(9/10) With Bride of Frankenstein James Whale created the greatest of all Universal horror films. Superb acting, great casting, a script that balances between drama, horror and campy humour, all rounded up with fluid, Expressionist filmmaking and Soviet-style montage editing. All this, plus the marvellous Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, Boris Karloff in high form, and a chilly, funny, scary Ernest Thesiger. Greatness abounds, but thematically the film is a bit sloppy.
Bride of Frankenstein. 1935, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston, Edmund Pearson, William Hurlbut. Based on novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’Connor, Dwight Frye, John Carradine. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. IMDb: 7.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: N/A.
Bride of Frankenstein is one of those films that has been analysed into shreds, so that the legacy of the film somehow overshadows the film itself. It is one of those rare horror films that even reviewers not generally infatuated with genre films like to promote to the same status as groundbreaking works like Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Citizen Kane (1941) – or at least that is the sense that one sometimes gets from people who are adamant that Bride is one of the most important films in American cinematic history (an interesting notion as most of the key personnel were British). Although it is true that along with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933, review) this Universal classic is the finest of the American horror films of the thirties, some of its reputation stems from the fact that people like to read topics between the lines that simply aren’t there.
I have written a small essay on Universal’s Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel and how the film and the monster came to be remembered as we all remember it from Boris Karloff’s portrayal in British director James Whale’s 1931 film in my previous review – so I won’t get into that this time. Please read the Frankenstein review for an in-depth analysis. But – because of the tacked on ending where the mad scientist Henry Frankenstein lives to fight another day, it was pretty clear that Universal boss Carl Laemmle Jr. had in mind a sequel from the get-go. After Whale had scored two more major hits with The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933, review), the studio was desperate to get him to direct the Frankenstein sequel. The only problem was that he didn’t want to do it – in his mind the story was now told, and the novel (sort of) put on screen. Ironic, considering that we continue to get new versions of Shelley’s remarkable tale to this very day.
However, some diplomatic cajoling ensued wherewith Whale was allowed to direct English social drama One More River in 1934, and he agreed to put the next (and his last) Frankenstein movie on the screen. But this meant that poor Robert Florey, who had already been ousted by Whale as the director of Frankenstein was once again sidestepped. Florey was one of the first to submit a draft for the sequel as early as 1932, but it was dismissed outright and nothing seems to indicate that he was ever seriously considered to direct it. After Whale was aboard he rejected a number of drafts before he called up John L. Balderston, who had adapted Peggy Webling’s British play Frankenstein for the American stage, thus creating the blueprint for Universal’s 1931 film, and who had also worked on the script for The Invisible Man. It was Balderston who came up with the idea of going back to Shelley’s novel to mine some of the ideas that the original film left out, most notably the creation of a bride for the ”monster”.
In the novel the bride is never brought to life, neither is she the resurrected Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s wife, as in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film. In the novel Frankenstein destroys the bride he has almost completed for the creature, thus bringing fire and brimstone hailing down from the skies (figuratively speaking). For much of the film, the bride acts as a MacGuffin, but as we know, she is brought to life in the memorable climax of the movie.
Balderston also wrote a prologue depicting Mary Shelley telling the story of the film to her husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron. Although historically inaccurate, the scene does hark back to the real event of the so-called Lake Geneva gathering where Shelley is said to have come up with the idea of the book. In the film, though, Shelley tells the story as if it hadn’t occurred in the book (they discuss the previous release of the novel, and Shelley notes that it ”doesn’t end there”). In reality the Shelleys, Byron, Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s writing physician John Polidori were holed up at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva one summer in 1816 marked by torrential rain. The company amused themselves with German ghost stories (so called ”penny frights”) and Byron suggested they would all come up with their own horror tales. Both Byron and Percy Shelley are said to have began work on some of their more gothic poems here, but the most substantial outcome was Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein (or so the legend goes) and John Polidori’s novella Vampyre, the first vampire book in English. Although Mary Shelley is said to have come upon the idea in a dream, it is most likely that she pieced together different ideas that were in vogue at the time, and she certainly drew a good deal of inspiration from some of the German legends and spook stories recounted at the fireplace – it is impossible not to compare Frankenstein and the old Jewish legend of the Golem. Trivia: The character of Pretorius (who doesn’t appear in the book) was actually partly modelled on John Polidori, and partly on 16th century scientist/alchemist Paracelsus, who claimed to have created miniature people, homunculi, from human sperm that had been putrefied and fed with human blood in a horse’s womb. In the book, Shelley names Paracelsus as one of Frankenstein’s inspirations and “sources”.
