January 30, 2011

"The gruesome is the most truly novel thing..."

Frankenstein had been shooting for three weeks, halfway home, when this fascinating article by Mollie Merrick was syndicated to newspapers, on September 8, 1931.

The piece acknowledges Hollywood’s newfound taste for horror films — “a new mood in motion pictures” — with a reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shooting at Paramount, concurrently with Universal’s Frankenstein. Coincidentally, both films had started up on August 24.

Colin Clive is quoted, wonderfully, about the “queer” Shelleys, saying, “While the husband was writing about skylarks the wife was creating this tale of monsters.” James Whale and Mae Clarke are praised and the film itself is said to be based “on sincere effort and true values”.

Boris Karloff is also praised, specifically for his “brilliant performance” in Five Star Final, a film released the very week the article appeared, otherwise his writeup is straight public relations fodder. The actor’s makeup, we are told, promises to “rival anything Lon Chaney ever attempted”. At the time, shortly after Chaney’s untimely death in 1930, countless actors appearing in elaborate character parts and/or heavy makeup were tipped as “the next Lon Chaney”. Bela Lugosi, for one, was frequently singled out in the press as the heir to Chaney and he was even penciled in for a never-made remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Veering into pure ballyhooey, the piece picks up on the story about Karloff being ferried around the set with a veil over his head (see previous post) and even cranks it up to eleven: “In transit from his dressing room to the stage, Karloff wears a sort of cage over his head with thick veiling… The arms are concealed beneath a large smock.

Note also that Karloff is identified as Russian, a common assumption in early reviews due to his formidable stage name, though the fame soon to be brought on by Frankenstein would correct the mistake and the actor would forever after be identified as a perfect British gentleman who, in real life, was the absolute opposite of the movie villains he played.

California-based writer Mollie Merrick was a prolific and popular feature writer, widely syndicated through the North American Newspaper Alliance, NANA, whose roster included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna Ferber and Ernest Hemingway. As a movie columnist, Merrick had the run of the studios and her name appears on guest lists to all the best Hollywood parties. Nevertheless, she was never totally beholden to the industry and could turn in a very harsh review when a film deserved it. Merrick began her career in the early Twenties and was still at it in the Fifties, writing PR copy for Marilyn Monroe.

Note the use of the archaic term gelatin as a moniker for movies. James Whale is given the job of “translating the weird Shelley story into gelatin”, and romance movies are tagged as “sex gelatin”. Merrick made frequent use of the term, at least up to the mid-Thirties, referring to Hollywood as “the gelatin industry” and “the gelatin village”. Studio bosses were “gelatin Barons”, and the film All Quiet on the Western Front was hailed as “a gelatin epic”.

Gelatin, as well as celluloid and silver screen were terms derived from motion picture film itself. Gelatin was the translucent agent that bound chemicals and silver halide crystals to the flexible celluloid base that made up a strip of film.

Note, also: In her opening paragraph, Merrick attributes Sir Philip Sydney’s quote as a description of Frankenstein. The Elizabethan poet was actually referring to something else, having preceded Mary Shelley and her novel by some 250 years.


Mr. Cavin said...

That's too bad. I was hoping you might tell me what the heck it means to "[holdeth] old men from the chimney corner."

Pierre, this was jaw-dropping. I am always so impressed with examples of real American English from the turn of the century through the second world war. It sounds nothing like literary English. Doesn't really sound like journalism, either, now that I think about it. "Sex gelatin" is a revelation! But for all Ms. Merrick seems to know about the industry, she still follows a stage-bound mindset when it comes to cinema's effects. Otherwise, in what way would a changing make-up design present any difficulty to filmmakers who can cut and edit?

Thanks for this.

wich2 said...

"[holdeth] old men from the chimney corner."

(As in, "the book is so engrossing, it keeps them from their usual pursuits.")

Thanks, Pierre - great stuff (though yes, it does seem largely hackish ballyhoo!)


Mr. Cavin said...

Thanks Craig! Keeps them from their household chores, huh? I hadn't gotten there at all. Left to my own devices, I would have had to assume that it kept these old poor men chilled.

Gambrinus Glubbe said...

Sir Philip is most famous for his gallantry after being wounded fighting the Spanish at Flushing in the Low Countries: