Matinee Theatre Transforms Primo Carnera from Former Heavyweight Champion Into Frankenstein’s Creation

Since the very first adaptation of Frankenstein was committed to celluloid by Thomas Edison’s movie studio in 1910, several notable personalities have been called upon to portray Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny.” This list is comprised mostly of menace-makers synonymous with the horror genre like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, and Paul Naschy.

A pair of Taxi Driver costars were tasked with depicting the Creature twenty years apart from one another, Peter Boyle playing it for laughs in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein while Robert DeNiro brought a composite of pathos and rage to his characterization for the more or less true-to-the-book remake starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Before embodying Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, David Prowse was twice cast as the Monster in the Hammer horror film series. More recently, actors as diverse as Raul Julia, Randy Quaid, Aaron Eckhardt, Rory Kinnear, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have all given distinctive and at times idiosyncratic interpretations of Frankenstein’s Creature.

One name that is almost always omitted from the discussion is short-term heavyweight champion, the ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera. The fact that Carnera played the role of the Monster for a live 1957 television production is quite fitting, as many believe that his boxing career itself was something of a Frankenstinian creation. Carnera, one might argue, was an unintentional parody of a prizefighter manufactured from various source materials which shared an awkward correspondence with one another. Was Primo merely a hulking, graceless brute of an automaton who was simply made to mimic the actions of a professional boxer with results that were mixed to put it mildly and questionable even at their best? Many fight fans share that opinion.

Novelist and boxing journalist Budd Schulberg certainly thought so, sketching a caricature of Carnera in the form of fictional mobbed-up bruiser Toro Molina for his novel The Harder They Fall, which was later turned into a feature film starring Humphrey Bogart in his final screen appearance. Mike Lane, whose first acting gig would come as the character supposedly based on Primo Carnera in the movie version of The Harder They Fall, would coincidentally also play Mary Shelley’s Monster—in Frankenstein 1970, starring Boris Karloff who, this time, was the mad doctor rather than the misunderstood creature. “I read the book. So did my lawyers” Carnera offered on the topic of Schulberg’s alleged sendup of him in The Harder They Fall. “And if it had been about me, I would have sued. But  I saw no resemblance.”

Albert McCleery, producer of NBC’s Matinee Theatre, obviously envisioned a resemblance between Carnera and Frankenstein’s Monster when it came time to fill the role for its February 5, 1957 live broadcast. Carnera was no stranger to show business, moonlighting while an active fighter in such movies as The Bigger They Are, Mr. Broadway, and The Prizefighter and the Lady alongside Jack Dempsey and Max Baer. He was featured in ten Italian film productions during the war years, and made a cameo as a strongman in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Following his appearance in “Frankenstein,” Carnera planned to tour Europe, Asia, and South America on the wrestling circuit.

Besides turning to professional wrestling when his boxing career was said and done, Primo had opened a restaurant conveniently located adjacent to the Twentieth Century-Fox studio lot. “My wife does the cooking—Russian, French, Italian food,” Carnera said of his eatery, which was frequented by Jayne Mansfield in addition to other Fox contract players. “Oh, it’s a lot of headaches. Harder than the boxing business or acting. Buying food and handling the personnel is tough.”

One of many network anthology programs airing at the time, the hour-long Matinee Theatre debuted on NBC in 1956 with the not-at-all-spooky Halloween presentation of a story called “Beginning Now” about the travails of an impressionable youth being led astray by the example of his reprobate father. Friday, June 13 would prove to be unlucky indeed for the series which wrapped production that afternoon on what would be its last ever live broadcast, “Course for Collision.”

