Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Frankenstein comes to Irvington.

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Original publish date:  October 11, 2018

Matthew Weedman, Assistant Professor of Art at Wabash College will be presenting his talk “IT’S ALIVE! ELECTRICITY, CINEMA AND METAPHOR IN FRANKENSTEIN” at the Bona Thompson Memorial Center at 2 pm, Sunday, Oct.14. The subject seems a perfect fit for the upcoming Historic Irvington Halloween Festival. But how much do you really know about Victor Frankenstein’s monster? When you think of Frankenstein, do you envision Boris Karloff’s 1931 version? Mel Brooks’ 1974 version? Robert DeNiro’s 1994 version? How about TV’s Herman Munster? Or maybe even the Burger Chef knockoff Crankenburger commercial character from the 1970s? It seems that Frankenstein is in the eye of the beholder. However, with this monster, there is more than meets the eye.

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Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death. That is the epithet given to the year 1816 by those who survived it. 1816 also became known as the year without a summer. In the spring and summer of 1816, the eastern United States was blanketed by a persistent blood red “dry fog” that often blotted out the sun. Neither wind nor rainfall could disperse this crimson fog. Temperatures dipped below freezing every day in May and snow was recorded regularly in June. July and August saw frost on the ground and ice on the rivers from the northwest territory to the eastern seaboard. Europe and the rest of the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before. Located on Sumbawa Island in the East Indies, it was the greatest eruption in Earth’s recorded history up to that time. Crops failed universally and for three years following Tambora’s explosion, almost anywhere in the world, if you were alive you were hungry.
z frankenstein-dracula-fbWhat better time to introduce two of the world’s most popular monsters? Frankenstein and Dracula were born on the same night in the same weekend in 1816. They were brought to life by Mary Shelley and Lord Byron during a contest to see who could create the scariest monster. The weekend was wet and stormy and Lord Byron suggested the reading of ghost stories to pass away the dreary weather. Sitting around a log fire at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, the company of friends amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana. The members of the party were Lord Byron and his mistress Claire Claremont, his doctor John Polidori, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. Lord Byron is known for his poetry, mostly Don Juan. After reading a few stories, Byron suggested that each member of their party write their own story of horror.
That weekend challenge changed the face of the literary world forever. Byron wrote a small novella about a nobleman who rises from the dead. Later on Dr Polidori would use Byron’s unfinished novella and not only would the nobleman rise from the dead, but he would also have to drink the blood of others to sustain himself. Byron named his creation of his nobleman that rose from the dead a vampyre.
Mary-Shelly-Featured-Image-LARGEUnable to think of a story, young Mary became anxious, in the introduction to her book she recalled: “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” During one evening in the middle of summer, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated”, Mary noted, “galvanism had given token of such things”. It was after midnight before they retired, and unable to sleep, she became possessed by her imagination as she beheld the grim terrors of her “waking dream.” In September 2011, astronomer Donald Olson, after visiting the Lake Geneva villa and inspecting data about the motion of the moon and stars, concluded that her “waking dream” took place “between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.” on June 16, 1816, several days after the initial idea by Lord Byron that they each write a ghost story.
Mary Shelley was just eighteen years old when she began writing “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus”. Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister Fanny. This was one of many personal tragedies that impacted Shelley’s work. The horror masterpiece came two years after she’d become pregnant with her first child, a baby she never named. On the eleventh day after her child’s birth, she wrote in her diary: “I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it.” The next diary entry, written the next morning, reads simply, “Find my baby dead.” Her grief at the loss can be seen in later diary entries, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.” and “Awake and find no baby.”
Pregnant again only weeks later, she was likely still nursing her second baby when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant with her third by the time she finished. She didn’t put her name on her book, preferring to publish her novel anonymously in 1818. The first theatrical production of “Frankenstein” was staged in London in 1823. By that time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice.
In 1822, her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness, probably caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her in 1851 at the age of 53. Although principally noted as the literary creator of Frankenstein, it should be noted that Shelley was one of the world’s first fighters for women’s rights. After her husband’s death, she continued to practice her feminist principles by extending aid to women whom society disapproved of. On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, her box-desk was opened. Inside was found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a copy of his poem Adonaïs with one page folded round a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart.
In this his 200th anniversary year, Frankenstein is as popular today as ever. The book tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a doctor who creates a grotesque, intelligent creature by piecing together cadavers collected by the young scientist. The seed for the horror classic can be found in a trip by author Shelley through Europe in 1814. Her journey traveled along the river Rhine in Germany not far from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist was engaged in experiments. On another trip, she travelled in the region of Geneva (Switzerland) where much of the story takes place. The idea for the novel came to her in a dream about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made; her dream later became her novel’s story.
Although the name “Frankenstein” is often used to refer to the monster itself, in the novel, the monster is identified by words such as “creature,” “monster,” “demon,” “wretch,” “abortion,” “fiend,” and “it.” About this apparent misnomer, Shelley, perhaps thinking back on the death of her own unnamed child years before, remarked “This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good.”
Frankenstein - 1931When “Frankenstein” was published it became an immediate sensation. Mary Shelley crafted her book so that readers’ sympathies would lie not only with Frankenstein, whose suffering is dreadful, but also with the creature, whose suffering is worse. Shelley skillfully directs her readers’ sympathy, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes even line by line, from Frankenstein to the creature. Shelley deftly navigates the creature’s vicious murders, first of Frankenstein’s little brother, then of his best friend, and, finally, of his bride. In 1824, one critic wrote, “The justice is indisputably on his side and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree.”
Shelley’s dialog is amazing. “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” relates Victor Frankenstein. The rain patters on the windowpane; a bleak light flickers from a dying candle. He looks at the “lifeless thing” at his feet, come to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Having labored so long to bring the creature to life, he finds himself disgusted and horrified—“unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created”—and flees, abandoning his creation, unnamed.
“Hear my tale,” the creature insists, when he at last confronts his creator. “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing…But, feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.” He learned to walk, and began to wander, still unable to speak—“the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.” Eventually, while secretly observing the villagers talk, “I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse: I learned and applied the words fire, milk, bread, and wood.” In time, the creature acquired “a cursory knowledge of history…I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” He learned that the weak are routinely abused by the powerful, and the poor despised. “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion,” the creature says, before, in the book’s final scene, he disappears on a raft of ice.
Shelley’s novel offers many deeper moral and political ambiguities not often found in the versions that followed. Her novel questions whether Victor Frankenstein is to be blamed for creating the monster-usurping the power of God, and of women-or for failing to love, care for, and educate him. Mary Shelley was dead by then, her own chaotic origins already forgotten. Nearly everyone she loved died before she did, most of them when she was still very young. Of this mortal reality, Shelley, commented, “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.”
In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, Sigmund Freud says that “apparent death and reanimation of the dead have been represented as most uncanny themes”. This, of course, can be related to Frankenstein’s reanimation of a creature made from dead body parts, joined together. When Frankenstein looks upon his creation’s ‘yellow skin… watery eyes… shrivelled complexion and straight black lips,’ he is disgusted and realizes the monster symbolizes Frankenstein’s own death. With so much death and tragedy littering her wake, Shelley too was acutely reminded of her own mortality.
In Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein (written two decades before her death), the author states, “I saw-with shut eyes, but acute mental vision-I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
z frankenstein_1931_stillA century later, a lurching, grunting Boris Karloff defined the most widely accepted version of the creature in Universal Pictures’s 1931 production of “Frankenstein.” Karloff’s monster-portrayed as prodigiously eloquent, learned, and persuasive in the novel-was no longer merely nameless but all but speechless, too. “Frankenstein” has spawned many different depictions in the two centuries since its publication. For its bicentennial, the original, 1818 edition has been reissued in paperback form by Penguin Classics as “The New Annotated Frankenstein.”
Matthew Weedman will address the Frankenstein topic indepth this Sunday afternoon (2 pm at the Bona Thompson Memorial Center) with his talk “IT’S ALIVE! ELECTRICITY, CINEMA AND METAPHOR IN FRANKENSTEIN”.

Hollywood, Indianapolis, Indy 500

Clark Gable at the Indianapolis 500.

