Almost as soon as Frankenstein became an even bigger hit than Dracula, the studio announced its first sequel in their now burgeoning series of monster films. It would take 4 long years before the sequel came along but when it did, audiences were treated to one of the greatest rarities that exist in film: A sequel that surpasses the original.
We can all count the number of superior sequels on one hand. Among them, The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens….and that’s all I’ve got. Mentioning Empire here is appropriate since Frankenstein was pretty much the Star Wars of it’s day and just like that series, it was about to get an even better follow up. But unlike Empire or The Godfather sequel, this one wouldn’t rely on going darker but instead would become an ironic, witty and almost subversive satire of the first film and the reason for that lies in the process of it’s long development. In the end, 6 writers and 2 directors would be let go before it went in front of the cameras but the final result would be the pinnacle of the Universal Monster Movie Series.
As early as 1932, the man who was to originally direct the original, Robert Florey; turned in a story treatment for the sequel called The New Adventures of Frankenstein-The Monster Lives! It was promptly returned to him without comment. In other words, thanks but no thanks. Next up to bat was former newspaper man Tom Reed who combined random parts of Shelly’s novel with an incohesive mess of a story. In this one, the now educated Monster demands a mate and kills Henry’s wife, Elisabeth to supply body parts. The middle of the story suddenly focuses on comedic elements with villagers, a bishop and a gay dance instructor for some reason. Henry ends up stealing the legs of a corpse from an embalming room, chasing down an ambulance from a trainwreck to salvage more female body parts and finally stealing the hydrocephalic (a birth defect which enlarges the skull) head of a “circus gigantis” to complete the bride. Henry finally destroys himself and his creations in the final act. Needless to say, this draft also died a quick death although some elements were salvaged and survived to the final film like the befriending of the blind man and the destruction of the lab.
At this point, director Kurt Newman was assigned to direct but then The Invisible Man was released and became another huge hit. The director of that film was none other than James Whale, the director of the first Frankenstein film. It was clear to Carl Laemmle Jr., who admired Whale greatly; that there was only one man for the directors’ chair on this project but there was only one problem. Whale wanted nothing to do with the sequel felling that he had “squeezed the idea dry”. He was much more passionate about his next project, an adaptation of a novel called One More River and with that, Laemmle Jr. found his bargaining chip. They would let Whale direct his passion project if he agreed to do Bride afterwards. Whale couldn’t say no in what was one of the first examples of “one for yourself and one for the studio”.
Upon taking the assignment, Whale read Reed’s draft which he said “stinks to high heaven” and then hired two mystery writers to simultaneously write two versions. One seemed to be inspired by Todd Browning’s Freaks (which is an awesome film by the way. Got to put that on the watch list). In this one, Henry and Elizabeth have joined a traveling circus as puppeteers who reenact the Frankenstein story with marionettes. The Monster shows up to demand his bride which is created in a carnival wagon and eventually the Monster dies in the jaws of circus lions. Okaaay….
In the other dual script, war is brewing over Europe as the storm of World War 2 begins to gather strength. Henry builds a “Delta Death Ray’ which he wants to sell to the real-life League of Nations (which was basically United Nations: The Prequel at the time) to deter war. A sick Elizabeth is neglected by Henry as he builds his new creation and a night time test of the device accidentally revives the Monster and a second jolt from the ray gives him superhuman strength (I thought he had that anyway?). The Monster plays with the controls like a curious child and inadvertently brings destruction across Europe, destroying whole cities. Realizing the error of his ways, Henry apologizes to the Monster then vaporizes him with the ray before turning it on himself.
Whale rejected both of these scripts and Bride had to wait as he filmed One More River. During this time, he tried to get the producer/screenwriter of One More River to write a draft but Sherrif refused to “spend his summer writing pulp”. Whale next brought in John Balderston who had written the screenplays for Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. His script provided the basic roadmap that would follow but was very workmanlike with no magic to it. Balderston was also a Quaker and very religious. His script ends with a priest convincing the Monster to accept God who then rewards the creatures love by killing him with a bolt of lightning. Hey, thanks a lot invisible man in the sky. This wouldn’t track at all with Whale who wasn’t religious in the slightest and this can be seen in the end film which contains a whole lot of religious imagery but as a source of irony and even in the form of the Monster, a certain mockery of God as that’s how he portrayed the creature who was born of man without the “divine spark”.
