One might argue the point, but it’s probably safe to say that Universal’s adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein—which both premiered in 1931 and which spawned a flood of movies based on Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley’s influential books—are two horror movies that have insinuated themselves into the mass consciousness and the popular culture more than any others.
But it’s interesting to note that in both cases, and particularly with Frankenstein, the works on which these popular movies were based had already spawned a number of adaptations for stage and screen.
By the time 1931 rolled around, the horror movie itself was already thirty-five years old. In 1896, just a year after the Lumiere brothers made their pioneering efforts in cinema, French filmmaker Georges Méliès wholeheartedly embraced the new form, turning out more than eighty films, most of which were no more than a few minutes long.
The first of these that could conceivably be called a horror film was Un Nuit Terrible (A Terrible Night). This short short centered on the efforts of a man to fight off giant beetles that had invaded his bedroom. Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) was another one of Méliès' efforts from 1896. It was just over three minutes long and contained elements that became standard operating procedure in later horror films. Most notable among these was a bat that changed into the Devil, a gimmick that anticipated the 1931 movie version of Dracula by more than three decades.
Universal’s Dracula premiered on February 12, 1931. About nine months later – on November 21, 1931 - Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, featuring Boris Karloff in his infamous turn as the monster, had its opening.
But by this time Mary Shelley’s novel, which first made its way into print more than a century earlier, had already been subjected to numerous adaptations, first for the stage and then the screen.
The year was 1818 and Mary Shelley was not even twenty years old when her first book, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus , was published. The first edition was published anonymously, exciting much speculation about who had written it, and it was not until later editions that it was properly credited.
This was probably just as well, since the novel—if the critical notices of the day are any indication—created quite a furor and was not very well received by the critics. The Quarterly Review, a contemporary British publication, castigated Frankenstein for presenting a “tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”, while William Beckworth famously denounced it as “perhaps, the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times”.
But, for all the critical venom spewed in its direction, Frankenstein attracted enough notice that within five years after publication, it had already made its way to the British stage.
On July 28, 1823, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, a two-act play by Richard Brinsley Peake, debuted at English Opera House, commonly known as the Lyceum Theatre. The play was first advertised under the name Presumption and then as Frankenstein; or, The Danger of Presumption. The initial run was for 37 performances during the summer of 1823 and the work was revived numerous times over the years.
Given the fact that Shelley’s novel was considered quite shocking, it’s no surprise that theatrical adaptations of the novel were often toned down. When concerned citizens got themselves up in arms over the contents of Peake’s play and tried to drum up support for a boycott, the playwright responded by changing the name of the play, as already noted. He also modified his telling of the story to give the proceedings a more moralistic tone.
Peake was also responsible for adding several new characters to the mix, including the first of Victor Frankenstein's various assistants. Fritz, and his wife Madam Ninon, seemed to have been created mainly for the purpose of bickering with each other and thus providing a form of comic relief.
Other changes to Shelley’s novel included taking her urbane and well-cultured monster and rendering him mute and rather idiotic, thereby purging him of most, if not all, of the sympathetic qualities he possessed in the novel.
The play, which mixed comedy and music with dramatic content, in a style that predated the burlesque, starred James Wallack as Dr. Frankenstein and Thomas Potter Cooke as the monster. The latter was not given a name in the program, but only represented by a series of dashes. Three years earlier Cooke, who made something of a specialty of portraying vampires and monsters, had starred as Ruthven in a play called The Vampire. This play was adapted from a work by John Polidori, who began his story during the same infamous summer gathering in Switzerland that spawned Mary Shelley’s book. Over the years Cooke presumably became quite familiar with the part of Frankenstein’s monster, given the fact that he played it hundreds of times.
A second edition of Shelley’s novel was issued on August 11, 1823, this time with credit given where it was due. Shelley, whose husband, the renowned and rather infamous poet, Percy Shelley, had drowned the previous summer, attended a performance of Peake’s play in late August. As with so many authors whose works are adapted, Mrs. Shelley had mixed feelings about what had become of her tale.
On the one hand she was impressed that the play had been staged at all and that it had been a success: “But lo and behold I found myself famous! Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama and was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English Royal Opera House." Shelley was also quite liberal in her praise for Cooke, whose creature had a yellow and green face and blue limbs, noting that “all indeed he does was well imagined & executed.” But Shelley ultimately concluded, “the story is not well managed.”
The London Morning Post, in a review published the morning after the first performance, was less charitable:
"We have not that taste for the monstrous which can enable us to enjoy it in the midst of The most startling absurdities. To Lord Byron, the late Mr. Shelley, and philosophers of That stamp, it might appear a very fine thing to attack the Christian faith from a masked Battery, and burlesque the resurrection of the dead, by representing the fragments of Departed mortals as starting into existence at the command of a man; but we would prefer The comparatively noble assaults of Volney, Voltaire, and Paine."
But the dramatic community was obviously not swayed by critical opinion. By the end of 1823 at least four other plays appeared that were based, however loosely, on Mrs. Shelley’s story. On August 18, Frankenstein; or, the Demon of Switzerland, by Henry M. Milner, opened at the Royal Coburg Theatre and ran for eight performances. Shortly thereafter, on September 1, Humgumption; or, Dr. Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton, also opened at the Royal Coburg, running for a mere six performances. On the same day, Presumption and the Blue Demon opened at the Davis's Royal Amphitheater, racking up just two performances. Another Piece of Presumption, a “sequel” to Peake’s first adaptation, opened at the Adelphi Theatre on October 20 and ran for nine performances. In this latter version, a parody of sorts, Peake introduced a not so kind tailor who murdered his apprentices and sewed their various body parts together to devise a monster.
