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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Universal Classic Monsters

Posted on October 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm

What could be better for Halloween than the new Blu-Ray release of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection , with deluxe editions of eight classics:  “Dracula” (1931, 75 min.), “Frankenstein” (1931, 71 min.), “The Mummy” (1932, 74 min.), “The Invisible Man” (1933, 71 min.), “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935, 75 min.), “The Wolf Man” (1941, 70 min.), “The Phantom of the Opera” (1943, 93 min.), and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954, 79 min.).

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Based on a book Classic Fantasy Horror

Happy birthday, Mary Shelley!

Posted on August 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm

On August 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born.  She was the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.  She had a remarkable life and married the poet Percy Shelley, but she will always be remembered for the book she wrote when she was still a teenager, Frankenstein, which she called “Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.”  She wrote the book when she and her husband were staying with Lord Byron, who challenged his guests to tell a horror story.  What happened next became a movie of its own, Haunted Summer .

The scientist who wanted to create or re-animate life has been adapted for dozens of movies, starting with one of the very first films ever made by Thomas Edison and inspired dozens more, including this year’s upcoming Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania.  Some of the highlights include:

Frankenstein with Boris Karloff No adaptation is more iconic than James Whale’s 1931 version and the “Bride of Frankenstein” sequel. Gods and Monsters is the story of James Whale and the making of the film.

Young Frankenstein Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks created this affectionate tribute and parody, using some of the original Whale sets and props.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein stars Robert DeNiro and Kenneth Branaugh as the monster and his creator.

Frankenstein is a 2004 miniseries with Luke Goss and Julie Delpy.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein The famous comedy duo meet not only Frankenstein’s monster but the Wolf Man and Count Dracula.

The Curse of Frankenstein Peter Cushing stars in this Hammer horror classic.

 

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Interview: Fred Weibel of ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’

Posted on February 23, 2010 at 8:00 am

Frederick C. Weibel, Jr. is the author of Edison’s Frankenstein, a tribute to an extraordinary film that was considered lost for decades.

What is it about the Frankenstein story that makes it so enduringly compelling?

Frankenstein is so filled with universal questions and truths. It’s a moral tale about how our actions have repercussions that we never considered. And that we are responsible for those consequences that can cascade and destroy us. Frankenstein creates a creature, brings it to life and then realizes that he has made a great mistake, and abandons it, leaving it to its own devices, hoping it will die. It doesn’t. Eventually the creature learns how to survive and realizes the he is so hideously ugly that it can never associate with human kind. The monster tracks Frankenstein down and revenge kills all his friends and family, forcing Frankenstein to pursue it to the ends of the earth, and his own destruction. The moral parable can be applied to almost any situation and is open enough to be interpreted many different ways.

Why did Edison studios choose that story as one of its first productions?

The Edison Studios had been making films since 1896. By 1910 they had evolved quite a bit and desired to make motion pictures that were “photoplays”, filmed versions of plays. They developed and applied a scientific method to film making as Edison had done with all of his experiments and products. There had been some complaints from distributors that Edison pictures were too American for foreign audiences. The studio bosses tried taking a different approach to put out well known public domain stories that would appeal to global sensibilities. They used a photo from “Frankenstein” to be on their first British catalog and had the titles translated into many different languages.

What were some of the most challenging elements of the story to film?

The biggest challenge was to condense the story down to 15 mins. in a cinematic fashion. J. Searle Dawley the producer / director wrote the scenario using elements from the book and play versions that would most stand out. He realized that trick photography could be used on the creation scenes to accomplish things not able to be done on stage that would thrill the audience and sell the picture.

How was the story edited/censored to make it acceptable to audiences of the time?

There was no post-censorship on the film but the producer had to follow the moral standards that were demanded by the Studio heads and Mr. Edison. The catalog says that all the ‘repulsive’ elements of the story were eliminated; the murders, etc., to make the film acceptable to any audience. The film also had to have a ‘happy ending” where Frankenstein realizes his mistake and eliminates the evil he has created and that love cleanses his soul from the pursuit of un-natural science over things which should be left to God.

How does it differ from later re-tellings?

Mainly in the creation of the monster. The creature is not made of a collection of corpse parts but rather formed from a gathering of chemicals mixed and set afire in a large caldron. We see a skeleton appear and the flesh start to creep across the bones. The monster shows life and movement even before it is finished. The creature also has a huge head of long wild hair that is quite a fright wig as described in the novel.

There are some scenes from the novel that were never re-done in future versions, such as when the creature peers at Frankenstein from the bed curtains. There is more of a connection between Frankenstein and the monster who argue with each other as in the book. Yes, the monster talks and is more confused than murderous.