After that, WIlliam Hurlbut took a pass at the script. A New York playwright for 30 years, he came to Universal when talkies began. He and Whale had similar backgrounds and got along great. The two retooled the script with fanciful and witty dialogue, giving it a precision of language and the theatricality that was so a part of all of Whale’s works. Whale approached the film thinking that it could not top the original so decided to make it a “hoot”. The idea of a female monster, he found hilarious. Some call it camp but that’s not really accurate. This isn’t the concept of camp I’ve come to associate with the Batman TV show (or even the Scumacher films) or 60’s films about swinging hippies like The Big Cube which I reviewed earlier. This film is too complex and layered for that.
Whale’s unusual approach to the film begins in the first scene where we are introduced to Mary Shelly herself (Elsa Lanchester) who will also be playing the bride later. This purposeful doubling of the cast is the first sign of whimsy and an indication of Whale’s subversive humor. The actress who will play the comedic villager, Minnie in the next scene is briefly seen here too as Shelly’s housemaid, quickly walking some Irish hounds across the frame. This prologue is a recreation of the famous summer vacation that Shelly took with her husband, Percy Shelly and the famous poet Lord Byron where she conceived of the novel. But here, she has already written Frankenstein and this is setting the stage for Shelly to tell her guests and by extension, the audience; the story of the sequel that’s about to unfold. Byron himself comments on how surprised he is that such a tale of horrors could come from such a demur, attractive woman as Mary and with that, we are introduced to one of the main themes of the film and the real reason we’ll see Lanchester return at the end as a monster.According to Whale, one of the goals was “to show that pretty people have very ugly thoughts”. This is the exact opposite of The Monster: Ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside.
The story then immediately picks up where the last film left off as the villagers watch the flames from the mill fire die down. And with that, we are met with the films most outright comedic elements and in the coming sequence, the audience is treated to how deftly this film will blend it’s more serious horror elements with Whale’s sly wit. The Burgomaster (E.E. Clive) tells the crowd in a bored, bureaucratic tone that there’s nothing to see here and to “Go home. Go to bed”, right after the epic events of the previous films climax. For the rest of the film, the only thing this guy will be concerned with is order, no matter how crazy things get. He’s, in the end; a reductionist working for the state who tries to make all of the extraordinary events of the film seem mundane and is hilariously contradicted throughout the story almost immediately upon making such declarations. Later in the film, after capturing the Monster, he declares that there is no monster, just an escaped lunatic and tells the crowd once again to go home, nothing to see here and about a half second later, the Monster crashes through the steel doors behind him, causing the villagers to scatter in terror.
Arguing with the Burgomaster is Minnie (Una O’Connor), the eccentric, old village woman who will constantly speak the concerns of the audience like that annoying guy behind you in the theater who keeps yelling “Don’t go in there, lady! The killers in there!”. Way over the top and overly opinionated, this character is obviously the inspiration for Cloris Leachman’s role in Young Frankenstein. She lets it be known she’s not going anywhere until the fire dies down because she doesn’t want to miss “the best part”. Oh, she won’t.
These two actors are wonderfully funny and hit just the right tone for the story. The roles were written specifically for them after Whale had worked with both of them on The Invisible Man.
Minnie isn’t the only one hanging around though. Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his Wife (Mary Gordon) are the parents of the little girl killed in the previous film and Hans isn’t leaving until he sees the creatures bones. He leans in to get a closer look and falls right into the gaping pit, landing in an underground lake where the remains of the mill’s foundation and The Monster are lurking. The Monster kills him and then is helped out by Hans’ Wife who thinks it’s Hans. After throwing her in after her dead husband, The Monster walks up behind Minnie who slowly turns and runs off screaming to warn the villagers that The Monster survived.