But Whale wasn’t happy with Balderston’s script either, and sent it forward to Broadway playwright and occasional screenwriter William Hurlbut, as well as the author Edmund Pearson. Pearson is best known for his true-crime stories, most notably his essays on the Lizzie Borden murder. Whether because of his involvement in the film, or the other way around, is unclear, but he did write an introduction to a new American edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1934. Pearson seems to have been the person to introduce the scene where Pretorius introduces his homunculi. It was finally Pearson and Hurlbut who put together the final script, based primarily on Balderston’s draft, that also retained elements from earlier drafts – a whole succession of writers were involved, including Whale favourite R.C. Sherriff. Sherriff had written Whale’s British breakthrough play Journey’s End, which also became his first Hollywood film in 1930, and worked on the script for The Invisible Man.
Balderston contributed to many of Universal’s horror films in the early days, but later he worked on high profile films like The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939) and Gaslight (1944). He was nominated for an Oscar twice. In sci-fi he is remembered for writing for The Bride of Frankenstein, The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review), and for his 1932 play Red Planet, that was turned into the film Red Planet Mars in 1952.
Robert Florey had previously worked on the Bela Lugosi vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), an expressionist film often described as an ”American The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. He is remembered today for the 1937 film Daughter of Shanghai, notable for casting two Asian-American actors in lead roles in time when white actors where still widely used to play Asian characters (Karloff did this many times). Florey was a prolific director all through the thirties and forties, and like many B-directors in Hollywood, made the move to TV in the fifties, where he directed a whole number of TV shows, including a few episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1964). Among the uncredited writers of Bride of Frankenstein was also Philip MacDonald, who wrote the screenplay for Tobor the Great (1954).
The script for Bride of Frankenstein, as it stood finished, passed the newly enforced Hays code without big problems (as did the finished film, with a few minor exceptions). I have watched the film at least five times, and I still have difficulties repeating the plot. This may stem from the fact that there isn’t much of a coherent plot. Rather, things seem to – happen – and we move from one scene to another without much logical coherence, exposition or segues. This doesn’t mean that the film in itself is incoherent, and the plot is easy enough to follow, but because the viewer is thrust into the situations without much setup, the movie has a dreamlike and surreal quality to it.
The film picks up the morning after the previous film has ended: at the burned-down windmill where the monster (Karloff) is supposed to have perished. He is discovered by the screaming menace that is Una O’Connor, who plays Frankenstein’s housekeeper. The film even backtracks a bit, as we discover Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in the ruins (he was in bed recovering in the end of Frankenstein, remember?).
The plot then branches out in two different storylines. One follows the depressed and disillusioned Frankenstein trying to recover from his failure and the disaster he brought upon his little town, as well as his wife-to-be, Elizabeth, who has suffered a mental breakdown from the botched wedding in he previous film, where she was attacked by the monster. Elizabeth now sees death and monsters in all dark corners. Elizabeth is now played (much better, if I may say) by Valerie Hobson instead of Mae Clarke. Enter the flamboyant and sinister Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Frankenstein’s former mentor, who is adamant Frankenstein and he become partners. In a brilliant scene he first toasts with gin (”my only weakness”) to ”a new world of gods and monsters”, and then shows off a series of mini-people he keeps in bell jars – homunculi, that he has ”created from seeds”. There is a horny king, a stuck-up queen (a young Joan Woodbury), a ballerina, a devil, a bishop, a mermaid and a glimpse of a little boy (Billy Barty). Frankenstein is enthralled, and is ultimately forced by Pretorius to create a woman – ”a bride of Frankenstein”, with Pretorius ”growing” a brain, and Frankenstein doing his thing with the lightning and stuff.
