Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Directed by James Whale. Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester. (80 min.) Shown with the Vitaphone short The Ingenues in The Band Beautiful.
A grimly shadowed laboratory filled with crackling electricity. An anxious groom, and the twitching finger of the reluctant bride. It’s Alive! “An alchemical fusion of many outstanding elements, Bride of Frankenstein is, perhaps, one of Hollywood’s true cinematic masterpieces. This unique journey into the macabre and grotesque simply has no dramatic, thematic or visual equal.” (Scott Allen Nollen).
Universal Studios couldn’t believe the success of the original Frankenstein. An “adults only” attraction that sent shivers up the spines of patrons (and censors) all across America, it was the top grossing film of 1931, making over $5 million in a very dark Depression year, and with a top ticket price of 50 cents. James Whale’s moody thriller was based as much on the German Expressionist films of the 1920s as on Mary Shelley’s novel. He’d screened horror classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari over and over to try and reproduce the sinister mood. And, even though Universal had made its reputation with a series of brilliant horror films (including Lon Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, and Lugosi’s Dracula) the studio was dense about the film’s appeal. They did not even invite Boris Karloff (who was only a bit player, after all) to the premiere.
Director James Whale became famous with his stage direction of the tragic WWI play, Journey’s End which he then turned into a hit film, both starring Colin Clive. Whale came to Hollywood to direct another tale of the Great War, Waterloo Bridge. His experience with horror themes was limited to acting in a play where he’d portrayed the demented son of Charles Laughton, wrongly executed and then kept alive as a severed head. He may have accepted the assignment to direct Frankenstein so that he would not be thought of only as a director of war movies.
Just as today, after Frankenstein‘s smashing success, discussion of a sequel was in the works almost immediately. There were numerous script versions, and numerous objections from the watchdogs of the Production Code, now in force, unlike in 1931. But Whale said he was not interested in repeating himself unless he had complete creative control this time. So, he was the ostensible producer of this film, as well as the director. “The control he maintained is arguably the only way he could have achieved such a perverse–and captivating–mix of comedy and horror.” (Curtis). He virtually edited the film, as well, not in the editing room, but in the screening room, breaking down the rushes and telling the editor just how he wanted his shots put together. He shot little excess footage; it was a point of pride that when a scene was finally assembled, there wasn’t much left over. The Bride, which in many ways is more faithful to the original source material, has become one of the great landmarks of imaginative cinema.
Whale’s method for using comedy in his horror films was not to have scenes of “comic relief” (which I’ve always hated) but to incorporate a sly humor into the general proceedings, and The Bride is both chilling and quite funny. “These were very stylish, very personal films, unusual for their time,” says horror film maven David J. Skal. “A lot of horror movies were being made in 1935, but none were like Bride of Frankenstein. Some of the scenes remain remarkably audacious, certainly for a studio film in the 1930s. And, it was definitely meant to be amusing. Whale loved to tell the story of watching the film when it was revived theatrically in 1947, and as he chuckled to himself, a woman turned around and snapped, “If you don’t like the show, you can damn well leave!”
The advertisements taunted: “Who will be the Bride of Frankenstein? Who will dare?” “Bolt your doors! Chain your windows! The monster is loose again, and demands a bride!” “Torn between a desire to kill, maim, destroy–and mad with love for a creature like himself!” “Again he lives! And, now he talks! He loves! He demands a mate! When he loved, he was a fiend incarnate!” “A woman–could you call it that?”
Boris Karloff born and died William Henry Pratt, he never legally changed his name was oddly determined to be an actor. He was the end of a long line of children, the first born in 1850, and he, the last, in 1887, to a forbidding but oft-married English father. Billy Pratt ran away to Canada at the earliest opportunity, where he worked laborers’ jobs and stock company parts. He apparently pulled his theatrical name out of thin air. He had no training as an actor, was extremely bow-legged, and had a stutter as well as a lisp; a most unlikely candidate for the stage. He started doing extra work and bit parts in Hollywood in 1916; he was in 18 films in 1931, the year of Frankenstein; working a week here and a week there. But, one of those films recreated a flashy stage part as a murderous convict in The Criminal Code, which led to his becoming Frankenstein‘s monster.
