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First Impressions:
Discovering Frankenstein

August 1st, 2022

A recent episode of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre features responses to the question “Where did you first encounter Frankenstein?” The responses are varied, with listeners referencing Mel Brooks, Boris Karloff, and (appropriately) Mary Shelley. But a response closest to my own experience is from a Facebook friend who reports that she had been aware of Frankenstein long before finally seeing any of the movies or reading the book. That’s understandable, considering how the monster is part of pop culture in such a way that it’s hard to believe anyone actually makes its acquaintance for the first time in either Mary Shelley’s novel the Universal films.

In my case, growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950’s, the first sighting of the iconic monster came in the Warner Brothers cartoons that were the staple of children’s programming in the early days of television. One example is 1935’s “Hollywood Capers” [above], which features some of the early work of Chuck Jones. The story stars Beans the Cat who happens upon the Frankenstein monster lying on an operating slab in a Hollywood studio. Beans removed its shroud, then runs for his life. Mayhem ensues.

And then there’s “Porky’s Road Race” (1937), in which Porky Pig enters a race only to find himself competing against a ruthless driver named Borax Karloff. Working in his auto lab (at right) Borax creates a monstrous racer emblazed with lucky-number 13 and then proceeds to give Porky a real run for his money. The entire cartoon, in glorious black-and-white, is available on Vimeo.

I remember seeing both cartoons as a kid, watching them on a rabbit-eared RCA that was just a step up from radio (a point covered in the previous post “Primordial Score“).

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about how old-time radio encouraged listeners to use their imagination to create mental images more frightening than any provided by visual media. Old-time television did much the same, presenting viewers with grainy, staticky, Rorschach-test visuals that required them to fill in the missing visual information on their own. I’m sure that’s part of the reason these cartoons made such an impression. They were partly of my own making.

One of my most vivid recollections is of the cartoon “Porky’s Movie Mystery” (1939), in which the Frankenstein monster is interrogated by a shadowy police officer.

“Come on now!” the cop says. “Start talking, small fry! Quit beating around the mulberry bush. Let’s have it or I’ll beat your ears out.” At which point the monster begins biting his nails in terror (left) to the clicking sound of a manual typewriter.

Classic stuff!

But maybe the most memorable monster sighting came in “Hollywood Steps Out” (1941). Directed by Tex Avery, this one features a bevy of caricatures of well-known movie stars. That is, they were well-known to Tex Avery. I had no idea who they were–with one exception. In the middle of the cartoon, when the Frankenstein monster dances the conga (below) I was back in familiar territory.

All these cartoons were made for a generation of moviegoers familiar with the Universal Frankenstein films. Starting with Frankenstein (1931) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), those moves were out of circulation for most of the 1950s, not showing up again until the end of the decade when Universal began licensing them for broadcast television.

I’m sure I caught up with Karloff’s portrayal sometime after that. Strangely, I don’t remember the first time I saw it.

Perhaps I was unimpressed. It wasn’t a cartoon.

This past weekend, I got the chance to talk about all these things and more when I joined podcast hosts Nicholas Schwartz and Brantley Palmer on their show Horror Drafts. The interview should air later this week, and I’ll be sure to post a link when it does.

In the meantime, starting today, I’ll be posting supplemental information on the many Frankenstein-related works Brantley, Nick, and I discussed on the show. That way, anyone interested in seeking out some of those titles can have access to links and photos like the ones above. In the meantime, here’s a link to all past Horror Drafts episodes. If you love the genre, you really need to give this podcast a listen.

Also in the days ahead, I hope to post recaps of the weekend’s Confluence panels The Pandemic’s Impact on Horror Fiction and Where To Next? Trends in Science Fiction.

So come back soon, and if you have any memories to share about where you first encountered Mary Shelley or her monster, please post a comment below or reach out via the social media buttons at the top of this page. Let’s keep the conversation going.