March 8, 2013

Dance Hall Frankenstein

A musician is glimpsed wearing a classic over-the-head Don Post Frankenstein mask in a wild New Year’s Eve party scene — everyone else in party hats under flying confetti and a soap bubble machine working overtime — in Ealing Studios’ Dance Hall, in 1950.

Directed by Charles Crichton, the film chronicles the lives and loves of young working-class women in postwar London, set to big band music against the adolescent drama of a dance competition. The cast includes British Bombshell Diana Dors in an early, showy role, and Petula Clark, a former child star once known as “Britain’s Shirley Temple”, here in her breakthrough performance as a young adult lead, clinching the deal with her first romantic screen kiss. Clark would go from British popularity to European success as a multi-lingual entertainer and, eventually, worldwide super-stardom as a British Invasion Diva with a string of pop chart hits starting with Downtown in 1964.

Back to Frankenstein Monster’s surprise appearance, there’s a direct connection to be noted: Eunice Gayson, who has a supporting role in Dance Hall, would go on to play opposite Peter Cushing in Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958. Gayson is perhaps best remembered as the first Bond Girl, playing James Bond’s girlfriend in Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963).

The Monster mask used here is the absolute keystone of Monster collectibles, created under license from Universal Pictures in 1948 by the Don Post studios of California, purveyors of generic Halloween masks — pirates, witches, cowboys and indians —  sold in joke shops and novelty counters across America. In an era before there was any official monster merchandising, it was the first commercially available Frankenstein mask. “This Frankenstein mask is so real,” Post Studio promotions read, “it immediately runs anyone into a monster… Just pull it over your head as you would a bathing cap, and watch what happens.” It would prove immediately and phenomenally successful, with Post claiming that “seventy percent of all masks sold today are Frankenstein’s Monster Masks.”

Soon, men in Don Post Frankenstein masks popped up in touring “Spook Shows”, or worked sidewalks and theater lobbies, ballyhooing new monster movies. The mask would be featured on TV, notably worn by Rosemary Clooney’s backup singers in a 1957 episode of her variety show, when Boris Karloff guest-starred. That same year, the Shock Theatre package of Universal’s horror films syndicated to TV stations saw the emergence of horror hosts, with Don Post Frankensteins putting in guest appearances. In 1958, publisher James Warren donned a tuxedo and a Don Post Frankenstein mask, and posed with a blonde model for the cover of the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. It was a defining moment, with the Don Post mask in attendance: The Shock package had ignited Monster Mania, and FMOF became its herald.

Cheaply made and inexpensive, packaged in distinctive green boxes, untold thousands of the Don Post Frankenstein masks were sold for Halloween parties or one-time gags, then thrown away. The thin rubber tore easily and nothing short of museum-grade storage would keep the flimsy masks from disintegrating over time. Today, only a couple of the original 1948 model are known to exist, commanding stratospheric prices.

Back in 1950, way over there in England, the Don Post Frankenstein mask made what is likely its first-ever feature-film cameo. It was just a throwaway gag, the musical Monster seen as fun and, as such, a harbinger of things to come. 

Image source: Rattlingdjs, with big thanks to David Rattigan.


David L Rattigan said...

Fascinating background -- thanks!

You may want to give a tip of the hat to rattlingdjs on Flickr, too, as he provided the screencap. Just realized you may have assumed it was my own; I just pointed you in the right direction.

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks, David.

Mr. Cavin said...

Fantastic! I like pictures of folks in the masks almost more than I like pictures of them in the makeup. There's just something so suave and Halloween about a monster head over menswear, that collage of face and body.