Bride of Frankenstein – USA, 1935 – reviews

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‘The monster demands a mate!’

Bride of Frankenstein is a 1935 American horror film, and the first sequel to Frankenstein (1931). It was directed by James Whale and stars Boris Karloff as The Monster, Elsa Lanchester in the dual role of his mate and Mary Shelley, Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, and Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Septimus Pretorius. It was filmed as The Return of Frankenstein and advertised as The Bride of Frankenstein.

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The film follows on immediately from the events of the earlier film, and is rooted in a sub-plot of the original Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein (1818). In the film, a chastened Henry Frankenstein abandons his plans to create life, only to be tempted and finally coerced by the Monster, encouraged by Henry’s old mentor Dr. Pretorius, into constructing a mate for him.

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Universal took a surprisingly long time to bring Frankenstein and his creation back to the big screen, especially considering their reputation for quickly cottoning on to a good thing and releasing as many sequels as the audience could stomach. This was largely due to a reticent James Whale who rather felt he had wrapped up the story nicely with both the Monster and the Baron being killed at the conclusion of the first film.

Holding the studio to ransom to ensure other film ideas were green-lit, Whale eventually agreed, with the intention of pulling out all the stops and delivering a relentless assault on the senses. The next stumbling block was the script which went through many writers and re-writes, abandoning titles such as ‘The Monsters Lives!’ and plot changes such scrapping the death of the Baron’s beloved Elizabeth, the Bride herself and the town Burgomaster.

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Should a film of Frankenstein’s success be released today, there is perhaps no way a sequel of the likes Whale made would ever survive the savaging the critics would give it. The fact the Monster and Frankenstein survive the burning windmill of the first film is already enough to raise eyebrows – the Monster’s ability to speak, smoke and enjoy booze, quite another. Not only this but it would be impossible to describe the film as anything but camp; the plot is enough but the performances by Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor and Dwight Frye are some of the most head-spinning of the black and white era.

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Accepting, as we must, that the Baron and his creation survived the fire by falling into a well beneath the destroyed windmill, consistency is at least achieved by makeup artist, Jack P. Pierce, who adapts the appearance of Karloff (the film bills him using just his surname, so bright shone his star) by adding burns and scarring, as well as a rather more bedraggled hair-do. Another noticeable difference are the less-sunken cheekbones, a necessary adjustment to allow him to speak without the obstruction of a dental bridge.

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Although he is forever out-shadowed by his co-stars, it’s worth considering Colin Clive, reprising his role as the Baron. A terribly tragic life, ending only two years after the film’s release, a combination of chronic alcoholism and tuberculosis, Clive was known to struggle onset on occasion, and had to be aided by his fellow actors. A horse riding accident just before filming meant that many of Clive’s scenes show him seated.

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Regardless, he picks up the baton where he left off in the first film and delivers a haunted, perfectly judged performance, and clearly relishes the opportunity to holler “Alive!” when the Bride is unveiled.

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Karloff also had his tribulations – whilst filming his escape from the windmill, he slipped, dislocating his hip. Whilst obviously unfortunate incident for the actor, it at least aided the stumbling gait of the Monster. Karloff strongly opposed the Monster being able to speak but was ultimately overruled. Had the film not been so deliriously over the top, it is likely this would indeed have caused the film to suffer.

As it is, by the time he is taught the small pleasures of life by the kindly hermit, the audience is ready to accept anything. It was decided the Monster should only learn forty-four words, enough to convey only the very basic understandings of what was happening around him but enough to convey his inner torment. His performance is again, the standard by which all movie monsters are judged – tragic, yet a constantly terrifying presence, the familiarity yet unpredictability a basic human fear.

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The role of Dr. Septimus Pretorius was originally offered to Claude Rains, who, it transpired was unavailable. Bela Lugosi was also apparently considered but it was Ernest Thesiger, the flamboyant, well-connected English actor who eventually made the roe his own. Although having made his name on the stage, Thesiger was already a favourite of Whale, having played the equally gin-loving Femme in The Old Dark House and separately with Karloff as a larger than life Scottish butler in The Ghoul (1933).

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Much is made of a supposed homosexual subtext to the film. This is due in part to Whale’s own sexuality as well as the campy nature of the film, not least due in part to Thesiger’s performance. Whilst interesting, it is somewhat unhelpful to explore this avenue of enquiry, the film should be judged as sheer entertainment; if there is a barely hidden message then it is surely the dismissal of religion.