The first look at the Monster is great here. Covered in soot with burn scars on his face and singed hair, he moves out of the cave’s shadows in waist deep water. Jack Pierce does a wonderfully subtle job in one of many visible signs of how well this production has been planned out. Throughout the film, we will see The Monster slowly heal as the make-up undergoes a slow transformation from scene to scene. Karloff doesn’t look quite as cadaverous though, like he did in the first film. No longer being a starving actor, his face is a little fuller and the sunken cheeks are gone due to the fact that, since the Monster speaks in this one, Karloff had to keep his bridge dentures in. The idea of the speaking Monster is something Karloff deeply objected to, thinking it was a stupid idea that would cause the Monster to lose some of his sense of alienation to the other characters. He was perhaps right in a way, since this began the downward spiral of removing the character layers from the Monster which caused Karloff to finally lose interest in playing him past the third film. It still works pretty brilliantly here though and if anything, Karloff’s performance is even more moving this time around.
Frankenstein is taken back home to recover and we are reintroduced to Elizabeth who this time, is played by Valerie Hobson. Although Whale wanted to bring back Mae Clarke in the role as he does Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, Clarke was in ill health and too frail to return to the role. Having said that, 17 year old Hobson does an outstanding job here, especially in her first scene where she’s almost hysterical as she tells Henry of the frightening vision of death she keeps seeing, which foreshadows the appearance of the film’s true villain who will knock on the door immediately following this scene.
Colin Clive is again excellent reprising his iconic role here. The character is explored a little deeper and is given an interesting outlook, thinking that perhaps God chose him to reveal the secret of life to. Instead of being guilt ridden, the trauma of the first film has made him an ego maniac of sorts. Despite this, he will still have to be convinced to carry out a second attempt at creating life. As for Clive, the ravages of alcohol abuse is pretty visible here. The actor looks like he has aged ten years and sadly, he would be dead just two years later. Still, somehow his tortured soul seems to serve the character well and it’s unmistakable that he’s bringing this to the role of the traumatized and conflicted Henry Frankenstein.
A moment after Elizabeth has shared her premonitions with her fiance, there is a knock at the door and we are introduced to the antagonist of the piece, the one and only Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) who was a professor of philosophy before he was fired for his radical ideas on life and death and a former mentor of Frankenstein’s. After demanding to speak to Frankenstein alone, the eccentric scientist tells him that he has also been experimenting with creating life and together, they can succeed with a second attempt.
The character of Pretorius was first offered to Claude Rains by Whale after the actor portrayed the Invisible Man for the director but he turned it down. Whale then turned to an actor he had worked with in The Old Dark House (1932) and Thesiger took the role. This was an actor as eccentric as the role itself. As for the character, it’s entirely a creation of Whale and probably one of the best examples of the director’s sensibilities. Having his roots in the recent film history of the tempting Mephistopheles characters from the Silent Film era such as the famous Faust (1926), this is a magnetic devil full of wit and temptation. He’s fully distrusting of mankind and God. He’s also a raging queen. This is a very early film example of a deliberately homosexual character being purposely written that way by Whale who was homosexual himself. The character even seems like a villainous stand in for Whale in a lot of ways being an elitist-style Englishman who enjoys “playing God” as a director does and has a strong sense of theatricality who also shares Whale’s ironic view of existence and his non-religious views. But this was the code-era of Hollywood were everything had to be passed by the censors so a lot of the character’s sexual orientation had to be communicated through inference. However, there was going to be a novelization written to tie in with the film and in that, there was a line that left no ambiguity about this when Pretorius says to Frankenstein, “Be fruitful and multiply. Let us obey the biblical injunction. You of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid there is no course open to me but the scientific way”. In the film, he is disdainful of women, especially Elizabeth since it is heavily implied he is actually in love with Henry who he actively lures away form his bride to “partner up” on an experiment that shuts her out. This is gay subtext, 1930’s style for sure and adds a fun, interesting layer to this villain. The most blatant example of this