June 27, 2016 by smumcounty
Few film sequels can claim to be better than their originals. Now that I think of it, almost none can claim that with certainty. Although one can argue the merits of “The Godfather” (1972) versus “The Godfather Part II” or “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989) versus “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) (kidding!), in truth the only film that can assuredly claim to be superior to the original is “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). Parent studio Universal considered making a sequel to “Frankenstein” (1931) even before the original’s premiere. They knew they had a hit on the hands at the first preview screenings. “Frankenstein” director James Whale had begged off directing the sequel believing he had milked the idea for all it was worth but after Whale’s subsequent success with “The Invisible Man” (1933), producer Carl Laemmle was convinced Whale was the man for the job. Whale finally agreed to direct after getting the studio to agree to allow him to make “One More River” (1934). The script that was originally created for the sequel was rejected by Whale when he was finally brought onto the project and under Whale’s guidance the script was completely rewritten passing through the hands of several screenwriters until he was satisfied. This helps to explain why there was a four year gap between the original film and the sequel.
“Bride of Frankenstein” opens with a framing device consisting of Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and their famously degenerate friend Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) sitting in a gargantuan drawing room while a fierce storm rages outside. Mary asks Percy to light some candles because the storm frightens her and Lord Byron notes how he can’t understand how the tale of Frankenstein could have come from the mind of such a meek and lovely woman. This gives Lord Byron the opportunity to recount the story of the original film as we see scenes of “Frankenstein” flash by. Right! Now we’re caught up. Let’s proceed. Mary replies that that was just the beginning of the story and there is yet more to be told which she then proceeds to relate. This framing device was the idea of one of the screenwriters that Whale brought on to mold the script and it works well here. It serves to place the story firmly in the imagination of Mary Shelley, so the events will be more easily accepted by the viewer. The film doesn’t have to adhere to reality and can have the logic of a fairy tale.
Now the film begins in earnest as we are taken to the scene of the burning windmill which closed the original film. Henry Frankenstein’s servant, Minnie (Una O’Connor), is expounding on how she is glad to see the monster being burned alive and getting just what he deserves while other villagers with pitchforks mill about. The entire scene is shot on a sound stage complete with burning windmill and painted backdrop. Most of the outdoor scenes are shot on a meticulously dressed sound stage and it really adds to the beauty of the film and contributes to the fairy tale quality that the framing device has setup.
Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) was caught in the fire along with his creation but as luck would have it, and studio sequels require, he has survived and the mob takes him back to his home where he is nursed back to health by his new bride, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). The monster (Boris Karloff) has also survived, of course, and has gone wandering the countryside after frightening Minnie half out of her wits. During his convalescence Henry explains to Elizabeth that he has renounced his monster but still wishes to discover the mysteries of life and immortality. Elizabeth replies that she has had a vision of a strange apparition, a figure of death, that has been stalking them and inexorably approaching. Queue Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesinger). Dr. Pretorius, a former mentor of Frankenstein’s, has been making experiments in creating life himself which he shows to Henry, little homunculi about six inches tall which he has been growing like cultures. Dr. Pretorius wants to create a race of manmade beings and has come to Frankenstein to help him create a mate for his monster. The homunculi scene is a great bit of the film and demonstrates the comic relief element so prevalent throughout the film. Pretorius keeps all his creations in bottles and at one point the king he has created escapes from his bottle and tries to break into the queen’s bottle. Pretorius places him back by picking him up by his coattails with a pair of tweezers.
Meanwhile the monster is having his own adventures. He saves a shepherdess from drowning but her screams alert a mob who capture him and chain him in a prison cell from which he promptly escapes. Eventually, he makes his way to the cottage of a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) to which he is drawn by the hermit’s rendition of Ave Maria on his violin. The hermit, being blind and a very kind man, doesn’t see a monster but only a lonely soul like himself who needs help. He welcomes him into his cottage, feeds him, and puts him to bed, thanking God for bringing him a friend to lighten his solitude. The next day, the hermit goes about teaching the monster some basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘drink’. He even teaches him that some things like fire can be bad but also good as when it is used to light a fine cigar. The most important word he teaches him is ‘friend’ which the monster latches onto immediately.
It is impossible to watch this scene today without thinking of Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein” (1974) but if you can get past that you’ll realize it is the best scene in the film, in my opinion, certainly one of the most important. This scene raises the film above the level of the usual horror film fare. It makes the monster more than the big bad. It humanizes him, brings a sense of pathos to him, almost gives him the feel of a sad clown.
