Ten minutes after “Frankenstein” ended it was time for “The Bride of Frankenstein” (and thanks again to the people at the Regal Charles Towne Square 18 for cooperating with Fathom/TCM and running this event).
I noticed more people in the theater for “Bride” than for the earlier film, which I sort of expected. As I mentioned in the previous column I hold the 1931 “Frankenstein” in esteem. But I’ll admit that, on several points, “Bride of Frankenstein” is the better film (an opinion not entirely limited to myself). In fact it is, to my way of thinking, the first film to enter that exalted and exclusive club of sequels that turned out better than the initial efforts (a line-up which includes “Godfather II”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”). With “Frankenstein”, Whale and his crew seemed to be working on setting down the ground rules for the Universal horror movie “style”, By the time “The Bride of Frankenstein” came around the rules were firmly in place.
This didn’t mean that the audience in the theater with me were terrified. Oh my no, pumpkins. As with “Frankenstein” and most of the classic Universal horror library, “The Bride of Frankenstein” seems to have lost its power to invoke fear (it’s been theorized that, between us and films such as “The Bride of Frankenstein” lie several decades of war and actual horror that has left our species too jaded to be chilled by Jack Pierce’s make-up, or Boris Karloff’s shambling about).
But the audience still reacted to the movie . . . laughing at the antics of Una O’Connor, as well as some of those presented by Ernest Thesiger. And the applause at the end of the film was nicely enthusiastic.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” tends to be a smoother film than its predecessor. But, seeing it on the big screen (and especially after “Frankenstein”), I noticed some of the problems I found in the earlier film. Whale’s technique was obviously better, but he was still having trouble connecting the individual scenes with narrative. As with “Frankenstein”, “Bride” was a collection of event . . . event . . . event . . . event, and hardly anything to serve as bridges between them. Not as glaringly evident as with the first film, but still there.
A great deal of the problem, I suspect, was in the fact that the central character in both films was a monster. This really complicates a storyline if you stop to think about it. With a gangster film, for instance, or a Western, or a love story, it’s possible to easily have the characters sit or relax or otherwise “step back” a bit from the main plot and allow for connecting dialogue and action to help weave the scenes together (and perhaps deepen the characters). But what do you do with a monster when it’s not out killing people? Having it wait out in the hallway becomes rather awkward. Perhaps this is why vampires put themselves away in coffins when they’re not out noshing on the necks of nubile females (and is this where “necking” comes from?).
(Perhaps this is why the earlier monster movies weren’t that long . . . and why the monsters in later films became larger and able to cover more territory. You could do more with them. And I digress.)
Whale (along with William Hurlbut, John Balderston and a host of others who helped out with the writing) actually tried to address this problem with two very interesting and iconic scenes, The first involves the Creature finding refuge in the hut of a blind hermit. Here Whale almost had another film in itself as the Hermit (played by O.P Heggie) gradually builds a rapport with the Creature (again wonderfully played by Boris Karloff). In a scene reminiscent of the first movie, where Karloff reacts plaintively to the offer of sunlight, he has the Creature weep tears of joyous relief as the Hermit prays over him. Once again poetry is invoked from a visage of horror.
(This is a scene which has sent echoes down through our culture. In Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller “Manhunter”, Tom Noonan’s serial killer weeps after finally having experienced love. In Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, the attractive Mina Harker allows herself to be touched by the brutish Mr. Hyde. This drives Hyde to exclaim: “Always I knew that Heaven would be the cruelest of places”. Sometimes a sample of Paradise is the greatest injury to inflict upon a monster.)
The second scene answers the question of what to do with a monster when it’s not out doing monstrous things. While fleeing from the villagers (who, to my way of thinking, end up being the most murderous elements in the film), the Creature hides in a cemetery and comes across Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius: next to Karloff, perhaps the most interesting part of the movie. After Henry Frankenstein survived the fall from the burning windmill in the first film (a neat trick in itself), he marries Elizabeth and tries to settle down to a normal life. Along comes Dr. Pretorius . . . a philosophy teacher and one of Henry’s mentors who was dismissed for his ideas (and I go: a philosophy teacher who got kicked out of the University. How Sixties!).
A veteran actor with a penchant for (ahem) camp, Thesiger was a dependable fixture in British films for years (I have stills showing how he was originally supposed to have Cedric Hardwicke’s role in Menzies’ “Things to Come”, but Sir Cedric was considered the greater audience draw. Pity). History will always point to the two films he worked on with Whale as his signature efforts, and especially “The Bride of Frankenstein”. His Dr. Pretorius is a fey yet sinister character, given to enjoying evening meals next to violated graves in cemeteries . . . which is where he first encounters the Creature, taming it with wine and cigars (the way to a Monster’s heart . . .).
(Eating a meal next to an opened grave! In 1935 that got you a Monster as a dining companion. In 2012 that sort of behavior would rate you a website. But mad scientists were apparently expected to possess an occasional kink or two. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to the audience. In 1941’s “Man Made Monster”, Lionel Atwill is trying to prevent Lon Chaney Jr. from leaking electricity. “Get into this rubber suit,” he commands . . . which is the point where I went “Say what?”)
(Decades later we would see Thesiger’s performance as Pretorius lightly channeled by Jonathan Harris as Zachary Smith in the “Lost in Space” television series.)
