50 years, 50 films Vol II: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
We reach the middle of the 1930s and (as it happens) Screenwriter’s very favourite film.
Most of us have, from time to time, been asked to name our favourite film. If you write about movies for a living then you will encounter this query that bit more often. It’s as well to have an answer to hand even if that involves some reduction and simplification. Happily, I’ve been able to give pretty much the same response for the last 40 years.
James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, follow-up to a film that brought a new dimension to cinematic gothic, is still “my favourite film”. It may, however, not be my favourite horror film. What semantic convulsions are these? It requires no great twisting and turning to argue that Bride is not really a horror film at all. In saying this, I am not dabbling with the argument that Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is, by current definitions, more science fiction than horror. The point is, rather, that Whale pushes his sequel so far into comedy and camp absurdity that the shocks become mere decorations. It is said that Whale, convinced that no sequel could top the 1931 original, decided to make no attempt at a tonally consistent follow up and elected instead to make a bit of a “hoot”. Let’s just have some fun and exercise a few obsessions while we are at it. You sometimes get what you couldn’t have hoped for. Bride of Frankenstein was a huge success and remains by far the most revered of Universal’s great pre-war horror sequence.
Having noted that Whale veered away from the tone of his own Frankenstein, we should allow that it links very neatly with the first film’s story. Following a famously silly prologue in which Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron urge Mary to tell us more (just listen how Gavin Gordon’s Byron rolls his tongue around the word “cadavers”), we pick up the plot from the very end of Whale’s Frankenstein. Villagers crowd nervously around the ruined windmill within which the monster is believed to have perished. He is, of course, still alive (or still undead, anyway). Discovered by previous antagonists, the being reacts violently and — after a comic encounter with the great Belfast actor Una O’Connor — lurches out into Hollywood’s version of middle Europe.
There may be a humanist message in here concerning the way kindness breeds kindness and cruelty generates more cruelty. The scene in which the monster — again played by a sympathetic Boris Karloff — encounters O P Heggie’s blind hermit is, following the hilarious parody in Young Frankenstein, now impossible to watch without sniggering. But there is something serious going on: the decent old man is implanting worthwhile values on the Tabula Rasa that is the Creature’s new consciousness. By the end of their idyll, the anti-hero has learned to talk and has developed a taste for cigars and alcohol.
Karloff was adamantly opposed to the idea of having the monster speak (though he does just that in Shelley’s very different novel). In one sense he was right. The Universal sequence continued right up until 1945 (ending with House of Dracula) and the monster never spoke again. That’s not what this version of Frankenstein’s creation usually does: he’s a lumbering, often compassionate mute. But Bride of Frankenstein sits someway apart from the series. Like Whale’s almost equally brilliant The Old Dark House (1932), this film is as much a comic exercise in high camp as a story of the macabre.
Both The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein lean heavily on Ernest Thesiger for those energies. In the earlier film he played a malevolent paterfamilias. Here he is Dr Frankenstein’s old chum Dr Pretorius, one of the great creations of US cinema. Whale was, of course, (for the times) a relatively open homosexual and, thus, long before it was fashionable, critics have mined Bride for gay subtexts. To be honest, little mining is required and, in Pretorius’s case, we are dealing as much with surtext as subtext. What does the incorrigible old fellow have on Colin Clive’s wracked Frankenstein. We need not work our imaginations too furiously.
At any rate, Pretorius persuades the younger man to return to the laboratory and produce a mate for his now-communicative first creation. We are surely giving nothing away when we say that she turns out to be a towering, shrill harpy in the irresistible form of Elsa Lanchester. The tendrils here are deliciously intertwined. Lanchester also plays Mary Shelley, thus getting at the darkness that dwells within the most civilised breast. She was, of course, married to Charles Laughton, fairly unambiguously gay, and would understand the various colours of reference and sexual deflection that were buzzing about the place.
All this helps add layers of mystery to the still-stirring creation scene. Franz Waxman’s score finds wedding bells among the orchestral surges as the patched-together Nefertiti teeters forwards. Frankenstein is driven by fear. Pretorius is quite mad. The Bride hisses like a bipedal cat that has been interbred into pedigree instability. Only the Creature seems to understand the hopelessness of the situation. “We belong dead,” he says before bringing fire down upon them all.
What possibilities there are here! Few other films manage this balance of high and low culture. A working class boy from the English West-Midlands, Whale brought both music-hall humour and post-Freudian unease to his greatest creation. Yet it was all too odd and too dubious to produce any obvious successors. The Universal series returned to its enjoyable, semi-serious Southern Californian Gothic. Whale struggled to find work. Thesiger continued to flesh out such fine films as The Man in the White Suit. Clive was ruined by booze. Larne’s Valerie Hobson, who played Mrs Frankenstein, married John Profumo and stood beside the Tory minister during the notorious scandal that was named for him 30 years later.
Meanwhile, Bride of Frankenstein played on late-night telly and gradually accrued a stringer reputation than the contemporaneous middle-brow pictures that won Oscars in the same decade. Its resilience is one, among many, reasons why I describe it as my favourite film.
For 1935 we also considered Captain Blood, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, The 39 Steps, Top Hat and The Informer.