Of course, this idyll has to come to an end as it does with the appearance of an uncredited John Carradine as a lost hunter. Carradine and his hunting mate immediately attack the monster and the cottage catches fire in the mayhem as the hunters lead the hermit away and the monster staggers off seeking a new friend. Later the monster makes his way into a crypt to escape an angry mob and there he meets up with Dr. Pretorius. Pretorius has been robbing the grave of a 19 year old girl for the bones he will use for the skeleton of his creation. Pretorius stays behind after his henchmen leave in order to enjoy a light snack among the inmates of the tomb as he rather likes the environment. As Pretorius sits in front of his pile of bones enjoying a glass of wine and a cigar, the monster approaches him. The monster asks if he is going to create a man like him and Pretorius says that he is going to make a woman, a friend for him. Well, you had the monster at the word friend and Pretorius determines to make use of the monster who may prove useful in his dealings with the reluctant Dr. Frankenstein.
This is yet another great scene and combines a number of elements that make for a great film. First off this is a beautiful scene that borrows a lot from German Expressionism: dark, oblique angles, Gothic arches. Second is the character of Dr. Pretorius as played by Ernest Thesinger. Thesinger gives a fey, flamboyant performance as Pretorius. Whale, who was gay, expressly chose Thesinger to potray Pretorius over the studio’s more conventional choice of Claude Rains. According to cast members, Thesinger, who was likewise gay, apparently had the same flamboyant style in real life. Whale’s casting of Thesinger was a deliberate attempt to bring an air of camp to this horror film to make the film a “hoot”, as he described it. This camp style is nowhere more easily seen in the interaction of Pretorius with the Monster in this scene. When the monster declares, “I love dead. Hate living,” Pretorius’ reply drips with world weary ennui. “You’re wise in your generation.”
What follows is a succession of scenes of Pretorius and Frankenstein putting together the body, especially working on the heart and brain. These are wonderful scenes working in the laboratory in the castle with more Gothic arches and with many scenes employing Rembrandt lighting, illuminating the scenes by the merest suggestion of highlighted outlines. These beautiful scenes are injected with a sense of manic energy thanks to the use of canted angles and Colin Clive’s performance as Frankenstein. Clive is great here. Clive’s alcoholism had gotten worse since the filming of “Frankenstein” but Whale insisted on using him because of his manic attitude. It shows in these scenes where Frankenstein always seems to be at his wits end.
The big day finally arrives for the resurrection of the monster’s bride. The bride is wrapped tightly in bandages like that of an Egyptian mummy as she is raised on a platform to the ceiling and through the skylight. The electrical show that follows is at least as good as in the original thanks largely to gadgets created by special effects designer Kenneth Strickfaden who recycled many of the fanciful devices he had created for “Frankenstein”. The experiment is successful, of course, and the bride’s coming out is wonderful. Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed Mary Shelley in the prologue, also portrays the monster’s bride, draped in a long white gown and with that now iconic hairdo which, continuing the Egyptian theme, was based on Nefertiti. Lanchester’s performance here is inspired. Her monster has jerky, bird-like head movements, and moves about with stumbling steps and a confused gaze. The monster approaches her asking timidly, “friend?” But the comparably beautiful bride will have nothing to do with him and she screams and runs into Henry’s arms.
As you can imagine, the monster doesn’t take this very well. Once he realizes that his bride has rejected him, he runs over to a lever on the wall and prepares to pull it as Pretorius yells, “Get away from that lever. You’ll blow us all to atoms.” Making this the original “why do they even have that lever?” film. Frankenstein’s wife shows up just at that moment to drag her husband away and the monster allows him to leave but demands that Pretorius stay. “You stay. We belong dead.” The guttural hiss Lanchester gives as the monster pulls the lever was based on the hissing of angry swans she saw in Regents Park, London. With that the tower blows to smithereens and the film ends with Henry comforting his Elizabeth as they witness the devastation of the laboratory.
So there you have it. A beautiful black and white film, with lots of meticulously crafted scenes shot on the sound stage; a horror film with comic elements and a camp subtext. What’s not to love? Other reviewers have suggested a gay subtext in the scenes between the monster and the hermit. They’re getting along just fine until the outside world intrudes to screw it up. Others have also seen the monster as a Christ figure. The meal of wine and bread with the hermit can be seen as his Last Supper and there is a definite crucifixion-like scene when the angry mob captures the monster in the woods. He is tied to a wooden pole and when he is transferred, pole and all, to a wagon the pole is momentarily placed on end with the monster’s hands tied to the pole above his head. I don’t think these themes were necessarily intended by Whale, but, as with any great work of art, this film can be read in many ways, and meanings gleaned from the film apart from those intended by its creator are no less valid for being so. What is clear is that this is a film that transcends its mean horror film roots to create a work that can be viewed again and again.
- “Gods and Monsters” (1998) is a somewhat fictionalized account of the latter days of James Whale starring Ian McKellen. The title of the film comes from a line in “Bride of Frankenstein” when Dr. Pretorius toasts Frankenstein with the words “To a new world of gods and monsters”.
- Mae Clarke did not revise her role as Frankenstein’s finacee in “Bride of Frankenstein”. The reason is somewhat unclear. Wikipedia mentions simply ‘ill health’ but Gregory Mank in his Frankenstein film saga book “It’s Alive” recounts that it was due to scars obtained in a car accident in 1933.