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Original publish date:  May 25, 2010                                                                                 Reissue date: May 25, 2018

I originally wrote this article back in May of 2010 and in the years since, I have been informed by a longtime friend (and Irvingtonian) Bruce Gable that there is an Irvington connection, so I figured I’d update it and run it again. For the most part, here it is as it ran back then with a few appropriate updates.

It was 50 years ago that the “King of Hollywood”, Clark Gable died. They called him the king for good reason. Women swooned at his masculine screen presence and men viewed him as the ultimate man’s man. Best remembered as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, most film critics agree that without Gable, GWTW would have blown away quietly. Yet, most Hoosiers don’t realize that Gable has several ties to our fair state.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It is a little known fact that Gable was a devoted race fan who regularly attended races including the Indianapolis 500. In 1950 Gable starred in the movie “To Please a Lady”, filmed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,. Although not critically acclaimed, the movie is considered to be a motorsports classic. Most of the scenes were shot over a three-week period at the speedway. To make the racing scenes as authentic as possible, director Clarence Brown used a good deal of actual professional racing footage. Gable did some of his own driving for close-ups, while a stunt driver took the wheel for the more dangerous shots. The film’s climax was shot at the 1950 Indianapolis 500 won by Johnnie Parsons in a rain shortened race.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck in Indianapolis.

In the film Gable stars as Mike Brannon, a thrill-seeking race car driver whose ruthless tactics cause a crash that results in another driver’s death. Barbara Stanwyck plays Regina Forbes, an influential newspaper columnist who is determined to get him permanently banned from the professional racing circuit. Gable’s Brannan character has a bad reputation and Stanwyck’s columnist Forbes character tries to interview him, but he refuses. Regina’s column suggests that Brannan caused the fatal accident deliberately, which leads to him losing his ride. Brannan begins driving in a stunt show, eventually earning enough money to buy a car of his own and enter the Indy 500 himself. The pair engages in an explosive battle of wills while fighting off an attraction to each other that threatens to spin out of control.
The film was director Clarence Brown’s eighth and final film with Clark Gable, who was also his good friend. Brown managed to pull off some of the most thrilling racing sequences ever filmed, capturing the raw excitement of the speedway by throwing viewers right into the middle of the action. Fans experience the energy of the pit crew in action, the zooming car engines, and the roar of the crowd. Cinematographer Hal Rosson used up to six camera crews at a time to capture action from actual races. The location shooting paid off in the film’s nail-biting climax where car speeds averaged 100 miles an hour.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck.

Gable and Stanwyck are well matched as a romantic onscreen duo whose character’s intense chemistry is undeniable. This was the couple’s second film together. Their first, “Night Nurse”, was made nearly 20 years earlier at Warner Bros. In that movie Gable, not yet a major movie star played a small role as a nasty chauffeur who viciously slaps Barbara Stanwyck across the face. The moment was replicated in the speedway film when Stanwyck took another smack across the kisser from Gable.

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Ironically, “To Please a Lady” was not a major box office success due in part to the surge in household television sales, which by 1950 was rapidly taking business away from movie theaters. However, the film did win plenty of critical praise. The New York Times said of the film: “You can bet that Indianapolis never experienced a contest as hotly run as the race that Mr. Brown has staged.” Variety proclaimed that the movie “has excitement, thrills, with some of the greatest racing footage ever put on celluloid – It firmly returns Gable to the rugged lover, rugged character status.”
The film’s legacy among race fans is the chance to see authentic open-wheel midget and Indy-car racing footage from an often neglected time in auto racing. The montage featuring a racing engine being machined and assembled along with some nice race car close-ups and pit stop action make it a must see flick for gear heads. The film also captures a couple of minutes of authentic footage of Joie Chitwood’s famous stunt car show, a rare treat for vintage race fans.

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Clark Gable and Hoosier Carole Lombard.

Being in Indianapolis was difficult for Clark Gable personally. Married five times, Gable’s most glittering union was with Hoosier actress Carole Lombard. The city was the final stop of a 1942 war bond tour headlined by Lombard, before flying back home to Los Angeles. Tragically, Lombard’s plane never made it, crashing in Nevada killing everyone on board. Gable and Lombard honeymooned at Lake Barbee near Warsaw, Indiana. Their three-year marriage had been the ideal Tinseltown union, and Lombard’s death was a loss from which Gable never recovered.