Meanwhile, the monster staggers through the woods, scared, hunted and alone, until he comes upon a small cottage. Here he befriends an old, blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who treats the creature’s burnt hand, and gives him food, drink, and a cigar. He also teaches the creature to speak simple sentences, and cures his fear of fire. The creature, happy for the first time in his life, is nevertheless found by two hunters (again), who try to shoot him, but are overpowered by the creature, who burns down the cottage by mistake. (One of the hunters is John Carradine!) Again fleeing from a mob, he seeks shelter in a crypt, where a previous scene has shown Pretorius and his two henchmen Ludwig (Ted Billings) and Karl (the inimitable Dwight Fry) collecting ”raw materials”. Pretorius himself has stayed in the crypt for a ”light supper” and is encountered by the creature, whom he greets as an old friend. And this is then where the plotlines converge, as Pretorius tells the creature of his plan to create a mate for him, and enlists him for help.
Expecting trouble from Frankenstein, he has the creature kidnap Elizabeth, thus forcing the doctor to help him in his work. On a stormy night the bride is raised to the heavens in Pretorius’ Expressionist lab, lightning strikes the kites that the henchmen have raised in the air, travelling to the machines of electric effects master Kenneth Strickfaden, and then she is slowly lowered and unveiled, in the iconic form of Elsa Lanchester, hissing in her Nefertiti-inspired hairdo, magnificently sexy and scary at the same time. ”Friend?” asks the creature tentatively, but she recoils at the sight of him. ”She hate me! Just like others!” shouts the creature, and goes berserk. And once again, the monster meets his demise in a flaming inferno, not for the last time, as we know.
Despite his worsening alcoholism, James Whale insisted that Colin Clive reprise his role as Frankenstein, and he certainly brings that same high-strung, manic-depressive energy to the role, playing it even darker than the first movie, somewhere on that elusive knife’s edge between the idealistic dreamer and the crazed madman, between a heavenly revelation and a hysterical breakdown. Boris Karloff, by this time one of the biggest stars of Hollywood, once again brings his superb physicality to the role as the monster, as well as that haunted, pained loneliness that made his portrayal of the creature so touching in the first film. Karloff hated the idea of having the monster talk, but it does bring another level of humanity to the role, even though it also takes away some of the mystique. According to some accounts Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains were considered for the role of Pretorius, other accounts hold that the role was specifically written with Whale’s old friend and mentor Ernest Thesiger in mind. And Thesiger even manages to steal scenes where Karloff is present with his flamboyant, campy mannerisms and dry humour. He is at once charming and lovable, and at the same time icy cold and frightening, bringing a very queer attitude to the role, prompting a lot of reviewers to read in homosexual themes in the film (we’ll get to that).
Australian-born O.P. Heggie does a warm and innocent portrait as the old hermit, and the scene with him and Karloff is probably the best known and most often parodied, after the ending scene of the film (watch the brilliant recreation in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, where a hermit priest is played by Gene Hackman). Heggie passed away just a year after the release of the film. Valerie Hobson does a good job with her rather smallish role as Elizabeth, and is a good deal livelier than Mae Clarke, who was considered, but had health problems. To be fair, Hobson also had a bit more to work with. In short, the whole cast is more or less A-class. Una O’Connoris back as the screaming, cackling comic relief character she played in The Invisible Man – and despite the almost unanimous praise among fans, I still can’t stand the screeching. But Whale loved her, and god bless the woman, she was one of a kind. And so we get to the real star of the film, Elsa Lanchester, the bride of Frankenstein. She was picked over German superstar and sci-fi legend Brigitte Helm (Metropolis, 1927, review), which in itself is an achievement. The short Lanchester wore stilt shoes to make her appear towering, and this also brings a strange birdlike quality to her movements, which she further enhances with twitchy, spastic head movements and her hiss which she developed from hissing swans. With her long, white, dress, her white face with extravagant eyebrows, and the surreal Egyptian hairdo she has become one of the greatest icons of horror and sci-fi movies in history, despite the fact that she only appears on screen for about ten minutes.
