March 23, 2012

The Great Frankenstein Title Fight of 1931

It was March 25, in 1931, that Karl Krug of The Pittsburgh Press broke the news: “Universal is to make a talkie of Frankenstein, said to be more horrible than Dracula.

Through Spring, Summer and into the Fall, newspaper gossips would track progress on the film right up to its release. When Frankenstein opened in November, the anticipation was palpable and, when the film delivered on its promised shocks, the box office went ballistic.

Universal had secured the rights to and based their film on a 1927 British stage adaptation by Peggy Webling, reworked by John L. Balderston. Of course, the original source, Mary Shelley’s novel, was a public domain title and, theoretically, anyone could make a Frankenstein movie. Given the magnitude of Frankenstein’s success, it was perhaps only a matter of time until someone did. The challenge came to light in the December 30, 1931 issue of the New York-based trade paper, Film Daily.

Headlined “U Sues to Stop Indi Using ‘Frank’ Title”, a short article reported on Universal bringing action in the New York Supreme Court against one Mike Mindlin “to prevent him from selling a feature under the title of ‘Frankenstein’”. Universal stated damages would amount to $400,000 “owing to the fact that it is distributing its own hit by the same title”. The defendant claimed that the title in question “is common property owing to its general usage over a long period of years”.

Universal took the case very seriously, hiring Nathan Burkan as their counsel. In 1924, Burkan had co-founded ASCAP, successfully arguing for copyright extension, representing such luminaries as Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, and obtaining royalties for composers and lyricists when their works played on the radio. Burkan also represented famous entertainment personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson and, famously, a young Mae West after police closed down her sensationalistic revue called Sex.

The surprise here is that someone had a Frankenstein film readymade and ready to go. A clue to this bothersome, competing Frankenstein lies in the last line of the Film Daily article: “The Mindlin picture, produced by Oceanic Film Co., at present is without dialogue but talk is to be added later.” In other words, after 15 years, Ocean Films’ Life Without Soul had resurfaced.
The case was handled quickly. On January 2, 1932, Film Daily reported that Supreme Court Justice Churchill had granted Universal an injunction “to restrain Mindhyam Theatrical Co. and Michael Mindlin from ‘unfair competition’ in exploiting ‘Life Without Soul’ as the ‘original version of ‘Frankenstein’.” Judge Churchill stated, “It is apparent that the only purpose of the use of the word ‘Frankenstein’ in the advertising, exploitation and publicity of the defendant’s motion picture, ‘Life Without Soul’ or ‘Body Without Soul’ would be to confuse and mislead the public.

The injunction was temporary and Film Daily reported Universal as winning “the first round” but, apparently, the case was dropped and Defendant Mindlin quickly moved on to other projects. By the end of the year, the Russian-born producer’s Vision Pictures would unleash This Nude World, also known as Back to Nature, a purported documentary — "guaranteed educational!"on the morality of nudism. It cobbled together German and American nudist camp footage of sunbathers in the altogether, the inevitable nude volleyball game, and scenes from Paris’ Lido Theater.

Another infamous Mindlin production was Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934), an early exposé of the Nazis as World Threat. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall declared it “scarcely lives up to expectations”, its sensationalized revelations having “been seen here before from different angles” and deploring its lack of subtlety and its many staged scenes; “Even Hitler comes to the screen at one point personated by some player”. The New York State Censor Board refused it a license, but somehow Mindlin still managed to show it to capacity crowds over a two-week run at Manhattan’s Mayfair — the same theater that premiered Frankenstein in 1931.

One thing learned from the Frankenstein Title Fight is that a copy of Life Without Soul was still around in 1931. Mindlin, in exploitation mode, had planned to give it a soundtrack, perhaps simple and inexpensive narration, maybe some sound effects, a little music, and then he could have ballyhooed a 15-year old silent as The Original Frankenstein!

When an exploitation expert was unable to squeeze a few dollars out of it, Life Without Soul was doomed. Outdated, unexploitable, its worst sin being a silent film in a bold new era of sound, Life Without Soul would be neglected, soon forgotten and, ultimately, lost.


Joe Thompson said...

I love Variety Speak. If Mindlin's scheme had succeeded, perhaps we would still have a print of the movie.

Wich2 said...

Exactly what I was thinking, Joe.

In the early Talkie era, many Silents were "sound enhanced" and re-released:

Some with new dialogue scenes shot and added, ala PHANTOM; some with music scores only; and some with sound effects as well. Titles I know of include BIRTH OF A NATION, TOL'ABLE DAVID, SON OF THE SHEIK, and several of Chaplin's films.

It is a shame this wasn't done, and maybe a copyright copy filed for us to find.


Robert Kiss said...

This is certainly an intriguing discovery. Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that a print still existed at this point, since LIFE WITHOUT SOUL had come into Harry Raver's possession in 1916, and quite a number of movies from Raver's back catalog continued to be re-released well into the late 1920s (most notably CABIRIA and some other Italian productions).

With regard to Mike Mindlin, MoMA has some of his correspondence and scrapbooks from the 1920s/1930s, and it's possible a few more tidbits about this intended re-release might yet be located there.

Rick said...

More great stuff, Pierre. It's tantalizing, and not a little frustrating, to think that LIFE WITHOUT SOUL existed at least into the sound era, and with a little luck might have gone on existing.

Thanks again. Fascinating.