Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) | A gloriously Gothic primetime TV event that’s just a bit gay too!
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In 19th century England, Dr Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting), bitter over his brother’s untimely death, voices his wish that men could have power over life and death. Following a chance encounter with Dr Henri Clerval (David McCallum), a surgeon experimenting in this very field, they join forces and Victor achieves the impossible, the creation of life. Using solar energy, they create a new Adam (Michael Sarrazin), who is handsome and child-like. But when Clerval suddenly dies and the process starts reversing, causing the Creature to degenerate, Victor turns his back on his creation…
Abandoned and alone, the Creature falls for Agatha (Jane Seymour), a farm girl who dies while fleeing him. Taking her body to Victor, hoping he can revive her, the Creature happens upon Dr Polidori (James Mason), who seizes the opportunity to coerce Victor into helping him create Prima, the first of a new race of synthetic humans he plans to use to make him rich and powerful. After successfully introducing Prima to London society, the evil puppet master tries to destroy the Creature, but it escapes and goes in search of its mate. But when Prima rejects him, the Creature enacts a terrible revenge on all those who abandoned him…
Certainly not the True Story, but an inventive, influential take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It was originally broadcast on US TV in two parts on November 30 and December 1, 1973, with a two-hour edited version going out theatrically in the UK from 19 September 1974. It returned to US TV on 30 December 1974, followed by its TV debut in Europe and Australia (I saw it in 1980).
Penned by acclaimed author Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, the ambitious epic, shot entirely in the UK, was the pet project of American TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr, who was responsible for some of CBS’ big TV hits, including The Munsters, The Twilight Zone, Wild Wild West and Lost in Space. It remains his greatest legacy, as he gives his writers the chance to put their own ‘spin’ on Shelley’s story; fusing the Greek myths of Pygmalion and Prometheus with elements from James Whales’ 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein. In Isherwood and Barchardy’s screenplay, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is no monster, but a second Adam. It is only when the creature’s body starts to regress that Victor – with the help of Polidori, a character not in Shelley’s novel, but based on Ernest Thesiger’s Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein – tries once again to create life, this time in the form of a new Eve.
The stellar cast included Leonard Whiting (best known for starring in Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet) as Victor Frankenstein; Nicola Pagett (Upstairs, Downstairs), as his despondent fiancée Elizabeth; Michael Sarrazin, as the Creature (first beautiful, then pitted and oozing); James Mason, resplendent in oriental robes, as the evil Polidori; a rough-looking David McCallum as the radical Clerval; and Jane Seymour, playing the cat-like Prima, who wears a collar to disguise a tell-tale scar she bears around her neck.
The veteran actors making great little cameos include Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Agnes Moorhead (in her second to last role), while Tom Baker, who was a year off taking over Time Lord duties over on Dr Who, appears as the captain of the ship that Victor flees after his attempts to destroy the Creature go awry.
Coming just a year after ABC’s version starring Robert Foxworth and Bo Svenson, Universal’s NBC special was a far more elaborate and expensive affair and has many Gothic flourishes to recommend it. Jack Smight (Battle of Midway) directs with suitable care (although Stromberg oversaw every element of the production), while cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (Willy Wonka) makes excellent use of the many historic London, Berks, Bucks and Sussex locations – including Cliveden House (infamous for its role in the Profumo affair), St Mary’s Abbott’s Hospital in Kensington, Denham and Hambleden villages and Beachy Head.
What also impresses is Harry Frampton’s make-up for the Creature (chillingly pre-emiting Karposi’s sarcoma – one of the AIDS-defining illnesses of the 1980s); the special effects, which includes that horror staple – the crawling arm; and the atmospheric sets, especially Victor’s lab filled with an assortments of steampunk-ish contraptions. It certainly gives Hammer’s many Frankenstein labs a run for their money.
And talking of Hammer, I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, but there are shades of 1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein lurking within Stromberg’s masterpiece, as that sequel also featured a creature rotting before our eyes and included a scene in which he gatecrashes an elegant party. Incidentally, Hammer veteran Roy Ashton, also worked on the make-up.
