Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I brought over some more videos from the Universal horror collection (I seem at the moment to have misplaced my tape of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns[1], but I was able to locate just about everything else I have in the way of Universal horror films — which isn’t much, at least on VHS: I have old Beta tapes of such important films as the 1934 Black Cat, the 1935 Raven and the 1936 Invisible Ray but have never re-acquired these on VHS) and ran him The Bride of Frankenstein and an important non-horror Karloff item, The Criminal Code from 1930 (that’s the copyright date on the print, though I’d always had the impression it wasn’t released until 1931). The Bride of Frankenstein is as wonderful as I remember it, full of British-camp dry wit (courtesy of writers John L. Balderston — he declined credit for the final script because he thought too much of the humor had been taken out and too much of the horror left in, but he is still co-credited with the original story — and William Hurlbut, a last name Charles found singularly unpleasant for him, as well as director James Whale) and blessed with a marvelous musical score by Franz Waxman.[2] Except for one obvious cue — at the end of the fight sequence in the hermit’s hut, when the hut burns down and the hunters take the hermit into custody after having tried to kill the monster — Waxman’s music continually plays against the clichés of horror scoring, up to and including the beautiful wedding bells that peal out on the soundtrack when “The Monster’s Mate” is introduced and Ernest Thesiger intones the magic words, “The Bride — of Frankenstein!”

The Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale’s horror masterpiece — no wonder he insisted on abandoning the genre after this one; he simply had nothing more to say about it! It’s the closest Frankenstein movie ever made to Mary Shelley’s original conception (despite the 1970’s TV miniseries and Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film, both of which were billed as close adaptations of Shelley but really weren’t) and, of course, features her as a character in the opening sequence. Elsa Lanchester revealed in her autobiography that it was part of Whale’s conception from day one that the same actress would play Mary Shelley at the beginning and the “bride of Frankenstein” at the end, and when she interviewed for the role it was with the understanding that if she were cast, it would be in both parts. She also said that the famous electric hairdo was all her own hair except for the grey streaks on either side, which were added, and Jack Pierce devised a wire framework to get her hair to stand straight up. (Until I read that, I had always assumed all the Bride’s hair was a wig.) The script is full of camp humor, and even the “serious” moments have an ironic edge — nowhere more obvious than in the very famous scene in which the Monster is captured by the townspeople and hoisted up onto a wagon to be carted back to town, and in a marvelous full-front shot the Monster is made to look like Christ on the cross! (When the documentary The Celluloid Closet paralleled this sequence from The Bride of Frankenstein with the ending flashback of Suddenly, Last Summer it made a somewhat different point from the one the makers of The Celluloid Closet intended: what it really indicated was the difference between an out and proud Gay man like James Whale expressing sympathy for the outsider and turning the Monster into a man, and a bitterly self-hating closet case like Tennessee Williams expressing hatred and fear for the outsider and turning Sebastian into a monster.) Karloff’s acting is as splendid as ever, notably when the Monster makes the same open-handed gesture he did in the earlier film, looking for human warmth and affection (though there’s a marvelously ironic scene in which the Monster looks at his own face reflected in a lake and reacts to his ugliness just about the way the humans in the film do — he cries out and sticks his hands in the water to make his reflection go away). Karloff was upset in later years that they gave the Monster the power of speech in this one — but I think it humanizes the character brilliantly, though at the cost of making him less terrifying, and I only wish Whale, Hurlbut and Balderston had gone all the way and followed Mary Shelley in making the Monster fully articulate and conversant with John Milton’s Paradise Lost (with which he identifies his own situation, seeing himself as Adam and Frankenstein as God). — 10/19/98


After we watched the 1910 Edison Frankenstein on my laptop (I’d left it out when I put the bed into sleep mode so we could watch it on the computer, since the disc Charles had loaded it onto was incompatible with the DVD player) I got to the business I’d set for the evening: running what I only half-jokingly called “the two Gayest horror films ever made”: The Bride of Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Charles had spotted a copy of Rocky Horror at his workplace and I urged him to buy it since it would be fun to see it again, and I thought of continuing our sequence of the Universal Frankenstein films and double-billing Rocky Horror with Bride because James Whale’s “take” on the Frankenstein mythos was pretty Gay even in the first film in the series (see my notes on it) and is even more so in Bride. The Bride of Frankenstein remains a masterpiece, the greatest film ever made in the horror genre and certainly the summit of James Whale’s work in the genre (he never made another horror film, unless you count The Man in the Iron Mask as one because of its quite gripping dungeon scenes).