Whereas Frankenstein was played more or less straight, in Bride of Frankenstein Whale brings in that same witty, campy humour he brought to The Invisible Man. The film constantly balances on the edge between horror and comedy, but Whale keeps the the rope tight, without ever letting the laughs get the better of the film. There is also a deep humanism ingrained in the picture, and once again Karloff and Whale manage to make the audience feel for the creature, and despite the pathetic tone of the scene with the hermit, it is almost impossible not to get a bit teary-eyed when the clumsy monster sheds tears of happiness after finding his first true friend. And the destruction of the friendship by the ignorant and hateful hunters is all the more poignant. There is no doubt, in this film, that the creature is the victim and Pretorius the real monster.
Visually Bride is more refined and striking than both Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, that both had a sort of crude edge to them. In Bride, Whale goes full throttle on the German expressionism, the darkness is pitch black and we move through crypts and graveyards, and into the amazing, blazing, dazzling lab of Pretorius, that is even greater and more spacious than in the first film. Kenneth Strickfaden has multiplied his arsenal of electrical equipment and things that go ZAP! Art director Charles D. Hall has perhaps outdone himself, although his credits prior to this film boasts productions like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Man Who Laughs (1928), Show Boat (1929), Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Hall would later design sets for The Flying Saucer (1950) and Red Planet Mars. With the help of cinematographer John J. Mescall Whale creates some stunning images and beautiful, unsettling, fluid cinematography, although there are almost no traditional tracking shots in the film. This also greatly adds to the dreamlike quality. Whale had discovered Mescall while working on One More River. His only other sci-fi came at the end of his career, when he shot Roger Corman’s classic B-movie Not of this Earth in 1957. In addition to the expressionist streak, Whale also incorporates the rapid Soviet montage style, especially well seen in the absolutely brilliant scenes in the lab, both during the experiment, and after the Bride is revealed. All in all – even though no concept of this film is groundbreaking – the techniques used had been around for years – it is nonetheless one of the most visually proud American films of the thirties, and in that regard it deserves all praise.
Thematically, though, the film basically repeats the same themes as Frankenstein, and in that sense Whale was quite right when he said he had milked the story for what it was worth. Although Balderston did go back to the book for more material, he still didn’t delve into the more radical elements of Shelley’s novel. It is once again the theme of the outcast, the abandoned child, the misunderstood creature turned into a monster by mirroring the wrong that is done against him. It is the god-complex of man and science, and the egotistic pride of men who lose sight of all morals and thoughts of the consequences of their actions, as well as the ignorance and evil of the mob. Alas, Whale doesn’t even bring in the subtleties of the first film, where the actions of Frankenstein where balanced between hubris and genuine Enlightenment-themed curiosity of the world. In Bride all the scientific dabbling is clearly of a negative sort.
One might even say that the film is thematically sloppy and derivative. Therefore it is a bit surprising that people have read in all sorts of subtexts in what is – despite Whale’s witty dialogue – more or less a standard horror sci-fi tale. More than anything it has been scrutinized from the point of view of Whale’s own homosexuality. And in a way it is inevitable, since Whale cast gay actor Ernest Thesiger in a role that is basically the role of an old, camp queen. Of course it is tempting to imagine, as culture critic Gary Morris would, that the whole film is basically a flaming torch for homosexual rights, that slipped unnoticed past the homophobic Hays code. Morris sees the relationship between the creature and the hermit as an ideal same-sex partnership, destroyed by an unapproving society, and says that the creation scene is a ”reminder of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator”. Unfortunately, I’m prone to agree with James Whale’s friend and fellow filmmaker Curtis Harrington, who said, ”that’s just pure bullshit”.
