Monday, January 9, 2012

It's Alive!

It's Alive!, by Gregory William Mank
No month stated, 1981 The Tantivy Press

This past summer I watched all of the old Universal horror Dracula-Frankenstein-Wolf Man flicks in "order," the first time I've ever done so. There really is a loose chronology between the films, even if certain characters/time periods are changed at whim. As expected, I found the '30s material vastly superior to the cut-rate '40s output, with more inventiveness, creativity, and superior production values. In fact I found the '40s movies (ie The Wolf Man, House of Dracula) pretty damn stupid, and it boggles my mind that these movies have such a devoted fan following.

You could rank Gregory Mank at the forefront of such following. This was his first book, published in 1981, and Mank continues to publish to this day books on the golden age of horror movies, particularly the Universal output. It's Alive! compiles all of Mank's considerable research on the Frankenstein films Universal released from 1931 through 1948, with an appendix on later film versions of the character. Mank does a thorough job of providing a synopsis of each film (a bit incidental in our DVD era, but the fact is this book was published even before the VHS versions were released), a rundown of the production history, comments from various actors and crew (compiled from contemporary sources or from people Mank himself intereviewed), a listing of deleted footage, and finally a recap on how the film performed.

The only problem with It's Alive! is that it's so damn hard to find these days. Long out of print, the book goes for excessive prices. I was lucky enough to get a copy for fairly cheap. I first heard about the book a few years ago; sources claimed that Mank provided a lot of detail, including production stills, of material that was cut from the various films. Like most I consider James Whale's 1935 offering The Bride of Frankenstein the best of the series (except for those days when I consider Rowland Lee's 1939 The Son of Frankenstein the best), and after hearing that a significant amount of material was cut from the film, I had to get Mank's book to find out more. (Long story short, a subplot involving Dwight Frye's lurchy character was cut from the film; in it he was killing villagers and blaming it on the Frankenstein Monster).

Again, this was Mank's first book, and he appears to struggle for balance. Parts of It's Alive! come off rather scholarly, with Mank laying down the details in factual manner. Other parts get a bit more colorful (he's fond of finishing sentences with exclamation points, never the mark of a scholar), making the book seem like a looong Famous Monsters of Filmland article. But again his depth of research is admirable, especially given that he took the trouble to hunt down the surviving cast and crew of the various films for first-hand recollections.

The book is filled with production stills, poster art, behind the scenes shots, and candid photos, all in black and white. For me though the highlight of the book was reading how different these films were in their original incarnations, particularly the long-lamented Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in which Bela Lugosi played the Monster; in the original cut, the Monster was "half-blind" and could speak, but all of this was cut from the film right before release, making Lugosi's Monster seem like a half-wit.

Since reading It's Alive! I've read another Mank book, his Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, from 2009. Vast parts of that book are almost rewrites of the material in It's Alive!, with Mank providing even more background detail and cast/crew interviews. I'll be reviewing that one here soon; of the two, it's a much better read than It's Alive!

As a final stupid note...I watched those Universal films in the depth of the summer, drunk most of the time, and began to wish that some dopesmoking cinema scholar in the late '60s had published a study on the films, ie the "gnostic" bent of the movies (that the Monster didn't represent man, and Dr Frankenstein the gods, but that the Monster represented the gods and Dr. Frankenstein represented man -- ie, man creates his own gods, gods which eventually cause his own death). I further thought some sort of knee-jerk scholarly bent could be derived from the hopscotching of actors in different roles throughout the film -- how Lon "Mr. Potato Head" Chaney Jr. (thanks to Ethan Morrden) is the Monster in one movie, the Wolf Man the next...further proof of the gnostic diagram of life, or something.

Like I said, I was drunk at the time, but damn it would've been a cool book.


Tim Mayer said...

Agree with BRIDE being the best of the lot.
I grew up on these films, so I'll always be biased toward them.
Do see them on a big screen with 35mm prints if you ever have the chance. The way they were meant to be shown.

Will Errickson said...

Diggin' that "gnostic" view of FRANKENSTEIN, man.

Sean said...

I read this about 30 years ago. The detail I remember most was of Lon Chaney, Jr., in full Frankenstein Monster regalia, taking clandestine nips from a hidden bottle of hooch in the back alleys of the Universal lot.

Joe Kenney said...

Tim, I've never had the pleasure of seeing a classic film on the big screen, but man I've wanted to.

Will, glad you like my idea! Man I wish some obsessed film scholar had written such a book back in the day. I'm really surprised one didn't.

Sean, Chaney Jr comes off like a total ass in Mank's book. I recently read his later "Lugosi and Karloff" (review coming soon) and Chaney comes off even worse. He sounds like he was a drunken bully, blaming his attitude on his famous father's (supposed) abuse. One of Chaney's friends (Curt Siodmak, maybe?) claims it's more likely Chaney was "confused" about his sexuality and used the abuse story as a convenient crutch to blame his bad attitude. You are correct about the detail you remember, though the highlight is probably Eveyln Ankers relating the story that her fiance knocked Chaney out one night, sick of his loud mouth. Now THAT would have made for a movie -- a hell of a lot better than "House of Dracula," that's for sure!