At the time of “To Please a Lady” Gable had finally remarried, this time to Douglas Fairbanks’ widow, Lady Sylvia Ashley. During filming he seemed happier and healthier than he had been in years according to friends. Even so, Gable remembered his beloved late wife while in Indianapolis. He quietly made a point to visit the downtown locations where Lombard had made her final public appearances before her tragic death.

When Gable left Indianapolis, he had one last surprise waiting for him. Lady Sylvia’s teenage nephew, Timothy Bleck showed up on set with a group of friends and took over several rooms at the Marriott Hotel, where the Gables were staying, charging their bill to the Gable’s account. Many who knew Bleck felt that the youngster had developed a “crush” on Gable. For his part, Gable often complained to his new wife that Bleck and his friends were “eating me out of house and home and always pestering me for money.”

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck breaking bad at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Lady Sylvia, a British National famous for her temper tantrums. Later that same year, she demanded a spacious dressing room for her personal use during Clark’s next movie being filmed in Durango, Mexico, “The Wide Missouri.” (Gable’s first Technicolor film since Gone with the Wind.) Heretofore an exclusive luxury granted only to mega-movie stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The couple divorced within the year.

Gable’s list of film pairings includes many of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. Joan Crawford teamed with Gable eight times, more than any other actress. Jean Harlow starred with Gable in six films in a union that would have undoubtedly continued if not for her untimely death. Lana Turner shared the credits with him four times. Gable worked twice each with Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert. In his final film, “The Misfits” at almost sixty-years-old, Gable starred opposite 34-year-old Marilyn Monroe. Gable had been her childhood idol. The film also starred the tragically flawed fallen film idol Montgomery Clift.

The Misfits would take on a macabre life of its own, fostering whispers of a curse, when Gable suffered a heart attack two days after filming ended, He died ten days later. Monroe and Clift attended the premiere in New York in February 1961 while Monroe was on pass from a psychiatric hospital; she later said that she hated the film and could not watch herself in it. Within a year and a half, she was dead of an alleged drug overdose. The Misfits was the last completed film for both Monroe and Gable.

Montgomery Clift, previously known for his classic profile, had been badly injured in a 1956 car crash requiring reconstructive surgery on his face, evident in his close-ups for “The Misfits”. He died six years after the filming. The Misfits was on television on the night Clift died. His live-in personal secretary asked Clift if he wanted to watch it. “Absolutely not” was Clift’s reply, the last words that he spoke to anyone. He was found dead the next morning, having suffered a heart attack during the night.

Many feel that Clark Gable danced a tango with death and morbid curiosity throughout his career. Gable’s perceived death wish circled around the many dangerous, often violent, themed films he starred in, his early death and the unexpected deaths of his costars. Capped off with the tragic early demise of his wife Carole Lombard. Another eerie connection to Indiana by Clark Gable can be found in the last movie Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger ever saw. Moments before he was gunned down in an alley outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, Public Enemy #1 was watching an MGM film called “Manhattan Melodrama” starring…you guessed it, Clark Gable.

Update: Irvingtonians Bruce and Fred Gable have shared stories with me about their famous relative. Turns out, Clark Gable was a distant cousin. The Gable home was located at 5850 University Avenue across from the guardian home. Bruce & Fred researched the Gable family connection and discovered that their Great-grandfather and Clark Gable’s grandfather were 1st cousins. “They were wildcatters who migrated to Indiana from Pennsylvania in search of oil back in the 1880s,” Bruce states, “All they found was natural gas though and neither made any money on that.”

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Irvingtonian Bruce Gable

The Gable family lived for a time in the Audubon Court apartments and they can remember stories about the elder Gable visiting his cousin / their grandfather in Irvington. Gable’s Great-grandfather owned the Thompkins drugstore on South Audubon Road across from the Magic Candle. The brothers recall a time when telling neighborhood kids that they were related to Clark Gable was a big deal. “Later, when my kids told their friends that, no one knows who they’re talking about.” says Bruce. As for that I’ll quote Rhett Butler by saying, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” because I’m just glad to hear that Irvington has a connection to one of the most admired leading men in Hollywood history.