It has all the virtues of the first film — a gloomy, appropriately Gothic atmosphere through the use of subtly but unmistakably stylized sets as well as chiaroscuro camerawork; the first-rate performances of Colin Clive as Frankenstein and Boris Karloff (billed only by his last name because Universal’s marketing department thought that made him seem more sinister — indeed, the trailer referred to him as “Karloff the Uncanny,” an apparent attempt to suggest to credulous movie-goers that he was something more than just an ordinary human actor with a particular gift for bringing life to monster roles); the overall infrastructure of Universal that enabled them to churn out a movie like this with the same casual expertise with which MGM could do a romantic drama or Warners a gangster film; and the cool electronic gadgets created by Kenneth Strickfaden (indeed, the gadgets in this film are cooler than the ones in the first one, notably that series of flashing lights that indicates the rate at which the stolen heart they’re about to transplant into the female monster is beating) — and quite a few of its own: a much warmer, more intense performance by the new Elizabeth, Valerie Hobson, than Mae Clarke gave in the original; a vivid, well-conceived score by Franz Waxman that (with the exception of one rather obvious cue when the two hunters, one of them played by John Carradine, burn down the hermit’s shack) plays against the clichés of horror-film writing (the wedding bells Waxman puts on the soundtrack when Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious announces the birth of “The bride of Frankenstein!” are only the most imaginative touch in a score full of them); and, most of all, an audacious script by William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston that reflects and facilitates Whale’s subtly campy approach to the material. There’s some confusion about the writing credits here because Hurlbut and Balderston are both credited with “adaptation” but Hurlbut is given sole credit for the actual screenplay. In fact, both writers worked on the script throughout (after some earlier versions by one Tom Reed under the title Return of Frankenstein) but Balderston took his name off the screenplay credit because too many of his jokes had been taken out; he’d wanted the film to be even more of a spoof on the mythos than it is.

Bride of Frankenstein has been called the closest adaptation Mary Shelley’s novel ever received for film, which is true but also an indication of how far we’ve ever been from a true adaptation of her work that would take more than the central premise. (I still hope that I will live to see a Frankenstein film that dares to make the monster fully articulate, have him narrate a good chunk of the story and have him quote John Milton’s Paradise Lost — he sees himself as Adam and Frankenstein as God — all of which occurs in the book.) First there’s the marvelous prologue in which Byron and Shelley (played by two of the queeniest actors in Hollywood just then, Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton, respectively) note the irony that a young woman like Shelley’s wife Mary (Elsa Lanchester), who’s afraid of lightning and the dark, nonetheless wrote a terrifying story that makes liberal use of both. Over film clips from the first Universal Frankenstein she narrates the story and then goes into the sequel — in which the monster is shown as explicitly Christ-like throughout the film, from the cross shape that emerges from the beams of the windmill as the flames finally consume it at the start of the main plot to the way the monster is shot to look like Christ on the cross as he is strung up by the villagers and tied to a pole to be taken to the local prison for incarceration. (The scene in which the monster breaks his chains and escapes seems to have been copied by Whale from the similar escape scene in King Kong — I even joked, “I told you we shouldn’t have bought those chains at Carl Denham’s garage sale!” — and if that was Whale’s inspiration, it only shows he knew who his filmmaking peers were.) Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius (the name comes from a real-life medieval alchemist) is one of the most astonishing character inventions in 1930’s cinema, a mad scientist who’s also courtly and genuinely charming, as he rattles off a list of sins (vodka, wine, cigarettes) and calls each in turn “my only weakness.” One gets the impression that having this man for dinner would be far more entertaining than having Frankenstein, racked as he is with self-doubts and guilt over having created the monster and therefore being (as Pretorius points out) at least partially responsible for all the monster’s killings. Indeed, Bride of Frankenstein as it progresses becomes less and less a film about monsters created from dead bodies and brought to life with lightning, and more and more a film about Frankenstein’s own conflict between respectable married life and his dark (i.e., Gay) side. The original Frankenstein could be read as a clash between straight and Gay — between the demands of society in general and Frankenstein’s father in particular that he marry a woman and father “a son to the House of Frankenstein” through normal, heterosexual means and his work with a male companion to bring to life a “son” without sexual intercourse.

