by Matt Levine
The Bride of Frankenstein is the inaugural event in Science on Screen, a new series of screenings and discussions on science in film hosted by the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, in collaboration with the Bakken Museum. A pre-reception begins at 5:00 on Wednesday, January 15 in the Aster River Room, followed by a discussion with engineer Rebecca Bergman at 6:00. The Bride of Frankenstein screens at 7:00 at St. Anthony Main.
Universal Studios had a run of beloved, innovative horror movies stretching from 1923 to the early '60s. These “Universal Monsters,” as they were affectionately called, included the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Dracula, the Mummy, and Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera—but none of their films were as simultaneously shocking, humorous, and touching as James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Genre hybrids have existed at least since the 1920s, but Whale was one of the first Hollywood filmmakers to excel at it: in movies such as The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he blended the nightmarish style of German Expressionism with tongue-in-cheek satire and shocking morbidity (think of the drowning of the little girl in Whale’s original Frankenstein, made in 1931). But The Bride of Frankenstein is Whale’s most dexterous achievement; how many other directors—even those who are credited with revolutionizing the horror genre by infusing it with dark comedy, like Roman Polanski and Sam Raimi—could juggle humor, terror, and pathos so flawlessly?
Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul – St. Anthony Main
January 15, 2014
Director: James Whale
Producers: Carl Laemmle Jr.
Writer: William Hurlbut (screenplay and adaptation), John Balderston (adaptation), suggested by the original novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Cinematographer: John J. Mescall
Editor: Ted Kent
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Lucien Prival, O.P. Heggie, Dwight Frye, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, Ann Darling, Ted Billings
US Theatrical Release: April 22, 1935
US Distributor: Universal Studios
Whale’s ingenious achievement is even more impressive considering he resisted tackling a Frankenstein sequel for years. Universal Studios made a killing off of the film ($12 million in its initial release alone) and announced a sequel as early as 1933, though the studio’s hectoring didn’t compel Whale to sign on until late 1934. Without his intervention, the first Frankenstein sequel could have looked much different: alternate storylines that were initially proposed included an educated Monster continuing his creator’s demented research, or Dr. Frankenstein manufacturing a Death Ray for an impending world war. By focusing instead on the Monster's loneliness—on the simple human need for love and companionship, even if it's that of a reanimated cadaver--The Bride of Frankenstein achieves as much empathy as it does horror.
The movie begins right where the 1931 original left off: after the Monster (Boris Karloff) inadvertently drowns a young girl, a throng of bloodthirsty villagers—wielding pitchforks and thirsting for vengeance—chases the Monster into an abandoned mill and burns it down, presuming they’ve killed the beast in the conflagration. Of course they haven’t, as the dead girl’s parents are the Monster’s next victims: he strangles the father and flings the mother down a jagged, rocky outcrop, opening the film with a bout of gruesome savagery which immediately stokes the audience’s anxiety. (Later thrills like Suspiria and Eastern Promises utilize the same tactic: begin with one of the most violent scenes in order to agitate the audience from the very start.) Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive)—originally presumed dead after his run-in with the monster—is rescued from the burning mill and recuperates at his family’s castle, where he determines to leave these sacrilegious experiments behind him and marry his fiancée, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). His days of playing God are over, or so he presumes.
The sudden arrival of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, in full-on camp mode) changes everything: a mad scientist carrying out his own experiments in reanimation, Pretorius—with his lips perpetually puckered and his haughty British accent disguising the most duplicitous words with forced civility—invites Dr. Frankenstein to witness his own “creations.” When the doctor initially refuses, Pretorius reminds him that he’s indirectly responsible for the deaths of several people—a veiled threat which forces the weakened Frankenstein into a wicked partnership with Pretorius.
In many ways, the movie hinges on Pretorius. He’s one of The Bride of Frankenstein’s funniest characters, with an over-the-top sliminess that knowingly sends up the mad scientists of cinema’s nascent sci-fi and horror genres. Yet his power-hungry glee at creating life out of nothing also conveys the movie’s condemnation of megalomaniacal men who believe they can outmatch God (a theme which was also present, though less explicit, in the first Frankenstein film). After ushering Dr. Frankenstein to his cavernous lab, Pretorius reveals a number of bell jars astonishingly containing miniature humans—all of them less than a foot tall—who gesticulate wildly and chirp passionately towards one another. (Included among Pretorius’ experiments are a mermaid, a corpulent king, his unattainable queen, and even a stand-in for the Devil.) This scene makes jaw-dropping use of ingenious photographic effects engineered by John P. Fulton (it’s hard to imagine computer imagery creating an equally vivid effect), yet it also perfectly encapsulates the movie’s insane-comical-frightening vibe: if humanity was given the limitless power of God, the world that might result would be nothing more than a sadistic sideshow.