flamboyant queen is at the end after the Bride is created and he declares “The Bride of Frankenstein!” and strikes about the gayest pose he possibly can. It’s probably one of the first examples of camp and something that probably still makes John Waters smile. And just like the gay best friend in every modern romantic comedy, this guy gets all the best lines, like when he meets the Monster for the first time and it says “Love dead. Hate living”, to which Pretorius replies calmly “You’re wise in your generation.” Or how, when he offers gin to Frankenstein and later a cigar to the Monster and both times says “It’s my only weakness”. Pretorius revels in his own villainy to such an extent that he becomes the most entertaining character in the whole story. He’s Prometheus whose stolen God’s fire and enjoys every minute of it. Even his name seems to be a play on the Roman Praetor, a magistrate which is fitting for a character who makes his own laws. Watch this guy camp it up here:
Pretorius takes Frankenstein back to his place where he shows him his own experiments in the form of miniature people who he “grew like cultures”. In a series of bell jars, he has a queen, a Henry the eighth -like king, a bishop, a ballerina, a mermaid and a Faust-like magician. It’s a bizarre little sequence that shows the film’s wit in the strongest light. It feels like Whale’s caricature of society itself, all of these personalities trapped in their little worlds all clearly defined and categorized. In this sequence too was one of many elements in the film that would have to be altered due to the disapproval of the censors. Many of these had to do with either religious imagery or violence. Here, it was a line of dialogue where Pretorius refers to the Bible as “fairy stories”. The line had to be changed to “bible stories” but what’s so great about the change is that Thesiger reads the line with such disdain that it’s probably more offensive than the original line. This way of getting around the censors would become a wonderfully subversive element through the whole film.
As the two scientist make their plans, it’s not long before the Monster is captured by the simple minded towns people, being chased through a wonderfully stark forest with no vegetation, just telephone pole tree trunks which is in stark contrast to an earlier scene where the Monster has a brief moment of peace by himself in a forest filled with life. Now, for his capture; Whale’s sense of art direction gives us a dead forest where the creature is tied to one of the trunks and “crucified” like Christ on the cross, another bit of religious imagery where Whale sought to push the audience’s buttons by inverting the crucifixion story. Where Christ was crucified then rose from the dead, the Monster first rises from the dead and is then crucified. The first is the Son of God and the creature, the Son of Man. This is just one example of Whale’s use of religious irony in the film.
The Monster is captured, chained and jailed but almost immediately escapes back into the woods where he comes upon a small cottage and the beginning of one of the best known sequences of the Frankenstein films and movies in general.
Coming across a poor blind man, the Monster is befriended by him and for the first time, is accepted and feels compassion from another person causing tears to role down his face. In a film full of ironic imagery and wry wit, this is a surprisingly sincere sequence that is courageously sentimental without a hint of sarcasm. It almost feels like a scene out of an 80’s Spielberg movie. To have a sequence like this in the middle of a film that is so tonally different everywhere else, it’s a testament to Whale’s nuanced skill with pacing and presentation. In the end, it also ups the ante on the sympathy the audience felt for the Monster in the first film. A lot of this sequence works because of the interplay between Karloff and O.P. Heggie as the hermit. Heggie is able to walk that fine line between melodrama and true emotion. Pushed too far emotionally and this scene would basically be the parody it is in Young Frankenstein. It’s easy to see why Whale held up production for ten days to wait for Heggie’s availability to open up.
The tranquility won’t last for long however, as the religious imagery hints at when the Monster enjoys his “last supper” saying, “Wine, good. Bread good” just as Jesus does in The Bible and just like him, the Romans arrive at the door. In this case they come in the form of John Carradine and friend as two hunters who try to kill the Monster but only succeed in burning down the old man’s house.
From there we go to more religious imagery as the Monster seeks refuge in a graveyard, knocking over a statue of a bishop as if he’s objecting to religion itself, another image that becomes probably more offensive for the time then the original concept which had the Monster approaching the crucified statue of Christ in the background, confusing him for someone being tortured just as he was earlier but the censors wouldn’t have that so instead, he just topples over organized religion itself.
