.

Death is his hobby, but his maker refuses to kill him… however, the monster escapes, and death goes with him across the countryside”, Dexter writes. Unconcerned with spoilers, she opines: “The monster’s final capture and cremation in a burning mill are probably the most thrilling scenes in the picture, mainly because the element of chase is at least real and natural. A chase of this kind could happen anywhere, and, since the monster is unseen for the greater part, those scenes become genuine enough for the easily-satisfied audience”.

Concluding, Ms Dexter states that Universal is preparing “many more pictures of this type… Those ready for release include “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Suicide Club,” with six others of similar feeling to follow.”

Note that Murders in the Rue Morgue was already screening in America, but The Suicide Club, alternately announced as a vehicle for Lugosi or Karloff, was never filmed.

Upon its release, reviews of James Whale’s Frankenstein were generally favorable and occasionally enthusiastic, though often weighted with snooty sarcasm, as if a horror film, no matter how well done, could not possibly deserve the respect and attention given “serious” dramas. That being said, few reviewers were as boldly dismissive as Iris Norton Dexter. In a later, second phase of her career, Ms Dexter, now writing as Iris Chapman Aria, was celebrated as a reporter and as one of Australia’s preeminent correspondents during World War II.

A number of Harry Julius’ fascinating Cartoons of the Moment animated films are posted on the Australian Screen website.


Sean Andress said...

What a great Drawing! Thanks for posting. Interesting too, to learn more about the artist.

Rick said...

Great find, Pierre. I love the caricatures, though I don't really agree about his take on Fritz/Frye. Looks pretty far afield to me. The others are spot on, though. And the young critic seems, from your quotes, to have mistaken Pierce's makeup for Karloff's "ugliness". Fascinating. Thanks.

Jeannine Baker said...

Hello, just letting you know that Iris Dexter was born in 1907 as Iris Chapman Norton. So she wasn't sixteen when she wrote the article, but 25. I am researching her for my PhD. Cheers, jeannine

Pierre Fournier said...

Thank you, Jeannine, for the info. I really appreciate it. I had a tough time researching Ms Norton and I had her down as born in 1915. I’ve corrected the post. Thanks again.

Erica P. said...

Hi, I came across your page when I was looking for information on Iris Dexter for family research purposes. Iris was the gt. grandchild of Michael Nason Chapman, mayor of Sydney.
(I'm also a fan of old horror movies so was doubly pleased to find your site)