Who were the performers and what were their backgrounds?

Augustus Phillips, who plays Frankenstein was perhaps the most accomplished actor in the film at that time. He had appeared in many plays on Broadway and national touring companies for many years. Charles Ogle, who portrayed the monster, also had a lot of experience on the stage playing character roles and was considered a master of make-up. He eventually had the longest and most successful motion picture career working for Paramount through the 20s, with some of their most famous directors and stars. Ogle is probably now the most well known of all the actors because of “Frankenstein”. Mary Fuller who plays “the Sweetheart” became quite a sensation in 1914 when she stared in the series of sequential films of “What Happened To Mary” which initiated the serial craze, creating a whole new genre of chapter films. She rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity contests at the time. Her star faded in a few years as she couldn’t seem to adapt to feature films and withdrew from making movies all together in the late teens. She died in a mental institution in Washington, DC and is buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery.

Do you have any idea of how many people saw the film when it was first produced and what the reaction was?

“Frankenstein” was well distributed across the country, Europe and South America. It appeared in theaters from March until the late summer of 1910. I’ve found a few advertisements in a variety of newspapers and magazines and never a bad review. Quite the opposite, all of the reviews were very positive. It’s impossible to tell at this point just how many people may have seen it. Movie theaters ran it 3 or 4 days, as was the norm for the time, or even just one day. Others gave it special performances with full orchestras as the feature film of the evening in a vaudeville presentation. There are notices in newspapers of it booking in large and small cities; New York City, Salt Lake, Hartford, CN, Frederick, MD, Palestine,TX, etc. It had a very long run for an Edison film.

What made you want to research this film and where did you get your information?

I became fascinated with the film since 1963 when I saw a picture of the monster in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. In the early 90s I saw a clip of the creation sequence on cable TV so I started my search and tracked down the man who owned the only known print of it. The major amount of my research came from The Edison National Historic Site, The Museum of Modern Art who had many of the Edison Motion Picture Studio papers, The Library of Congress that had the copyright materials and magazine articles, and The Academy of Motion Pictures that had a lot of information on the actors. Just last year a lot of old newspapers had been scanned and put up on the web. I was able to access a lot of material from that.

It was long considered to be a lost film. How was it discovered?

Mr. Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, WI bought a bag of old films from a fellow collector and friend of his, Herman Schmidt for $25 in the late ’50s. Neither one of them had any idea of its real value or historical significance. The film had shrunken a bit and when Dettlaff first ran it, the projector tore it pieces. He pieced it back together. In the 1970s he somehow learned of its rarity and did a semi-restoration job by copying it and photographing many of the frames for a storyboard. He contacted many of the film institutions around the country trying to sell it for $1,000,000. All of them just offered him a tax write-off. When the word got out that the film existed, he started licensing 2 min. clips of it for $2000 a pop. He made over $20,000 in this manner and decided that it was more lucrative doing this that releasing the whole thing which would be immediately ‘bootlegged’ due to it being out of copyright. Eventually in 2003 I helped convince him to release it on DVD.

How did the graphic novel adaptation come about?

I had a contract in the late 90s with a small publisher to print an earlier version of my book and a comic book version of the film. The company welched on both accounts and never returned my rare photos. Chris Yambar, a well known comic writer and publisher contacted me in 2002 about reviving the comic book idea and turning it into a 64 page graphic novel. He wanted me to provide an essay on the background of the Edison’s “Frankenstein” film and actors. I also sent him a copy of the film and many frame grabs and photos. Chris knew an excellent artist Rob Bihun and contracted him to do the drawing. Chris wrote a modern version of the film and storyboarded it. I just made a few suggestions and let them run wild with it. Rob’s artwork was astounding. They certainly knew what they were doing and filled in a lot blanks in the story. My version was just to stick to the original film and use the frame grabs to base my drawings for a style in the old EC horror comics of the 1950s. These guys were professionals and knew what would appeal to a modern buying public. So where it deviates from the film was due to that kind of approach. They did a fantastic job, much more exciting and better than what I could ever have achieved. The run quickly sold out and I think I have the only remaining copies. Chris was planning a hard cover reprint for the 100th anniversary. I hope it comes out.

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Monster Lessons from Paul Asay

Posted on October 24, 2009 at 8:00 am

Paul Asay has a terrific gallery list of life lessons from movie monsters. It is witty, erudite, and very insightful. Indeed, I think he has done a good job of setting out the reasons that monster movies are among the most enduring and beloved genres. Like the ancient myths, they help us process and better understand hubris, fear, and even intimacy.

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