Hello everyone, and welcome to another week through my Cinematic Century. We’re getting into 1935 this week, and that means it’s time for things to get sort of spooky. But, not entirely so. We’re talking about a Universal Monster Movie today, the only one that made it onto my list, and these films aren’t exactly horror movies. Monster Movies are kind of their own breed. I suppose at the time they may have actually been frightening, but they actually feel more similar to something like superhero movies today. Just big, boisterous films that take advantage of modern special effects to tell thrilling stories about good versus evil. And, the best of these films, in my opinion, has to be James Whale’s monumentally strange and delightful Bride of Frankenstein. It’s the best that the Universal Monsters has to offer, and it was an easy pick for me as my favorite film of 1935. And I don’t think that that’s an entirely insane decision. I guess the strongest contender for this right would have to be Hitchcock’s the 39 Steps. And I really like that movie too. It still has that kind of glacial pace that so many early Hitchcock features had, but it’s still a pretty fun little spy story with some likeable protagonists. It can just get a tad dull at times, and is more a sign of where Hitchcock’s career could go later on. We also have another great Marx Brothers movie, A Night At the Opera, but those Marx Brothers just keep having bad luck on this list, which makes me feel a little bad. Maybe I’ll have to just write up an appreciation of their films or something, because they just keep getting the short end of the stick during this project. There’s also a really fun and dumb movie called the Raven that I would suggest if you’re into Universal Monsters, since it has both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, all while fixating on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s not a particularly strong film, but it’s certainly a note-worthy oddity. And hey, speaking of oddities, let’s talk about Bride of Frankenstein.
It’s not at all surprising that Universal wanted to make a sequel to Frankenstein. It was one of the most successful of their whole Monster series, and help jump-start Universal into a profitable studio. What is surprising is that they let James Whale make Bride of Frankenstein one of the weirdest movies of the 1930’s. Whale wasn’t really that sure about making a sequel to Frankenstein, not really seeing a point in it. But, the studio kept throwing money and projects at him until he finally relented. He didn’t think that he would be able to make a better film than Frankenstein, so he worked to make it a “memorable hoot.” And he succeeded! He convinced both Colin Clive and Boris Karloff to return as Frankenstein and the Monster, and they got to work crafting something wholly original. Frankenstein isn’t exactly a direct adaptation of Mary Shelly’s novel, it’s actually pretty far from that, but they seem to have gone back to the source for this sequel. In the novel, the Monster tries to force Dr. Frankenstein to make him a bride, so they decided to roll with that, and create a sequel all built around creating another monster. And, in the process, they created something wholly original and fascinating. They made changes to the Monster, they added in humor, they started using cutting-edge special effects, and they even slipped in some homosexual subtext, or at least as much as could be demonstrated in the 30’s with the Hays Code taking all the fun out of movies. It ended up becoming something incredibly odd. Not really a horror movie at all, the film was a total and complete oddity, something that kind of defies explanation or categorization. A memorable hoot. And yet, people loved it. It was an instant success, and has been remembered as on of, if not the, best film in the Universal Monster series. It’s one of the rare sequels that outshines its predecessor, and it’s truly something to behold.
The entire premise of a sequel to Frankenstein is a little strange, since the first film ended with a lot of death. So, to solve that, this film literally opens up with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley hanging out on a stormy night, talking about Frankenstein as if the film was actually an accurate adaptation of her novel. The men ask Mary if she has a sequel in mind, and she says she does, then telling us the entire plot of the movie. It all begins with some retcons, telling us that everyone survived the finale of the previous movie, including the Monster, and they all just kind of left the windmill, carrying on their lives. Dr. Frankenstein returned to his castle with his fiance, sad that his experiment completely fell apart. Frankenstein complains to Elizabeth about what a disaster everything was, only to be interrupted by a sudden appearance of an old friend. A man named Dr. Pretorius, who was Henry’s mentor, arrives at the castle, eager to talk to Henry about his creation. Frankenstein renounces his creation, saying he never wants to talk about creating life ever again, but Pretorius pretty easily convinces him to forge this proclamation, and come see something that he’s been working on. Elizabeth isn’t too fond of this, but Henry ignores her, and goes to see what Pretorius has created. And it’s weird! He’s created a series of living creatures, little homunculi that are about six inches high and live in bottles. He has mastered the concept of bringing things to life, and not having them go insane, he’s just not that good at human-sized things. But, he thinks that Henry has mastered bringing human-sized things to life, they’re just insane. So, if they work together they should be able to create a fully functional creation. And Henry’s on board.