Pretorius wants Frankenstein to resume his monster-making experiments, but Frankenstein will have nothing to do with it. Small wonder, as Elizabeth this time is played by the nicely attractive Valerie Hobson (Mae Clarke being ill at the time). Hobson isn’t given too much more than Clarke had to do in the earlier film, but she manages to do it well (producing an occasional majestic air that would put Brigitte Helm to shame).
Colin Clive once again plays Henry Frankenstein here, and this time he doesn’t have to chew the scenery as much as he did in the previous production. At least not in the beginning. Oddly enough, Clive spends a good deal of time in “Bride of Frankenstein” looking a lot like Chester Morris. Obviously this is what the love of a good woman (plus being thrown off a burning windmill by a monster) will do to you.
Clive’s appetite for carpeting does tend to grow as Pretorius finally convinces him to take up his old habits. Of course having the Creature as a threatening henchman tends to nicely sweep away any opposing viewpoints. No less a worthy than Karloff himself objected to the Creature being able to speak in this film. Whereas I’m loathe to argue with such a viewpoint, I will say that Karloff managed to accomplish more drama with a limited vocabulary than most actors manage with a steady diet of Webster’s. While in the care of the hermit, the Creature’s halting attempts at speech are poignant (once again managing to focus the sympathy of the audience). Later on, after Pretorius’ tutelage, the Creature’s words become dark. It is here that Karloff manages to produce the greatest chills, and his climactic line of “We belong dead” rings in the memory of the viewer long after the theater lights have gone up.
“Bride of Frankenstein” no longer had Frederick Kerr’s Baron Frankenstein for audiences to laugh at, but his job would be more than adequately filled by the shoes of Una O’Connor as the Frankenstein’s maid Minnie. O’Connor turned the portrayal of shrewish flibbertigibbets into a science, and she pretty much had the theater audience eating out of her hand as she scurried about from scene to scene, her screeches almost more piercing than those the Bride would later on deliver. More sympathetic in films such as “The Sea Hawk” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, Whale used O’Connor strictly for comedic effect here (she’d practically play the same character in Whale’s “The Invisible Man”), and O’Connor never failed to deliver.
The ultimate objective of Pretorius and Frankenstein’s work is to ultimately provide a mate for the Creature (the titular “Bride” of the story), and here’s where all the stops are pulled out as the climactic laboratory scene easily outdoes the one from the original (thanks especially to Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical pyrotechnic wizardry, and John Fulton’s photographic effects work. Fulton and David Horsely would be responsible for another scene which was almost a film in itself when Pretorius demonstrates some of his scientific prowess to Frankenstein. He shows his former pupil several jars containing elegantly dressed homunculi . . . a king, a queen, a bishop, etc. . . . who engage in individual antics as Pretorius explains his work. Fulton and Horsely’s efforts in depicting the homunculi is still flawless to contemporary audiences, and gives the film one of its few genuinely humorous moments).
(Sometimes, though, the Thirties-style technobabble becomes a bit rough to follow. At one point both Pretorius and Frankenstein both pick up headphones and listen as they comment on the approaching storm. I’m not a meteorologist so I always wonder just what the heck they were listening to?)
The result of the experiment was what many in the audience was waiting for. Small wonder, as Elsa Lanchester made a career out of being cute as a button (regardless of age or makeup). In the beginning of the film there’s a scene depicting the young Mary Shelley, accompanied by Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. A storm is raging, and Byron entices Mary to relate a further tale of the Creature (which provides an interesting segue into the film). Here Whale cleverly allows Lanchester to play Mary, and she sparkles up the scene with her brightness.
(I also want to applaud Gavin Gordon’s brief portrayal of Lord Byron: “England’s Greatest Sinner”. One of my all-time favorite “small roles”, and I rather wish he had been offered a chance to play Byron in a larger role.)
(Maybe I need to put “England’s Greatest Sinner” on my resume and see what happens.)
At the other end of the film we have Lanchester as the titular Bride, and if the reaction of the theater audience was any indication, her performance has lost none of its charm. Perhaps “charm” is an odd word to use in describing a female created from corpse parts, but Lanchester manages to do quite well with the moments she spends with the role. She is as much a child as the Creature, her head jerking about as her searching eyes try to take in everything . . . her balance unsteady. Her screeching reaction to the Creature is firmly etched into the memory of genre fans (and nicely honored by the late Madeline Kahn in “Young Frankenstein”). Not given room to murder, or even menace, Lanchester’s Bride was clearly meant to be the audience’s darling, and in that she clearly succeeded.
Universal has a lot riding on “The Bride of Frankenstein”, and much more was invested into it than into the previous film. The sets are more elaborate, and the studio forest (complete with rocky hills and waterfalls) is a treat to look at. My objections about the remastering of “Frankenstein” were wiped away as a similar effort here put a considerable polish onto John Mescall’s crisp cinematography. Franz Waxman’s music for the film was particularly memorable (although . . . and I know I’m going to get yelled at here . . . I personally would’ve preferred something a shade or so darker. Among Waxman’s work this is not a particular personal favorite).
The lights eventually went up and the audience went home. Throughout both “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” there had been nary a gasp or a scream. But, as I mentioned, the special screening ended with applause from those who had attended. Sincere. Genuine. The two films had long since lost whatever ability they once had to frighten. But after all these years, they still possessed the power to entertain. Perhaps a far more preferable legacy.