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Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein: A Double Feature

When I originally saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein (1931) I watched them in reverse order, with many months in between, so I thought it would be instructive this October to watch both of them in one day, in their correct order, and see how the two films held up as one continuous story. Most of the Universal horror sequels do not work well as sequels, but these two films actually have reasonable continuity, perhaps because both of them were directed by the same man, James Whale. But despite having a similar theme, the tone of each is quite different.

In the original 1931 Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life and left the university because they had too many scruples about acquiring for him the bodies he needed for his great creation. Now on his own, in a creaky, decaying stone tower, he is helped by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) to steal fresh bodies just put in their grave or recently hung.

But his fiance, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried about him and recruits his friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his former professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help talk to Henry. But Henry won’t listen and brings his creation (Boris Karlodff) to life (“It’s alive!”). Now, he says, he knows what it feels like to be God. But Henry is an indifferent god. He intends to teach the monster, but when the monster kills Fritz (who was torturing him) Henry finally agrees with Dr. Waldman that the monster should be destroyed. But he underestimates the strength of the monster, who escapes and wanders around the countryside. the monster doesn’t really want to hurt anyone, but he’s disoriented and confused and when people come after him, he defends himself.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff

I have to say that Boris Karloff is incredible as the monster. He’s in heavy makeup, but his eyes express everything. He is pained, confused, moved by kindness and beauty (like a flower), angry, frustrated at his inability to communicate or people screaming and running and attacking him. His eyes express humanity. When he is first created, Henry keeps him in the dark, but when he opens a window, the monster doesn’t shrink, but stands up with his arms outstretched, straining to touch the light, feel it, embrace it. But then Henry closes the window.

Frankenstein, surprisingly, still retains the power to horrify a little, if not frighten. One is horrified when the monster throws a girl into a lake and she drowns. He doesn’t mean to hurt her, he just didn’t understand, but it is still horrible. And the ending still horrifies. Chased by mobs of people, the monster drags Henry into an old windmill, which is then set on fire and we see the monster’s terror as he waves his arms as if begging the flames to leave him alone.

In fact, the entire mood is one of slightly depressed madness. Henry is initially mad, but Elizabeth is gloomy and depressed. She has a foreboding from the beginning of the film, even on her wedding day to Henry. It’s all a bit of a downer, even if Henry does manage to survive the film and we are led to believe will be happy with Elizabeth. But the ending seems slightly out of sync with what came before. One feels that by all rights Henry ought to have died, too, if only to justify all that came before. And the film seems to demonstrate little of the unique James Whale humor that is found in abundance in his later films, The Old Dark HouseThe Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. But it’s still an effective film.

The Bride of Frankenstein has a completely different feel. It has the same themes – the dangers about trying to imitate God, the alienation of the monster, the inherent humanity of the monster contrasted with the mob mentality of the villagers – but suddenly there is a swell of music (there no music in the first film), the acting takes flight (the first film looks almost naturalistic in comparison), Elizabeth was evidently dying her hair from blonde to brunette while Henry and the monster were engaged in their epic struggle on the windmill (different actress, really), Henry’s father disappears, Henry’s friend Victor runs off (the only explanation, since his character, too, disappears), and Whale’s humor becomes dramatically evident, especially in the additions of the actors Una O’Connor and Ernest Thesiger.

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

The film begins with a prologue, with a massively over-the-top Lord Byron, rolling his r’s and making sweeping gestures, who marvels that such an innocent person as Mary Shelley could have written her novel, Frankenstein. But since Mary Shelley is played by Elsa Lanchester, she looks anything but innocent and tells Lord Byron and Shelley that there is more to the story after the monster is burned in the windmill.

In fact, he is not burned at all (if you watch all seven Universal films featuring the monster, you realize that he survives explosions, drowning, lava, being frozen, being burned and having somebody else’s brain swapped for his own). the monster is back, much to the fear of the villagers, but he is just looking for a friend. He temporarily finds one in a blind hermit (who teaches him to speak, which is a nice development from the first film, where the monster struggles repeatedly to communicate without words – now, he is learning how to interact with people), but some not-so-helpful villagers (led by John Carradine) come by and hustle the hermit away, accidentally causing the hermit’s cottage to burn down.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on the scene and wants Henry to help him create more life. Henry says he’s learned his lesson, but Dr. Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth (now a brunette, played by Valerie Hobson) and Henry agrees to help create a bride for the monster.