He had taken the advice of Lon Chaney to heart. Chaney told him in the mid-1920s, “The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality.” (Nollen). Bela Lugosi railed against the fates that denied him the matinee idol status in the US he had enjoyed in his native Hungary. But Karloff, never having been famous, did not resent the typecasting that relegated him to thrillers.
Karloff was the last to be cast in the original Frankenstein, the monster’s look conceptualized by Whale and then detailed by make-up’s mad genius, Jack Pierce. Whale told the NY Times, “Karloff’s face has always fascinated me, and I made drawings of his head, added sharp bony ridges where I imagined the skull might have been joined. His physique was weaker than I could wish, but that queer penetrating personality of his I felt was more important than his shape, which could easily be altered.” There had been Frankenstein plays, and on stage, for some reason, the monster’s skin had often been blue. This might have influenced Pierce’s choice to color the Monster’s skin with a blue-green greasepaint that would photograph “a corpse-like grey.” They envisioned the top of the skull like a cigar box, “We had to surmise that brain after brain had been tried in that poor skull, inserted and taken out again. That is why we built up the forehead to convey the impression of demoniacal surgery. Then we found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, where dumb bewilderment was so essential. So, I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing,” said Karloff. The result: “This, like the face of Garbo, is one of the icons of our time.” (Alberto Manguel).
Karloff reported for work at 4:00 am, fortified by continual rounds of tea and cigarettes (and was endlessly photographed in his make-up, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.) The make-up took four hours to apply each morning, and he was padded up and out to 7 feet 6 inches with at least 50 pounds of suit and heavy weighted shoes. The long hours and grueling working conditions led directly to his becoming one of the founding members of the Screen Actors’ Guild. The actor’s suffering was real, and created an aura gentle pathos. Children were afraid of him, but wrote him fan letters none the less. As one of his biographers pointed out, what was the monster but a child whose parent no longer loves them?
The Bride drinks tea
Colin Clive had to return as Henry Frankenstein, but he was being ravaged by the alcoholism that would soon kill him, and vigilance on the set was necessary to see he didn’t drink. His quivering hysteria contrasts effectively with Karloff’s subtle underplaying. The sensible (well, sort of) father figure played by Edward Van Sloan in the original was replaced by Ernest Thesiger, the mad Dr. Pretorius, and Whale encouraged him to play the villain with an “arch effeminacy.” His name is repeated seven times by the shrill Minnie (unbearable comic relief shrieked by Una O’Connor). A medieval tradition is that the devil’s name must be repeated at least three times for him to remain on earth. Whale delayed production until he could get his perfect actor, O.P. Heggie, to play the blind hermit. Again, as in the original Frankenstein, Whale worked closely with Karloff to elicit a sensitive performance, seemingly impossible under the burden of make-up. “Jimmy had a great deal to say to Karloff about the intimate scenes. They rehearsed and when he finally got what he wanted, he usually printed the first take,” commented Whale associate Jack Latham.
James Whale and Ernest Thesiger
But Whale couldn’t decide who would play the Mate. One thought had been Brigitte Helm, who had played the Robot Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He finally offered the dual part of Mary Shelley and the Bride to an old friend of his from England, Elsa Lanchester. Whale had once danced the tango in her avant-garde nightclub, The Cave of Harmony. She had accompanied her husband, Charles Laughton, to Hollywood, but had not found much success there herself. She, like Karloff, was about to find immortality as a creature vivified in a fantastical laboratory conjured by electrical hobbyist Kenneth Strickfaden. (Strickfaden’s sparking and popping industrial salvage was stored in his Santa Monica garage, and leased back to the studio when needed; the last time for Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein).
Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive
“I think James Whale felt that if this beautiful and innocent Mary Shelley could write such a horror story as Frankenstein, then somewhere she must have had a fiend within, dominating part of her thoughts and her spirit–like ectoplasm flowing out of her to activate a monster. In this delicate little thing was an unexploded atom bomb. My playing both parts cemented that idea,” Lanchester wrote in her autobiography.
