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By Phil Hall | December 10, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 353: “Tales of Tomorrow – Frankenstein” (1952 television production starring Lon Chaney Jr.).

LAST SEEN: The entire production is available on many web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released by a few public domain video labels, and on DVD by Image Entertainment.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The production’s notorious on-screen errors.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is out there on DVD, but you can see it online for free.

There is a classic line from the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” that brilliantly summarizes the acceptance of colorful misinformation as reality: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Within the entertainment world, there are so many legends that have become accepted as fact that it is often impossible to re-establish the truth.

Case in point: it has been widely published that horror film icon Lon Chaney Jr. appeared drunk in a live 1952 broadcast of the television show “Tales of Tomorrow.” Yes, Chaney’s performance did include a couple of strange errors, and the actor’s problems with alcohol have been well documented. However, Chaney’s explanation for what transpired during his performance has been ignored for years – but an impartial viewing of the infamous production clearly shows that the actor could not have gone through his performance in an alcohol-impaired physical or mental state.

“Tales of Tomorrow” was a pioneering concept in American television: it was a weekly half-hour science fiction anthology series that adapted classic works of literature and also offered new adventures involving space travel, monsters and other creepy endeavors. The program ran two seasons, from 1951 to 1953, and it was broadcast live on ABC. However, ABC was the least popular network during the early 1950s, and the show never found a core audience.

But that’s not to say that “Tales of Tomorrow” didn’t make an attempt to connect with viewers. The program brought in a number of well-known actors to appear in its productions: established stars including Thomas Mitchell, Veronica Lake, Gene Raymond and (naturally) Boris Karloff were recruited, while a number of promising young performers including Paul Newman, James Dean, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, Lee Grant and (surely you can’t be serious) Leslie Nielsen cut their teeth in the program’s episodes.

Since “Tales of Tomorrow” was a live show, it fell victim to many of the problems that were inherent in early television: lines were flubbed, props malfunctioned, faulty camerawork picked up the edges of seats, boom microphones cast shadows or dipped into frame, and so forth. But at the time, no one thought twice about it. And even if there was concern, there were no alternatives – video pre-recording had yet to be introduced and filming shows in advance for later presentation was an expensive proposition that very few producers could afford (Desilu’s “I Love Lucy” was the most notable exception).

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was a natural choice for “Tales of Tomorrow,” although the proposition of telescoping the classic novel into a half-hour episode (actually, 23 minutes with a couple of commercial breaks) resulted in a severe truncation of the source material. Even worse, “Tales of Tomorrow” was a fairly cheapjack show (even for the era), so it was inevitable that the poverty of the production was going to be matched a haphazard adaptation of the Shelley text.

As a result, this “Frankenstein” is a contemporary tale set in a sparsely 16th century castle in the middle of Lake Geneva. Victor Frankenstein lives in the castle with his young nephew, a British butler and a British maid.  His girlfriend Elizabeth and her father, Victor’s former professor, come to visit for dinner.  Oh, there’s also a monster tucked under a blanket in a laboratory that’s awaiting reanimation via some bargain basement electrical equipment that flashes and makes crackling noises.

However, this “Frankenstein” had one major plus: the monster was conceived as a hideously scarred being with a considerable (and crudely stitched) crack down the middle of its hairless skull. Considering that most people came to know the Frankenstein monster from the make-up used in the Universal horror films, this was a daring and different approach to the subject.

But no one remembers “Frankenstein” for any of this. The show’s infamy arises from a pair of odd actions performed by Chaney’s monster. During the course of the broadcast, Chaney twice raises a chair into the air with fury – but instead of smashing it, he pauses and puts the chair back into place. As a result of this peculiar behavior, the legend spread that Chaney was so drunk that he mistook the production for a dress rehearsal instead of the actual presentation.

According to Chaney, though, what happened was very different. The make-up job was unusually complex and it required four hours to complete. Chaney stated that the extended amount of time in the make-up chair caused him to lose track of time. Thus, he went on the sound stage believing that he was participating in a dress rehearsal because he didn’t know how much time had passed. Chaney never acknowledged performing while inebriated – and considering that eating and drinking in excess would wreck the intricate make-up job, it is actually unlikely that he consumed anything during this process.

When watching “Frankenstein,” it seems clear that Chaney’s version of events is the truth. Although his monster has no dialogue outside of wordless shrieks and grunts, his role is a physically intensive and demanding feat that requires constant physical interaction with his co-stars (including the lifting and carrying of the small boy playing Frankenstein’s nephew). The monster also tears apart a window gate, crashes through the window (or at least a cardboard window frame) and demolishes the laboratory while being electrocuted. A great deal of the action takes place after the chair lifts, and it was obvious that Chaney was cued off-camera about the status of the live performance because he goes into the climactic destructive mode with pure gusto. If Chaney was drunk during the performance, then he did an extraordinary job hiding it.

When the show was broadcast live on January 18, 1952, “Frankenstein” made little impact with audiences. The on-air hiccup didn’t imperil Chaney’s viability as a TV actor – he was a frequent presence on television throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, the legend of the inebriated Frankenstein monster took root and continues to blot Chaney’s legacy to this day.

As for “Tales of Tomorrow,” kinescopes of the live broadcasts survived and have been offered for by a few VHS video labels specializing in public domain material. A collection of episodes from the series have been commercially released on DVD through Image Entertainment, although there have been some questions rose online regarding the ownership of the material. Wade Williams Productions filed for copyright ownership on the episodes in the 1980s, even though the company had nothing to do with the original series and Williams is known for claiming copyrights on public domain film properties. ABC, for whatever reason, never bothered to pursue the matter.

In any event, “Frankenstein” can easily be found on a number of online video sites. For anyone who has only heard of the production but never saw it, this free viewing will offer the chance for impartial judgment on Chaney’s performance and his alleged state of wellness during the show. Really, judge this one for yourself – legends can be entertaining, but they ain’t the truth!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Dan Skopp says:

    The 1910 Thomas /Edison’s version of Frankenstein was preserved by Louis Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin. He pains-takenly put this film on a DVD format along with “Nosferatu” It is through the efforts of men like this that classic horror films survive!!

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