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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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Show Boat (1936) – A Celebration

Poster - Show Boat (1936)_01In 1951, MGM released their film version of Show Boat, starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and it remains the version most known today. However, there was another, superior version made in 1936 at Universal Studios. It was directed by James Whale – director of FrankensteinThe Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man (and the excellent 1931 Waterloo Bridge) – and the film does display many of the themes that he explored in his earlier films: alienation, otherness. But Universal’s Show Boat, although successful, has virtually disappeared from popular consciousness. In the 1940s, MGM bought the rights to the musical from Universal and removed it from circulation in favor of their own version. It was not until the 1980s when it was shown again on television.

For years I’ve been cherishing my old VHS copy in lieu of a DVD. However, I am delighted to say that several years ago it was released on DVD. There are no extras or captions or anything, but at least I can finally retire my fading VHS.

The musical “Show Boat” was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern from the popular 1926 novel. The musical was released in 1927 and marked a new phase in the American musical. It was the first musical to successfully use songs to further the plot, a cohesive story that was not simply a series of dance and song numbers.

The novel is quite expansive – from the 1880s to the 1920s – and goes from the Mississippi River to Chicago and with its three generations is not an easy story to corral into a musical. I read in Jerome Kern (Yale Broadway Masteries Series) by Stephen Banfield, that the plot is so unwieldy and the ending so difficult to achieve effectively that every incarnation of the musical – the original musical, the movie versions and the revivals of the musical – trie a different ending each time.

The story is about racial prejudice, enduring love, and the nostalgia for the old days in the South and the almost mystical river contrasted with the modern and slightly disinfected North.

The show boat is Cotton Blossom, run by Captain Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthenia (Charles Winninger and Helen Westley), with stars Julie LaVerne and Steve Baker (Helen Morgan and Donald Cook) and their daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne). Parthy is determined that Magnolia have as little do with show business as possible and does not approve of her friendship with Julie. But when a jealous would-be lover tells the sheriff that Julia is actually half black – miscegenation is illegal in the state  – Julie and Steve are forced to leave the boat, leaving Magnolia to take her place with charming ne’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) to replace Steve. Everyone tells her Gaylord is no good, but Magnolia marries him anyway. They leave for Chicago, but when he is unable to provide for her, he leaves her and she must earn her own way.

The cast is superb. Irene Dunne – though rather old to be playing an eighteen year old – actually does a very good job. She captures her naivete and is perfect as the character grows up and ages during the story. Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan were in the original 1927 musical and are also good, especially Helen Morgan, who can break your heart with a song. Allan Jones isn’t all that interesting in the role, but Gaylord is rather feckless anyway. Also standouts are Hattie McDaniel and, of course, Paul Robeson. If for no other reason, Show Boat deserves to be seen for Paul Robeson. This is one of the few opportunities for a modern audience to see him act. He did not originate the role of Joe in the musical, but the character and the song “Ol Man River” were written with him in mind. Jerome Kern reportedly said the song was inspired by Robeson’s speaking voice.

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

When it comes to racism, Show Boat is all over the place, though the story intended to transcend stereotypes and racial prejudice. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so much a product of its times and extremely useful for discussion. Julie LaVerne’s mother was black, but she can pass for white. Her husband does not care, nor even the man who is rejected by her (he is merely using the fact that she is black as a means of revenge) but the sheriff tells Captain Andy that Julie will have to leave because if people found out that a black woman was passing herself off as white, there would be trouble (i.e. a lynch mob?).

Show Boat also contains a scene where Magnolia does a song in black face while a segregated white and black audience look on. It’s a startling portrayal of black stereotypes, though by no means anachronistic of the period and it’s unclear whether Whale was making an ironic statement or simply wanted a dance in black face to reflect the period.

Another example of the film both reinforcing and eroding racial stereotypes at the same time are the characters Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson), who work on the Cotton Blossom. She represents the black mammy and he the lazy, shiftless black male. But both McDaniel and Robeson do a remarkable thing in transcending those roles and playing real people who have a real, affectionate relationship and they even have a fun and affectionate duet: “Ah Still Suits Me.” Robeson plays Joe less as a lazy man than as a man moving at the pace of the river who as figured out what matters in life. He often seems like the wise one, like the river, looking on compassionately.

In the character of Julie, however, the two themes of the story overlap: racism and the enduring love of women who must make their own way in life. Magnolia assumes at the beginning that if she discovered that the man she loved was no good, she would stop loving him, but Julie knows better. Once you fall in love, it’s too late, she says. That’s why you have to be careful who you fall in love with.

The story is filled with women who love weak, undeserving or irresponsible men, even Parthy and Queenie have men who seem irresponsible (Captain Andy – a negligent father if ever there was one – and Joe – though he does make more of the character). But unlike Julie, who falls to pieces after Steve leaves her and becomes an alcoholic (sadly reminiscent of Helen Morgan’s real life, who died from alcoholism when she was 41), Magnolia manages to keep on with life, despite her undying love for Gaylord after he deserts her. The irony is that Magnolia is even more successful without Gaylord and Julie would have been if she hadn’t started drinking.

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

I’ve always been attracted to stories that show the interconnectedness of life and the thread of family history that goes into making people as they are. The film ends with Kim – Magnolia and Gaylord’s daugter – following in the footsteps of her mother, though she has left the river far behind her. The ending has been criticized as weak, but I like how Kim’s life is seen as the culmination of all that has come before. If her grandparents hadn’t run a riverboat, if Julie hadn’t been forced to leave, Magnolia wouldn’t have taken her place, wouldn’t have married Gaylord.

There is a heartbreaking scene when Julie, now an alcoholic singer at a nightclub, hears Magnolia singing the song that Julie taught her years before: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She learns that Magnolia is desperate for a job, since Gaylord has left her. Without ever speaking to her, Julie gives up her job so that the manager will be forced to put Magnolia in the show. Another chain in the link that makes Magnolia’s, and later Kim’s, success possible. it is fitting that the entire family should gather to see Kim in her debut as a musical leading lady.

This musical has always had a special place for me among all the musicals I love. The story was glamorized and simplified for the MGM version, which provides an unabashedly happy ending, shortens the length of time covered in the story, removes Magnolia’s career, and removes much of what is provocative about the racial subplot, though it does retain one excellent song (“Why Do I Love You?”) that was removed from the 1936 version.

Jerome Kern score is, for me, one of the loveliest musical scores. Kern stands between European operettas and the distinctly American flavor of popular music of George Gershwin and he was one of the first to begin to bring a uniquely American sound to popular music. He’s less jazzy than Gershwin, but his melodies are unmatched. “You are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the song that has taken a life of its own, “Ol Man River,” are the three most memorable songs, but the entire score is beautiful. I believe it is one of the great American musicals.

Paul Robeson sang what I consider to be the finest, most powerful version of “Ol Man River.” For some reason, in MGM’s version, all the songs were slowed down, including “Ol Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The idea seems to be that a slower song packs a bigger emotional punch, which doesn’t necessarily work. Every time I hear the 1951 soundtrack, I get antsy wanting them to speed up. This is the tempo, faster than most people sing it, that I believe it really should be sung at.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Movie Musicals

 

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Waterloo Bridge (1931) – Waterloo Bridge Three Post Series #2

Waterloo_Bridge_(1931_film)_jpegMae Clarke and James Whale are both best remembered for the 1931 Frankenstein that introduced Boris Karloff to immortal fame as the Frankenstein monster. Mae Clarke was the fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive), although she didn’t have much to do besides remonstrate earnestly with her fiancé and faint at the sight of Karloff. Frankenstein was also a turning point in the career of the director, James Whale. The movie was so successful that he was given a tremendous amount of artistic freedom for several years at Universal Studios and directed The Invisible Man (1933), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

However, before Frankenstein was released in 1931, another movie was released that same year and shows that both Whale and Clarke are much more than makers of monster movies. In fact, Mae Clarke gives a very moving performance as a chorus girl turned prostitute who falls in love with a young soldier during WWI. This movie is not as well known as the remake in 1940 at MGM with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, but is an excellent, concise, grittier look at a particular moment in time. The movie is based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, which in turn was based on his memories of a chance meeting with a prostitute on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, and the movie captures that sense of random chance throughout.

Mae Clarke is Myra Deauville, who came from America to England in the chorus of a show. But when the show closes and she is out of work and cannot pay her landlady (a constant problem in this movie), she resorts to prostitution. Her method, employed by many other women, is to go to Waterloo Bridge to pick up men.

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It is at Waterloo Bridge where she meets Roy Cronin (Douglas Montgomery) during an air raid. I hadn’t realized it before, but London did endure bombings during WWI from zeppelins. Roy is a very young soldier, innocent and eager and a bit lonely during his leave in London. She sees him as a potential client and brings him back to her apartment, where they have dinner. He is so innocent, though, he doesn’t even realize that she is trying to pick him up and just thinks that she is being friendly, but he is smitten with her. He even offers to pay her landlady, who is demanding her rent and also assumes that Roy is there as a client. However, Myra quickly realizes that Roy just wants to talk and is touched by his innocence, and she refuses to let him pay the rent. Later that night, after he has gone, she goes out again in search of another man so she can pay the still looming rent.

Roy does not forget her so easily, however, and come back and meets Myra’s friend, Kitty, another lady of the night. Kitty can see that he is mad about Myra and tells Myra that she should marry him, but Myra feels that she would be using Roy and it would not be fair to him, who doesn’t  know what she does for a living. However, Roy manages finally to get Myra to visit his family, where she meets his father, mother and sister (Bette Davis in a tiny role). They are very welcoming, but the mother can see what her son evidently cannot or doesn’t care about, that there is a huge gulf between Myra and the Cronins. The Cronins are very wealthy people, upper class, while Myra is just a chorus girl from America who has had to make her own way all her life. Roy proposes, but that night Myra tells his mother the truth. His mother is appalled, though sympathetic and appreciative; however, she does not want Myra to marry her son and Myra leaves, with Roy going after her.

waterloobridgeIt is a heartbreaking story, in it’s own way. It is not lushly romantic like the 1940 movie, but is more gritty, more like a straight-forward narrative of what could a real story, more explicit about the life that Myra is living and how much she hates it, though she does it every time she wants something (like a new dress) or must pay bills. There is a tragic little moment when her landlady has demanded her rent. Myra sits down in front of her mirror and begins to get herself ready to go out, with an expressionless face that still expresses so much. She gets up and goes out the door and the scene ends.

Douglas Montgomery is a little on the awkward and inexperienced side as Roy Cronin, but since the character is supposed to be young and inexperienced, his acting is not a serious detraction from the movie. Roy is a completely naïve, romantic young man who doesn’t really care where she came from or what she does. His view of her is a purified version of the real woman. Myra comes across as much older than he is, though not necessarily in actual age. She is the one who is painfully aware of the class differences between them, let alone the fact that she is a prostitute, and knows there is no future for them.

MBDWABR EC013Mae Clarke really did lead a hard-scrabble life for a while, like she portrays in the movie, though without the streetwalking. She (her real name was Violet Mary Klotz) and Barbara Stanwyck (still Ruby Stevens) and one other girl all shared one shabby room in New York when they were in their teens, dancing at nightclubs, getting work in a chorus whenever they could, each washing out their one pair of stockings each night. She found some initial success, but her career never quite took off and almost all of her leading lady roles came in the pre-code era. The rest of her career was spent in bit parts. Ironically, she made her most famous movies in 1931. Along with Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein, she also appeared in another highly successful film, The Public Enemy, where she infamously gets a grapefruit shoved in her face by gangster James Cagney.

Waterloo Bridge was both a critical and financial success when it was released; however, owing to it’s frank portrayal, it was never released in theaters during the era of the production code and was overshadowed by MGM’s remake. The film was rediscovered in 1975, but because both Universal Studios and MGM owned the rights, they were not able to come to an agreement and it was not generally seen for another twenty years. It was not available for home-ownership until 2006, when Waterloo Bridge was released in the first of the TCM sets called Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1. It was paired with Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman and Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face and is really a movie worth rediscovering.

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Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Movies

 

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