“Mary Shelly’s dress was the most fairy-like creation that I have ever seen before or since in a film. It had a low neck, tiny puffed sleeves and a bodice that continued in a long line to the floor and onto a train about seven feet long. The entire white net dress was embroidered with iridescent sequins–butterflies, stars and moons. It took seventeen Mexican ladies twelve weeks to make it. The dress traveled around the country and appeared in the foyers of all the big openings of Bride of Frankenstein.” The neckline was so shockingly low, that close-ups were limited under the strictures of the Production Code that said no cleavage and no breast movement was permitted. Her costume as the Bride was another story. Wrapped in bandages by the studio nurse, her head was modeled on that of Nefertiti. Her frizzy auburn hair was brushed over a wired horsehair cage with two white streaks added on either side, and Lanchester lurched into film history. The Bride’s hisses and shrieks were inspired by the angry swans in London’s Regent Park.
Douglas Walton, Elsa Lanchester, Gavin Gordon
Another contributor to the film’s atmospheric success was composer Franz Waxman, who wove three themes, representing the Monster, the Bride and Dr. Pretorius throughout the score, perhaps the greatest ever written for a horror film.
Here’s a wonderful photo of all four cast members relaxing between shots.
David J. Skal writes, (screenwriter) “Hurlbut was no stranger to the dramatic uses of Freudian insight and seems to have instinctively grasped the psychosexual implications of Henry Frankenstein’s failure to consummate his marriage and his mad dream of creating life without heterosexual contact.” This “all-male reproductive paradigm” of course is a mythological constant, being echoed in various creation myths, from Pygmalion to Pinocchio. A mad scientist’s creation, Frankenstein’s monster, as Manguel points out is born not of a need for love, but from a lust for power. But, Curtis Harrington, a director who knew Whale, said he did not “remotely” have such a metaphor in mind. “I think all of that is a young critic’s evaluation. All artists do work that comes out of the unconscious mind and later on you can analyze it and say the symbolism might mean something, I artists don’t think that way and I would bet my life that James Whale would never have had such concepts in mind. He was making a wonderfully amusing entertainment.”
The Hollywood happy ending, where Dr. Frankenstein and his Elizabeth are allowed to live, paradoxically violated the censorship code which said that criminals had to be punished for their crimes. I urge you to rent not just the original Frankenstein, but Young Frankenstein, to see how reverently Mel Brooks loves The Bride of Frankenstein.
“These are very subversive films, very against the grain. He was always dealing with outsiders–the monster, the invisible man, the mad scientist–and maybe it did have something to do with his being gay. But it was also very universal what he was saying. That’s why audiences pity his monsters.” (Skal in USA Today) “The grandest of Hollywood guignol, this beloved, absurdist hoot has quite a bit of everything, and even today pays off like a slot machine” (Michael Atkinson).
Shown with The Ingenues in The Band Beautiful. This Vitaphone short from 1928 showcases a musical ensemble, dressed somewhat uncomfortably in ruffled robe de style frocks playing “Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon,” “Changes” (featuring Frances and her Phenomenal Accordion) “Mighty Lak a Rose”, “Shaking the Blues Away” and “Tiger Rag.” The ensemble work is a little on the raggedy side, and the miking is inconsistent. They double on so many instruments, one is reminded of bandleader Sweet Sue in Some Like It Hot, who announced with a wink, “Every girl in my band is a virtuoso.”
(Photo of the Bride and Groom from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store, all four relaxing on set from The Films of Boris Karloff by Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals. Director Whale and Dr. Pretorius from Films in Review cited below. All other photos from Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography. Sources include James Whale A New World of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis, Bride of Frankenstein, one of the BFI series, by Alberto Manguel, Screams of Reason by David J. Skal, Dear Boris, by Cynthia Lindsay, Elsa Lanchester, Herself by Miss Lanchester, “Big Shop of Horrors by Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice, David Colton’s article on James Whale in the 9/15/98 issue of USA Today, Universal Horrors by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver, Boris Karloff by Scott Allen Nollen, “Curtis Harrington on James Whale” by David Del Valle, January-February 1996 Films in Review.