Thursday, 6 March 2008


Like most people who noticed him at all I first became aware of Jack Smight as a director with his excellent Paul Newman starrer HARPER, based on the novel by Ross MacDonald and the off-beat thriller NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. A couple more offbeat features followed before Smight began working his way pleasantly through episodes of Madigan, Banacek, McCloud and Columbo. I found his work consistent enough that I always tried to catch it when I could. One evening in 1973 I settled down to watch his tv movie THE SCREAMING WOMAN based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. Smight had worked with Bradbury’s writing before with mixed results (THE ILLUSTRATED MAN) but Bradbury himself was, reportedly, very happy with the new film and that was recommendation enough for me. About halfway through the movie I realised something was wrong and soon figured out that two of the reels had been shown in the wrong order. As no apology was forthcoming when the film finished I rang the tv channel and discovered that only one other person had phoned to point out the mistake. The tv people took my name and phone number and a few days later I found out who the other complaining viewer was because he rang me! It turned out it was Jack Smight himself who had tuned in from his hotel room in London to watch is movie and was horrified to discover how badly the tv people had treated. After my call the tv company had rung Smight back and given him my phone number and he decided to ring me and thank me personally and thank me for caring enough to to protest. After I got over the shock of having a Hollywood director ring me at home we talked for a few minutes and Smight told me that he actually liked working in television rather than for the big screen. He explained that he was in England to make a three hour tv movie called FRANKENSTEIN-THE TRUE STORY and was thrilled with the distinguished cast. That was about it, really, just a few minutes….well it’s more than I got out of Fred Zinnemann, but that, as they say, is another story.

FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE STORY was adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel by Christopher Sherwood and Don Bachardi. It was quite blatantly not what its title claimed it to be. It is no closer to the original novel than some other versions and a lot more distant than a few others (notable Calvin Beck’s version and the Kevin Connor version of a few years back) but it is, nevertheless, a highly enjoyable production. The first half of the film follows Victor Frankenstein’s meeting with Henry Clerval and how he continues Clerval’s work investigation into the creation of life itself. Frankenstein eventually succeeds and creates his “creature” – and it is at this point that the films make its first detour from the usual Frankenstein legend. Victor’s creation is a physically beautiful young man. Victor teaches him to speak, instructs him in social etiquette and enjoys an idyllic life (much to the chagrin of his fiancée) with his protégée. It doesn’t take much imagination to read this as an idealised gay relationship. But Isherwood is too good a writer to leave it there and slowly Victor’s work begins to decay and his beautiful creation begins to coarsen. Slowly Victor’s concern turns to disgust and he rejects life with his creation. Because of what has gone before the AIDS metaphor was particularly relevant back in the 70’s. At this point the scenario rejoins the original novel as the rejected “creature” encounters the blind old woodsman and then the movies makes another very interesting detour, this time to seemingly take its inspiration from James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The creature falls into the clutches of evil Dr. Polidori (named after Byron’s real life friend and physician Dr.John Polidori) who fulfils the role of BRIDE’s Dr. Praetorius in being determined to create a female of the species. Like Praetorius, Polidori uses Victor’s original creation to blackmail him into reluctantly existing. Of course, disaster follows and eventually the film rejoins Mary Shelley for an icebound finale as Victor and his creation are reunited in the Artic.

Universal certainly saw this as a prestige production and spared no expense when it came to production values and cast. Filmed in England at Elstree Studios and on location at various country houses and picturesque villages the film gathered together a prestigious cast led by James Mason as Dr.Polidori, Michael Sarrazin as the creation and Jane Seymour as his female counterpart. The supporting cast is peppered with such names as Ralph Richardson (the blind man), David McCallum(Clerval), Agnes Moorhead, Tom Baker, Michael Wilding and Margaret Leighton. Victor Frankenstein is played by Leonard Whiting in a rather one note performance which certainly can’t be said of James Mason’s turn as Polidori – a performance generously described by a friend as “fruity” – whose method of creation is remarkably close to that later used by Dr.Frankenfurter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.

FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE story was released theatrically in Great Britain in a cut version and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that we were treated to the full television version, although as far as I know the prologue sequence with Mason out of character at Mary Shelley’s grave has never been seen theatrically or on television on this side of the Atlantic so it is particularly nice to see it included on the DVD. The film holds up quite well after all these years and is an entertaining addition to the seemingly endless list of Frankenstein adaptations. I particularly liked Isherwood’s take on the relationship between Victor and his creation. Smight directs rather unevenly but, perhaps, this is a reflection of the more than usual number of changes of tone in the script which veers from classis illustrated to campy Victorian gothic melodrama. Sadly, the production was something of a peak in Jack Smight’s career and he did nothing even half way as interesting again. Rating ***

1 comment:

Cerpts said...

YAY! You used my "fruity" comment! Needless to say, I use that not in a "sexual preference" way but in the older connotation of fruity as being rather "overripe", let us say.

Yes, my mother was a huge Michael Sarrazin fan so I saw pretty much EVERYTHING he ever made when I was a kid. I agree, all in all, a very enjoyable film (if not particularly true to Mary's book)and well worth a look.