Heroes and villains; heroes and “monsters.” They’ve existed since the dawn of time and Universal’s pictures of them in the 30’s to 50’s have become some of the most timeless and iconic presentations of this archetype.
Monsters! For some strange reason, audiences of all ages have been drawn to stories and movies about monsters, even more so than tales of heroes. The mythic proportions of heroes and villains locked in a perpetual battle is absolutely mythological and also positively biblical. But outside of stories that feature Superman locked in battle with Lex Luthor or Batman fighting The Joker, some of the most enduring stories have been that of the true literary and cinematic monsters, and the heroes that encounter them.
When you ask someone to think of, name, or draw a picture of a monster (maybe their favorite), you’ll most likely get a version that reflects Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their most iconic performances. The first image that comes to mind when thinking of a vampire? Lugosi’s Dracula! What do you envision when you think of Frankenstein’s Monster?
No, no. We immediately think of Jack Pierce‘s copyrighted make-up on Karloff!
But, despite how famous Universal made the monsters such as The Count and Frankenstein’s Monster in their 1931 films Dracula and Frankenstein, it was all because a producer in his early 20’s saw the box office potential and vision that could be brought to the big screen in seeing the potential in such characters. And what was it that Carl Laemmle Jr. was inspired by exactly? It was the 1922 film Nosferatu. And what was F.W. Murnau’s film based loosely upon? Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – a gothic horror novel published in 1897, that also was a successful stage play that starred Bela Lugosi well before he was cast in Tod Browning’s picture.
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was published on May 26, 1897 and while it’s gone on to spawn countless adaptations such as the SHOWTIME series Penny Dreadful and Universal’s 2014 film Dracula Untold, it was not an immediate success when it first released. It’s almost hard to imagine that Bram Stoker’s famous creations in literature – Professor Van Helsing and Count Dracula were not immediate fiction/fantasy/horror icons as they are now.
If it wasn’t for the origins of Professor Van Helsing and Count Dracula, among many other great characters, we’d never have a timeless legacy of great actors portraying these characters such as:
Bela Lugosi as Dracula (Dracula ’31)
Carlos Villarias as Dracula (Dracula ’31 Spanish version)
Frank Langella as Dracula (Dracula ’79)
Christopher Lee as Dracula (Horror of Dracula)
Richard Roxburgh as Dracula (Van Helsing)
Luke Evans as Dracula (Dracula Untold)
Christian Camargo as Dracula (Penny Dreadful)
Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing (Dracula ’31)
Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing (Dracula ’31 Spanish version)
Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing (Dracula ’79)
Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (Horror of Dracula)
Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing (Van Helsing)
David Warner as Van Helsing (Penny Dreadful)
The same could be said for Frankenstein and his monster. The 1931 American Pre-code film, directed by James Whale, was actually not the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” But well before being preserved by the National Film Registry in 1991, it’s easy to say that this is one of the most famous and iconic of adaptations.
After the immediate success of Dracula, which helped Universal’s declining profits, Carl Laemmle Jr. decided to pursue more horror films in the tradition of the hit 1931 film based upon Bram Stoker’s novel. Frankenstein is inspired by the original work of Mary Shelley, adapted by Peggy Webling, then further adapted by John L. Balderston, and adapted once again to the silver screen by Garret Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh.
It’s Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus”, published in 1818 that gave us the characters of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Monster or The Creature. Much like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,”which was published nearly 80 years, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel was also met with confusion and not an immediate enthusiasm. Yet her work would go on to inspire countless adaptations, just like “Dracula”, and catch the eye of Universal.
Let’s take a look at some of the selected talents that have brought Mary Shelley’s characters to life on the screen, big and small.
Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein ’31)
Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein (The Curse of Frankenstein)
Harry Treadaway as Dr. Frankenstein (Penny Dreadful)
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster (Frankenstein ’31)
Lon Chaney Jr. as Frankenstein’s Monster (The Ghost of Frankenstein)
Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster (House of Frankenstein)
Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster (The Curse of Frankenstein)
Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s Monster (Penny Dreadful)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride (The Bride of Frankenstein)
Billi Piper as Brona/Lily “The Bride” (Penny Dreadful)
While Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most obvious characters we’ve had on screen and television since 1931, let’s not forget that Universal’s The Invisible Man in 1933 was the first adaptation of H.G. Wells classic, published in 1897. This science-fiction novel would inspire the James Whale directed picture and would star Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin. As of recent, Johnny Depp has been cast as Dr. Jack Griffin in the “Monsters Universe” of films following June 2017’s The Mummy.
One could say that it was Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel that started it all; 199 years of monsters and the heroes that would challenge them. Audiences have cherished the novels such as “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “The Invisible Man”, and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (to name a select few) for countless years. They are continually enjoyed and are easily found at your local book store and Barnes and Noble retailer. But it’s also these works that went on to inspire Carl Laemmle Jr and those at Universal to make such timeless pictures. These films would give us iconic, spooky, and applaud worthy performances by some of the greats.
Universal Monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein will always have those like Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein waiting in the wings to challenge them. And for as long as readers and viewers will connect to the feelings of being an outsider, looking for companionship, acceptance, and so many other great themes – these figures will continually be timeless…
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)