Stone’s crisp writing highlights the compelling turmoil between Junior and his father. Junior desperately wants to shift Universal Pictures into the future with compelling new films, while Carl seems rooted in the past and struggles to grasp his son’s vision. While this dynamic plays out in briskly paced scenes powered by crack dialogue, Stone also explores the lives and ambitions of a pair of creature-feature greats: Bela Lugosi’s ego as an established actor is skillfully contrasted with Boris Karloff’s struggles as an up-and-coming star. The fascinating glimpse into these actors’ lives highlights a delightful narrative for film buffs.
As in his previous novel, Stone demonstrates a clear dedication to and knowledge of cinema and Los Angeles itself, and his love and expertise for the milieu—and for the minds of actors and producers and studio heads—radiates from the pages. Stars like Mae Clarke and Clara Bow make cameos, while movies like The Jazz Singer and Murders in the Rue Morgue get special shoutouts, the details piecing together to form a dynamic tapestry of the movie business in an era of tumult. Classic Hollywood film buffs and historical fiction fans will enjoy this fascinating tale revolving around the passions and persistence it took to bring life to one of the movies’ greatest monsters.
Takeaway: A compelling novel of old Hollywood, Universal Pictures, and the 1931 Frankenstein film.
Great for fans of: Stewart O'Nan’s West of Sunset, Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Julian David Stone takes readers behind the scenes with this winning fictional retelling of the filming of the 1931 classic Frankenstein.
It’s days before Universal Pictures’ newest movie, Frankenstein, begins shooting, and the role of the Monster is still uncertain. Since it was Junior Laemmle— with his progressive and cutthroat thinking— who insisted the company produce Dracula, which became highly successful, Junior believes he has proven himself to his father, Universal CEO Carl Laemmle, Jr. and deserves a promotion giving him full reign of production.
Meanwhile, after his success as the titular Dracula character, Bela Lugosi refuses to accept the role of a bumbling creature with minimal lines and redirects his attention to his current project. Secretly, though, he awaits just the right offer to play this Monster. The other potential lead, Boris Karloff, sees the Monster as a lost, baleful character many can identify with. He also believes this role is his chance to finally become a star and provide his family a sustainable income.
As the story evolves and characters intertwine, Junior realizes he’s not getting the expected promotion and takes too many risks trying to prove his father wrong, alienating Frankenstein’s actors, directors, and much of the crew. Things degenerate while theories fly as to why Junior is so determined to get this movie made.
Stone’s story is immediately engaging, jumping right into the heart of the action. The use of multiple viewpoints between Junior, Lugosi, and Karloff add depth and texture to the novel, while the dialogue re-creates 1930’s phrasing and cadence without going overboard. Junior’s charming, witty, external dialogue is especially fun when juxtaposed against the ever-growing anxiety of his inner thoughts.
The narrative is well-balanced, leaning neither too heavily on flashy action to drive its plot nor on ponderous character studies. Thus, it’s easy to binge-read while still offering moments of contemplation and genuine character depth.
Those who love stories about movie-making will enjoy this irresistible peek behind the curtain. Also available as an ebook and audio book.
In this novel, a famous father and son clash during the preparations for Universal’s 1931 movie Frankenstein.
Stone’s story opens with a set of tabloid notes: Five months before the filming of Frankenstein, Hungarian star Bela Lugosi and impoverished actor Boris Karloff are in the running for the Monster role. Three days before the cameras start rolling, Carl Laemmle Jr. is having a panic attack. The tale’s protagonist, Junior is head of production at Universal and the son of Carl Laemmle Sr., the self-made founder of the studio. As Junior longs to take cinema into the future with films like Dracula and Frankenstein, his father remains set in his old ways of doing business. Junior’s key promotion to vice president of the studio hinges on his father’s approval of his Frankenstein production. Junior tells his dad: “It’s going to be our greatest picture ever.” But Carl Sr. has serious reservations: “A mad scientist building a creature from dead body parts. Who will want to see this?” While Junior chases reluctant actors and finicky directors to create the perfect movie, he attempts to test the solidity of his cinematic vision and to compromise with his dad. Junior is also focusing on managing his romantic and professional relationship with the ambitious, quick-witted actor Sidney Fox. As the drama unfolds, the tale offers the perspectives of Dracula star Lugosi and English native Karloff, both with varied experiences in Hollywood and different ideas about Frankenstein’s Monster.
The novel’s structure, in following the countdown to the filming of Frankenstein, gives the book the suspenseful feel of a doomsday drama or spy thriller movie. In addition, the author addresses the age-old, emotional idea of a son trying to make his father proud. At the center of this conflict is Junior’s struggle to retain his individualistic dreams of Hollywood’s future in the face of his father’s more traditional approach to running a studio. The well-researched book depicts the fierce competition among the major studios of the time—including MGM, Universal, and Warner—to create the latest hit in the transition from silent to talking films in the ’20s and ’30s. Stone creatively explores this vibrant time in American cinema from both the studio perspective, through Junior at Universal, and the actors’ viewpoints. The tale highlights Karloff’s frustrations and aspirations and Lugosi’s tempestuous nature. At one point, Lugosi muses about the Monster part: “Stars showed their faces to the world; they didn’t hide them under pounds of makeup! And they spoke—words and words of great dialogue, not grunts and groans like a dumb animal....No, the role of the Monster was not for him.” The classic immigrant story is also seamlessly woven into the narrative through these well-developed characters. The author showcases an easy, witty writing style that deftly balances the fast-paced, roaring Sunset Boulevard arena with the poignant contemplations of the engrossing tale’s players. Karloff desperately wants the Monster role. He “saw the Monster as a scared child—not some horrific brute, terrorizing and destroying for the sake of terrorizing and destroying, but a frightened being....This sympathetic interpretation resonated with Boris and gave him real hope that he could deliver a powerful performance, one that would put him on the map, once and for all.”
A compelling and thoughtful family drama delightfully wrapped up in Hollywood glamour.
Paying full attention to historical detail, "It's Alive!" will be of particular interest to students and fans of 1930 studio driven movie making. Absorbing, entertaining, and an inherently fascinating novel, "It's Alive!" is highly recommended for community library fiction collections. It should be noted for personal reading lists for fans of horror movies and film historians, that "It's Alive" is also readily available in a digital book format