James Whale was never an outspoken champion of gay rights, and never did a film (or play) that directly touched upon the subject (which he very well might have done in England, for example, or even in Hollywood before the enforcement of the code). According to Whale’s friends he rarely made a thing out of his homosexuality when he was working, and furthermore, it was never a hindrance to his job – he was a highly successful gay artist in Hollywood, the Wunderkind of Universal horror, even at a time when homosexuality was taboo in Tinseltown, living in a happy relationship with his partner David Lewis. The problem with this kind of interpretation is also that it reduces an artist to his or her characteristics.
Naturally it’s impossible not to see Whale’s casting of Thesiger as “a prissy old queen” as a wink the gay members of the audience, at a time when this kind of subtext wasn’t necessarily picked up by the general public. And it’s clear the director knowingly inserted hints to not only homosexuality, but other themes that were not allowed on screen due to the Hays code: necrophilia, sacrilege, etc. A scene removed by the censors was one where the monster comes upon a life-size crucifix in a graveyard, and tries help Jesus down from the cross. A scene which the censors missed was one in which the monster himself is tied to a stake, very much mirroring Christ on the cross. But taking these hints and in-jokes and constructing the theme of the whole movie around them is revisionist history. Whale wasn’t making statement picture for future critics, he was making a monster movie. There’s other stuff in the subtext, for sure, but as Roger Ebert wrote in 1999: “you don’t have to deconstruct it to enjoy it; it’s satirical, exciting, funny, and an influential masterpiece of art direction. […] the movie is more fun when its insinuations are allowed to glide beneath the surface as an unspoken subtext.” Ebert, by the way, gave the film 4/4 stars.
The Bride of Frankenstein was James Whale’s beautiful swan song to the horror and sci-fi genres. He would go on to direct another 10 feature films before he more or less retired from filmmaking in 1941 to live out a luxurious and hedonistic life in his Hollywood villa. His 1936 version of the musical Show Boat was the first all-sound film adaptation of the Oscar Hammerstein play, and is still considered by many as the definitive and best film. In 1937 he made The Road Back, a sequel to the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front (by Russian director Lewis Milestone), about a German soldier trying to adapt to life after the war. But because of pressure and threats from the German Nazi government, the film was ultimately hacked and reshot, and became a flop, despite good reactions to Whale’s original cut. This marked a falling-out with Universal, and Whale was then assigned mostly to B-films to carry out his contractual obligations. His only successful film after that was the historical action drama The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). According to Harrington, one of Whale’s main reasons for withdrawing from filmmaking was that he felt that creative control was to an increasing degree being taken away from the directors and given to the producers, and he was not inclined to make movies if he had to compromise his artistic vision in accordance with what some producer thought or didn’t think was going to sell tickets. Here it’s perhaps prudent to remember that Whale came to Universal when Carl Laemmle Jr. had just taken over the reins as the studio’s head of production, and Junior Laemmle was the one who instigated Universal’s horror franchise and sought out Whale in the first place. As Laemmle’s golden boy, Whale may very well have enjoyed a broader freedom at Universal than many other directors at the time. In 1936 Laemmle Jr. was demoted, as the studio was bleeding dollars under his management, and it was perceived that he wasn’t able to keep his production costs in check.
After 1941 Whale settled down, took up painting, and continued to direct on stage. In 1951, during a tour in Europe, he was smitten by a 25 year old bartender called Pierre Foegel, which the 62-year-old director brought to California as his chauffeur, which marked the end of the long relationship between Whale and his partner, producer David Lewis (although they remained friends), and saw the beginning of Whale’s hedonistic days with all-male pool parties, and unfortunately several strokes. After being left crippled and in pain because of the strokes, he committed suicide in his pool in 1957. His last months served as inspiration for a semi-biographical novel called Father of Frankenstein, which involves Whale and a fictional relationship with a likewise fictional gardener, albeit inspired by Foegel. The book was made into a film by Bill Condon in 1998, starring Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser. Whale never won an Oscar, but he does have a statue in his hometown of Dudley.
