The Epic Untold Saga Behind
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973)
Explodes in the Special New Issue of
LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #38
by Sam Irvin
I’ve been a fan of Frankenstein: The True Story ever since it was first broadcast on NBC-TV in two parts in 1973. First of all, the cast was incredible: James Mason, Leonard Whiting, Michael Sarrazin, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud and Tom Baker! The scope of the movie was epic – and I later learned it had the highest budget of any made-for-television movie AND the highest budget of any horror film up to that time.
When Richard Klemensen, editor and publisher of Little Shoppe of Horrors, offered me the opportunity to spearhead an issue of the magazine devoted entirely to Frankenstein: The True Story, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
This movie inspired an entire generation of writers and directors, myself included. Immediately upon seeing the film, Anne Rice was directly inspired to write Interview with a Vampire – and she has contributed a foreword to the issue.
Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) is another fan who contributed an essay called “Queer Frankenstein” examining the gay subtext of the film – which was scripted by legendary gay couple Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.
Guillermo del Toro wrote that the movie is “quirky, brilliant and moving.”
So why is this film so often forgotten? It is my mission to rectify that injustice and to present, for the very first time anywhere, a detailed analysis of the making of this groundbreaking milestone – with over twenty interviews of cast and crew, including Leonard Whiting, Jane Seymour, David McCallum and co-screenwriter Don Bachardy. Whether you are a fan or not, the adventure behind its creation is so astounding, it is an epic unto itself. Prepare to catch your jaw before it drops to the floor.
To give you just a taste of what I have uncovered during years of investigation, here is an excerpt to whet your appetite – a chapter entitled The Elsa Lanchester Crisis:
Hunt Stromberg Jr., producer of Frankenstein: The True Story, set his sights on collecting guest stars to play the various featured roles in the film. For the part of Mrs. Blair, the nosy landlady of Dr. Frankenstein – which Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis had already turned down – Stromberg wanted a “Una O’Connor type,” referring to the quirky Irish character actress who played Minnie, the mettlesome and skittish housekeeper, in Bride of Frankenstein.
In 1942, when Universal released The Ghost of Frankenstein, critics noted that certain actors in the movie, such as Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye, had portrayed different characters in earlier Frankenstein films, prompting the studio to issue a press release stating that it was “the custom of the studio” to bring back some of “the same faces in each succeeding feature of the Frankenstein series.”
Inspired by this hallowed tradition, Stromberg suddenly became obsessed with the idea of Mrs. Blair being portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, 70 – next-door-neighbor of Frankenstein: The True Story screenwriters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy – who had so memorably played Mary Shelley and the female creature in Bride. Stromberg met Lanchester in early 1935 when he was just 11-years-old – when she was simultaneously shooting his father’s movie Naughty Marietta at MGM and Bride of Frankenstein at Universal – and, from then on, she’d remained a family friend. In the 1960s, when Stromberg was VP of Programming for CBS, he personally cast her as a guest star on a number of CBS shows – and, impishly, he made a habit of ending letters with this tongue-in-cheek wrap-up: “Must close now, as Elsa Lanchester has just arrived to show off her new wart.”
Though she occasionally grumbled about her fame as the Bride, in truth, Lanchester basked in the glory of her most famous role – and, in the autumn of her career, she did not shy away from spooky projects that played upon that image, including Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Willard (1971) and an episode of Night Gallery (1972). And she certainly had no problem adding those two familiar wavy white streaks to her frizzy mane when she guest-starred as a mad scientist on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Brain-Killer Affair (1965) – a shameless sendup of her electrifying coiffure in Bride. That gig also introduced Lanchester to U.N.C.L.E. series regular David McCallum who would work with her again in Frankenstein: The True Story if Stromberg had his way.
Lanchester truly wanted to do it – but, alas, she was already committed to shoot two back-to-back, low-budget horror films in Hollywood at the very same time – Terror in the Wax Museum and Arnold for Bing Crosby Productions. Gnashing his teeth, Stromberg offered to buy out Lanchester’s contract but the producers held firm. Then, he turned to his associate producer Ian Lewis and said, “My father managed to work around Bride of Frankenstein in order to get Elsa into his movie. Why can’t we figure out a way to do the same?”
