‘The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty.’ – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
‘Speak! You’ve got a civil tongue in your head. I know you have, because I sewed it back myself!’ – Prof Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is not a great movie. It was released in the same year as Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, and it does not hold up well in comparison. It is shot on minimal sets with a tiny cast. The monster makeup is awful and the acting is second rate at best.
It does however have its moments. I’ve said before, one of the things I like most about Frankenstein as a story is that even a lot of the bad versions have something interesting to say. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is a good example of this. Under the campy fifties B-movieness of it all is a dark little story of an abusive father and his dysfunctional family.
So, plot summary. Don’t worry, it won’t take long:
Mad scientist who is a descendant of Victor Frankenstein has some out there ideas about biology, so he decides to build a monster. He blackmails another scientist, Dr Karlton, into helping him. Frankenstein has a fiance, Margaret, who he neglects. Monster built. It is sad. Monster sneaks out, unintentionally kills a girl. Fiance discovers monster. Frankenstein hides monster, orchestrates fiance’s death at monsters hands. Frankenstein steals face of teenager, puts it on Monster. Monster happy. Frankenstein goes too far, threatens monster. Monster throws maker into maker’s alligator pit. Trite summing up that seems to miss the point completely, the end.
As basic a Frankenstein movie plot as you can get. The twist is that Frankenstein makes the monster out of bits if teenagers because reasons.
So… teenagers. Why a teenage Frankenstein? Blackenstein dropped the ball on Frankenstein + black. How are we doing here with Frankenstein + teenager? Well let’s start with why. Well the straightforward answer is that in the 1950s the baby boom meant that there were a lot of teenagers and rising post war wages meant that a lot of them had disposable income. Entertainment options were fewer than now. The rise of car culture and the drive-in cinema created a huge market for movie tickets amongst teenagers and a great many middle aged producers attempted to grab the attention of this market with films targeted at it specifically. Quite a few films of the era simply take an existing film trope and stick a teenager front and centre, hence teenage werewolves, cavemen, monsters and rebels; teenagers from outer space, teenage crime waves and so on.
So the surprise thing about teenage Frankenstein is that the teenaged protagonist is not front and centre. The film is squarely focused on middle aged Professor Frankenstein. As the young folk say, ‘what gives?’
One of the things Frankenstein has always been about is parenthood. It’s tempting to say fatherhood, but Frankenstein is father and mother to his creation (which is of course the basis of any number of queer readings of the legend, but more on that another time). While many of the movies see Frankenstein’s great sin as the creation of his monster, other versions — including Mary Shelley’s original — make the case that his true crime is the abandonment of his child.
In Teenage Frankenstein, Professor F is not a deadbeat dad like his ancestor. He hasn’t run away from a newborn baby, he’s the abusive father of a teenager. While making the creature, he deliberately causes it pain in order to condition it into obeying him. When the Monster cries over his loneliness, Frankenstein’s reaction is one of pride — his creation’s tear ducts work.
Frankenstein bullies Dr Karlton and is distant and manipulative to Margaret. Margaret demands to know what the Professor is up when he’s working in secret with Dr Karlton (there’s that queer reading again). Frankenstein straight up hits her. When she finally discovers the Monster, she believes that being in on the secret will bring her and Frankenstein closer together. She says that she disobeyed him because – heartbreakingly – she can’t imagine that he would want a wife who blindly followed instructions. It all goes downhill from there.
Central to making this glimpse into an abusive family is Whit Bissel’s bland performance as Dr Frankenstein. When he sits behind a desk, which is often, he looks for all the world like he’s about to narrate an old fashioned educational film. When he talks to people he comes across like Fred McMurry’s evil twin. He smokes a pipe. One of the few genuinely human moments he shows comes after he tricks the monster into killing Margaret, his hands shake as he tries to light it. He doesn’t seem like the sort of scientist who might own an alligator for disposing of unwanted body parts. But he totally does.
In short he’s quite a subversive character. He’s Jim Anderson or Ward Cleaver, made malevolent. He’s an inversion of Herman Munster or Gomez Addams, who are outwardly sinister or monstrous, but inwardly are stock caring 1950s patriarchs. Prof Frankenstein is a monster who looks like he could be he could be treasurer of the local Rotary Club.
I’m probably being a little generous here. Like I say, this is not a brilliant movie, or a well made movie, but it is a subversive movie in a very real way. A lot of the 1950s teen movie genre consist of wish fulfillment for the kids. The teenagers challenge their fusty elders, end up being right when the old people were wrong, and consequently getting a seat at the grown-up table. Others have their teenage protagonists be seriously bad people, but the protagonist will have a redemption arc and become an adult, and possibly also a recording star.
Teenage Frankenstein offers none of this. In this film, being a teenager means being kept in the dark by an abusive father. It means being used as a pawn in other people’s fights. It means someone looking on your achievements only as a reflection of his own. It means no one will like you unless you have the right face. And it means teenage boys hurting girls because no one has explained to them how not to hurt girls. This last one is way ahead of its time. It’s almost like a feminist meme – “why do we teach girls to run from patchwork revenants when we should be teaching revenants not to throttle girls?”
Teenage Frankenstein is bleak film, a tragedy in the true sense of the term, a subversive take on 1950s patriarchal values. It’s a pity its mostly seen these days as just a bit of 1950s camp.