The Bride of Frankenstein further cemented Boris Karloff’s stardom, which diminished somewhat during the forties, but unlike his colleague and ”rival” Bela Lugosi, Karloff continued to receive film offers throughout the forties and fifties, and returned to stage acting, where he did a number of highly acclaimed roles, and was even nominated for a Tony Award. He would play Frankenstein’s monster once more, in the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein (review), alongside Bela Lugosi as the deformed Ygor – one of his best roles. He appeared as the mad scientist Gustav Niemann in The House of Frankenstein (1944) and played Baron Victor von Frankenstein in the 1958 film Frankenstein 1970. In the thirties and forties, in particular, but more or less throughout his later career, he was typecast as the mad scientist, a role he also reprised in a number of sci-fi films, like The Invisible Ray (review) and The Man who Changed his Mind (review), (both 1936), The Man they Could Not Hang (1939, review), The Man with Nine Lives (review), Before I Hang (review) and The Ape (all 1940). In 1963 he starred in two films of Roger Corman’s acclaimed Edgar Allan Poe trilogy, The Terror and The Raven, and was introduced to a younger audience in the hugely popular 1966 animated film How the Grinch Stole Christmas, where he both narrated and provided the voice for The Grinch. In 1968 he starred in four low-budget Mexican horror films, of which two, Fear Chamber and The Incredible Invasion, can be counted as sci-fi. He died shortly after, and they remained his last movies. Throughout his career he also played in a number of mystery films, perhaps most notably in several films as detective James Lee Wong, as well as a number of comedies and a few dramas. Despite popular belief, he was never on unfriendly terms with Bela Lugosi, rather he praised his colleague highly and lamented the way Lugosi was manipulated by the studios. Karloff never complained about his own typecasting, since he was already a middle-aged man who had struggled through bit parts and odd jobs for two decades when he was cast as Frankenstein.
Colin Clive would star in six more successful films before his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1937 – including the splendid horror mystery film Mad Love (review) with Peter Lorre. UK-based Valerie Hobson mainly acted in British spy and thriller films, but did also star in the 1935 film Werewolf of London, Hollywood’s first werewolf film, the abysmally bad science fiction cheapo Life Returns (1935, review) and the Oscar-winning drama film Great Expectations (1946). She is perhaps best remembered in Britain as the wife of the British MP John Profumo, whose affair with model Christine Keeler created a scandal of national proportions in 1963. Profumo was at the time minister of war, and Keeler was simultaneously involved in a relationship with the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy.
Ernest Thesiger was a British stage and film actor, who was brought to Hollywood by James Whale in 1932 to play a part in The Old Dark House, which also happened to be the first Hollywood film of the hugely popular movie star Charles Laughton, who also happened to be married to Elsa Lanchester. After Bride of Frankenstein he was set to play a role in the H.G. Wells-penned Things to Come (1936, review), but the role went to Cedric Hardwicke. Bride would remain Thesiger’s only sci-fi film, but it launched his Hollywood career, in which he became especially popular for comedic roles and in period dramas. He was especially known for his camp humour, and often played comedic portrayals of women on stage – he can also be seen as one of the witches in the 1941 film adaptation of Macbeth. Thesiger fought in WWI, where he impressed his fellow soldiers by spending much of his time knitting in the trenches. Apart from being an avid painter (a trait he shared with Whale), Thesiger’s real passion was needlework. He set up an exhibition of his work in his hotel as soon as he arrived in Hollywood, and later wrote a book about his hobby, called Adventures in Embroidery. Thesiger was more or less openly gay, although married for 40 years. Ernest Thesiger was played by Arthur Dignam in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters.