Bride makes this trope a bit less blatantly sexual (especially since the elder Frankenstein isn’t an on-screen character and his death is announced on screen with a bewildering suddenness that leaves us no clue as to when it supposedly happened) but quite a bit more sophisticated otherwise. In his scenes with Elizabeth, Frankenstein has a hang-dog attitude which dramatizes just how hard he’s working to repress his desire to go on with his work (i.e., to continue creating life outside the normal bounds of heterosexuality); in his scenes with Pretorius he’s genuinely turned on. Perhaps it’s taken Elizabeth’s kidnapping to get him to sign on to his final experiment, but once he’s done so he’s a fully committed and, indeed, eager participant — and even more than his relationship with Fritz in the first film, his relationship with Pretorius here is, if not homoerotic, at least extremely homoaffectionate. Pretorius treats him as a former protégé whom he’s now admitted to a position of equality (the way a sugar daddy might finally acknowledge a man he picked up as a teenager and had been living with ever since), and his whole attitude towards Frankenstein has an intense subtext of, “I know what you really want … ” Indeed, tallying with his Christ-like position throughout the film, it’s the monster who becomes Frankenstein’s conscience and sends him back to the straight world at the end, pulling the lever that blows up the old lighthouse where both he and the bride were born (it’s a measure of the demented logic that rules this film that it’s not until it’s over that we wonder why the lab came equipped with a self-destruct mechanism) and sending Frankenstein and Elizabeth away while consigning the film’s entire Gay underworld — Pretorius, himself and the bride who rejected him just like every other “normal” person (save for the blind hermit, in the scene in the film most directly lifted from Mary Shelley’s novel — and in which Whale scores a major directorial triumph by getting a finely honed, understated performance from O. P. Heggie, who usually was one of the biggest hams in Hollywood) — to oblivion. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the greatest films ever made, a rare example of a sequel that surpasses its predecessor (others are the second parts of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Coppola’s The Godfather) and an artistic triumph in a genre that had a slovenly reputation even then and has a worse one now. — 10/28/07


Our friend Garry Hobbs came in and we ended up watching the last 20 minutes or so of the original Frankenstein on TCM, which was doing a marathon of Universal horror films from the 1930’s and 1940’s (as well as one “ringer,” Island of Lost Souls, the first and best adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, made at Paramount in 1933 but taken over by Universal when it merged with MCA in 1962 after MCA-TV had bought the 1927-1949 Paramount catalog in 1957), and though my original plan was to keep on TCM and watch Son of Frankenstein, scheduled immediately afterwards, Garry was piqued by my comments about The Bride of Frankenstein and wanted to see that one next. So I ran Bride from my copy of the Universal Legacy boxed set of most of their Frankenstein movies (actually five of the eight — the first four plus number six, House of Frankenstein; number five, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, was in the Wolf Man Legacy set; number seven, House of Dracula, in the Dracula set; and number eight, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, isn’t in the horror boxes but is in the complete Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal) and enjoyed just about everything about it I’ve loved before it and which has made it my favorite horror film of all time: James Whale’s stunning direction, the wry and deliciously witty script by William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston (given Balderston’s record in other films I had always assumed the witticisms in the script were his, until I read David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and he revealed that Balderston’s first draft for the film was grim, deadly serious and almost totally lacking the wry humor that gives this film much of its appeal), Jack P. Pierce’s makeup jobs on both the Monster (Boris Karloff, playing the role for the second of three times — he gave it up after number three, Son of Frankenstein — and getting top billing, the only time he did for playing the Monster) and his Mate (Elsa Lanchester, who also appears as Mary Shelley in the prologue explaining how the novel Frankenstein came to be written), Franz Waxman’s inventive and dazzling score (the high point is the wedding bells on the soundtrack that peal out to announce the Bride’s creation), and the peculiar Gay strain that runs through the whole movie.

