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Friday, December 9

The Frankenstein That Might Have Been...

The 1931 film FRANKENSTEIN, released 80 years ago this month by Universal Studios, is rightfully regarded as one of the classics of horror cinema. Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, it is a tale of mad science run amok and the consequences of man’s attempt to play God. The story has stood the test of time and remains the greatest adaptation of the Shelley novel (despite it’s wide variance from the plot of the novel).
This film was very nearly a different movie, however, if Universal had followed through with its original plans for this adaptation. Director Robert Florey originally brought the Frankenstein story to Universal, and in fact wrote a screenplay for the film along with Garrett Fort. This was after the wild success of DRACULA months earlier, with Universal attempting to cash in on the horror bug while it was still biting. According to Gordon B. Shriver, in his book BORIS KARLOFF, THE MAN REMEMBERED, he interviewed Robert Florey in 1973 and asked him about his original film treatment. Here is what he said:
             “While writing the adaptation of Shelley’s story, my idea was to give the role of Dr. Frankenstein to Lugosi.”
Interesting. It was natural for Florey to have Lugosi in mind, as he was the biggest horror star of the day. Universal ordered Florey to shoot a test reel of Frankenstein. Perhaps curious or nervous about how it would look, they had Florey shoot the test footage on the castle set of Dracula, which was still standing. However, Universal didn’t buy Florey’s plan for Bela as Dr. Frankenstein and wanted him in the role of the Monster, undoubtedly thinking about the success of Lon Chaney Sr. years earlier and hoping to duplicate it with Lugosi.
Here’s Florey again:
            “I directed several sequences –about two reels—of the first Frankenstein script with Bela as the Monster. I told Dick Shayer (head of production at Universal) that any tall bit player could play the Monster, but apparently my suggestion was rejected.”
This is backed up by horror scholars Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas in their book UNIVERSAL HORRORS, THE STUDIO’S CLASSIC FILMS: Florey’s test reel of Frankenstein…photographed by Paul Ivano on the Dracula castle set (which lasted only 20 minutes after editing) starred Bela Lugosi in Jack Pierce’s early makeup design.         
This footage is long lost, sadly. No one knows what Lugosi looked like in those test reels or how it played out, and this bit of film is as highly sought after as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. There have been reports Lugosi wore an early version of the Pierce design, as well as Lugosi appearing in makeup and wig (a-la the Edison Frankenstein version) But whatever the case, after Florey turned in the test reels the project was handed over to James Whale. Was it so laughingly bad that Universal felt the need to hand the reins to someone else? Or was it so successful that Whale, a rising force at Universal, inserted himself into the project and took it over?

It is interesting and fun to speculate on what might have been. Had Florey gotten his way, the film might have looked something like this:           


Directed by Robert Florey
Seen here with Karloff on the set on the greatest THRILLER episode ever,
THE INCREDIBLE DR. MARKESON, directed by Florey.

Cinematography by Karl Freund
(who worked with Florey on his subsequent picture, Murders in the Rue Morgue)

Bela Lugosi

as Dr. Henry Frankenstein

The Monster ?
Insert tall actor – perhaps even Boris. 
According to Shriver Robert Florey had actually met Boris Karloff in the past, while working on a film called OMAR THE TENT MAKER. Shriver asked Florey if perhaps he suggested Karloff play the part of the Monster, but he said no, that wasn’t the case. But the fact he knew Karloff certainly makes the idea of Boris playing the Monster in this scenario still possible. Perhaps it would have been destiny...


Sidney Fox as Elizabeth

Florey's leading lady (and Bela's costar) in Murders in the Rue Morgue was the diminutive 4'11" Fox.The nearly 7 ft Monster would have looked HUGE next to her, and rumors abounded later that she was having an affair with studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., which certainly wouldn't have hurt her chances of getting the role...

Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
One of two men to appear in both Frankenstein and Dracula, there is no reason to think he wouldn't have played the role had Florey directed.

 Dwight Frye as Fritz
The other of two men appearing in Frankenstein and Dracula,
he would fit the role perfectly.


  1. Fun article, Gangrene! Couple of corrections, if I may: Frye’s character was “Fritz”. He played “Karl” in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Both Van Sloan and Frye were in the Florey test, making them the first two actors cast for FRANKENSTEIN. The first actor announced in the papers as Frankenstein was Leslie Howard, and a young Betty Davis was considered as Elizabeth.

    Another thing: The test reel was not “only” 20 minutes, but rather “astoundingly” 20 minutes. Think of it: The whole thing was shot in only 2 days! Getting 20 minutes of usable footage in 2 days work is quite a feat. Look at it this way: In something like 12 to 16 hours, Florey shot roughly 30% of the finished FRANKENSTEIN, which clocked in at 70 minutes. Pretty amazing, if true!

  2. Howdy Pierre!
    Thanks for the catch on ole Fritz's name - brain cramp there (typed quickly before I walked out the door) - and corrected now!

    I put in the ? for actor based on Florey's remarks. But yeah, I think he'd have gone for Howard in that role. I like the idea of Sidney Fox as Elizabeth - again, sleeping with the studio heads is a time honored way of getting a leg up in this industry, right? Plus she was really beautiful!

    Good point on the 20 min test reel - that's one helluva test reel!! Frenetic pace and I REALLY wish it would surface one day. David Skal lists several folks remembrances of Lugosi's look in the test reel in his MAD SCIENCE book, (as I'm sure you as familiar with), and they vary wildly. Would love to see what they actually shot.