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Oh, What a Work Is Frankenstein’s Monster

As Young Frankenstein opens on Broadway, a new book by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, tracks the big guy—and his changing physique—through two centuries of pop culture.


1831: The Classical Monster
In her 1818 novel, Mary Shelley says the monster is “gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted.” This early reprint’s frontispiece shows cadaverous skin, oversize limbs, and wild eyes, but the beast still looks classically human.

1910: Edison’s Silent Creature
Frankenstein hits the screen as soon as movies begin, in an Edison “Kinetogram.” The hairy monster uses exaggerated silent-film movements; actual smoke and mirrors are some of the first special effects.

1935: A Mechanized Monster
Technological anxieties, Boris Karloff’s face, and Jack Pierce’s makeup genius combine to create the iconic robot-creature (a stumbling, sutured-shut blockhead) at the center of James Whale’s horror picture. Many sequels follow.

1974: The Postmodern Parody
The story is classic camp by the time of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’s homage, whose high-low gags include a zipper on the neck in place of stitches and “an enormous schwanzstucker” (not pictured).

1994: The Auteur’s Revenge
Kenneth Branagh hews closer to the novel than any other filmmaker in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directing Robert De Niro as a sympathetic talking, Method-acting monster. Branagh plays Dr. F.

2007: The Dancing Cash Machine
There have been countless theatrical versions of the tale, blatantly stealing from Shelley and adding plot twists now considered crucial—but none of them ever charged $450 a seat. Brooks’s new Broadway musical adaptation goes heavy on the ritz.


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