John L. Balderston
Born Oct. 22nd, 1889 – Died Mar. 8th, 1954
Ever wonder why the original ’30s film versions of Dracula and Frankenstein didn’t seem to follow the novels too much? Well, one of the men responsible for that was writer John L. Balderston. He started his career as a journalist, even before he finished school, working for different newspapers. He would even be a war correspondent during WWI. He eventually started in show business as a playwright, while continuing the journalism gigs as well.
In 1927, he was hired to re-write Hamilton Deane’s stage play of Dracula for American audiences, making more than a few changes. Because of its huge success, he was then hired to do the same for Peggy Webling’s play version of Frankenstein. He would later have his name attached to many of the early monster classics, even if his scripts were never used. But because of his work, a lot of the foundation of these early monster flicks were due to him.
In 1953, Balderston and the heirs of Webling won a lawsuit with Universal, getting paid not only $20,000 but also 1% of any of the films that resulted from their work, including any sequels!
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers, Janet Ann Gallow, Barton Yarborough, Dwight Frye
There are certain movies from our childhood that still hold a type of charm over us. Ones that when watching it as an adult, even though the film might have flaws, or just isn’t the best, it still is able to recreate the same feeling it did upon that first viewing, all those years ago. The Ghost of Frankenstein is one of those for me. I still consider the original 1931 Frankenstein film one of my favorites and a much better film, but for some reason, I’d probably be more likely to sit down and watch Ghost on some afternoon than the original. Maybe because watching the original, I view it more like an adult, but with Ghost, it makes me feel like a 14 year old kid again watching it on my 13-inch black and white TV. That was when I first got to see this and I can still remember sitting there in my room, eyes glued to the little television set.
Now that is one name that most of us horror fans do not recognize. But if wasn’t for Mr. Umann, we might not have ever got to see Universal’s Son of Frankenstein, as well as the monster films that followed thereafter. But what exactly did Mr. Umann do to cause this resurgence of the Universal Monsters?
In 1938, with The Bride of Frankenstein now already 3 years old, it seems that Universal had pretty much given up on their monster heritage. Sure, they were still making horror pictures, such as The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and such, but not a lot of them and those familiar characters from just a few years ago were now seemed to have been put to rest. This is where Emil Umann came in to the picture. He ran the Regina-Whilshire Theatre in Los Angeles and on August 5th, 1938, he started a triple bill of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Son of Kong, getting the rentals from the studio for only $99 for 4 days. But much to his surprise, the screenings were selling out and he was getting lines down the block. The triple bill was so popular, he was running them almost 24 hours a day. He even got in contact with Bela Lugosi, who was not in the best financial situation at the time, and hired him to make appearances at the screenings. This not only put the monsters back in the limelight, but Lugosi himself. Lugosi even told the press “I owe it all to that little man at the Regina Theatre. I was dead, and he brought me back to life.”
Once Universal heard about this and the business the theater was doing, they immediately ordered 500 more prints of Dracula and Frankenstein and started renting them out around the country for a double bill. Of course, these rentals were at a much higher rate, so much higher that Umann couldn’t afford to keep them pass the original commitment. In fact, Universal reported in making over $500,000 in new film rentals. So nice of Universal to show such gratitude to someone who showed them how to make so much money. And it was because of this newly discovered interests in these movies that Universal quickly rushed another entry in the Frankenstein series, which would become Son of Frankenstein. Not only would it be the last time Karloff appeared as the creature, but it would also give Lugosi a chance to give one of his best screen performances on his career, as Igor, the twisted-neck friend of the creature.
So to people like Emil Umann, we here at the Krypt salute you for what you did, bringing back the Universal Monsters from their grave.