Interview: Julian David Stone on “It’s Alive,” the Novel About the Making of “Frankenstein”

Posted on May 17, 2022 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 1931
The 1931 James Whale film about Dr. Frankenstein’s re-animated monster still thrills us today. In It’s Alive, a new novel with a title taken from one of the film’s most memorable lines, author Julian David Stone takes us behind the scenes as producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. struggles, negotiates, manipulates, and promises to get the film made. The stores behind the iconic details that have inspired dozens of remakes and spin-offs are told with as much suspense as you might hope to find in a movie. In an interview, Stone talked about doing enojugh research to immerse himself in the era, about Laemmle’s conflicts with his father, the founder of Universal Studios, and about how “Dracula” and “Frankenstein became the foundation for the genre of horror movies.

Frankenstein has been one of the most re-told stories in movie history. Why do we keep coming back to it?

I think the theme of bringing the dead back to life is one of the most universal, if not the most universal, that you find in every culture. And the theme is just as prescient today as it was 200 years ago when the original book of Frankenstein was first written. Separately, the 1931 film adaptation explores other themes that are also still very relevant today — man’s relationship to technology, the concept of ‘just because we have the ability to do something, should we do it?’, The unexpected consequences of our actions in the blind pursuit of technological advance, etc.

Copyright 2022 Greenleaf

Tell me about your research. First, where did you go to find out about all of the day-by-day details and the thoughts of the key figures.

Research is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing. I particularly love doing research from sources from the actual time period that the story takes place — contemporaneous magazines, newspapers, books, etc. This is where a lot of the great details about the lives of the three main characters in my novel were found — scouring any and all media sources from the early 1930s. Additionally, interviews with the main characters were also very helpful. In the case of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, they were both famous for a very good portion of their lives, so there are many great interviews with them and they were very helpful.

Junior Laemmle was another story. There are a lot of interviews with him up to 1936, when the Laemmle family lost the studio. After that, almost nothing. So a lot of Junior’s story was pieced together from whatever tidbits I could find. Researching him was a great detective story on its own!

I’m particularly interested in some of the 1930s slang. Where did you find it and how did you balance the authenticity with the need to make it accessible?

Once again, it was all the contemporaneous media sources that were very helpful. Also, since my story takes place in 1931, I was fortunate that the sound era of motion pictures was in full swing, so watching them — and particularly newsreels with interviews — were a great source of slang and the vernacular of the time.

You have a lot of very clever metaphors that feel true to the period. How did you think about them?

Research, research, research. As I said, I love to research and I like to say, “I want to be able to ‘wear’ an era” before I start writing about it. In the case of It’s Alive! I was well into my research, but I was still struggling with the story when I realized I was making a big mistake. I was focusing my research to specifically on the Universal Monster movies and Universal itself. That’s when I forced myself to take a step back and dive into all of Hollywood in 1931. I started watching as many films as possible from the era — not just Universal’s films — and I read as many of the trade publications as I could get my hands on sequentially, staring in January, 1931. This was so valuable as you could watch the progression of trends in the movie business, as well as the rise and fall of certain stars. After about a year of deep research into the period was when the story really started to fall into place.

Copyright Universal 1931

A lot of the suspense in the story comes from who would play the monster. What would the movie have been like with Bela Lugosi in the role?

That’s one of the great questions that fans of the Universal Monsters, and classic film fans in general, endlessly bandy about. I think Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein is one of the greatest and most iconic in cinema history, so I truly can’t imagine anyone else in the role. But interestingly, Lugosi did eventually play the Monster years later in one of the later films of the Universal Monster cycle and his performance is quite different — to say the least — than Karloff’s. But I don’t think it’s really fair to compare the two as it was many, many years after Karloff, and the way the Monster acted had already been established, and had gone through a lot of changes as different writers and directors tackled the material.

