Sunday, 10 February 2013

SUSAN DENBERG: THE GIRL FROM POMERANIA: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN RARE STILLS GALLERY


In 1966, Frankenstein Created Woman. And what a woman! Austrian actress Susan Denberg would become the only distaff “creature” in the Baron’s repertoire, and she marked a major improvement over such patchwork creations as Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) or Kiwi Kingston in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964). Indeed, Denberg remains one of the most bewitching, yet enigmatic, presences in the annals of so-called “Hammer glamour.”


Susan Denberg was born Dietlinde Ortrun Zechner, on August 2nd, 1944, in the village of Bad Polzin, Germany, which is now known as Połczyn-Zdrój, Poland. She appears to have enjoyed a normal childhood, much of it being spent with her family in Vienna, but the allure of other cultures proved too strong, and Dietlinde would relocate to England in 1962. She is rumored to have worked as an Au Pair girl during this time, before catching the eye of a talent scout and beginning work as a chorus girl. This line of work took her briefly to America, where she would meet and fall in love with lounge singer Anthony Sciotti; they would be married in 1965 and divorced just six months later. Soon after, she set her eyes on a career in film, making her debut with a guest spot (as the imaginatively named character “German girl”!) on the ABC TV series 12 O’Clock High. She then caught the eye of executive at Warner Bros., who set about rechristening her with a more “Anglo” sounding name. A campaign was launched, where fans were encouraged to write in with their choice of a new name for the starlet-to-be; Susan Denberg won the vote across the board, and the rest as they say is history.


The newly christened Denberg made her film debut opposite Stuart Whitman in the Norman Mailer adaptation An American Dream (1966). Denberg was already delving into the potential for sex and drugs, and she was rumored to have been romantically involved with Whitman, filmmaker Roman Polanski, performer Sammy Davis, Jr., and numerous others. The story goes that she even tried to net legendary movie tough guy Lee Marvin, but he never returned her calls. 1966 would also see Denberg getting her widest “exposure” when she bared all for an issue of Playboy; she would be in the running for Playmate of the Year, but eventually lost out to another contender.


The Playboy pictorial inevitably piqued the interest of Britain’s Hammer Studios, who would offer Denberg the plum role of Christina in their upcoming sex-and-horror special, Frankenstein Created Woman. The studio’s publicity mill played up the sensational aspects, even hiring Denberg to pose with star Peter Cushing in a series of publicity stills for a “creation” sequence that was never part of the narrative itself. Fans salivated over these images of Cushing “introducing” his bikini-clad creation, and rumors inevitably have circulated that the sequence was deleted from the film because of censorship. The reality, however, is much more mundane: Hammer was simply exploiting their new starlets obvious assets in their own inimitable fashion.


Christina would offer Denberg the toughest role of her career. She begins the film as a pitiable, scarred, shy young woman who is deeply in love with Frankenstein’s young assistant, Hans (played by Robert Morris, who would later go on to play a supporting role in Roy Ward Baker’s film of Quatermass and the Pit). However, her father (Alan MacNaughton) is murdered by three pampered youths (Peter Blythe, Barry Warren and Derek Fowlds) when he foils their attempt to rob his establishment, and the uncouth youths put the blame on Hans. Given that Hans is known for a volatile temper, and was observed arguing with the father because of his disapproval over his courtship of Christina, he is summarily executed. Christine is devastated and commits suicide. The Baron, for his part, sees the two deaths as being opportune - he’s been experimenting with the idea of transplanting souls from one body to another, so why not transfer Hans’ into Christina’s body, thus making them “one”? Inevitably, things do not work out as planned - the resurrected Christina, her scars and other defects corrected by the Baron’s surgery, turns into a seductive vamp and sets about killing off the three youths, one by one…


Clearly, the role offered Denberg a greater range of emotions than her initial acting jobs. Hammer may have seen her as a body to exploit on their posters, but director Terence Fisher rightly recognized that the film’s impact hinged on the credibility of her performance. He worked patiently with the young woman, helping her to hit all the right emotional notes. She responded with a performance of nuance and depth - but unfortunately for her, the studio heads deemed that her accent was too strong, so her entire performance would be dubbed by another actress. Dubbing wasn’t uncommon at Hammer, especially during this timeframe - Ursula Andress, John Richardson and, most amazingly, Andre Morell were all dubbed in She (1965), Richardson and Olinka Berkova would both be dubbed in The Vengeance of She (1967), Leon Greene and Nike Arrighi were dubbed in The Devil Rides Out (1967), Ewan Hooper was dubbed in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Jenny Hanley would be revoiced in Scars of Dracula (1970), Ingrid Pitt’s exotic voice was erased from the soundtrack of Countess Dracula (1970), and so on. Vocal artist Jane Hands did a competent job filling in for Denberg on the soundtrack, but it still makes it difficult for one to fully appreciate her performance. Even so, Denberg’s physical performance seems heartfelt and appropriately moving, giving the film an emotional center that helps to compensate for the defects in its plotting and production values.Hammer films never attracted much serious critical appraisal in their day, but Denberg got decent notices for her work on Frankenstein Created Woman.




Alas, it would mark her final appearance before a motion picture camera. Too much high living began to take their toll. Tired of the scandal rags in the UK, Denberg would eventually relocate to Austria, where she remains to this day. Denberg’s bouts with drugs and alcohol were well publicized, as was a breakdown which lead to electroshock therapy and a stint in a sanitarium. However, when the myth becomes more popular than reality, it tends to overshadow the latter in the eyes of the public.


As such, for years, Denberg was believed to have died - a typical example of the Marilyn Monroe prototype, wherein a beautiful starlet, having been exploited by callous producers and executives, was robbed her of her will to live and reduced her to substance abuse which would finally kill her. The reality is not so melodramatic, but it does at least have a happier ending. Denberg, who has reverted to her real name, remains firmly out of the public eye, however, and she appears to want to keep it that way. Attempts by fans to contact her for interviews have fallen on deaf ears, and so she remains shrouded in mystery… But for fans of Hammer horror, she remains a fascinating icon of sorts, and that, truly, is more telling than all the sensationalist journalism that has dogged her for so many years.



Author's Note: I would like to acknowledge the website Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, and most especially the invaluable research of Hammer documentarian Ted Newsom, for providing ample material for me to work from in the writing of this article.

FEATURE: TROY HOWARTH
IMAGES:MARCUS BROOKS

3 comments:

  1. Awfully good of you, dear boy, that tip of the hat. I have seen photographed allegedly autographed by Denberg, sent by post and returned, or at least that's what's claimed. Often the signings don't look like each other. I'd hate to think people were passing off artificial signatures. Egad!

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  2. Excellent piece. I always wondered what became of Miss Denberg.

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    1. Hi Elliot, Glad you enjoyed the feature. Thank you for your feedback. Much appreciated.

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