Among its nearly 600 episodes, Matinee Theatre aired adaptations of macabre literary classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” all of which originated from the quilled pen of Edgar Allan Poe. Universal Studios had famously brought Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man to life on the silver screen as part of its Golden Age of Horror cycle, and these stories were likewise given the Matinee Theatre treatment for live television, with John Carradine reprising the role of the Transylvanian Count that he had played in Universal’s monster rallies House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Carradine would don the cape once more for the 1966 shlock-fest Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

Though Mary Shelley’s novel has long since been in the public domain, Universal had gone to the trouble of putting a copyright on the iconic flattop Frankenstein makeup applied by Jack Pierce to Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, and Glenn Strange throughout the course of eight movies in which the Monster appeared between 1931 and 1948.

“Primo Carnera, all 280 pounds of him, will scare the curlers and cold cream off the housewives Tuesday afternoon when he shows up on television as Frankenstein’s monster,” wrote U.P. reporter Aline Mosby in a preview of the 1957 Matinee Theatre production. “The show follows the novel, not the movie, so the monster will have a heavily-veined face, but no bolts sticking out of his neck. Carnera will wear lifts on his shoes to make him even taller while he smashes chairs and throttles victims.”

The look producers opted to give Carnera’s Creature was similar to the cosmetic motif worn by Lon Chaney Jr. in the infamous 1952 Tales of Tomorrow episode and later used for Robert DeNiro’s Monster, favoring a clean shaven skull covered, as was its face, with a network of cross-stitched surgical scars. This same design was also employed by director Danny Boyle for his two Monsters, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who switched off playing creature and creator for alternate versions of the London National Theatre’s outstanding production.

An AP report printed the claim made by NBC’s publicity department that “It took five makeup men, working in shifts, three hours to give the big Italian the proper look of horror for a dress rehearsal.” A wire photo consisting of two separate images and dated January 31, five days prior to the live broadcast, shows a weary-looking Carnera enduring the process wherein makeup artists Bill Morley and Walt Schenck applied collodion (a syrupy, flammable, and slightly toxic adherent) to his brow and chin while the other half of the picture features Schenck and Ed Butterworth carefully adding the stitching, so as to get Primo camera ready for his first dress rehearsal at Burbank’s Color City Studios.

Since they were legally precluded from reproducing the look of Karloff’s Monster, and had decided to stray far away from Mary Shelley’s description of the Creature (which pretty much every other film, television, and stage production has done—with the exception of Rory Kinnear’s faithful appearance in Penny Dreadful), the wardrobe department at NBC made a curious choice for Primo Carnera. The six-foot-six boxer turned actor was outfitted as the Frankenstein Monster in an oversized, collared, one-piece jumpsuit cinched at the waist by a large black band which was intended to embellish Carnera’s already strapping frame. As the author of the Frankensteinia blog astutely points out, the costume immediately calls to mind the garb won by James Arness as the alien in the 1951 sci-fi classic, The Thing from Another World.

Thanks to a lengthy, career-spanning retrospective interview director Walter E. Grauman gave to the Emmy Foundation in 2009, we know that Primo had had only a select few speaking lines to memorize. Nevertheless, Grauman vividly recalled Carnera struggling with the timing of when exactly to interject his dialogue during the first table-read of the script, initially relying on gesticulated time-cues from the director.

“Make another. Make a monster just like me. A woman just like me,” Grauman remembered Carnera having to plead with his creator. Denied his request for companionship, the Monster was supposed to lift his surrogate father up over his head and violently hurl him against a wall. At the dress rehearsal, Grauman instructed Primo to practice this scene with a stunt man, but the ex-boxer objected on the grounds that he might unintentionally injure him. Perhaps he should have prepared for the big moment in the live broadcast after all, as an overzealous Carnera picked up the stunt man “like a toy” as cameras rolled, tossing him not just at the wall, but right through it.

“I thought I was going to die,” Grauman laughed, recounting the incident. “I’m in the control room and all I hear is this crashing thud and I think, ‘Oh God, that’s the end of the show. The guy’s dead.’ Well, by the grace of God he wasn’t hurt. He was just bruised a little bit, and we went on to continue with the rest of the show.”