As an interesting side note, before the original 1931 Frankensteinfilm was made and well before Karloff was cast as the Monster, a screen test was shot of Lugosi in the role. Sadly, it has been lost, as it would be an absolutely fascinating piece of film to see — How Lugosi approached the role before there were any preconceived notions of how the Monster should look or act. One can only hope and dream that someday this footage may be discovered!

Copyright 1931 Universal

What were the biggest differences of perspective and between Laemmle senior and junior? How did that reflect the changes in culture and technology and the difference between creating the business and keeping an established business vital? Do you see any parallel conflicts today?

The relationship between Laemmle Senior and Junior was one of the main things that drew me to the story in the first place. It had some very typical elements with the father being more conservative in his approach to business and the type of material he wanted to put on the screen, and the son being more liberal and daring in what films he wanted the studio to make. But then there were some very unusual elements in that their conflict centered around the operations of a movie studio, and that Junior had a dark side that went well beyond the desire to present new and forward leaning material on screen.

How did you find out about the turn of events in filming The Guilty Generation that made it possible for Karloff to play the monster?

That particular detail came up in a couple of different sources and interviews. If you watch The Guilty Generation, Karloff has a big part in the beginning of the film and then sort of disappears until the end. And the way his final scene is shot — a very simple single close-up of Karloff talking into a phone — very much leans into the idea that the director, Rowland Lee, was trying to help Karloff finish his work early. And an interesting bit of trivia is, the very same Rowland Lee would go on to direct Karloff in Son of Frankenstein almost ten years later — Karloff’s third and last appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster.

How were the father/son conflicts between the Laemmles reflected in the Frankenstein story?

Ultimately the movie Frankenstein is a father and son story. Dr. Frankenstein, in the end, is disappointed by his creation — The Monster. To a similar extant, Carl Laemmle, Sr. was disappointed in his son, his creation, Junior Laemmle. And the two fought quite a bit over the direction of Universal Studious after Junior was made Head of Production and wanted to make very different films than his father made. Frankenstein — and the entire Universal Monster Cycle for that matter — being chief among them.

Was Karloff’s name really misspelled on the studio’s entry list?

It may have happened, but there was no specific incident that I was referencing. It was more a nod to where Karloff was in his career before the role of the Monster made him a huge star. He was a working actor, getting by, but it was still a day to day struggle. To give you an example, the first film to be released after he shot Frankenstein — but filmed before Frankenstein was made — in the credits his role is “Waiter”. His character didn’t even have a name.

What do the struggles over Whale’s Frankenstein tell us?

That it is important to stay true to your original vision.

The 1931 film Frankenstein is a great film and an absolute classic because it is the combined effort of several great artists. But it would never have existed in the first place if not for the drive and desire of one man: Junior Laemmle, who, despite no one else wanting to make the film, or for him to make it, stayed true to his vision and pushed the project forward. And all of Hollywood was never the same.

One of the ways I like to put it is: I would never claim that Junior invented the horror film, but I think you can make a pretty strong argument that he is the single person most responsible for it becoming a genre. When no one else in the entire movie business wanted to make Frankenstein, and Dracula before it, he did. And he made sure they got made. From there the entire Universal cycle of horror films was launched and all of what we call horror today grew out of these classics from the 1930s.

What are you going to write about next?

I have my next novel about half written. It’s about the 1960s space race and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to land the first man on the moon. The era and the Apollo program specially are big passions of mine, so I am very excited about this story — as well as immensely enjoying doing the research!

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61 Years After the Legendary Vast Wasteland Speech

Posted on May 9, 2022 at 8:09 am

Copyright 2016 TWH
Sixty-one years ago today, on May 9, 1961, my dad, the 35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while “when television is good, nothing is better,” he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation’s capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.

I often thought about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of people making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this was reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a director of CBS, helping to create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he served as vice chair until this year, working to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helping to get the start-up funding for “Sesame Street,” and arguing for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. His countless awards include more than a dozen honorary doctorates, a Peabody, and the highest honor for American civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama (who met Michelle when they were both working in my father’s law office). Our family’s favorite “honor” might be the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island,” named as an insult to my father for his criticism of television by producer Sherwood Schwartz. They later had a very cordial correspondence.

