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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) begins with a witty prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and a very portentous thunderstorm. This device is used by director James Whale and screenwriters William Hurlbut and John Balderston to tell the story of FRANKENSTEIN as presented in the first film. This is not only a good way to inform those who never saw FRANKENSTEIN (1931), but is also a perfect opportunity for some very bright and ironic humor. We are told the author of the original novel is afraid of lightning and that she is faint of heart. Lord Byron expresses amazement that such a gentle soul could have written a novel as horrific as FRANKENSTEIN. And then this delicate lady, who sits doing needlepoint while a thunderstorm rages, pricks her finger. She lets out a gentle yelp as she leaps to her feet, with Byron and Percy helping to steady her. The men stand on each side of Mary, her arms outstretched toward them, as they grasp her hands. This moment provides the first of three such connecting images that appear throughout this marvelous sequel. The belief in the alleged fragility of femininity is celebrated and gently mocked at various points in a film rich with visual gems and stark metaphors exploring sexual relationships, religion and family life.

The new story gets off to a spooky start where FRANKENSTEIN ended: a burned out mill at which the monster (Boris Karloff) was supposedly dispatched. The “fiend” however, is still alive and he facilitates a reunion of sorts for a family from the fist film. He does so by murdering little Maria’s parents (Reginald Barlow and Mary Gordon), who have come to the mill to be certain the creature that murdered their daughter is truly dead. This reunion is an example of Whale’s “family values” however weird, and the next scene features DR. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle (having survived the mill encounter with his monster), his fiance waiting at the door in her wedding gown. This is the night they were to be married and Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is understandably unnerved. In a reprisal of the shot from the prologue, she is steadied by two attendants as she shakily walks through the cavernous set as designed by Charles D. Hall. This will be her home soon, as she and Henry are about to start a family. Elizabeth is not happy with the way things are starting out and she speaks with trepidation, telling her bed ridden husband-to-be of a “spirit” she fears will take him away. Immediately DR. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on a matter of “grave” importance. It seems the bad Doctor has an itch to collaborate with Henry in creating a mate for the monster. Pretorius quotes the Bible to explain his strange familial yearning on the monster’s behalf: “Male and female he created them” and “Be fruitful and multiply.” He invites Henry to his bungalow where he displays the fruits of his own experiments: tiny people kept in jars – the Doctor having trouble achieving the right size for his creations. Whale is at his bitchiest here spoofing earlier films. One of the little people bears a strong resemblance to Henry the VIII while another is modeled on the monarch’s wife Anne. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester had recently starred in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. Everyone is fair game for Whale’s good-natured ribbing – including the co-star of his current film and her own husband. Despite this enchanting presentation, Henry Frankenstein, who wants nothing further to do with monsters, is unwilling to go along with Pretorius’ plans.

The monster, having his own troubles, is pursued by a mob. Whale’s treatment of this scene and the ones that follow is as wild and iconoclastic as anything found in even the most avant-garde cinema. The monster is captured and tied to a log, his hands above him. He is hoisted vertically into the air before being loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. Whale’s staging makes it perfectly clear: this is a crucifixion, with a most unlikely Christ figure at its center. The monster is taken to a jail cell and chained to what looks like an electric chair. He screams out in agony as the chains, attached to large spikes, are pounded into the ground. He soon escapes his tomb-like confines and later stumbles his way into a cemetery where he overturns religious statues, including one of a Bishop. The town’s people, little more than brutes, are the Pharisees in this new passion play. The sacrifice, who has already risen from the dead (in Frankenstein’s lab) finds refuge in a meeting with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie – in a heartfelt performance). In the man’s cabin, they reenact the Last Supper, by sharing bread and wine over a small table. All of this is presided over by a crucifix above the hermit’s bed. Both the monster and the blind man are despised by men. When two vigilantes come upon the cabin and see the monster and the hermit together, the first man (John Carradine) remarks “He’s blind!” followed by the second man’s exclamation “He isn’t human!” Though the second man is actually referring to the monster, the two lines are placed together in this way to suggest a reference to the hermit. Like the monster, he is considered less than human – he is not completely “whole”, because of his affliction. In the ensuing struggle, the cabin catches fire, frightening the monster, causing him to escape into the night.

In order to force Henry to participate in his plan, Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage. Henry complies. This creation scene is a classic of suspense as well as a fascinating exploration of man’s relationship to his woman. As Henry waits for the return of Elizabeth, the monster waits, just as anxiously, for his new mate. Both the Doctor and his creation are nervous grooms on their wedding nights and we are reminded of another Bible passage: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Franz Waxman’s delicious music score is aided by a beating drum, representing the heart of the new creation, and also the excitement and longing felt by both the first creation and his creator. Just in time a lovely thunderstorm (recalling the prologue) arrives to assist the two scientists in their quest. Henry, at first unwilling, is by now completely wrapped up in the project exclaiming “She’s alive!” as the experiment reaches fruition. Of course, this exclamation could also signify Henry’s elation at realizing Elizabeth will also live.

When the mate is unveiled she is revealed to be none other than Elsa Lanchester, our Mary Shelley from the prologue. Like Mary the new creature is a depiction, in her own way, of classic femininity who needs the Doctors to steady her as she takes her first uncertain steps. This is the third such image in the film, as the story, beginning and ending with a thunderstorm, comes full circle. “The bride of Frankenstein!” Pretorius proudly announces. This could be a joke targeting those who have always incorrectly referred to the monster using his maker’s name. Or could it be that she really is Frankenstein’s bride? Henry has so much invested in the project by this time, that he and his new creation could be seen as one in marriage. In fact, almost the same could be said of his relationship to the first creation – the monster being Frankenstein’s alter ego. This is, after all, a film heavily inspired by the Germans, who have a well known doppelganger obsession. Of course, Pretorious and the bride are linked as well through the crazy hairstyles they share. Horrified by her mate (as many women in arranged marriages are), she recoils in disgust. “She hate me – like others!” the monster says, tears pouring down his cheeks and filling his voice. In this and his final line “We belong dead!” Boris Karloff reveals himself to be an actor able to elicit depths of emotion from the most unlikely of characters.

After allowing Henry and Elizabeth to flee to safety, this broken soul reaches for “the lever” blowing himself, his new bride and Pretorius to bits. But for the other lovers – a very different fate: Henry and his bride-to-be embrace as they watch the castle explode from a distance. The heartbeat from that Franz Waxman score fades out with the rest of the film and though we may agree with Leslie Halliwell’s assertion that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is “At once the best of the [Universal Studios] horror films and a gentle mocking of them.”, it is apparent that James Whale and his writers were also concerned with more serious themes – deadly serious. Just think of Maria and her parents.

CREDITS: Directed by James Whale. Written by William Hurlbut and John Balderston, from the book FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Photographed by John Mescall. Production design by Charles D. Hall. Edited by Ted Kent. Music by Franz Waxman. With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’connor, Dwight Frye, Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton.

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April 16, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, horror films, sequels | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment