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.
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 House, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.