August 27, 2012

Frankenstein Gossip in Photoplay

Launched in 1911, Photoplay was the number one movie fan magazine for most of its 78 year run. Its contributors included some of the most famous film reporters ever assembled, notably Adele Rogers St. John, Dorothy Kilgallen, Walter Winchell, and competing gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The magazine’s most prolific correspondent was one Cal York, introduced in 1916 and still active when the magazine folded in 1989.

Here, two items from Cal York’s Monthly Broadcast From Hollywood column marked the genesis of Frankenstein, when Bela Lugosi was cast as The Monster, and the release of the finished film, with substitute Boris Karloff.

From the August 1931 issue, a short item hails Lugosi as the new Lon Chaney, fresh from Dracula and now slated to play “the unborn man” in Frankenstein. The Monster would be eight feet tall, with only the actor’s chin and eyebrows poking through the makeup.

Jumping to December 1931, Cal York’s column carries an anecdote about set visitors, namechecks director James Whale, and reports that Boris Karloff toiled under 48 pounds of makeup and “body structure”, causing him to lose 21 pounds.

If the items read like studio-fed publicity, guess what. “Cal York” was a house name (CALifornia – New YORK) serving an ever-changing staff of contributors, and the monthly “Broadcast from Hollywood” column was a collection of tidbits gleaned from studio PR. Of Frankenstein’s makeup torture, contemporary newspapers carried the same stories, often augmented to include Lugosi’s monster face improbably melting in sunlight and Karloff given leg braces and an inexplicable steel spine, creating his mechanical gait. The story about wearing a veil to and from the set was substantiated with obviously posed photographs of Karloff, head covered, led around by makeup man Jack Pierce.

The hype was fanciful, sometimes outrageous, and always entertaining. Finding factual information within these stories is much like panning for elusive gold.

Next up: Universal targets Photoplay’s young female readers with Frankenstein fashions!

Cal York info from Andrew Slide’s book Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

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