Isherwood and Bachardy’s screenplay may deviate from Shelley’s story, but it does capture an essence of Romanticism, paying particular attention to themes of beauty, power, radicalism and class. There’s also a gay subtext running through the drama, which passed directly under the noses of Universal at the time. Being gay himself, Stromberg certainly chose the perfect writers to instill his subtle queer brushstrokes. [see T’is a Queer Tale below].
However, when it came to the final cut, Isherwood and Bachardy were deeply unhappy with the results and subsequently published their script as a paperback tie-in (something which is now prized in my own collection). The major omissions are a prologue in which Mary Shelley is telling her tale of horror to Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and an epilogue, in which the Creature survives the avalanche that Victor triggers to bring about their mutual destruction and we see his hand opening (like the flower petals in the title credits) in response to the rays of the sun. Both these scenes were filmed, but later cut from the final edit.
In 2014, Second Sight Films brought out a UK DVD of Frankenstein: The True Story in its original 176-minute cut, which included the introduction (filled with spoilers) by James Mason that was originally shown on US TV (with Mason standing beside a mock-up of Mary Shelley’s grave. To date, this is the most definitive version of Stromberg’s masterpiece (especially as Amazon Prime only have the 1hr55min version), and a must-have for your collection.
T’IS A QUEER TALE INDEED
Christopher Isherwood is best known for his 1930s Berlin stories that inspired the musical Cabaret. In what must be a historic TV happening for the 1970s, Isherwood and his life partner, the artist Don Barchardy fused their take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a queer subtext, subverting the traditional horror elements to create a primetime gay love story. Here’s how I see it from reading the novel…
Victor Frankenstein is, in Isherwood and Bachardy’s take, a sexually-confused medic about to be married to high society belle Elizabeth. When he meets a kindred spirit in renegade doctor Henri Clerval, the two men start having an affair. When Elizabeth discovers their love nest (at Henri’s lodgings), she brushes off the affair as a dalliance and secretly prays for Victor to come back to her.
In Victor’s eyes, the Creature [read Henri] is his mirror image – a perfect combination of beauty and brains [it’s even got Henri’s grey matter in its skull]. It is only when Victor starts seeing the Creature/Henri’s flaws [and he starts to loose his looks] that guilt gets the better of him. He then dumps the Creature/Henri and goes running back to Elizabeth.
But he hasn’t reckoned on Polidori, a vicious old queen who, knowing Victor’s secret, blackmails Victor into passing off farm girl Prima as a lady. Angry that he’s been cast aside, the Creature gets his revenge by ripping Prima’s head off in full view of Victor, his new wife Elizabeth, and their society friends.
The Creature/Henri’s actions makes Victor realise that his love for Henri is all that matters. A crisis of conscience ensues [represented by the storm at sea] until Victor finally casts aside his feelings of shame and the need to conform [symbolised by the deaths of Elizabeth and Polidori] so that he can finally be with the man he loves – even if it means they must live as outsiders in an icy Antarctic tomb. THE END (or is it?)
In 2017, Little Shoppe of Horrors dedicated an entire issue (no. 38) to Frankenstein: The True Story. This labor of love was researched and written by US director/producer Sam Irvin, covering every minutiae details of the production – from inception to reception and beyond. It is certainly the final word about this oustanding adaptation of the Frankenstein story and I urge you all to seek it out.
Frankenstein: The True Story, Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy, 1973, Avon Books
The Epic Untold Saga Behind Frankenstein: The True Story, Little Shoppe of Horrors, Sam Irvin, 2017
Posted on March 16, 2014, in Horror, Must See, Must-See and tagged 1970s TV movie, Christopher Isherwood, David McCallum, Don Bachardy, Frankenstein: The True Story, Horror, Jack Smight, James Mason, Leonard Whiting, Mary Shelley, Michael Sarrazin, Must See, Second Sight Films. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.