Despite the Matinee Theatre broadcast of “Frankenstein” sometimes being referred to as “lost,” this is not the case. The Library of Congress does have a Kinescope of the episode in its vast archives, but has yet to digitize the recording. What is available to the public is an eight-minute audio file made from a surviving reel-to-reel of the NBC air-check which allows listeners to enjoy the opening and closing narration by host John Conte, as well as interviews he conducted right after the finale of the live broadcast with stars Tom Tryon, Christine White, and Vic Perrin.

“We felt that, in order not to destroy any illusion, we would not bring Frankenstein’s Monster on camera at this point,” says Conte. “But I know you all join me in a special tribute to Mr. Primo Carnera. I’m sure you three will agree with me of the gentleness of this fine man in spite of his size, and of the monumental character of his performance today.” On account of Carnera’s benign nature, the general consensus was in total harmony.

“Appropriately the drama ended somewhat indecisively with the monster supposedly mortally wounded but at the fadeout, partially lifting himself to show that there was life in the mechanism created by a scientist bent on inventing his own private man,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Lorin McMullen summarized in his column. “The camera departed before revealing whether Primo then settled back in his death shudder or arose again to terrify the countryside.”

In the old monster movies, of course, Frankenstein’s creation was an undying monster which returned to terrorize the countryside in sequel after sequel. Furthermore, the Monster was occasionally matched against ghastly contemporaries the likes of the Wolf Man and Dracula for throwdowns of the nightmarish variety. But, did one Frankenstein Monster ever fight another? Not on screen as far as I know but, according to Glenn Strange, that is precisely what happened in the boxing ring.

Standing six-foot-five and tipping the scales at 220 pounds, Strange was built not dissimilar to Primo Carnera. An eighth-grade dropout who was raised to be a cattle rancher by his father, Glenn drifted around New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas taking on a variety of odd jobs along the way as a farm hand, traveling musician, policeman, and firefighter before eventually finding consistent work as a stunt man and actor in Hollywood. Fans of Gunsmoke remember him best as bartender Sam Noonan, but Monster Kids celebrate the aptly-named Strange for inheriting the role of Frankenstein’s Creation from Karloff, Chaney, and Lugosi in a trio of Universal monster mashes—House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Strange’s elongated facial structure gave his Frankenstein Creature a unique look which later served as the model for Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster.

Another profession to which Strange had given a go as a young man was pugilism. Although Boxrec has only one bout listed on Strange’s resume—a second-round knockout loss to a six-foot Texan named Ox Cowan on June 24, 1930—he claimed to have once been on the same card with Jack Dempsey. After witnessing Strange evidently get knocked out on this occasion as well, Dempsey offered Glenn some friendly counsel. “He advised me to quit the ring before I got my brains scrambled,” said Strange in 1970.

“Primo Carnera had better take his fun and glory as the World’s Champion heavyweight boxer while he can,” Strange opined prophetically while being interviewed in October 1933. “It won’t last long.” Strange felt confident in providing such a brazen assessment due to the fact that, at least as he told it to the Amarillo Globe, he had boxed Carnera in 1930 while fighting under an assumed name, Jack Williams.

And, thus, did one future Frankenstein Monster lace up a pair of boxing gloves to square off against another inside the squared circle. As legend has it, anyway. And, let’s face it, when it comes to both boxing and show business, fact and fiction are very often nearly indistinguishable.

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Sources:

  1. Carnera The Monster (Eugene Guard, January 31, 1957) 

Lorin McMullen. Frankenstein Role Handy for Da Preem (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 10, 1957)

Aline Mosby. Primo Carnera to Portray Monster on TV Tomorrow (Shamokin News-Dispatch, February 4, 1957)

One-Time Frankenstein is a Bad Barkeep (Burlington Daily Times-News, June 16, 1970)

Glenn Strange profile at https://www.b-westerns.com/villain1.htm

Walter E. Grauman Interview Part 1 of 3—accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjHOgxr45b4

https://www.atvaudio.com/Frankenstein.php

boxrec.com

frankensteinia.blogspot.com

imdb.com   

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