Frankenstein: The True Story
There's an argument, expressed particularly by Brian Aldiss in his history of written science fiction Billion Year Spree, that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, was the first SF novel. There had certainly been novels dealing with the fantastic before then, but Shelley's novel was written in a time when scientific progress had become meaningful and the story's fantastic elements were brought about by quasi-scientific means. That said, the novel belongs squarely in the gothic tradition that was popular at its time and its continued influence is as a work of horror. And you can certainly argue that the story's continued resonance is due to its cinematic adaptations, which go back to silent days but became iconic with Jack Pierce's makeup for Boris Karloff in the 1931 James Whale film version made for Universal. There have been several screen adaptations since, with Hammer's own take probably second in stature to Universal's.
Frankenstein: The True Story, scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, was another take on the material, made for US television in 1973. It was designed as a hybrid: shot in 35mm and intended both as a three-hour, two-part television movie (taking up two two-hour slots with the commercial breaks) but also cut down to 123 minutes and shown in cinemas in the UK and elsewhere. It certainly wasn't unheard of for television movies to get cinema releases overseas: Sybil (1976), with a star-making performance from Sally Field, similarly was cut down from three hours in two parts to just over two and given a big-screen release. There have been many ninety-minuters which saw the light of a projector lamp: The Killers being a famous example, also Duel, Elvis, The Jericho Mile and much more recently Behind the Candelabra, all seen in cinemas in the UK. This isn't just the case with US television films though: Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Fanny and Alexander all played at full length as TV serials and were shown in cut-down versions in cinemas. Another recent example is the French-made Carlos.
The version on this DVD is the full-length one. Despite that “True Story” subtitle, this is a loose adaptation of the novel, with the introduction of what was a real person (Dr Polidori, friend of the Shelleys and Lord Byron, played here by a top-billed James Mason) as a colleague and fellow experimenter in the sciences to Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) and Henry Clerval (David McCallum).
The film's television origins are certainly visible, with some rather bland direction by Jack Smight and Arthur Ibbetson's camerawork being quite brightly lit, presumably so that anything too shadowy wouldn't devolve into murk on 1973 TV sets (many of which would have been black and white anyway). The content seems constrained by the demands of American network television: while the gruesomeness was enough to gain the UK cinema release a AA certificate (restricting audiences to fourteen-year-olds and older – it's a 12 now) it does seem rather circumspect compared to other versions before and since. This is particularly noticeable during the Creature's fateful encounter will fellow creation Prima (Jane Seymour) at a party..Given that the script was written by one of Hollywood's most prominent gay couples, subtexts abound here – I'll leave you to ponder that the Creature is here very handsome (his beauty much remarked upon) before decline sets in, rather than the intended ugliness of Karloff and others beneath their makeup. A solid cast includes a large number of Brits, explained by the film's being shot in England. Tom Baker, a year before Doctor Who turns up towards the end as a shaggy-haired and bearded sea captain and Yootha Joyce and Peter Sallis can be seen in small roles. Isherwood and Bachardy's original script – which differs somewhat from the final version – was published as a book, and includes a Bride of Frankenstein-type prologue with Mary telling her story to her husband, Byron and Polidori on that fateful night near Lake Geneva.
So, no classic then, but a prestigious, and prestigiously-budgeted stab at the material, which does hold the interest over the three hours.
Second Sight's release of Frankenstein: The True Story is a single, dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. This is the full-length television version, in two parts, with an End of Part One caption (but no credits at the end of the first part) and a reprise at the beginning of Part Two. The disc allows you the option to play each part separately (82:51 and 92:59) or to Play All.
As mentioned above, Frankenstein: The True Story was shot in 35mm open-matte, with shots composed for 1.85:1 for the cinema release but protected for 1.33:1 for television showings. The DVD is presented in 4:3, not anamorphically enhanced. If you want to replicate the cinema experience you can zoom the image to 16:9 if you wish. The DVD transfer is somewhat soft and hazy, which may well reflect the televisual origins. It's certainly the case that overly shadowy lighting is generally avoided.
The soundtrack is the original mono and is a professional job of work, clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for the feature and the one extra on the disc.
That extra is an introduction by James Mason (5:31). This assumes considerable ignorance in the audience, that they would not know that Frankenstein and his creation are not the inventions of Hollywood but that of Mary Shelley. Mason walks through St John's Wood Cemetery and stands by Shelley's gravestone – which may come as a surprise to anyone who has visited the family plot in Dorset where she is actually buried. This item contains several extracts from the feature, and a good few spoilers too.