Elsa Lanchester is one of my favourite actresses of all time, and although highly regarded, and nominated for an Oscar twice, it is a shame that she was so seldom cast as a lead. Nevertheless, she shone in a number of supporting roles, and was a sought after character actor both on screen and on stage. Lanchester had a background in dancing and singing, and vaudeville. She would continue to do her solo vaudeville shows for decades even after she became a renowned film actress, according to herself because she loved to interact with the audience; ”I knew I didn’t like straight acting”, she said in an interview. She brought the physicality of her dancing and slapstick routines, as well as her tremendous charisma and huge talent to the role of the Bride, and despite the hair and make-up, it is Lanchester’s superb talent that has made the role such a timeless icon. Her other role in the film, that of Mary Shelley, also portrays her softer, sweeter side, but with that sparkling, mysterious quality that makes the viewer believe that that sweet young woman was actually the creator of the dark tale of Frankenstein. Her breasts were too much for the Hays code censors, who demanded Whale cut a few shots where they thought Mary Shelley’s female attributes were a bit too well displayed.
Lanchester’s first film roles came late in the twenties, when she performed in three short films that had been written especially for her by sci-fi author H.G. Wells. She met her future husband Charles Laughton in the theatre, and they quickly became a dynamic duo of the London stage. She followed in Laughton’s footsteps – now married to him – when James Whale had helped launch his Hollywood career, but Lanchester’s personal beauty wasn’t the right look for Hollywood leading ladies, and she mostly received bit parts, despite the fact that she was by now a revered movie star in Britain, where she had performed opposite Laurence Olivier in Potiphar’s Wife (1931), opposite her husband in the international hit The Private Life of Henry VIII. It was the first non-Hollywood film to win an Oscar, as Laughton took home the award for best actor. After The Bride of Frankenstein she appeared in supporting roles in a number of high-profile films, including Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), for which both she and Laughton were nominated for Oscars, the multiple Oscar winner Mary Poppins (1964). She received her second Oscar nomination for her role in the 1949 comedy Come to the Stables. She never did another sci-fi film, but appeared in a few horror and fantasy movies. She also became a regular guest star in a number of TV shows in her later career.
Elsa Lanchester was a witty, sharp-tongued Hollywood commentator that wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Neither was she afraid to spill the beans in her autobiographical book, released in 1984, about her stormy relationship with Charles Laughton. In the book she revealed that Laughton told her he was gay two years into their marriage. The couple stayed together until Laughton’s death in 1962, partly to keep Laughton’s reputation intact – very much like Ernest Thesiger and his marriage. Lanchester died in 1986, 83 years old.
Bride of Frankenstein is, along with Island of Lost Souls, starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, the finest of the thirties’ horror sci-fi films. This is in large part to the extremely witty, dreamlike, and bold script, as well as the incredibly well made special effects. I’m thinking now more than anything of the scene with Pretorius and the Homunculi. The scene involves some superb black screen filming, stunts, wirework and immaculate merging. Stylistically the film is impeccable, with Whale merging his expressionist sensibilities with Soviet montage editing. The lighting is striking, and the soundscapes loud, aggressive, subtle and charming – Gilbert Kurland was rightly nominated for an Oscar for sound. Tying it all together is the both bombastic and beautiful score by legendary screen composer Franz Waxman, whose soundtrack for Sunset Boulevard (1950) was named by AFI as the 16th best score in Hollywood history, and who won two Academy awards (for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun [1951)] and received another whopping 10 (!) nominations. And of course, the top-notch acting across the board also adds to the film’s qualities.
One mustn’t also forget Jack Pierce, the creator of the creature’s makeup. Not willing to simply recreate Karloff’s makeup from the first film, Pierce added in what he thought was appropriate after the creature had been buried under the burning windmill. He added scars and created a shorter, singed look for the hair, as if it had burned. Whale is said to have been exacting to a degree about the make-up, sets and especially the costumes of the film. Mary Shelley’s lace dress in the prologue is said to be embroidered with tiny moons and stars that never really show up on film, and is said to have taken 12 seamstresses 17 days to make.
If one wants to find faults with the film, one might say that despite the wonderful characters and the beautifully written script, the film really doesn’t bring anything new in the sense of theme. There is a feeling that Whale is more interested in the camp humour and the visuals than actually bringing any new philosophical fodder to the screen. Indeed, he is quoted as saying that he didn’t think he was going to be able to top the first film, and instead set out to make a ”memorable hoot”. Ironically, he actually did top the first one with his memorable hoot.