The God complex shared by Pretorius and Frankenstein leads them to propose a new experiment: a female mate for the lonely Monster, who (having experienced nothing but ridicule and cruelty from humans) is eager to gain a like-minded companion. In the two scientists’ desire to birth their own Adam and Eve, some film theorists have read The Bride of Frankenstein as an allegory for Whale’s homosexuality: the director was one of the few outed filmmakers working in Hollywood at a time when many gay actors and directors kept their sexuality a secret. It’s true that the relationship between Frankenstein and Pretorius is the most intimate in The Bride of Frankenstein, and although Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth will presumably tie the knot shortly after the movie ends, that doesn’t change the fact that no heterosexual relationships come to fruition onscreen—even the one between the Monster and his Bride which propels the entire plot into motion.
On the other hand, the emphasis on birthing and creation could simply act as an allegory for the creative process, in which case Frankenstein and Pretorius would act as stand-ins for James Whale, creating life out of nothing at all. Whale (and his writers, William Hurlbut and John Balderston) seem fully aware of this subtext: they open the film with a frame story in which Mary Shelley (author, of course, of the original Frankenstein) orates the rest of her tale to fellow writers Percy Bysse Shelley and Lord Byron. The Bride of Frankenstein is, then, her artistic creation, the story to which she gives life—as opposed to the human monstrosities “birthed” by Frankenstein and Pretorius later in the film.
These compelling subtexts are subtly evoked throughout The Bride of Frankenstein, but they act as added bonuses to a film that’s already rich, emotional, and wildly entertaining. Despite the winking sense of humor that agreeably ridicules humanity’s flaws (not only in the form of Dr. Pretorius, but also Frankenstein’s shrieking housekeeper Minnie, whose abhorrence for the Monster knows no bounds), the movie doesn’t skimp on the horror. Its gloomy atmosphere is clearly indebted to the haunting look of German Expressionism: one scene in which Pretorius carries a coffin is nearly identical to an eerie image in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), and the vast set of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab recalls Rotwang’s hideout in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). (Indeed, Universal initially tried to lure Metropolis’ Brigitte Helm into appearing as “the Monster’s Mate.”)
Visually, then, The Bride of Frankenstein immerses us in a world of otherworldly death, yet equally astonishing is the movie’s soundtrack: overloaded with unnerving sound effects and an evocative score by Franz Waxman, the film creates a sonically foreboding tone all the more impressive considering it was made less than a decade into the age of talkies. During the Bride’s “reanimation scene,” for example, the rhythmic sound of a timpani stands in for the creature’s erratic heartbeat—as the tempo escalates gradually, the audience’s anxiety mounts almost imperceptibly.
The period of time that elapsed between the first and second Frankenstein films, from 1931 to 1935, was a turbulent one for Hollywood: while the industry-created Production Code (which listed stringent requirements as to what Hollywood could and could not portray, as an effort to appease America’s increasingly perturbed moral guardians) was almost nonexistent in 1931, it had begun to be enforced with greater severity by the end of 1934. There were strict guidelines regarding violence, sexuality, alcohol, drugs, and moral rectitude; the death of a young girl in the first Frankenstein, for example, likely would not have been allowed in a movie made only five years later. In some ways, the Production Code did clamp down on The Bride of Frankenstein—while the original edit included 21 deaths, for example, censors forced Whale and his producers to cut that down to ten.
Thematically, though, The Bride of Frankenstein has a bleak pessimism that might not have survived if the movie had been made later in the 1930s (the script probably wouldn’t have made it past the Motion Picture Association of America’s initial reviews). As an assemblage of dead flesh electrically catalyzed into motion, Frankenstein’s Monster has a greater understanding of morality and compassion than most of the humans who surround him; all he wants is compassion (as conveyed by The Bride of Frankenstein’s incredible “blind hermit” scene, memorably lampooned in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), but bloodthirsty humans won’t offer it to him. In anticipation of his reanimated bride, the Monster memorably (and harshly) intones, “I love dead…hate living.” And who can blame him, given how awfully he's been treated throughout his brief, undead existence? The film’s saddest moment arrives when even his monstrous bride, upon witnessing the Monster’s hulking appearance, screams in fear: even the dead won’t offer him the solace he so painfully craves. At last, when the Monster pulls the lever that decimates Frankenstein’s lab—professing “We belong dead” as he does so—it is essentially an act of suicide, an opportunity to re-enter the tranquil non-existence from which he was born. Along with its humor and horror, The Bride of Frankenstein is miraculously able to make us care for a mass of flesh who experiences firsthand the cruelty and loneliness inherent to being alive. Somehow, in the trappings of a vivid horror-comedy, James Whale is able to make a humanist masterpiece on the painful difficulties of finding understanding in our world, making The Bride of Frankenstein one of the most agile and beguiling concoctions Hollywood has ever offered.