#35 – The Bride of Frankenstein
I cannot remember the first time I saw The Bride of Frankenstein. I’m guessing it was an afternoon screening on WFLD, Chicago’s UHF powerhouse station in the 1960s. Was I seven or eight when I first chanced upon it? During the twenty-five years I taught film, every semester included a screening. Given that during the class’s heyday there were three or four sections a semester, I have probably introduced more than 2500 teenagers to this incredible film.
This film celebrated its eightieth birthday last year, and yet it is still as creepy, irreverent, and twisted as it was the day it was released. Universal’s original Frankenstein was such a hit in 1931 that director James Whale was given carte blanche when making the sequel, which features boatloads of macabre humor and twisted innuendo. From the little “bottle creatures” that Pretorius shows Henry to prove he has also created life, to lab assistant Karl’s lusty assurance that the heart he has just procured “is a very FRESH one,” James Whale made the film with tongue firmly in cheek.
James Whale uses the form of the horror film to speak eloquently about a number of things, but I often think this film is most about loneliness. “It is bad to be alone,” the blind hermit warns us, and we see this theme expanded upon in the rest of the film. The characters seem to come in pairs: Henry and Elizabeth, Pretorius’ tiny king and queen, the temporary pairing of Pretorius and Henry—even Karl is given a partner with which to do his grave robbing—and it is no accident that the two most effective and memorable dialogue scenes in the film involve the Monster trying to find a friend, first in the blind hermit and then in Pretorius himself. The Monster and Pretorius share a memorable supper in a tomb—the coffin forming an impromptu dining table—where the Monster confides to his new friend over a glass of wine, “I love dead, hate living.” Pretorius responds, “You’re wise in your generation.” Karloff perfectly conveys the miserable loneliness of the Monster’s fate; it becomes the emotional core of the film.
Watching the same film so many times in class, I began to notice things. When Dr. Pretorius shows Dr. Frankenstein his little creations, there is a fleeting glimpse of one creature that was edited out of the film, a “baby” in a tall high chair. I was always obsessed with the Bride’s hissing when first introduced to her presumptive mate. I later learned (from one of William Gregory Manks’ invaluable books) that actress Elsa Lanchester had based this on swans she had seen in Regent’s Park in London. Whenever anything or anyone got too close to the baby swans, the mother would let out this hiss!
SPOILER ALERT: There were a great many things Universal did not like about the film’s original script. As originally planned, grave robber Karl (Dwight Frye) was the actual perpetrator of all the murders in the town. This would have served to make Boris Karloff’s Monster all the more sympathetic. Later, when the heart that Dr. Frankenstein intends to transplant into the Bride proves useless, Karl is dispatched to fetch a new one. As originally scripted, Karl goes to where Elizabeth is being held, cuts out her heart, and delivers it to Dr. Frankenstein, who unknowingly sews his own bride’s heart into the new Bride he is creating with Pretorius. Irony. This was too much for Universal, which ordered reshoots. (Karl now gets the heart from an anonymous villager.) The problem was that Whale had already shot the climax with the laboratory blowing up, killing the Monster, his Bride, Pretorius, and Dr. Frankenstein. Universal felt no one would notice, as viewers would be too distracted by the explosions to perform an impromptu head count of the victims. New scenes were filmed, showing Dr. Frankenstein escaping the lab with the still kicking Elizabeth. Watch the scene again and with your handy remote and the use of freeze-frame, you can enjoy the spectacle of Dr. Henry Frankenstein literally running away from himself!
The Bride of Frankenstein’s Three Miracles: James Whale’s playful sense of humor (and deep understanding of loneliness), which inform every frame of the film; Franz Waxman’s majestic, creepy, funny score; and Boris Karloff’s singular performance as the Monster. We share his tears at the end of the film when he informs Pretorius and his Bride, “We belong dead.”
“In nomine Patrice, et Pretorius, y spiritu James Whale—Amen.”