Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale                                     Writer: William Hurlbut & John L. Balderston
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester

There have been very few in cinematic history--The Godfather II and Terminator 2 come to mind--but The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that actually managed to surpass the artistry and popularity of the original film. And it’s easy to see why. James Whale had been chafing at the idea of going back to horror films ever since finishing with The Invisible Man, but because Universal was so keen on having him direct the sequel to Frankenstein, he used this as a bargaining chip and cashed it in to do One More River. At the same time, he knew the studio wouldn’t take him off the sequel and so he took full control of the production from the screenplay right down to the makeup and made the film in his image just as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. One way he did this was by taking the elements of humor from his previous films to a new level. The inclusion of actors like Ernest Thesiger and Una O’Connor, and to a lesser extent, Dwight Frye, to undercut the horrific elements of the first film changed the complexion of the sequel completely. The other aspect of the film that separates it so dramatically from the first is the film score by Franz Waxman. It is not only one of the great horror film scores, but one of the great scores of any film from the thirties. But with Waxman seemingly working with Whale to emphasizing the humor, it does tend to push the film toward a more popular taste that leaves it wanting as a true horror film.

The film’s opening is incredibly unique. Going back to the very beginning, it starts on a stormy night with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, and Douglas Walton as Percy Shelley, discussing Lanchester’s novel Frankenstein. Gordon’s trilled Rs are almost distracting as he waxes rhapsodic about it, but what’s truly fascinating is how he recounts the story with scenes from the first film, like something from a TV show but nothing I’ve ever seen before in a feature film. Then Lanchester says there is more, and picks up the story from the burning windmill. Where Colin Clive had lived in the original film, he begins this one dead and comes back to life like his monster. Meanwhile Karloff, having fallen through the floor of the windmill, kills the parents of the little girl he drowned in the first film before coming after Clive. The presence of Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious is so borderline camp that it nearly destroys the film. But Whale simply continues to push forward with a complete lack of shame as the jealous Thesiger steals Clive away from Valerie Hobson as the new Elizabeth and demonstrates the tiny people he has created. The set pieces in the film are extraordinary, from the Christ-like crucifixion scene in the woods, to the scene with O.P. Heggie as the blind hermit which John Carradine stumbles upon, to the underground crypt scene between Karloff and Thesiger, and of course the finale with Lanchester as Karloff’s bride.

The supreme confidence James Whale displays in the film is startling, and that’s saying something considering how skillful he was already. But one has the sense that his acceptance of the assignment meant that he could do whatever he wanted and take whatever chances he desired, and there was nothing anyone would do about it. The moving camera work in the scene where Colin Clive is brought home is absolutely beautiful. And the way Whale brings him back to life, paralleling the same scene in the first film when Karloff moves his hand, is genius. Whale keeps some of the Expressionistic elements of the first film, but uses them sparingly, and the Dutch angles in the laboratory scenes at the end add the perfect touch of menace. Ultimately, however, one has the sense that in creating something so distinctive, that Whale was not only creating a masterpiece but undercutting so completely the ideas that the horror film had been founded on, that he was also attempting to ensuring that he would never be asked to film another one again. To his dismay, however, the Laemmle’s immediately wanted Whale to go to work on Dracula’s Daughter. He had been promised the directorial duties on Showboat, however, and continued to emphasize that production in talks with the owners in the hopes of recreating himself as an A-list director. But after the Laemmle’s lost the studio in 1936 his hopes were dashed when the new ownership simply wanted to get rid of him altogether.

In Richard T. Jameson’s essay for The A List, he first addresses the way the doctor’s name became grafted onto the monster in the wake of the first film’s success. But in the prologue to Bride, Gavin Gordon supports the notion by saying that Frankenstein is the “monster created out of cadavers” and thus transferring the name to the monster for all time. Jameson recognizes Ernest Thesiger’s Pretorious as the pivotal role in the picture, with Valerie Hobson presaging his entrance by devolving into near hysterics at her delusions of the image of death entering the room beforehand, but fails to emphasize the fact. Instead he rehashes the tired old cliché of the film as a gay allegory, referencing Whale’s sexual orientation and obliquely tying the persecution of Karloff to the idea, when it is Thesiger who is the key to understanding the film. He is, as Hobson recognizes, the Angel of Death. He first lures Colin Clive away from his wedding bed, but then coerces him when that isn’t enough. He dines in the crypt with Karloff and at the end brings death down on everyone--though the studio changed the ending you can still see Clive in the laboratory when the walls come crashing down. Lanchester says as much in the prologue when she talks about the hubris of the doctor attempting to usurp god’s authority, and Pretorious is the personification of death in Karloff’s own reading of “Appointment in Samarra” from Targets, with the doctor unable to outrun his fate. The Bride of Frankenstein is, and always will be, one of the great films of the thirties in any genre.

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