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The Frankenstein Concept: An Idea Ripe for Parody

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The next on air presentation of DVD_TV is Young Frankenstein, Sunday, June 10 @ 8P | 7C, and stay tuned for the enhanced version at 10:15P | 9:15C.

During the cold summer of 1816 – known as ‘The Year Without Summer’ – when the world was experiencing a year-long winter caused by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, 19-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Gavin and her fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake
Geneva in Switzerland.Because the unseasonable weather was too unpleasant for the usual outdoor
summer activities, the threesome, joined by Byron’s doctor John William Polidori, whiled away their time reading a collection of German ghost stories called Fantasmagoria. Afterward, Byron proposed
that each of them write a ghost story, with a prize going to whoever wrote the scariest one.

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Mary
Shelley recalled that as she lay sleepless in bed that night, she had an “acute
mental vision” in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling
beside the thing he had put together,” an image which inspired her to write a
short story about the unfortunate Victor Frankenstein and the creature he
created.  Byron wrote a fragment based on some
vampire legends he heard while traveling in the Balkans, and Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which became the progenitor
of the vampire literary genre.

“At
first,” recalled Mary Shelley, “I thought of but a few pages – of a short tale
– but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length.” In 1818, Mary
Shelley completed her novel, which was published anonymously in an edition of
500 copies by a small London publishing house. Critical reception was not
favorable, but the novel’s cultural impact was almost immediate. The story
became widely known in melodramatic theatrical adaptations – Mary Shelley
recalled seeing a stage production of Presumption;
or The Fate of Frankenstein
as early as 1823.

Frankenstein,
or The Modern Prometheus is now widely considered to be the first science fiction
novel. In many ways, it was an allegory on the dangers of science and
technology. Written at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it warns mankind
against over-reaching and delving too far into the unknown and potentially
limitless possibilities of technological progress. As Mary Shelley wrote years
later, “Supremely frightful would be the effect of any human to mock the
stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” 

Spoof
versions of the Frankenstein story became popular as early as the end of the 19th
century, when comedies called Frankensteam
and Frankenstitch had
theatergoers rolling in the aisles. The first film adaptation of the story was
the 1910 Frankenstein made by Edison
Studios. At least two more film versions were made before the advent of sound –
Life Without Soul (1915), a
contemporary version with Percy Standing, sans makeup, as ‘The Creation,’ and Il Mostri di Frakestein (1920), an Italian
version starring Umberto Gurarracino as ‘The Monster.’ 

But
the definitive version would be James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the ‘Monster’ in his iconic
makeup by Jack Pierce. When Frankenstein
became a huge hit – and under protest to some degree – Whale resurrected his
monster in 1936 for a tongue-in-cheek sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. The degree of sardonic wit that James Whale
brought to the sequel made Bride the
first comic film featuring Mary Shelley’s monstrous character. 

Several
sequels followed over the next decade, but Universal’s Frankenstein series was
finally brought to a close in 1948 with the slapstick Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, which influenced Mel
Brooks’ approach to Young Frankenstein.
In the mid-‘60s, the TV sitcom The
Munsters
presented the iconic monster at the age of 150, living with his
family in the suburbs like any normal guy.

By
the early ‘70s, spoof versions of the Frankenstein story were everywhere. Even
Andy Warhol decided to put his own twist on the story. In 1973, he and director
Paul Morrissey released a soft-core gore-porn version, originally titled Flesh for Frankenstein, a companion
piece to Blood for Dracula, which was
filmed on many of the same sets, with essentially the same cast. 

Even
the blaxploitation genre exploited Mary Shelley’s idea. After the modest
success of 1972’s Blacula, Blackenstein was hurried into theaters
the next year. Unfortunately, Blackenstein
didn’t fare all that well at the box office, though one fan reported,
“There’s something so majestically bad about it that it achieves some kind of
terrible, terrible greatness.” 

In
the summer of 1973, The Rocky Horror Show
hit the London stage, featuring ‘Dr. Frank-N-Furter’ and his muscular creation,
‘Rocky Horror.’ The show was voted Best New Musical by London’s theater critics
and ran continuously for three years. The stage production would soon spawn
1975’s big flop, The Rocky Horror Picture
Show
– which has brought in $139 million in late-night ticket receipts to
date. 

And
in April1972, while on vacation, Gene Wilder felt the tickle of an idea. “After lunch one afternoon, I walked up to my bedroom with a
yellow legal pad and a blue felt-tip pen,” Wilder recalled. “At the top of the
page I wrote, ‘Young Frankenstein,’
and then I wrote two pages of what might happen to me if I were the
great-grandson of Beaufort von Frankenstein and was called to Transylvania
because I had just inherited the Frankenstein estate.”
 

And
the rest is movie history.

 

Sources:

Mary
Shelley, “Introduction,” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,
1831

Jim
Beckerman, “Frankenstein’s Monster Has Eternal Life,” The Record, 10/28/98

Stephen
Jacobs, “More Than the Sum of its Parts: The Writing of Frankenstein,” Creative
Screenwriting
,

10/27/06

Gene Wilder, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, St. Martin’s Press, 2005

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