Oddly enough, Boris Karloff is probably the most naturalistic character in the film (however naturalistic a monster can be) and brings the same deep feeling to the role. I cannot say enough about how good he is. And of course there is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, campy and fey. He dreams of a new world of “gods and monsters” and doesn’t scruple to blackmail Henry into helping him create a bride for the monster. He has a gleeful meal on top of a coffin and when he is suddenly confronted by the monster, he doesn’t blink an eye, but politely offers him a drink. He’s kind of mad, knows it and delights in it. But he’s mad with so much style and panache.

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

One favorite scene occurs at the beginning, which once again highlights Whale’s unique sense of humor. When the monster emerges from the charred windmill, he comes across Minnie (Una O’Connor), who works for Elizabeth, who takes one look at him and starts screaming with her hands raised in such an oddball fashion that even the monster is too puzzled to attack her. He just stares after her with a puzzled look on his face. She’s an outrageous character, taking a ghoulish interest in the monster, but runs about like a chicken with it’s head cut off whenever she encounters him.

I definitely find The Bride of Frankenstein to be a more entertaining film than Frankenstein. It’s rich with symbolism, grotesque characters, witty lines, unique hair, black humor. There are a similar number of deaths in both films, but somehow they seem incidental and not terribly upsetting in the sequel. It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace in terms of movie deaths. It’s almost a comedy, though one with a heart. Amazingly, despite all the humor, Karloff still manages to bring incredible heartbreak to his role and it remains at the center of the film.

Cast

Watching the two films in order made me very conscious of the cast.  There are three actors who manage to appear in both films: Colin Clive as Henry, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Dwight Frye, though he plays two different people in each film. He is Fritz, the hunchback assistant to Henry in the first film, and Karl, one of two criminals hired by Dr. Pretorius.

Two of the characters in both films stay the same, but have different actors playing them. Mae Clarke is Elizabeth in the first film, who I mentioned plays her as a slightly gloomy heroine with a firmly rooted conviction that something dreadful is going to happen. She seems destined for tragedy, somehow. By the time The Bride of Frankenstein was made four years later, Mae Clarke’s career had deteriorated and she was not recast. Instead, Elizabeth is played by Valerie Hobson, who definitely is acting in the mold of Ernest Thesiger. She practically glides across the floor as she approaches Henry, who’s been injured, with arms outstretched theatrically. She doesn’t carry the same air of tragedy, but definitely fits into the mood of the film

Another character who is changed is the burgomaster. In the original film he is played by Lionel Belmore, though he doesn’t get much to do except organize a search for the monster. In the sequel, he is replaced with E.E. Clive, who suddenly brings the character to life with more of Whale’s unique humor evident as a pompous and self-important man who flutters about importantly, but who is actually getting in the way of things being done.

New characters, of course, are Ernest Thesiger, who plays the inimitable Dr. Pretorius and Una O’Connor as Minnie, who I am always delighted to see. And the bride of Frankenstein (why didn’t Dr. Pretorius call her the bride of the monster? She’s not marrying Henry). Elsa Lanchester only gets to show up at the end and she doesn’t last very long, but she certainly makes a splash.

Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester

Dropped characters include Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). Since Henry is suddenly being referred to as the new Baron in the sequel, one can only assume that that terrible night with the burning windmill was too much for Henry’s father and that while Elizabeth was dying her hair, he expired unexpectedly. Also, Victor Moritz (John Boles), a friend of Henry’s who is also in love with Elizabeth, mysteriously disappears that night. The last we hear of him, Henry is telling him to look after Elizabeth while Henry chases after the monster and is dragged to the windmill. One can only assume that while Elizabeth was dying her hair and the Baron was dying that he decided that he’d had enough of the place and ran off somewhere, which makes him craven. Either that or he died unexpectedly, too. He wasn’t that interesting a character, though, so I don’t miss him in the sequel.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

downloadVincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).

Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.

Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).

Sitting: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).

The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.

Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black

And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.

Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.

Poster - Comedy of Terrors, The_05But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: James Thurber and Danny Kaye

800px-James_Thurber_NYWTS

James Thurber

When James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was adapted into a movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947, Thurber was not pleased with the results. The story had become a Danny Kaye vehicle and he loathed the tongue-twisting patter scat songs Kaye sang. Some of Thurber’s fans complained, too. But the film did well and was one of Danny Kaye’s biggest hits.

