February 13, 2012

Uncanny Creature

Eighty years ago, James Whale’s Frankenstein rolled out across America and around the world. In April of ’32, the film landed in Western Australia — it would be banned elsewhere in the country — generating lots of press chatter. A stint at the Ambassadors Theatre, in Perth, yielded a heavy dose of exhibitor’s ballyhoo, such as this article published on April 16 in the weekly Mirror.

Obviously written by a press agent, the piece’s hype starts with a count of 1000 extras, a tenfold exaggeration, with director James Whale “adding an entire Tyrolean string band to the picture”. Another fabrication name-checks the late Lon Chaney as having “longed to play” the role of The Monster.

Considering the film’s eye-popping cast, it may appear curious to see a photo of the bland John Boles — as Frankenstein’s best friend and potential romantic rival — illustrating the piece but, lest we forget, Boles was a famous singing star and a Big Name attraction. The Monster, however, is clearly the film’s top draw: “This is one of the really astonishing things in the picture…” the piece reads, “This monster, with its semblance of HUMAN APPEARANCE, human gait and human actions, still gives a most overwhelming impression of the supernatural and mechanical motivation.” For all the hoopla, the article concludes with a line that was, in fact, closer to the truth than the writer ever imagined: “(The Monster) is probably the most uncanny creature that has ever stepped on the screen.”

The Mirror also carried an ad for a showing — “the powerful mystery of LIFE AND DEATH!” — at the Ambassadors, complete with the ad campaign’s two standard come-ons, “Dare You See It?” and “To have seen ‘Frankenstein’ is to wear a badge of courage.”

Frankenstein’s competition in Perth that week included Murder by the Clock (1931), a creepy mystery/horror yarn with Irving Pichel as a half-wit menace; The Beast of the City (1932), a notoriously violent gangster drama that helped put Jean Harlow over the top, and The Phantom of Paris, a Gaston Leroux mystery which, unlike Frankenstein as mentioned above, had actually been planned under the title Cheri-Bibi as a vehicle for Lon Chaney. What’s more, a Chaney film, the robust police drama While the City Sleeps (1928), was playing locally at the Hoyt’s Majestic in Fremantle, one of the last holdout theaters for silent films.

The Mirror, published on Sundays from 1921 to 1956, is remembered as Perth’s scandal-sheet, specializing in juicy gossip, high-profile sex and divorce cases, murders and the like.

A Premiere in Perth
At The Pictures: Frankenstein in Australia
Promoting The Bride: The Australian Frankenstein

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