Thursday, October 11, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

The success of Universal's Frankenstein in 1931 quite naturally led to the studio's desire for a sequel, and in 1935 they gave the audience more of Boris Karloff's lumbering monster with The Bride of Frankenstein, which also brought back director James Whale and Colin Clive's resurrectionist doctor. Whale took the opportunity to exercise a particularly dark sense of humor, and today The Bride of Frankenstein is probably best appreciated as an example of wry, sardonic comedy, although it also has the honor of introducing Elsa Lanchester's iconic Bride to the pantheon of Hollywood horrors.

Having miraculously survived the events that ended the first film, Karloff's creature returns to terrorize the countryside, while his creator (Colin Clive) struggles with conflicted urges about continuing his work. Henry Frankenstein's worried bride, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), begs him to give up his unnatural studies, but her arguments lose their force when Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a fellow scientist with sinister designs, turns up to coerce Frankenstein into making a mate for the original monster.

The modern viewer can't help but realize that there are very few steps indeed between Whale's sequel and Mel Brooks' 1974 parody, Young Frankenstein, and in fact Brooks lifts whole scenes almost without alteration, particularly the segment involving the kindly blind man who befriends the monster. Una O'Connor's screeching maid is a prelude to Cloris Leachman's Frau Blücher, while the generally silly villagers and their burgomaster seem equally at home in either film.

Still, Whale introduces some uniquely crafted images. He puts his monster into tableaux of suffering that suggest his identity as a kind of Christ figure, tormented and abused by the pitiless mob. The monster, after all, is meant to represent humanity's redemption from death, and like Christ he is something both human and other at the same time. Whale also gives us the macabre glory of Lanchester's resurrected bride, and he has the genius to cast the same actress as both the monster and the ultimate maker of this myth, Mary Godwin Shelley. Lanchester only appears onscreen for a few minutes, as Shelley in the opening scenes and as the bride in the finale, but she makes a tremendous impression. Karloff's creature, however, gets the final lines. "We belong dead," he says, wiser at last than the man who made him and weary of a world in which he can find no acceptance, even from the mate who was created as his companion.

For more of Whale's wickedly humorous horror, see The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Look for Karloff in more talkative roles in The Mummy (1932), Bedlam (1946), and The Raven (1963). You'll find Elsa Lanchester in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Lassie Come Home (1946), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Some people might find Una O'Connor's old biddies irritating, but if you like her as much as I do you'll want to see her in The Invisible Man and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Ernest Thesiger also appears in The Ghoul (1933), They Drive by Night (1938), and The Man in the White Suit (1951).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.