July 29, 2013

Frankenstein's Windmill

A 1940 photo shows the Van de Kamp Dutch Bakery sitting at the corner of Ivar and Yucca in Los Angeles. That’s the Knickerbocker Hotel across the street, once a Hollywood hot spot that fell on hard times before being saved and converted into housing for senior citizens.

In the Spring of 1931, working with writer Garrett Fort, Robert Florey — the first director attached to Universal’s Frankenstein — wrote a script that would serve as a template for the shooting script reworked under James Whale, who took over the project in June. Among Florey’s surviving contributions were the crucial brain switch and the atmospheric denouement in an old windmill where The Monster dragged its creator, with bloodhounds and torch-wielding villagers in frantic pursuit. In later years, Florey would reveal that his windmill finale had been inspired by the Van de Kamp building seen from his apartment on Ivar Street.

The film’s now iconic windmill provided an improbable but perfect, exotic setting for the film’s frenzied finale, the building itself dangerous with its creaky cogs and forbidding sails. When Frankenstein is thrown off the high balcony, the brutal fall was originally meant to be fatal. After the film wrapped, actor Colin Clive headed home to England proud that Universal had been bold enough to kill off its title character, but soon thereafter, an additional scene was shot with Clive and Mae Clarke spelled by stand-ins, showing the faithful Elizabeth nursing her poor Henry back to health, and available for a sequel. As for The Monster, he is last seen panicked out of his mind, pinned under a heavy wooden beam as fire laps around him. The follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), picks up at the windmill in smoking ruins where The Monster, burned and bruised, was saved when the structure collapsed into an underground pool.

Frankenstein’s windmill has been referenced in films, notably in the rip-roaring black and white opening scenes of the otherwise ghastly Van Helsing (2004). Director Tim Burton evokes the windmill as a miniature golf set in the original Frankenweenie short of 1984 and again as a hilltop building in the 2012 feature film version. There is also a spectacular and unmistakably Frankensteinian windmill in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakers was founded in 1915, soon sprouting a chain of stores and coffee shops with distinctive windmill facades and waitresses dressed as Dutch maidens complete with starched caps and decorative aprons. In the Forties, new buildings were streamlined, its windmills outlined in neon. The kooky architecture was eventually abandoned altogether, the bakeries operating out of regular buildings with a blue windmill motif appearing on logos. Van de Kamp’s changed hands a couple of times before collapsing into bankruptcy in 1990. The name survives in some areas as a supermarket brand for frozen foods.        

The site of the “Frankenstein windmill” at Ivar and Yucca is currently occupied by Joseph’s Café, a restaurant and dance bar. In the Google Map photo above, the domed structure at left is where the Windmill originally stood.

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