Few sequels are better than, or even as good as, the movie that spawned the franchise. Whether out of some absurd desire to bottle up and/or repeat the formula, or merely from a lack of creative wherewithal, sequels generally fall short of expectations to become little than ‘more of the same’. There are, of course, rare exceptions to this rule: James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) among them: particularly when one considers even the idea of a sequel was a virtual non sequitur during Hollywood’s golden age. By 1935, Universal was well on its way to planning multiple sequels to all three of their classic monster movies: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. In retrospect, the studio was an early adopter of the film franchise. While MGM carefully planned its Tarzan and Andy Hardy series – usually allowing at least a year between installments - Universal’s approach to franchising its most popular creations was exhaustive, workmanlike and factory-driven. Arguably, these movies became formulaic and dull as time wore on. But they all made money and were readily anticipated with giddy excitement at the Saturday matinee.
Yet, The Bride of Frankenstein is not like other sequels; its focus shifting from the monster to its mate, the plot arguably even more arresting; Whale’s rather transparent crucifixion of the monster as a Christ-like figure in the original movie resurrected in this remake with even deliberate religious overtones ran into complications with the Catholic League of Decency. Miraculously, the footage stayed in the movie. Initially, Whale balked at doing a sequel. Universal almost immediately toyed with making a follow-up after Frankenstein became one of their biggest hits. Today, a studio wouldn’t think twice about going ahead with such plans, simply recasting its director. But Universal then fancied itself as California’s homegrown Transylvania and was determined to maintain the stylistic integrity of the original. Patient with Whale’s obstinacy, they desired another moneymaker as only Whale could deliver.
After 1933’s The Invisible Man, Carl Laemmle Jr. once again approached Whale about doing a sequel to Frankenstein – the director eventually relenting, but deciding to make his new movie ‘a memorable hoot’. While ‘camp’ may have been the order of the day, Whale was nevertheless determined it should also be of a quality he most definitely approved. Early screenplays by Robert Florey and Tom Reed were rejected outright; Whale eventually turning to John L. Balderston, who crystalized the particulars before it was handed off to William Hurlbut and an unaccredited Edmund Pearson for the final polish.
Ill health precluded May Clarke (the original movie’s Elizabeth) from partaking in the sequel. Otherwise, cast and crew were reassembled as before and production began. Over the years, rumors have circulated Bela Lugosi and/or Claude Rains were both considered for the part of Dr. Pretorius. Surviving studio memos actually reveal James Whale was personally committed to the casting of Ernest Thesiger. Whale was also adamant Boris Karloff reprise his role as the monster – Karloff rather reluctant to undergo Jack Pierce’s excruciating makeup applications once again. Pierce’s appliances were marginally streamlined, not from advanced techniques, but because he had already gone down this path once before – stippling Collodion and spirit gum onto Karloff’s angular features while addressing the monster’s near-death experience by ever so slightly singing his flesh and hair. Throughout the shoot, Pierce would continue to tweak the monster’s appearance to reflect the progressive ‘healing’ of its flesh.
In Frankenstein, Karloff had removed his dental plate, affording the monster even harsher sunken cheekbones. For the sequel, Whale had already decided to give the once inarticulate creature basic human speech, necessitating Karloff keep his plate in. Karloff strenuously objected to this, believing that part – if not, in fact, all – of the monster’s appeal was derived from his being lumbering yet child-like. In Shelley’s novel, the monster is quite articulate – debating his creator on the secrets of life and death while pleading with Dr. Frankenstein to craft him a mate. But the original movie – which departs from Shelley’s work in many respects – functioned better with the monster as mute.
Pierce, whose presence on set could be very insular and God-like - especially when creating his makeup applications - took his cues from James Whale in crafting the look for the monster’s bride, basing her Marcel wave-over-wire hairstyle on Egyptian princess, Nefertiti. Whale also had his say in recycled the most memorable sequences from the original for this sequel, including the moment when the bride is given life, using a combination of John P. Fulton’s SFX and Kenneth Strickfaden’s lightning diffusing laboratory equipment. It was an arduous shoot nonetheless, compounded by Colin Clive’s chronic and worsening state of alcoholism and by constant delays to accommodate the complex ‘trick photography’ of the homunculi – a cumbersome matte process that caused the film’s budget to spiral out of control. At Universal’s insistence, Whale reluctantly re-shot his ending. In Whale’s first cut, Dr. Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth die in the collapsing castle. In the reworked ending, they manage a daring escape and survive this deluge.
The Bride of Frankenstein is undeniably, one of the most enduring and prolific sequels in Universal’s canon; a Gothic masterwork intelligently scripted by William Hurlbut and given the studio’s A-list treatment with a virtual reunion of its creative personnel – both in front of and behind the camera. One of the successful attributes of this sequel is that it picks up the narrative bloodline virtually where Frankenstein left off. But first, Universal and Whale give us a fascinating prologue: a brooding castle on a stormy night, as Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) encourage Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) – who is committed to her needlepoint - to go further and elaborate on her original story.
