×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Vintage

  • THE EXORCIST

    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

  • Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon

    Looking Back at the 'Fosse/Verdon' Dancing Legends That Inspired FX Series

    On April 9, FX debuts “Fosse/Verdon,” about two people who may not be household names, but are certainly in the Pantheon to those who love musicals. In the Jan. 25, 1950, issue, Variety reviewer Hobe Morrison lamented the stage revue “Alive and Kicking,” but gave one of the few positive mentions to newcomer Gwen Verdon. [...]

  • OPENING NIGHT OF ABBA MUSICAL 'MAMMA

    How 'Mamma Mia!' Has Remained a Money-Maker for 20 Years

    “Mamma Mia!” is still going strong 20 years after its April 6, 1999, debut at London’s Prince Edward Theatre. The longevity is a testament to the band ABBA and to the persistence of producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson. The stage musical opened with low expectations; in 1983, another tribute to [...]

  • The Matrix BTS

    'The Matrix' at 20: Looking Back on the International Box Office Success

    In the 20 years since its debut, Warner Bros.-Roadshow’s “The Matrix” has remained a major influence on countless action and sci-fi films. When it premiered in Los Angeles on March 24, 1999, producer Joel Silver described the film as “the first movie of the 21st century.” Variety also reported that Warner Bros. execs were “gleeful, [...]

  • Barry Manilow illustration by Ben Kirchner

    Barry Manilow Reflects on Early Career, New York Talent Show 'Callback,' and Featherbed

    Barry Manilow’s place as one of America’s best-loved entertainers was secured decades ago, but the 75-year-old shows no signs of resting on his laurels, which include nearly 50 top 40 hits, beaucoup gold and platinum albums, sold-out tours, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and a Clio. His 21st century accomplishments include more SRO dates, [...]

  • DUMBO US 1941. Photo by: Mary

    Why Labor Strife Was the Elephant in the Room for Disney's Original 'Dumbo'

    Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” launches March 29, a remake of the Disney classic that opened Oct. 23, 1941. That film is remembered as one of Disney’s shortest (64 minutes) and sweetest. It should also be remembered as the animated movie that launched Disney’s studio in Burbank — and one that was completed in the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content