My earliest memory of the monster …
I was born in 1944 in Enid, Oklahoma, where my parents had met as students at Phillips University (now defunct) and married in 1939. I cannot remember the exact year—or even season—when the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the classic one directed by James Whale and featuring Boris Karloff, appeared on television. Our roof antenna brought in the only three stations it could—one from Enid (KGEO), the others from Oklahoma City (WKY, KWTV). But it must have been on a Saturday, or in the summer, because my two brothers—one older, one younger—and I could not watch television on school days, certainly not on Sunday, a day devoted to Sunday school and church (Disciples of Christ) and a huge dinner (usually pot roast with carrots and peeled potatoes that lay heating and hardening in the oven while we sang hymns and endured long sermons in a hot sanctuary a few blocks away) and reading the Enid Morning News and snoozing before a supper of leftovers and, sometimes, a return to church for vespers.
But I do remember this: Dad would not let us watch Frankenstein. My older brother and I pressed for a reason—respectfully, respectfully. In the 1950s in our house there were no overt challenges to parental authority. None. It was inconceivable. And even if we had thought about it, we would have concluded with quick certainty that open defiance was suicidal. Not that my father was abusive. He wasn’t. But he was a large man—a former high school and college football star—and when he spanked us (brisk swats on our bottoms with the back of a hairbrush, rare but always well earned), we knew we’d been spanked.
But about the movie, Dad told us that he’d seen it when it was released back in 1931 (he was eighteen then), and he said there was a really horrible scene in it. Tell us! my brother and I cried, eager for horror. There’s a scene, Dad said, when Frankenstein [yes, he mixed up the monster and the creator, as people still do] comes across a little girl playing by the water. Dad stopped, perhaps considering the effects of what he was about to tell us. Daddy! What happens? He looked at us, made his decision. And she’s pulling up flowers and tossing them in the lake. He looked at us again. And then the monster grabs her and …
I don’t remember if he actually told us that the creature dismembers the little girl, but he didn’t really have to. I saw the image. I see it right now. Frankenstein’s monster plucking off the arms and legs of a screaming little girl. Flinging the gory things in the lake. The creature perhaps a little puzzled about the screams. The pretty flower didn’t make noise, he reasons. Why is this pretty creature making noises? Something along those lines.
So … we saw no Frankenstein that day. Nor did we see any other versions of the story that appeared on TV or at the local movie houses of our boyhoods—the Cherokee, Chief, Esquire, and Sooner. The only exception—Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). When I saw that comedy years later, I realized I’d seen it before … but when?
And, of course, I later saw that 1931 film, too. And when the creature finds the little girl alongside the water, I knew what was going to happen. I steeled myself.
But, of course, it doesn’t happen.
Here’s what we see instead—check it on YouTube. The creature—who’s already killed two people—is charmed by the floating flowers, the daisies the little girl (Maria) has uprooted and tossed into the lake. He smiles. Tosses some that she has given him. Then he runs out of blossoms. Pauses. Then picks up little Maria (cradling her, holding her like a parent). He throws her in the water, where she flails around. Then we see bubbles. And a confused creature leaving the scene. And, later, a grieving father carrying the wet body of his dead daughter. (She’s missing no limbs.) Later, I read that Whale had actually filmed the creature hurling her violently in—but censors (and Karloff himself) didn’t like that, so out it went. Some local censors cut the entire scene.
But there never was any dismemberment.
Did my father misremember?
Or was he just trying to shock his two little boys (we were probably, oh, 8 and 11) into dropping their suit to see the film? If so, his tactic had the opposite effect.