When discussing classic films, attention is often paid to how iconic and influential the film has proved. Frankenstein looms large on both counts. Mary Shelley’s novel (itself a literary classic) had already been adapted for stage and even a 1910 silent film by the time Carl Laemmle, Jr. took over the reins at Universal Studios from his father in 1928. Frankenstein followed Dracula by nine months in 1931, scoring a tremendous one-two punch for Laemmle and Universal. Frankenstein one-upped Dracula in every way, in large part because its director, James Whale, had a much stronger feel for the power of cinema and how to shoot film than did Dracula’s Tod Browning.
Colin Clive’s performance as Henry Frankenstein (Anglicized from Victor, as in Shelley’s novel) remains the paradigm for a mad scientist. He speaks passionately about his work, desperate to make others appreciate the importance of what he’s doing. He’s arrogant enough to undertake the task of duplicating the power of God, but still needs the external validation of his peers and fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). Henry is not naïve. He speaks quite candidly about creating a whole race of man-made men to do his bidding. It’s worth noting that the mainstream scientific community gave very serious consideration to Eugenics in the 1920s. It was not until after Frankenstein was released in 1931 that Eugenics fell out of favor as a serious scientific topic.
Of course, it isn’t Clive that pop culture reveres. It’s Boris Karloff as The Creature. Jack Pierce’s makeup design was wholly different from anything that had appeared in the stage versions or the 1910 silent film. It is this imagery that we recognize today, from the flat head down to the bolts on the side of the neck, with a handful of stitches to remind us that The Creature was made piecemeal. Under that design, though, is Karloff. With no actual dialog, Karloff conveys everything to us through his facial expressions and body language. Whether recoiling in fear from the antagonism of Fritz (Dwight Frye) or wondrous of floating flowers, Karloff’s range imbues The Creature with recognizable emotion. He is more than merely a villain. We do not sympathize with villains.
So successful was Frankenstein that the first sequel made in the Universal Monsters canon was Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Universal, happy with James Whale’s work on Frankenstein and then The Invisible Man, insisted he direct the sequel. Whale, however, did not believe in the film’s potential and agreed to direct on the condition that Universal also finance an adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novel, One More River. Whale also decided rather than to follow the straightforward nature of Frankenstein that the sequel ought to go for laughs. Though the decision was borne of Whale’s lack of belief in the film, it would prove brilliant.
In the intervening four years, one very important film-making technique had been advanced: King Kong arrived in 1933, featuring a score by Max Steiner. Director Merian C. Cooper personally paid Steiner $50,000 to create Kong’s score, resulting in what is essentially the first modern-era film score. Music had, of course, been part of silent films for decades. When the silent film era gave way to talkies, though, the prevailing wisdom held that only source music (that is, music whose source is established on-screen) should appear in a film. It would confuse audiences to hear music where no sensible source was obvious, they feared. Notice that the only music in Frankenstein plays over the opening and closing credits, and in the village’s celebration.
With the element of music now an accepted element of film-making, Whale asked composer Franz Waxman to write the score for his Frankenstein sequel. Though only four years passed between Frankenstein and Bride, this singular advancement was a tremendous step in the evolution of film-making and is all the more striking when the two films are watched back-to-back. Frankenstein is ominous in large part because of the absence of a score; it is not until the viewer becomes conscious of the relative quiet that the film feels more like a play.
Though Bride is, as Whale intended, a “hoot,” it also features some of the more engaging humanity of the two pictures. Though The Creature does kill young Maria in the first film, it’s really an accident. We sympathize with him. He’s not evil, per se. He’s more of an unlucky klutz. In the sequel we see him become more comfortable with killing though even there we get the sense that he really just wants to be left alone. Watch the delight in Karloff’s face as The Creature learns about smoking and drinking from the blind hermit. Detractors feel that side of The Creature blunts his value as a monster and maybe they’re right on that point, but they miss that it also helps to establish him as a character.
Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that may actually be better than its predecessor. We find it easier to sympathize with the characters here. Henry is blackmailed into participating in the continuation of his sacrilegious work by the subversive Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). The Creature really just wants a companion.
Both pictures offer astute viewers numerous themes and symbols to detect and dissect. Note how often we see crisscrossing bars in shadow or as part of the set, always shown at a skewed angle. This was representative of man’s arrogance before God, a theme inherited from Mary Shelley’s source material. Christ-like imagery is even more prominent in Bride, most notably when The Creature is apprehended by the villagers and strapped to a pole, his bound arms elbowing away from his head. Later, the blind hermit thanks God in prayer for uniting two of His children in a shot that dissolves into an image of a crucifix on the hermit’s wall.
Film scholars have also focused on LGBTQ themes present in Bride. Director Whale was openly gay, though the extent to which he imbued the film with any hidden messages is a point of debate. Many find Dr. Pretorius an obvious queer character largely because Thesiger’s flamboyant performance feels subversive – even if we’re unclear what is being subverted. What makes Pretorius so curious is that he’s the one to suggest that they recreate Frankenstein’s work by making a woman. Had this idea been put forth by nearly any other man, we would instantly suspect he was somehow kinky and into resurrected women but not Pretorius. His interest in creating The Bride is too detached to believe he has any such interest himself.
Then there’s The Bride, who strikes a blow for feminism: no one gave any consideration to whether she would want to be The Creature’s “friend” and her rejection is as understandable as it is devastating. Women don’t get to do a lot in these films except shriek and die, but The Bride’s individuality is itself a very interesting point to consider. Frankenstein and Pretorius concentrated exclusively on reanimating dead body parts that neither gave any consideration to the mind or, if you wish, the soul. We accept that The Creature went wrong because of the abnormal, criminal brain put into him but no such explanation exists for The Bride.
Though these two films were successes, Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s track record was marred by several costly misfires. He and his father, Universal’s founder, were bought out by J. Cheever Cowdin in 1936. Both Laemmles left film entirely after being ousted from Universal. These business dealings, along with the flops, have been relegated to the footnotes of film history. What remains are the triumphs, and none loom larger than Frankenstein and his Bride.
This Wednesday, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events will present a one-night double-feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Viewers can see for themselves what themes are or are not present, and we encourage you to share your own observations here. There will never be a better opportunity not only to catch two of the greatest films of all-time, much less the horror genre, but to witness a microcosm of the evolution of film-making itself.
Sources: Various bonus features on Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection DVD box set, Bruce Eder’s liner notes for The Ultimate Horror Movie Album, and Wikipedia articles on James Whale and Carl Laemmle, Jr.