When the Monster is captured in the woods, he is bound to a cross in what can only be described as a Christ pose, misunderstood and a victim of other’s actions. Pretorius speaks his attempts “lacking the divine spark” and raises a famous toast “Of Gods and Monsters”, troubling censors for many years.

Much overlooked are Pretorius’s own experiments, miniature living beings dressed as a king, a queen, a bishop, the devil and a mermaid, all housed in their own suitably decorated glass vessels. The special effects used to show both Pretorius and these characters interacting are amongst the best of the era, certainly equalling the other stand-out effects used in Whale’s The Invisible Man.

Between them, Clive and Thesiger define what the film world determine the expectation of a mad scientist to be – self-centred, outcast, Godless and eccentric, both performances are some of the best ever committed to celluloid.

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Elsa Lanchester had struggled since she had arrived in Hollywood on the arm of Charles Laughton but won not only the role of the Monster’s mate but also Mary Shelley, whose story being read to Lord Byron and Shelley introduces the film (incidentally, two brief performances who make Thesiger’s look positively Stallone-like).

Lanchester, in typical Universal/Whale whimsy, appears as only a question mark in both the start and end credits, the latter being rather odd as she’s instantly recognisable. She, like Karloff, suffered for her art at the hands of Pierce, wheeled around the set only to drink through a straw.

Her iconic hair was based on that of Queen Nefertiti and was built over a horsehair and wire cage to support it, the white streak representing the electrical volt which brings her back to life. For all this, The Bride (unnamed) appears on-screen for less than five minutes and is the only Universal Monster of the big hitters not to kill anyone, though her twitching movements and hissing (based on that of a swan) are very effective.

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Though packed with character actors operating at the very height of their game, both E.E. Clive as the dismissive Burgomaster and O.P. Heggie as the blind hermit, two in particular of worthy of extra attention. Una O’Connor’s barely believable turn as the housekeeper, Minnie, with who-knows-what atop her head, is an excuse for Whale to really let rip, her screeching and facial contortions a tour de force of hysteria.

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Graverobber Dwight Frye about to kill his uncle in a scene deleted from the final version

Only slightly more subdued is Dwight Frye‘s Karl, Pretorius’s procurer of body parts. Regrettably, never a lead star, he had already appeared in Browning’s Dracula as Renfield and in Frankenstein as the Baron’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (he was never an Igor, despite the commonly-made mistake). His wide-eyed wonder is an absolute joy and is a real highlight of a film packed with ‘moments’.

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Made for a little under $400,000, the film was a critical and box office success, taking around $2,000,000. The film has been added to the National Film Registry and is regularly studied by students for its use of German Expressionism in regards to it shadowy sets and  framing.

The soundtrack score was written by Franz Waxman but he was to be doubly disappointed – his carefully considered ‘Creation’ suite buried under thunder cracks and Colin Clive wailing, his Oscar nomination missing in the post and instead going to the sound department.

Bride is one of horror’s towering achievements and is one of film’s most brilliantly realised sequels, the influence seen in both fashion, art, popular culture and music, right up to the present day.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA

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Cast and characters:

  • Boris Karloff as The Monster
  • Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
  • Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth Frankenstein
  • Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius
  • Elsa Lanchester as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and The Monster’s Bride
  • Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron
  • Douglas Walton as Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Una O’Connor as Minnie
  • E. E. Clive as the Burgomaster
  • Lucien Prival as the butler
  • O.P. Heggie as Hermit
  • Dwight Frye as Karl
  • Reginald Barlow as Hans
  • Mary Gordon as Hans’ wife
  • Anne Darling as the shepherdess
  • Walter Brennan as a peasant [uncredited]
  • John Carradine as a hunter [uncredited]

Other reviews:

“Strong on atmosphere, Gothic sets and expressionist camerawork, it is – along with The Old Dark House – Whale’s most perfectly realised movie, a delight from start to finish.” Geoff Andrew, Time Out (London)

Buy Monster Mash t-shirt: Amazon.co.uk

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Buy Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

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Bride of Frankenstein 1935 trade ad
1935 trade ad

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Buy Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection from Amazon.com

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‘X’ certificate quad poster for a 1950s Universal-International reissue in the UK

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Wikipedia | IMDb | AFI

Thanks to Slobber Drool Drip Has Returned from the Grave for image of deleted scene

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