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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: The Bride of Frankenstein

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Last year I covered the first installment in Universal’s Frankenstein series starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive and now, with both represented on my puzzle, it’s time to take a look at the 1935 follow-up Bride of Frankenstein. The film has been, especially in later years, widely considered to be superior to the classic original and as director James Whale’s masterpiece. Critics Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine made this declaration in 2005 as part of the publication’s “All Time 100 Movies” series. The same opinion has been expressed subsequently by high-profile sources such as Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Herald, and Playboy. But is this an easily affirmed estimation of its merits, or is there a more complicated answer to the question? Join me as I share some information about the film’s production and qualities along with my own experience in giving it a few viewings.

Warning- There will be spoilers for Bride of Frankenstein in this article

Talk of a sequel to the smash success of 1931’s Frankenstein began at Universal even before it was released widely. They apparently knew they had a hit on their hands and as anyone who pays attention to the business of movies knows, imitation will always flatter films that boom at the box office. Director James Whale was not initially enthusiastic about the project, believing he had covered the topic fully in the original, but continued studio pressure and an agreement which allowed him to work on a different pet project convinced him to return for a second go. The bigger delay was related to the script, multiple attempts being rejected before the concept of working in the plot of the creature demanding a mate was struck upon by John L Balderston. A couple more writers were eventually brought in to work on the project and the final script ended up being a sort of, well…Frankenstein – with scenes and concepts cobbled together from the work of a variety of writers from a number of drafts.

Additional cuts had to eventually be made in order to receive approval from the Hays office, which guided the content of commercial films at the time to avoid what it considered inappropriate. One scene the office objected to depicted the creature stumbling into a cemetery and attempting to save a carved stone Jesus from the cross he was on. There are stories of writers and directors intentionally including elements they knew would be cut by censors for the express purpose of drawing attention away from those they actually intended to include in the final product. It’s hard not to wonder if this was such a scene.

What most people who have never seen Bride of Frankenstein need to know ahead of time is that the title character, while being a central motivating factor of the story, only appears for a few minutes. It’s a real testament both to the performance of actress Elsa Lanchester and to the excellent character makeup, hair, and costume design done by Jack Pierce, Irma Kusely, Vera West, and others. The combined efforts of these artists helped to make the bride an image of early Universal horror almost as iconic as Frankenstein’s monster himself. Director James Whale was particularly concerned over the look of the bride, and suggested that her style be based on Egyptian queen Nefertiti. In order to achieve this without use of the tall round hat associated with her famous bust, a permanent wave was used to fashion Lanchester’s hair over a wire frame, giving the appearance that the current passed through the bride in animating her had had this effect.

Elsa Lanchester was the wife of legendary actor Charles Laughton, but thanks to this one visually iconic role lasting just a few minutes she may be even more famous than her hugely successful husband in the long run. Lanchester herself had her own rather enviable career overshadowed by the bride, after all. Just take a look at her filmography and you’ll see that any actress with her resume would be considered quite successful without this film. She was Oscar nominated for her roles in both Come to the Stable and Witness for the Prosecution and also appeared in popular films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Secret Garden, The Inspector General, Bell, Book, and Candle, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, and Murder by Death. Her role as the bride, however, is not actually the only time she appears in the film. Prior to resuming the story directly after the events of the 1931 original, the movie indulges in an odd little prelude in which Mary Shelley (played by Lanchester) is praised by Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and encouraged to tell them more. Although the final credits impose a mysterious “?” for the name of the actress playing the bride, her name appears above for this second, less memorable role with more lines.

Hays code personnel insisted that shots of Lanchester which they thought revealed too much of her breasts be cut out of the final film and I imagine lots of people are probably sad about that.

With all of the different writers employed and the interference of the Hays office, it should come as no surprise that the film has a little bit of trouble with maintaining a consistent tone. One example of this is the Minnie character as played by Una O’Connor, who appears to be a comic relief figure plopped slap down in the middle of a gothic horror story. While this isn’t very unique for the time, the moments chosen for her specific brand of not-funny performance are a little cringe-inducing. One happens mere moments after we witness the creature possibly killing the parents of the girl he accidentally drowned in the first movie. But this time the murders are patently unnecessary and offhanded. To place an hysteric comic performance right there seems a little tone deaf. Who do we blame for this? Whale? Perhaps editor Ted Kent?