Meanwhile, the Monster has survived the climax of the previous film as well, and after waking up in the destruction of the windmill he frees himself, strangles a guy, and then flees into the woods. And, after he gets over the shock of the windmill incident, he decides he needs to try and stop being so evil. He attempts to save a girl he finds almost drowning in the woods, but she reacts in horror to him, and he starts to feel like there’s no chance that anyone will ever accept him. Until he encounters the perfect person to befriend. A blind hermit who lives by himself in the woods. He can’t see the Monster, so he just assumes he’s a large mute man, and since he’s desperate for friendship as well, the two start spending time together. The blind man teaches the Monster to speak, and basic human behavior, and they really start to appreciate each other. Unfortunately, some woodsmen also arrive at the house, lost, and when they see the Monster they realize that he’s the creature that’s wanted for several killings, and chase him out of the house, losing him his only friend. The Monster has to flee, and eventually finds a place to stop and hide. A graveyard. And, as luck would have it, Dr. Pretorius is inside a crypt, stealing organs from a freshly entombed corpse to create his own Monster with Frankenstein’s help. Pretroius finds Frankenstein, and the two end up befriending each other. Especially when Pretorius announces that he’s working on creating a mate for the Monster.
Pretorius and the Monster then return to Frankenstein’s laboratory, and Henry is not pleased. He’s horrified to see his Monster return, and when Pretorius tells him that their goal is now to create a mate for the Monster, he decides he no longer wants to participate in the collaboration. So, Pretorius tells the Monster to kidnap Elizabeth, and blackmail Henry into helping them. Henry is furious, but he realizes the only way he can get Elizabeth back is if he helps them. Henry and Pretorius then get to work, creating the Monster a Bride. And, with both of their skills working together, they succeed. They are able to build a female Monster, and use Henry’s techniques to bring it to life. The Monster is thrilled that his Bride is ready, unfortunately when they introduce the two she also finds him horrifying and repulsive. The Monster is furious, and decides that he’s never going to get a fair shot in life. So, he gives Henry back Elizabeth, and announces that they’re free to go, against Pretorius’ will. Oh, and the Monster is also going to use Henry’s devices to destroy the laboratory, killing him, the Bride, and Pretorius so no more Monsters can ever be made. Henry and Elizabeth then flee as the laboratory is destroyed, presumably killing all three inhabitants.
Bride of Frankenstein is a fascinating experience. It’s extremely hard to classify, but I think that Whale kind of nailed it when he said he was attempting to make a “memorable hoot.” This film is a whole lot of fun, and while it’s not at all what you’d expect from a sequel to Frankenstein, it’s still pretty amazing. In a way the film reminds me of Freaks. Whale was such a success that Universal figured he could do no wrong, and apparently gave him free reign to do whatever in the world he wanted. And he swung for the fences. We get a more intelligent creature, some barely obfuscated gay subtext, and a really dark ending. And it all works brilliantly. Colin Clive is great as Dr. Frankenstein, vacillating wildly throughout the film as he struggles with the ethics of what he’s being forced to do. Ernest Thesiger puts in a fascinating performance as Dr. Pretorius, kind of playing up the old “gay villain” tropes while also becoming incredibly menacing and evil at times. Hell, he even sells the scenes where he shows off his little tiny people in glass jars, which is still a shockingly well-made scene whose effects still hold up. But, it’s Boris Karloff who steals this show, adding so much to the character of the Monster. In the first film Karloff was able to make the Monster a very intimidating and frightening figure, through a predominantly physical performance. But here he’s able to give some depth to the Monster, making us realize that he’s a very sad character. He just wants acceptance, and the idea that he could have a friend. He doesn’t even really consider the Bride a sexual partner, he calls her a friend. And, even she’s disgusted by him. His one shot at companionship is dashed, and his realization that he’s never going to get to be happy is incredibly well done.
Because it’s all about acceptance. Which, when you learn more about the figures behind the camera, really starts to make a lot of sense. Director James Whale was openly gay, in the thirties, which is simply amazing. He didn’t care about any of the social morays that would come along with accepting who he was, and embraced himself. Ernest Thesiger was also openly gay, giving us at least two prominent creative forces behind this film who knew a thing or two about trying to live a life where you’re treated like an other. This film isn’t a story about the Monster getting revenge for the injustices put upon him. He just wants to be left alone, to live the life he wants to live, and to find someone to share that life with him. Which is an incredibly human experience. We’re all looking for someone to see through us, to our true selves, and appreciate us. There’s been some debate whether Whale specifically set out to make this film a homosexual allegory, and I really don’t know what his intentions were on that front. But, I think that it’s hard to argue that this is a film that comes from a place of looking for acceptance. Whale may not have purposefully set out to tell a tale about a being seemingly unlike everyone else in the world looking for someone like him, who understands him, but it certainly seems like that bled through. The Universal Monster movies are often a lot of fun. They occasionally hit upon some really interesting examinations of human behavior as reflected by these monsters, but I think it’s Bride of Frankenstein that had the most to say, and that said it the best.
Bride of Frankenstein was written by William Hurlbut, directed by James Whale, and released by Universal Pictures, 1935.
Categories: Cinematic Century