In the catacombs he comes across two grave robbers, one being played by none other than Dwight Frye once again making an appearance in a Frankenstein film. This is actually the second time we see him in the film, the first being in the Monster capture scene where he actually plays a completely different character, a villager who had a much bigger part and his own subplot before it was cut for pacing reasons, leaving only a brief shot in that scene for that character. He was to play a man who murdered his uncle and blamed it on the Monster culminating in a trial scene. What’s left of Frye is this other character who now assists Dr. Pretorius in obtaining the body of a young girl for the big experiment. Karl, as the character is called; would also end up murdering a young girl for the “thousand crowns” promised to him by the doctor when it’s discovered the two scientists need a newer heart for the Bride. He also has one of the best lines here when after becoming entangled in Pretorius’ macabre experiments tells his partner, “This is no life for a murderer”. He will once again be killed by the Monster when Karloff throws him off the roof of the watchtower. Better then being hanged like he was in the original I guess.
After Pretorius befriends the Monster, they both confront Henry Frankenstein, blackmailing him into going through with the experiment with Pretorius using the Monster as muscle to kidnap Elizabeth. But of course, the plan backfires again when the Bride is awakened and rejects the Monster. Seeing he was betrayed by Pretorius who promised him a bride, the Monster hits the self destruct switch at the old watchtower, letting Henry and Elizabeth escape. As the Bride lets out a violent hiss at the Monster, tears role down his face for a second time as he says to Pretorius “We belong dead”, and with that, the watchtower blows up real good. In here, I find the only flaw in the story. It’s made pretty clear that the Monster hates Henry just as much as he did in the first film but yet at the end he tells Henry and Elizabeth “Go. You live.” This is an abrupt change in motivation and probably due to the last minute change of yet again having Henry’s character survive rather then originally dying in the explosion as intended. In fact, in one wide shot as the building starts to come down on everyone, Henry can be spotted even though we just saw him and Elizabeth escape.
Much like Empire Strikes Back, one of the biggest features of this film is the open ending where nothing is really resolved and this was mainly because, at this point, Universal knew there would be more films.
What I really love about this movie as compared to the three previous Universal horror films, is that with this one, you can really feel movies growing up. By that, I mean that you can clearly see film moving out of the Silent Era and fully embracing a now established film language and for the first time, fully embracing the new element of sound. Dialogue is crisp here with film realizing how important this element is now. Sound design through the film is on a level not seen before but the biggest difference here is that, for the first time, a Universal Horror film has a score throughout the entire running time. Franz Waxman makes a memorable score here and creates a template that would be used for decades, all the way up to John Williams with the idea of the Leitmotif and like Williams with Star Wars, all the main characters get their own theme with the monster’s theme itself being based on his growl. All of the themes too are unresolved by order of Whale who asked Waxman to write an unresolved score.
The film process here too seems to have matured. The images seem crisper and more carefully staged with the the idea of “Rembrandt lighting” being utilized in the cinematography. All told, like the other greatest sequels made; this film is a triumph of the technical and artistic and was a huge crowd pleaser, banking an even bigger profit than the original despite being heavily messed with by the censors and outright rejected in a few other countries.
Audiences were thrilled with the new elements as well as the return of the Monster but to Whale, he was always delighted by the subtle satire he was able to sneak into the film to the obliviousness of censors and audiences alike. In fact, at a revival of the film in the 1940’s, Whale took some friends to see it and couldn’t stop snickering at the irony of his own film until the person in front of him turned and said “If you don’t like the picture, you can damn well leave!”
Whale was supposed to move on to Daughter of Dracula next but that script would never make it past the censors, having pushed the bar even further than Bride. This is Whale’s greatest hour as a director and after that, things would change when in only a few short years, the Leammle’s would be removed from their own studio and Whale being one of the first blank check directors underneath them, would no longer have their protection. Being too much of an independent voice, he was unable to work under the more factory-like conditions of other studios like MGM and would retire. He would later commit suicide by drowning himself in his own pool in 1957 despite being financially secure for life. His legacy and the man himself is chronicled in the 1998 film, Gods and Monsters which is a wonderful piece in it’s own right and covers the making of this film and which I highly recommend.
Karloff would only play the creature one more time, feeling the Monster was being stripped of the nuanced layers that he helped foster along with Whale; in each less interesting sequel. Indeed, this film is seen as the high water mark for the Universal Monster films and for good reason. Art and commerce met with a filmmaker’s unique vision to create a timeless classic that’s well worth a viewing. Highly recommended.