While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.
There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.
Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.
For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.
Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.
Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).