The first Universal Frankenstein can be read as a Gay allegory — there’s a consistent and conscious opposition between the demands of Frankenstein’s father (Frederick Kerr) that he marry his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke in the first Frankenstein, Valerie Hobson in Bride) and produce “a son to the House of Frankenstein” through normal (hetero)sexual means, and his desire to hide out in an abandoned watch tower with a male assistant (in the novel Frankenstein works alone) to create a new human life without the necessity of sex with a woman. In Bride the allegory is pushed even further; even before we see Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger, who came off as a cultured queen — sort of the beta version of Quentin Crisp — even though, according to Skal, in real life he was totally straight and married to the same woman for five decades) he’s described by the Frankensteins’ maid (Una O’Connor at her most deliciously hysterical) as “a queer sort of gentleman,” and Skal dug up a 1936 novelization of Bride by British author Michael Harrison that made it even more obvious than the movie did: in his version Pretorious tells Frankenstein, “‘Come, be fruitful and multiply.’ Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you, of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open but the scientific way.” It’s a thrill to watch Bride just to see how much Whale and his writers got past the censors; with Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, zeroing in on just about every line in the dialogue that compared Frankenstein to God and his achievement to the original creation, Whale did it visually, especially in the audacious shot in which the Monster has been captured, tied to a tree trunk and is being lifted into a cart — and Whale and cinematographer John Mescall pick an angle that makes it look like the Monster is being crucified.

The anti-religious tweaking and the Queer angle are both pushed to the max when Pretorious shows Frankenstein the doll-like miniature creatures he’s created (including a queen, a king — made up to look and act like Henry VIII in the famous film in which he was played by Lanchester’s Gay husband, Charles Laughton — and one who was so disapproving of the others Pretorious made him an archbishop), and he confesses that though he’s been able to create humanoids, he’s been unable to make them normal human size. “You did achieve size,” Pretorious tells Frankenstein — sounding for all the world like a Gay man with a small penis talking to someone much better hung. As I wrote the last time I watched Bride (with Charles on a tour through all the Universal Frankensteins in sequence), Dr. Pretorious (whose name came from a real-life medieval alchemist) isn’t your typical movie mad scientist: he’s someone it would actually be nice to have over for dinner — engaging, witty, with a self-deprecating streak, a far cry from the maddeningly self-righteous obsessives Karloff and Bela Lugosi played in their mad-scientist movies! — 11/1/12

[1] — I found these in the stacks by the fax machine in my room — just about the least accessible part of my video collection — but not in numerical sequence. Oh, well …

[2] — Incidentally, until recently I’d always thought the bits of music in the original Frankenstein film from 1931 — just main themes under the opening and closing credits — had been written by the Universal music director, David Broekman. According to Randall D. Larson’s Musique Fantastique: A Survey of Film Music in the Fantastic Cinema, however, the opening theme was actually written by German composer Bernhard Kaun — who two years later worked with Max Steiner on orchestrating Steiner’s music for King Kong — and the closing theme was a pre-existing cue by Giuseppe Becce, “Grand Appassionato,” which had been written for insertion into silent films. Kaun ended up with a formidable list of credits in the fantasy genre; among the ones Larson lists are Dr. X, One-Way Passage (main title only, as in Frankenstein), Mystery of the Wax Museum, Death Takes a Holiday (inserts only), Return of the Terror, The Walking Dead (a reunion with Karloff), The Invisible Menace (Karloff again!), The Return of Dr. X (Humphrey Bogart’s only horror film!), and collaborations on The Body Disappears and The Smiling Ghost. Based on work by a previous researcher, William H. Rosar (the first person to penetrate the department-head credit to Broekman and reveal that Kaun actually wrote the Frankenstein main-title music), Larson notes:

Kaun’s main title music for Frankenstein bears many of the marks of traditional horror film music, especially as it came to be stereotyped in the ensuing years. Opening with a repeated modal figure invoking a thick, Teutonic feeling over a churning, chromatic bass line and punctuated by frightful brass trills, the latter half of the theme consists of a more mysterious, subdued woodwind meandering, culminating in an abrupt piano glissando that sweeps away the music, ending with a mood of bleak mystery.