A contemporary publication had this to say about Peake’s new Frankenstein derivative:
“Mr. J. Reeve, an author, attends with Mr. Lee, the stage manager, the rehearsal of a new piece of his, entitled Another Piece of Presumption of which the plot runs thus. Frankenstein, a tailor, wishes to make a man out of nine of his workmen. He administers poison to them, and then clubbing heads, hands, and legs, produces a nondescript--a being without a name. This unknown, who bears the head of a parish scholar and is consequently a linguist, runs about with a dictionary in his hand for the explanation of new terms, and goes on doing mischief in every way, acquiring new sensations until he perishes by the overthrow of a market cart . . . Mr. Wrench was condemned to this buffoonery and very little did he seem to like it . . . it was announced for repetition but with considerable opposition.”
All in all, by the time 1826 rolled around, there were said to have been about fifteen versions based, at least to some small extent, on Shelley’s novel. Another one of these, a parody called Frank-in-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay, opened at the Olympic Theatre for a run of four performances on December 13, 1824. Also making its debut in 1824, at the Davis Royal Amphitheatre, was a version called The Devil Among the Players, which livened things up by tossing a vampire into the mix.
In 1826, Henry Milner offered up yet another adaptation of Frankenstein. This one, The Man and the Monster; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, was later given the title, Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster. Starring Richard John O. Smith as the monster, it was described as a "Peculiar Romantic Melo-Dramatic Pantomimic Spectacle” and was said to be one of the first staged versions to feature a creation scene, something which even Shelley herself glossed over when writing the novel. This version ran at the Royal Coburg Theatre for a total of eight performances.
Earlier the same year, Le Monstre et le magicien, by Jean Toussaint Merle and Antoine Nicolas Beraud, opened in Paris at the Théàtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, where it made an impressive run of 96 performances. This version was said to be more faithful to Shelley’s novel than most. Once again the role of the monster went to Cooke, who was in Paris to also play that role in a revival of one of the earlier Frankenstein plays. A translation of the French work by James Kerr opened at the New Royal West London Theatre on October 9 and ran for four performances.
Frankenstein adaptations continued for the next century or so until the groundbreaking 1931 film version that was, itself, based on yet another dramatic work. Frankenstein: An Experiment in the Macabre was an adaptation of Shelley’s work by playwright Peggy Webling. This version opened at the Preston Theatre in 1927 and starred Hamilton Deane, who had earlier starred in a stage version of Dracula, as the monster. Deane later adapted the play for the American stage.
Some other plays that debuted in the interim years included Frankenstein; or, The Vampire's Victim, a parody written by William and Robert Brough. It opened at the Adelphi Theatre on December 26, 1849, just a few months before Mary Shelley died, and ran for 26 performances.
Yet another adaptation, Frankenstein; or, The Model Man, by Richard Butler and H. Chane Newton, opened at the Gaiety Theatre on December 24, 1887. This play strayed quite far from Shelley’s book, starring Nellie Farren as the first female Frankenstein and Fred Leslie as her decidedly low-key creation.
The first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein to make its way to film was released on March 18, 1910, nearly a century after Shelley’s work was published and just a decade and a half after Méliès pioneered the genre of horror cinema.
The film—Frankenstein—was a 12-minute short by J. Searle Dawley, who directed more than two hundred films between 1907 and 1923 and who made the claim of being the first professional movie director in the United States. Frankenstein was produced by Thomas Edison’s Edison Film Company and starred Augustus Phillips, in one of his first movie roles, as Victor Frankenstein, and Elizabeth Lavenza as Mary. Charles Stanton Ogle, who did his own makeup, starred as the grossly deformed monster, a creation that brings to mind the Hunchback of Notre Dame on a really bad hair day.
In Dawley’s version of Frankenstein, Ogle as "the Creature" is born, through the use of some surprisingly imaginative special effects, in a great cauldron. This scene alone takes up a good deal of the movie’s scant running time. Afterward the monster visits the Frankensteins on their wedding night, causing them no small amount of dismay, before disappearing into a mirror and paving the way for a happy ending.
Apparently Frankenstein still had the capacity to shock audiences even a century after the book appeared. Dawley’s film was banned and for many decades all copies were thought to be lost. Fortunately a copy resurfaced in the U.S. in the Seventies, where it eventually made its way into DVD release, paired with Nosferatu, the first cinematic version of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Though it featured a character named Dr. Frankenstein, The Strange Story of Sylvia Gray, released in 1914, makes no mention of Shelley’s novel, nor does it seem to have much to do with it. The Frankenstein of this story is a hypnotist who coerces a young woman to steal money from her father before being killed by his own jealous wife.
Frankenstein made its way to the big screen again in Life Without Soul, released in November 1915. At seventy minutes, it was the first feature length film adaptation of the novel. Directed by Joseph Smiley, it was somewhat breathlessly described as “A Dramatic Masterpiece, Pulsating With Heart Interest, Interwoven With A Love Tale Of Sacrificial Devotion.” Set in contemporary Manhattan, the story follows Dr. Victor Frawley, a respected physician who dabbles in various unsavory experiments on the side. While reading the novel Frankenstein one night, Frawley has a vivid dream in which he creates a rather normal looking monster – credited as The Creation and played by Percy Standing. After the monster goes on a murderous rampage, Frawley pursues it to the ends of the earth and destroys it. Upon waking, Frawley repents of his nefarious experiments and destroys all evidence of them.
Not much is known about the next pre-Universal adaptation of Frankenstein - Il Mostro di Frankenstein (Frankenstein’s Monster). Directed by Eugenio Testa from a script by Giovanni Drovetti, it was released in Italy in 1921, where it caused something of a furor and was heavily censored. All copies were subsequently lost and remain so to this day. This was the last known cinematic adaptation of the Frankenstein story before the famous Universal version that would make its way to the silver screen a decade later.