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Monster Hit ‘Frankenstein’ Caused a Scandal in Kansas City in 1931

In the 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley invented a creature that was philosophical, articulate and vengeful. But most people remember the Hollywood version: barely speaking, lumbering and with bolts in his neck, memorable thanks to Boris Karloff and the makeup designed by Jack P. Pierce. November 21 marks the anniversary of the film’s 1931 debut. At the time, Variety wrote that the studio added a prologue only two days before prints shipped, in which audiences were warned what to expect, since horror was a newish genre for U.S. films. The Variety story added that Universal and director James Whale reshot the ending after previews: “New scenes keep the doctor, who treats the monster, alive instead of burning him to death with his robot.”

Kansas City still wasn’t pleased. In those days, local communities could censor films, and K.C. demanded 34 cuts including the climax, because the movie “shows cruelty and tends to debase morals.” Despite that (or because of it), the film was an enormous hit.

Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus” was published anonymously, exactly 200 years ago, when Shelley was 20; her name appeared on a new edition five years later.

The book has a complex structure (flashbacks within flashbacks within other flashbacks) and sophisticated ideas (man vs. God, allusions to Greek mythology and modern science; some argue that it’s the first example of science-fiction).

Both Shelley’s and Universal’s versions have inspired endless variations, including the studio’s sequels in the 1930s and ’40s, the Hammer Studios films, “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (in 3D and X-rated), the Mel Brooks spoof, plus an elaborate 1981 Broadway version written by Victor Gialanella and directed by Tom Moore that opened and closed in one night at the Palace Theater. The show starred David Dukes, Dianne Wiest and John Carradine andVariety headlined “Frankenstein scares up record $2 million loss,” adding that the production costs were unprecedented. (That pricetag would be $5.8 million today; in comparison, the musical “King Kong,” which opened in November on Broadway, was budgeted at $35 million.)

A 1973 NBC miniseries was titled “Frankenstein: The True Story”; like many other adaptations, it claimed to be most faithful to the book. But the closest version was Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage production at the National Theatre in London, written by Nick Dear and starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch (alternating the role of Victor Frankenstein and his creature) and Naomie Harris. It follows the plot closely and gives plenty of time to the ethical, parental and religious debates among the lead characters. This version was recorded by National Theatre Live and is occasionally brought back to cinemas.

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