He appeared on Chicago’s PBS station last month to talk about the RNC’s announcement that they would not participate in the Presidential Debates.

Today Cornell law professor Robert Hockett recognizes the anniversary of the speech with a proposal my sister endorsed in her book, Saving the News (with an introduction by my father titled “From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg”), a “public option” for social media.

Mike Leonard’s documentary about my dad has some wonderful stories.

I talked to my dad about some of his formative experiences, including the words from Bobby Kennedy that inspired him to focus on telecommunications, what he will advise the new FCC Chair, and why he told President Kennedy the first telecommunications satellite was more important than putting a man on the moon.

He is the world’s best dad and grandpa. We are so lucky.

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Happy Passover 2022/5782

Posted on April 15, 2022 at 8:42 am

Have a blessed Passover!  Whether you’re on Zoom or socially distant in person, enjoy the holiday devoted to family, freedom, and courage. Dayanu!

The story of the exodus to freedom is for all ages.

For family viewing: try It’s Passover Grover!, The Prince of Egypt, Rugrats Passover,  and The Ten Commandments

 

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Free Tickets to Sonic the Hedgehog 2! April 2 in Virginia

Posted on March 29, 2022 at 9:45 am

Copyright Paramount 2022

I am hosting a screening of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” at Tysons this Saturday at 11 and I have 30 pairs of tickets to give away! First come, first served.
If you are among the lucky group, please come over to say hi.

The world’s favorite blue hedgehog is back for a next-level adventure in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2. After settling in Green Hills, Sonic is eager to prove he has what it takes to be a true hero. His test comes when Dr. Robotnik returns, this time with a new partner, Knuckles, in search for an emerald that has the power to destroy civilizations. Sonic teams up with his own sidekick, Tails, and together they embark on a globe-trotting journey to find the emerald before it falls into the wrong hands. From the filmmakers behind The Fast and the Furious and Deadpool, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 stars James Marsden, Ben Schwartz as the voice of Sonic, Tika Sumpter, Natasha Rothwell, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub and Jim Carrey returning, alongside new additions Shemar Moore, with Idris Elba as the voice of Knuckles and Colleen O’Shaughnessey as the voice of Tails.

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Family Movies for Black History Month

Posted on February 15, 2022 at 7:47 pm

Every family should observe Black History Month and movies like these are a good way to begin discussions and further study.

1. “Glory” The true story of the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of their own Union army and battling the Confederates, with brilliant performances by Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar), Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick as the white officer who truly believed all men were equal.

2. “Something the Lord Made” The obstacles to education and professional advancement kept Vivien Thomas (Mos Def) from medical school, but he was a pioneer in heart surgery.vivien thomas

3. “Roots” Writer Alex Haley told the story of his own family going back to the capture of one of his ancestors from Africa to be sold into slavery in this historic miniseries.

4. “Amistad” A slave rebellion led to an historic Supreme Court case that addressed fundamental notions of personhood and inalienable rights.

5. “With All Deliberate Speed” This documentary about the Brown v. Board of Education case that transformed American schools and culture has interviews with lawyer Thurgood Marshall (who later became the first black Supreme Court justice) and others involved in the case.

6. “Malcolm X” Denzel Washington is mesmerizing in this story of the incendiary leader and his journey from complacency to activism to understanding.

7. “Eyes on the Prize” This PBS documentary covers the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the march in Selma.  There is also an excellent sequel. Many feature films cover this history including “Selma” and “Boycott.”

8. “The Rosa Parks Story” Angela Bassett stars as the Civil Rights activist whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus electrified the nation.

9. “The Loving Story” The name of this history-making couple was really Loving.  Their inter-racial marriage led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the laws against miscegenation in 1967. “Loving” is the superb feature film based on their story.

10. “A Great Day in Harlem” This documentary tells the story of photographer Art Kane’s 1958 iconic photograph of all of the great jazz musicians of the era.

great-day in harlem

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