“I remember ‘the Elsa Lanchester crisis’ very well,” recalled Ian Lewis. “Hunt damn near drove us crazy but, ultimately, she just couldn’t be reasonably scheduled.”
Heartbroken, Lanchester honored her contract and remained Stateside to perform in two of the most forgettable films on her resume. What’s even sadder is that, after finishing those films, she didn’t work again for two-and-a-half years (until her comeback in the all-star spoof Murder by Death).
For the role of Mrs. Blair, Stromberg finally landed Agnes Moorehead, 72, who had won an Emmy, two Golden Globes, and four Oscar nominations – not to mention her iconic role as Endora, Samantha’s witch of a mother, in Bewitched (1964-1972).
As luck would have it, Moorehead knew Una O’Connor quite well, having worked with the actress in RKO’s Government Girl (1943). So, Stromberg’s directive to play Mrs. Blair as “a Una O’Connor type” was taken to heart – resulting in Moorehead affecting a thick Irish accent and hamming it up for all it was worth.
This is just a tiny sliver of my 50,000-word exposé that is presented in Little Shoppe of Horrors #38. The making of Frankenstein: The True Story is jam-packed with surprises beyond your wildest imagination and reads like a Who’s Who, directly involving such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Francis Ford Coppola, John Boorman, John Schlesinger, Jon Voight, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Franco Zeffirelli, Olivia Hussey, Laurence Olivier, Frank Langella, Jacqueline Bisset, François Truffaut, Angela Lansbury, Boris Sagal, Barbra Streisand, Jon Peters, Mia Farrow, Sid Sheinberg, Lew Wasserman, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Geoffrey Holder, Harry Saltzman, Peter Ustinov, James Bridges, Albert Finney, Rex Harrison, Simone Signoret, Julie Christie, Lindsay Anderson, Richard Chamberlain, Mervyn LeRoy, Alec Guinness, Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Valerie Hobson, John Profumo, Robert Morley, Peter Yates, Candice Bergen, George Seaton, Alan Bates, Maurice Jarre, Anthony Perkins, Michel Legrand, Burt Lancaster, John Barry, Anthony Quinn, Richard Rodney Bennett, Tuesday Weld, Neil Diamond, Ernest Borgnine, Mae West and Queen Elizabeth. I kid you not.
To help us celebrate the completion of this issue, events are being scheduled as though this were a book. Well, it pretty much is!
To kick things off on the West Coast, Creature Features – Taylor White’s amazing store and gallery in Burbank, California – is hosting a retrospective discussion and exhibit (of FTTS memorabilia and all the original artwork in the magazine) on Sunday, June 18, 2:00-3:30 PM, with guest panelists James Duke Mason, Julian Barnes (supporting actor in the film), Denise Mellé (widow of the film’s composer Gil Mellé), artist Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) and yours truly. Limited edition prints, signed and numbered, of the cover mural artwork by Mark Maddox will be on sale exclusively at the Creature Features store/gallery and website.
On the weekend of June 23-25, LSoH editor Dick Klemensen, cover artist Mark Maddox, interior artist Neil D. Vokes and I will be attending the Monster Bash Convention near Pittsburgh, PA, to meet, greet and drumbeat the issue.
Then, it’s on to Manhattan where Dread Central & Forbidden Planet are co-presenting a FREE screening and discussion of Frankenstein: The True Story at the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011, on Tuesday, June 27, 6:00-10:00 PM, hosted by legendary Tony Timpone (former editor of Fangoria). A unique 16mm print will be projected with everything from the original telecast, plus extra seconds of censored footage only seen in the foreign theatrical release. Guest panelists will include Alec Smight (son of the late Jack Smight, director of Frankenstein: The True Story), Philippe Spurrell (founder of Cinéclub/Film Society of Montreal; curator of this unique 16mm print), James Anthony Phillips (who wrote the sidebar on Gil Melle’s score for the issue) and, again, yours truly.
And, finally, on Thursday, June 29, from 6:00-8:00 PM, I will be signing copies of the magazine and chatting up a storm at Forbidden Planet, 832 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, thanks to the store’s intrepid manager / gore guru Matt Desiderio.
I look forward to seeing you at these special events and/or communicating with you on my Facebook page. I hope you enjoy the issue! It has been the ultimate labor-of-love.