Another bizarre piece from the movie is the ridiculous scene in which the sinister Doctor Pretorius (introduced in a previous scene with his name spoken several times just to signal his importance and make sure people know his odd name) tries to convince Henry Frankenstein of his own credentials in creating life by showing him a series of tiny people he created in multiple jars. There’s a miniature king and queen, along with a tiny ballerina, bishop, mermaid, and a baby that was played by a young Billy Barty. You may know Barty as the little person from movies like Foul Play, LegendWillow, and UHF. He also voiced the purple dragon Figment from Epcot’s Journey Into Imagination attraction.

You don’t get a great look at him in the movie, but that’s him in the jar indicated by the red arrow.

Henry Frankenstein has pretty much been convinced by his first experiment that creating life on his own was a rather large mistake, so Doctor Pretorius is brought in to motivate him into helping to make the creature a bride. Whale apparently insisted that Colin Clive’s particular sort of mania was a necessity to any Frankenstein sequel, and I can’t say he’s wrong. Clive knows what kind of movie he’s in here and he seems uniquely adept at communicating the horror and pathos required.

Anyone who has seen the Mel Brooks spoof Young Frankenstein will recognize how lovingly crafted the satire was when they watch Bride of Frankenstein. In addition to using set pieces and similar filming techniques from the Universal pictures, multiple characters and scenes specific to Bride of Frankenstein were used and placed into a humorous light. Key among these was a scene starring Gene Hackman as a blind old hermit who attempts to befriend the creature while he is wandering on his own. The emotion and disappointment of the scenes here and their consequences are strong in impact. Unfortunately, at least for me, since we’ve already seen the creature kill without appropriate provocation and see him do the same again later in the film, it weakens the idea that he could have been a virtuous member of society if he had been provided with appropriate guidance.

This leads me to another quibble I have with the film, which is the development of spoken language in the creature. It all seems to come a little too easily and it skips some of the recognized stages. The payoff, of course comes in the stunning finale in which the creature, having been rejected by the bride intended for him, implores Pretorius to stay, saying “we belong dead.” He then pulls a large lever switch which results in the destruction of the towering castle they are in, appearing to kill them both, along with the bride. What they’re doing with such a lever in the first place seems like a legitimate question. It is introduced out of nowhere in the very moment when the movie appears to require its services. In the end, these qualms do little to reduce the symbolic and emotional impact of this final scene.

This 1935 version of Bride of Frankenstein is frustratingly imperfect. Its strengths are undeniable and good reason for its status as a classic, but the weaknesses I mention here hold it back, in my mind, from being a truly great film o nits total merits. I’m actually hopeful for the remake being planned for release in 2019.

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Posted on July 28, 2017, in Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Another nice addition to this series. Director James Whale came up recently in the birthday articles. He had more than a little to do with making Universal a studio associated with horror films, as the director of Frankenstein and its sequel as well as The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. He also directed a 1936 version of the musical Show Boat which was critically very well-received.

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    • daffystardust

      Thanks for the added facts, Jestak! Whale could easily be the subject of his own article. A long one. I resisted the urge to revisit Gods and Monsters starring Ian McKellan mostly because A) it is a fictional story with factual stuff in it and B) I was trying to post earlier this week.
      Karloff also probably gets short shrift in this article, but that’s sort of the nature of this series. If the articles were meant to be exhaustive I would end up writing actual books. I have to keep telling myself this or I will beat myself up about it 🙂

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  2. I’m not 100% certain I have ever actually sat down and watched Bride. I’m familiar with all of the iconic elements and I watched enough monster movies as a kid that I am fairly confident that this would have been among them. But it’s possible I am familiar with the movie only through clips and its reputation.

    I’m not sure if that was a throw-away line at the end, but are you actually optimistic about the Dark Universe remake? I have a hard time believing it will be any good. Universal has the wrong people steering that ship.

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    • daffystardust

      All I meant was that the source material (the good parts of the 1935 film) COULD make for a quality modern adaptation. If the Tom Cruise Mummy is any indication, Universal’s new monsters movies could be uniformly bad. Or maybe Bride will pull a Wonder Woman and be the only good one of the bunch. We’ll see.

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