It's Alive: The True Story of Frankenstein (1994)

TV Movie   |    |  Documentary

Mary Shelley created a monster in 1818, and writers, actors and filmmakers haven't been able to get enough of it ever since. The history of the creature on and off the screen includes clips... See full summary »


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Richard Brown


Richard Brown

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23 October 2005 | rsoonsa
| Mary Shelley's Fantasy Given Admirable Treatment In Well-Produced Documentary.
For this engrossing documentary, hosted in competent fashion by Roger Moore, with narration by Eli Wallach and others, focus is upon the lasting influence of teen-aged author Mary Shelley's novel, continually in print since 01 January, 1818, a work of iconic significance, examining its various manifestations within stage, screen, and other formats, the 1931 James Whale directed film being examined in substantial detail. That famous feature, with Boris Karloff, is discussed relative to its casting (Bela Lugosi refused the part of the monster because the script denies the character any possibility of engendering pathos, as he saw it as strictly a killing machine; Bette Davis was offered the female lead by Whale but she was denied the role by Universal Pictures kingpin Carl Laemmle, Jr., since he believed that she had too little sex appeal; conversely, Laemmle wanted Leslie Howard to play as Doctor Henry Frankenstein, but here Whale opted for Colin Clive); cutting (shown are the notorious excised unintended death by drowning of a young girl at the hands of the monster; Henry's statement "I know what it feels like to be God", considered by censors to be more than slightly sacrilegious); design (notably the startling electrical devices created by Kenneth Strickfaden, utilized again 43 years after in Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the equipment still in perfect working order. The process by which Shelley wrote Frankenstein is treated in an interesting manner, and includes an overview of the literary circles to which she and her talented parents belonged, with her most renowned achievement resulting from an 1816 ghost story "contest" that Mary and her friends held in a snowbound Geneva, her ingenious effort being stimulated by the newborn scientific discipline of electricity that obsessed the callow 18 year old authoress, isolated by severe winter weather in a region remote from that of her former home. From the printed page to the theatre and on to cinema, Shelley's tale has been altered in many ways, as over one hundred versions have been penned for the stage by as many dramatists and there have been many motion pictures, the initial three featuring Karloff and these, in addition to subsequent entries, form the largest body of filmed works from those with a specific plotting subject, many of them sampled here including those with Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, Christopher Lee and others as the monster, and there is also footage of somewhat unappealing interpretations, even these serving to emphasize the durability of the original. Moore and others consistently point out that, in spite of an appearance that is not likely to bring an affectionate reaction from most viewers, Doctor Frankenstein's creature becomes a sympathetic character for some, as he is plainly a victim of his maker's ego, one of numerous Jungian/Adlerian/Freudian analyses that mark this documentary, most coming from American professors of English. The act of cloning that has generated widespread public anxiety is discussed amid the large amount of Frankensteiniana that includes the monster's filmed appearances for advertising, popular music, television comedy series, and additional manifestations, in this valuable compendium that showcases what Kenneth Branagh refers to as "a primal myth" i.e., when man is tempted to exercise his will toward being a god.

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