We regress to the penultimate moment from Frankenstein (1931) as villagers set fire to the windmill, overjoyed with their victory over the monster while mourning the apparent death of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive); a respected member of their community. After the town’s folk have disbanded, Hans (Reginald Barlow), the father of Mary, the girl who was inadvertently drowned by the monster in the original movie, demands to see the remains of the creature. He creeps into the sunken bowels of the smoldering ruins, but is strangled by the monster who apparently has survived his grisly fate by lurking inside the well beneath the mill. In short order the monster also murders Hans’ wife (Mary Gordon) before driving off their terrified servant, Minnie (Una O’Connor) into the village.
In the meantime, Henry’s lifeless body is returned to Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson) who quickly discovers her fiancée is not dead, merely wounded and unconscious. Minnie arrives to forewarn everyone the monster is still very much alive. Somewhat chaste from his near-death experience, Henry is still transfixed by the secrets of life and death. He is goaded by the monster and mercilessly ‘encouraged’ to perform another resurrection by a former colleague, Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who has already harnessed the power himself to create homunculi – miniature men and women. Henry at first refuses, but then speculates perhaps a mate would pacify the monster. Meanwhile, the monster saves a shepherdess (Anne Darling) from drowning. But once again his philanthropy is misconstrued by the town’s folk who attack, capture and haul him off to a dungeon where he is probed and tortured.
The monster escapes this prison and finds a friend in a blind old hermit (O.P. Heggie) living at a gypsy camp. The hermit teaches the monster to speak the words ‘friend’ and ‘good’. But once more the monster is discovered and forced to flee. Later, the monster stumbles on Pretorius’ grave robbing. The doctor confides he has been busy making a mate for him. Fascinated, the monster returns with Pretorius to the castle where the doctor has also managed to lure Henry and Elizabeth. When Henry refuses to aid in this new experiment, Pretorius orders the monster to kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage until Henry complies. Reluctantly, Henry goes back to work. But just like its predecessor, the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) fails to obey her master. She defies the monster’s affections and retreats to Henry’s side. Bitterly disappointed, the monster declares “we belong dead”. He orders Henry and Elizabeth from the laboratory before destroying himself and his bride in a fiery explosion.
The Bride of Frankenstein is such an iconic horror movie it seems rather belittling to label it as a sequel; the last time Karloff would appear as the monster. In hindsight, ‘Bride’ also puts a period to one of the studio’s most popular creations. In the decades yet to follow, Universal would increasingly find it difficult to explain away just how the monster survived his fate at the end of this film to go on terrorizing audiences in subsequent installments. Somewhere along the way they just gave up trying. Once again, it’s the performances that really sell The Bride of Frankenstein as high art; beginning with Karloff’s sublime resurrection of the monster – still sympathetic and yowling in dark despair. The inclusion of speech doesn’t seem to have impacted the monster’s appeal, although I must confess I prefer him silent with only the occasional impatient grunt.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is one not witnessed on the screen – the death from tuberculosis of Colin Clive just two years after ‘Bride’s’ premiere. Clive, whose inner demons were arguably far more self-destructive than any endured by his on-screen alter ego, was frequently so hung-over on the set he had to be repeatedly stirred from his stupors between takes and, on occasion, propped up – by crew for over-the-shoulder shots: a very sad waste of an obviously great talent - dead at the age of 37. In some ways, I feel it almost disloyal to suggest Valerie Hobson is a better Elizabeth than May Clarke. In point of fact, both ladies have done the character justice – Clarke’s lithe and terrified ingénue replaced by Hobson’s ever-so-slightly more astute and robust heroine.
The undeniable standout – apart from Boris Karloff – is Elsa Lanchester; whose bird-like mannerisms, cat-like hisses and cold-eyed stares into oblivion genuinely unsettling the nerves, surprising Henry and depressing the monster. Interestingly, the governing board of censorship objected to the empire waist and neckline plunging gown Lanchester wore as Mary Shelley in the movie’s prologue, while completely ignoring Dr. Pretorius’ rather obvious homosexual predilections - a no-no for this period. Universal accommodated the former, but ignored the latter. I suppose the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it’ will suffice.
The Bride of Frankenstein gets reissued as a single disc - again; a stunning ‘ground up’ refurbishment of the visuals and audio and a simply gorgeous 1080p transfer. Prepare to be astonished – as they used to say. Textures in faces, hair and fabric are distinct. DNR has been applied ever so slightly to even out the movie’s more excessive grain. Contrast is perfectly balanced. The gray scale exhibits a pluperfect mid-range of tonality. Even in the darkest scenes minute details are discernible. Wow! The DTS-HD mono is, in a word, superb with crisp, clean dialogue. Just to be clear, you aren’t listening to this 77 year old soundtrack for state-of-the-art effects (at least, I hope you’re not!); but the preservation of this vintage folio yields a very fine listening experience just the same; particularly in Franz Waxman’s score.
Given the previous jam-packed roster of extras afforded Frankenstein, the extras on ‘Bride’ are a letdown. Film historian Scott MacQueen gives us a thoroughly comprehensive and very academic audio commentary that will surely not disappoint. We also get the 40 min. ‘She’s Alive!’ documentary on the making of the movie, hosted by Joe Dante. Universal has also gathered a cornucopia of poster artwork, stills and other marketing junkets into an ‘archive’ and there are trailers for the rest of the movies in the franchise. But that’s about it. Bottom line: this is vintage Universal and vintage Karloff. You’ll get no argument from me. It’s definitely worth the price of admission. My vote, however, is to buy the Classic Monsters box set in its stead.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)