The film is riddled with would-be stars as extras. Future femme fatale/opera director Joan Woodbury is seen as the homunculus queen. Woodbury’s last film role would be as the future world leader Gadra in Danish writer/director Ib Melchior’s The Time Travellers (1964), perhaps coaxed along because of her Danish heritage. One of the hunters at the blind man’s cottage is John Carradine, who had a rollercoaster career in both brilliant and awful films. He became a horror staple, and unfortunately took almost any role that was offered to him in later years. His sci-fi’s include The Invisible Man (1933), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), The Incredible Petrified World, Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman, The Unearthly (all 1957), Invisible Invaders, Space Invasion of Lapland (both 1958), The Wizard of Mars (1965), Bigfoot (1970), The Bees (1978), and The Ice Pirates(1984). Future three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan appears as ”neighbour”. Future character actor John Adair appears as one of the hunters that surprise the creature when it is rescuing a girl from drowning.
The short actor Billy Barty appears as a homunculus baby very briefly (he was actually 11 years old at the time). He filmed a sequence as a homunculus in a bell jar, but the scene was almost completely cut out. There is a production still where Pretorius has 7 jars laid out, but they are all seen very briefly in the movie, where Barty can be seen sitting in a chair inside one of the jars. If you blink you will miss him in the film, where he is only seen from behind. Barty rose to fame as Mickey Rooney’s little brother in the Mickey McGuire comedy short short series in the thirties. After the TV show and a string of bit parts, often as toddlers, he took a break from acting (mostly) between 1935 and 1950, and then started playing a lot of gag roles or mythical creatures, and had a number of roles in many TV series, some of them recurrent.
His first major film role (although never seen on screen) came with Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped animated The Lord of the Rings in 1977. But it was in the late eighties that his movie career really took off, first with the title role in the family musical Rumplestiltskin (1987) and second billing in the similar Snow White the same year. 1987 was a golden year for Barty, as he also had a major role as Gwildor in the Dolph Lundgren-helmed He-Man film Masters of the Universe. The next year he starred in yet another fantasy film, the smash hit Willow, oppositeVal Kilmer and Warwick Davies. This proved to be the high point in his career, and with the beginning of the nineties his roles grew more sparse, partly because of old age and health problems. He died of hart failure in 2000, 76 years old.
There is some debate over whether the film’s title should have a “the” in the beginning or not, and both versions have been used. Universal did use the “the” in much of their advertising, but the film’s title card doesn’t, hence the official name of the movie is Bride of Frankenstein.
Universal horror fans love to debate which is the best of the studio’s classic monster movies. It’s usually a toss-up between Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein, with Bride frequently coming out on top. I like to throw The Invisible Man into the fray for good measure. With a budget of around 400,000 dollars, Bride was probably the most expensive of Universal’s monster films, and the money shows. In the thirties 400,000 was an A movie budget. I love all four of the aforementioned films. If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be The Invisible Man, but as a film Bride is probably the classiest, best written, designed and acted one. To the endless ire of Universal fans I maintain that Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls is the best horror movie of Hollywood’s golden age.
Bride of Frankenstein. 1935, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston, Edmund Pearson, William Hurlbut. Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Additional writing: Joseph Berne, Lawrence G. Blochman, Robert Florey, Philip MacDonald, Tom Reed, R.C. Sherriff, Morton Covan. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’Connor, Dwight Frye, John Carradine, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, E.E. Clive, Lucien Prival, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, Anne Darling, Ted Billings, Robert Adair, Billy Barty, Walter Brennan, Helen Jerome Eddy, Joan Woodbury. Cinematography: John J. Mescall. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Costume design: Vera West. Hair stylist: Irma Kusely. Music: Franz Waxman. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Sound: Gilbert Kurland. Special effects: John P. Fulton, Kenneth Strickfaden, David S. Horsley. Miniatures: Cleo E. Barker. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal.