Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Big Video Wednesday - Frankenstein

Continuing to revisit 50's live sci-fi TV. But before that, I have been planning for quite some time to do the old Batman serials for Movie Monday, only to find out today that damn Lileks beat me to it. Oh well, I'll do my own version in more depth later.

So today's Tales of Tomorrow episode is "Frankenstein," yet another twist on the classic tale starring Lon Chaney Jr. and John Newland (no idea if he is related to Marv Newland), and another illustration of the perils of live TV.

The story opens in Frankenstein's castle, or I should say, the castle Frankenstein is using for his experiments. He apparently doesn't have an ancestral castle of his own, so he's using a summer rental or something. The set isn't bad, and makes good use of the soundstage space, although it's obvious that the stone textures are painted on, especially the flagstones that are only drawn in outlines on the floor. There's one corridor that looks pretty impressive on first sight, but that's mainly due to a forced perspective mural that doesn't look nearly as good when they shoot it later from the wrong angle.

Frankenstein is having dinner with fiancee Elizabeth and her father, as well as his young "cousin" William. Frankenstein talks about how the man of the future will be gigantic and strong and blah-blah-blah-mad-scientist-cakes. Meanwhile, young William has constructed his own monstrosity from the fruit bowl.

Ooh, foreshadowing! And also maybe symbolism (what would a fruity man signify in the 50's?)! High school English FTW!

So Elizabeth and her father leave, and Frankenstein heads down to his lab where he has already built a monster. He turns on his machinery and brings the creature to life. Yow, it's Larry Talbot!

It's not a bad make-up, and for some reason, his eyes gleam really strangely at his initial appearance. The creature freaks out, but Frankenstein calms him down and straps him to the table again. But the moment he leaves, the creature breaks free and roams the castle.

The old butler and maid speculate about Frankenstein's experiments, then flirt and giggle when suddenly the creature appears. The butler tries to fend him off with a chair, but the monster takes it away from him.

In fact, this episode has a legendary behind the scenes story. Apparently, Chaney was an alcoholic and had gotten pretty sauced before the episode was performed. In fact, so the story goes, he was so out of it that he didn't realize they were live and thought they were only in another dress rehearsal. So for instance, in this scene, his blocking is rather tentative and he mugs the camera a couple of times. When the butler comes at him with a chair, Chaney takes it from him, then sets it down on the floor while looking at the camera and muttering something (which may be a reminder to himself to break the chair when they shoot the "actual episode").

The monster stumbles through the halls until he runs across little William's room. William is riding his rocking horse while playing with a wooden sword. The kid playing William, alone among the cast, has a really thick New York accent. "Up an' at 'em and show 'em no quatta!"

The monster wants to play at first, but William, like all young Frankensteins since the book was written, is a little asshole and says, "Let go, yer dumb an' ugly! Yeah, that's what ya are, yer ugly!" The monster looks in the mirror and realizes the kid was right in an orgy of emoting. Then he runs away.

The maid is happily dusting, apparently having forgotten her encounter with the monster all of three minutes ago, when the monster reappears. And once again, Chaney didn't know they were live. He picks up the chair...

sets it down...

mimes picking it up...

then mimes smashing it.

The maid has no idea how to react to this shit on live TV.

The monster kills her before she can blab to anyone how he fucked up this scene.

Cutaway to commercial, during which somebody apparently tells Chaney they're live, because he doesn't do this crap in the second half of the episode (the mid-show commercial segment has apparently been cut out of the Hulu version).

When we return, Frankenstein and the butler kneel over the corpse of the dead maid. In a bit of unconscious expression, Frankenstein absentmindedly points his rifle at his own head. Probably wishing he could kill himself so he could get off this damn show.

Frankenstein vows to kill the monster, but before he can hunt the monster down, it attacks. Frankenstein holds the monster off with a scrap of burning paper and exhorts the butler to shoot the monster "in the chest." Shots ring out, but we never see who fires them. Then the monster rips the bars off a large window to use for a weapon, but it's too late.

Umm, that's not his chest, dude. The monster cries out in humiliation at having his balls shot off and falls through the window. But even though the dialogue refers to a 200-foot fall to the water below, we clearly see Chaney hit a curtain just outside the window, then fall to the floor, where his feet kick up.

But he's not dead. No, it's far from over. Elizabeth and her father have returned, and Victor confesses all to her. But their discussion is interrupted by the screams of the creature returning. Frankenstein figures out that the only thing that can kill the monster is the electricity that brought him to life. So he concocts a brilliant plan.

The plan is this: women and children first. First to meet the monster, that is. He sends Elizabeth and William to lure the monster to the lab, while he and the other men beat feet to safety.

Very brave, guys.

So the monster is electrocuted and all is well.

Okay, not all. Because when the camera cuts away to the announcer, we see the director's hand in the shot for a moment, then hear random bashing and crashing off-camera. But finally it's over.

If you want to see the whole thing for yourself, here it is.

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