Did Boris Karloff's ''Frankenstein 1970'' bring the first toilet flush to television?
When the 1958 film was shown on TV in the Sixties, its use of the sound effect predated All in the Family’s groundbreaking toilet humor.
By today’s standards, the censorship on TV in the Fifties and Sixties seems completely overbearing. But the new medium available right in Americans’ living rooms was still figuring out what was palatable for audiences, and evidently erred on the side of caution — extreme caution. We’re pretty sure the public could have handled their favorite characters saying the word “pregnant.”
One seemingly harmless taboo that wasn’t broken until the 1970s was the sound of a toilet flushing. All in the Family is rightly remembered as a show that broached many serious topics, but it was also groundbreaking in sillier ways. Its use of bathroom sound effects acting as hilarious punchlines began right away in the first season in 1971.
Before that, toilets were strictly forbidden on TV. The Brady kids’ bathroom never had a commode and even when a toilet tank was needed for non-bathroom related purposes, like hiding a baby alligator in Leave it to Beaver, nothing except the very top of the porcelain throne could be visible.
So, Archie Bunker’s lavatory sounds were the first to be heard on television. Or were they?
All in the Family may have been the first TV show to feature the sound of a toilet, but it wasn’t technically the first time a flush was heard over the television airwaves.
It appears that unique honor belongs to the 1958 Boris Karloff film Frankenstein 1970. The horror sequel, Karloff’s fifth appearance in the franchise but first time playing a member of the Frankenstein family, revolves around Karloff as a decendent of the famous German baron with a penchant for bringing corpses to life.
With the money he receives renting out his castle to a film crew, Karloff’s Victor Frankenstein purchases an atomic reactor — it is the far-off future year of 1970 after all — and uses it to bring the dead to life.
As part of his gruesome hobby, Victor needs a way to get rid of the spare body parts he doesn’t use. Good thing he has a giant garbage disposal (seen in the image above) that sounds like a toilet. That’s right, the toilet sound in Frankenstein 1970, potentially the first flush ever heard on TV, is not actually used for a toilet. A grinding noise was originally heard in an early cut of the film but was thought to be too grisly. It was changed to the watery whoosh of a toilet before its release to theaters.
Because of that change, when the film was featured on programs like Chiller Theatre as early as 1962, it more than likely won itself the accolade of first toilet flush heard on television. Of course, there were other movies before Frankenstein 1970 with toilet flushes — sounds that actually indicated bathroom activities, no less. The Grapes of Wrath from 1940 is an early example. If any of those movies were played on TV before Frankenstein 1970, then of course they would take the title.
But because of the many local horror shows, some with hosts similar to MeTV's very own Svengoolie and some without, genre films were much more likely to be shown on television. So, while it's difficult to know for sure, all indications point to Boris Karloff’s evil Baron as the first TV flusher.
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The film has a wonderfully played scene where a Neanderthal man, brought back to life in the present day, along with the titular dinosaurs, explores a modern house and its various contents.
(BTW, I always get this film crossed in my head with that finest in Danish sci-fi film making, 1961's "Reptilicus".)
I'm a Fifties Kid from here in Chicago - old enough to remember when this was a new movie.
When it opened here, the ads in the papers made much of the presence - in a leading role, yet - of Tom Duggan, who'd been chased off local tv here after tangling with a powerful judge.
Terrible Tom (as he was known here) went west, and got a TV show there, where he made friends with Hollywood types who got him movie parts - like this one.
I suppose that Tom Duggan's TV show (he was sort of a Fifties Bill O'Reilly, only not as charming) was well before any of the Svengoolie staff were even born.
But I remember, and if I'd been working with Rich Koz, I'd have made a point of telling him ...
Oh well, maybe next time ...