James Thurber was a humorist and cartoonist who mostly wrote for The New Yorker. The most famous of his short stories is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I was somewhat surprised to discover is only seven pages long (approximately 200 times shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace). I was also surprised to discover that for being a humorist, his most famous short story is actually faintly depressing.

Appearing in The New Yorker in 1939 and anthologized in My World and Welcome To It in 1942, Thurber’s story is less a story and more a snapshot illustrating the life of a middle-class man. Absent-minded, ineffectual (can’t even put chains on his car), under his wife’s thumb, he’s on the dreaded weekly shopping trip with his wife to buy things he doesn’t care about (like overshoes). His wife is there to have her hair done.

Walter Mitty is also a daydreamer and the short story opens with him imagining that he is a daring pilot, until his wife chides him for driving too fast. As the day goes by, he continues to drift in and out of heroic dreams, incorporating what he sees in passing until he is jolted back into reality by some person. He is at turns a surgeon, a man on trial, and a bomber pilot.

A little bit of the short story does make it into the movie. Danny Kaye’s Mitty imagines he’s a surgeon (also a cowboy, a Mississippi River gambler, a fighter pilot, a ship’s captain in a hurricane). Several of James Thurber’s nonsense words (he liked to make up words; his fairy tale, The Thirteen Clocks, is brimming with them) make it into the movie, too. Whenever Mitty is dreaming, in the background can be heard ta-pocketa-pocketa and he uses other made-up words like coreopsis during the surgeon dream sequence. That’s one thing Danny Kaye and James Thurber did have in common, whether they realized it or not, though it manifested itself differently. They both made up words. Actually, it was Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, who made up words for many of Kaye’s nonsense songs, which provide a dazzling display of wordplay, made up words, rhymes and nonsense. The difference is irony. Both are whimsical, but Thurber is ironic and Kaye is exuberantly silly (I don’t mean that negatively).

Poster - Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The_08And so Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fundamentally different. Instead of being ineffectual (he’s actually very good at his job working for a pulp magazine, though his boss steals all his ideas), he is a meek man who must learn to assert himself. Instead of a wife, he has a bossy mother and a fiance with a bossy mother. But in all his daydreams, he always sees the same woman (played by Virginia Mayo) and after having dreamed so much, even when a real conspiracy does fall in his lap, he can hardly tell if it’s real or not. It doesn’t help that the woman of his dreams is the same woman in the real conspiracy.

As a side note, there is a small role in the film for Boris Karloff, who plays a villainous psychiatrist and I only wish he could have been in the film more. He’s trying to convince Mitty that everything that happened was just another dream and he leans over him and asks, “Now why don’t you like me?” Mitty emerges from behind the sofa to tell him: “because you tried to push me out a window.” It’s unanswerable and cracks me up every time. If my psychiatrist looked like Boris Karloff, I’d be hiding behind the sofa, too.

But in the movie, the daydreaming is partially the source of Mitty’s creativity and what makes him so good at his job. It could be seen as an escape from being so henpecked, but not necessarily. But in the short story, Mitty’s daydreaming has an entirely different cause. He really is daydreaming as an escape from life, where he’s dismissed and not taken seriously. It’s interesting that Thurber wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 1939. There is even a reference in the story to a coming war. But Mitty doesn’t seem like he’ll have much part in it.

“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” he asks his wife at one point, when she interrupts him. Her reply? “I’m going to take your temperature when I get home.”

MSDSELI EC017The ending is particularly ambiguous. The final daydream that Thurber records happens when Mitty is assumed, again, not to have any individuality outside of his wife. He stands beside a wall and lights a cigarette, which then morphs into a fantasy about how he is bravely facing a firing squad, “Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” You almost wonder if he’s contemplating suicide, but I suspect it is more a symbolic death. His personality or individuality has been shot (by society, by his wife, by his own ineffectuality?), but he can retain a shred of it through his dreams.

I don’t think I’ve properly dwelt on how humorously the story is written, though I found it a bit of a downer. But Thurber’s tone is light, which makes a serious story much more pointed, in some ways. If you are interested in reading Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” it can be found here. I have not seen Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I would be interested in knowing what his take on Thurber’s story is. Was it inspired by the movie or the short story or a completely new creation?

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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