Bride of Frankenstein
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While the litany of sequels that Hollywood has commissioned for its most successful products seems almost boundless, the list of follow-ups to undisputed classics that manage to equal, or arguably surpass, their predecessors in quality is markedly shorter. Perhaps the first and best example of this phenomenon is Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Universal's worthy attempt to recreate the rampant success of its groundbreaking 1931 horror staple.
While chiefly remembered today for the horror classics that he helmed for Universal in the early '30s, James Whale had the respect of studio boss Carl Laemmle as the one talent on his lot with a touch comparable to any director working with the majors. It was Whale to whom Universal's most prestigious projects were always steered, and he was given carte blanche to frame his films as he saw fit. Whale didn't like being typed to the monster genre, and he resisted the studio's entreaties to sign on to a sequel to Frankenstein for as long as he could. Once it dawned on him how to inject elements of dark farce into the proceedings--rendering the project what he described as "a hoot"--Whale willingly threw his energies into Bride of Frankenstein, and the results speak for themselves.
Drawing upon an aspect from Mary Shelley's gothic novel that was bypassed in the first film--the desire of the patchwork creature to have his creator forge him a mate--Whale and screenwriter John Balderston crafted an imaginative and elaborate opening scenario. The setting is a storm-struck British manse in 1816, where the young author (Elsa Lanchester) is being entreated by her husband (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) to continue with her nightmarish tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Footage follows of the climactic windmill blaze from Frankenstein, where the monster (Boris Karloff) met his supposed end.
It soon becomes apparent that the creature managed to survive the inferno, as a village couple poking around the mill's embers fatally discovers. Concurrently, the locals return the prone body of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) to his ancestral castle; he survives the trauma, to the great relief of his new bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, replacing Mae Clarke in the role). The scientist has little time to recuperate before the unexpected arrival of one of his former professors, a fey eccentric answering to Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
It seems that Pretorius has surmised the connection between his old protege's theories and their unholy end-product, and sought him out for no other purpose than collaboration. In one of Bride of Frankenstein's great set pieces, the old charlatan gleefully shows off tiny jars bearing the various homunculi that he had bred through science and sorcery. Henry vows no more to do with such goings-on, but Pretorius is determined to change his mind through whatever means necessary.
In the meantime, the monster continues to be shot at and chased by a repulsed citizenry. He stumbles upon the dwelling of a kindly blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who, grateful for the companionship, offers food and shelter. The creature responds touchingly to the only kindness he has known since his resurrection, as his new friend teaches him rudimentary speech. The idyll is disrupted when hunters come upon the shack, and the monster must again go on the run.
While hiding in a crypt, the monster comes upon Pretorius, taking a respite from grave robbing. Having apprised the creature of his intent to create a woman, Pretorius gains an accomplice willing and able to spirit Elizabeth from Frankenstein's castle, and hold her hostage to ensure the compromised scientist's cooperation. With the next stormy night, the familiar Kenneth Strickfaden equipment crackles and hums, and Bride of Frankenstein is driven to its unforgettable conclusion.
In returning to the role that made him a star, Karloff also grudgingly submitted to the discomfort of the heavy costume and Jack Pierce's laborious make-up. Beverley Bare Buehrer reported in Boris Karloff: A Bio-Bibliography that the actor had been fitted with a rubber undersuit to ward off the cold of the flooded windmill cellar of the opening sequence. On the first day of shooting, the garment inflated and caused Karloff to dislocate a hip. The actor regretted the creative decision to give the monster speech; he told Films and Filming in 1957 that "I knew that this was eventually going to destroy the character. It did for me anyway." Despite his reservations, his work as the semi-articulate creature stands amongst the best of his career.
One of Whale's initial choices to assay the title role was Brigitte Helm, best remembered as the automaton in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a performance that no doubt informed the birdlike motions undertaken by Lanchester in her second role. Swathed into near immobility by roughly two miles worth of linen bandage, Lanchester's own hair was blended into the wire crown supporting that famous Nefertiti upsweep. Uttering hisses inspired by the swans that she would feed in London, the petite British actress delivered a characterization that still stands as the queen of screen monsterdom.
Other virtues of Bride of Frankenstein that deserve note are the operatic score delivered by Franz Waxman, the sure-handed cinematography of John Mescall and the impressionistic sets rendered by Charles D. Hall. Thesiger, an old collaborator of Whale's from the British stage, took on the role of Pretorius when the originally cast Claude Rains pursued other commitments, and gave a performance at once disquieting and witty. Though Bride of Frankenstein became another popular success, Laemmle would lose family control of his studio within two years. The new regime would unwisely retire Universal's horror franchises (they would later revive them due to their huge profitability). Similarly, the new ownership lacked patience with Whale's excesses, and he would part company with Universal over undue interference with The Road Back (1937).
Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr., James Whale
Director: James Whale
Screenplay: John L. Balderston, William Hurlbut
Cinematography: John Mescall
Film Editing: Ted Kent
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Boris Karloff (The Monster), Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth Frankenstein), Elsa Lanchester (Mary Shelley/The Monster's Mate), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius), Gavin Gordon (Lord Byron).
BW-75m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg