After an extended break I am back to my classic film education via Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. Tonight’s entry is The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 film, Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. This is an interesting case, as Ebert has not declared the earlier film “great,” but because I am a responsible writer (and because both are relatively short) I watched both movies for this review.
Whale’s movies differ from Shelley’s original story quite significantly in terms of plot, but they retain the themes concerning the nature of humanity. Frankenstein opens with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), digging up a fresh grave for the raw materials Henry needs to create his creature. Once Fritz unknowingly procures a criminal’s brain, Henry has the last piece he needs. In the presence of his mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), his bride-to-be Elizabeth (Mae Clark), and her friend Victor (John Boles) Henry gives life to The Monster (Boris Karloff). Misunderstandings and mistreatment lead to death and destruction, and ultimately Henry barely survives an encounter with his Monster that seemingly results in the creature’s death.
Frankenstein is rather light, and the changes that it makes are drastic. Spoiler alert for a 196-year-old book, but it ends with Elizabeth dead by The Monster’s hand, and Dr. Frankenstein (here named “Victor”) passing away in the midst of his attempt to track his creation down. The Creature gains sentience and intelligence over the course of Shelley’s book, and this leads to a more well-rounded concept of him as a character. Whale and Karloff do manage to recreate some of this conflict in the 1931 film, particularly in the scenes where The Monster is tormented by Fritz or in the scene between The Monster and Little Maria (Marilyn Harris), a young girl who is just looking for a playmate. But the movie is undercut by its happy ending for Henry and Elizabeth, and seeming punishment for The Monster simply for being alive.
Whale acknowledges this immediately upon the commencement of Bride. The sequel opens with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) telling the rest of her tale to her husband (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). Turns out The Monster did not die in the burning mill at the conclusion of the first film, but instead survived to continue wreaking misguided havoc. Until he encounters a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who teaches The Monster rudimentary English and becomes his friend. Meanwhile, Henry – who at first seems to have to learned his lesson in Frankenstein – is drawn back into amoral scientific pursuits by the truly odd Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). As circumstances bring Henry and his creation back together, the mortal man must battle with building another abomination to function as a companion for his first horror, or lose his wife Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson) forever.
Ebert is definitely correct in identifying The Bride of Frankenstein as the better of the two films. Character motivations are more apparent, and the scenes with the hermit help to make The Monster a more believable character. The movie still has its flaws though – early scenes of comedic relief blunt the tone the film tries to establish, and the addition of language skills for the monster causes Karloff’s performance to lose some of its physical nuance. Regardless, The Bride of Frankenstein is a strong investigation into human nature.
So many characters find themselves at odd with their instincts in Bride, not the least of which is The Monster himself, who is constantly combating the impulses of the evil brain he has been saddled with. And he doesn’t always win, though in the end The Monster proves that you can go against your nature (or your destiny) when the cards are on the table. Henry, on the other hand, can’t quite resist the temptations of his baser nature. When confronted by Pretorius with the opportunity to once again play God, Henry gives in to his abundant curiosity. He tries to change his mind later, but it is too late – plans have already been put in motion. And somehow, Henry always manages to be rewarded for this.
Shelley (as portrayed in Bride) insists that her story is a “moral lesson,” intended to punish a mortal man who oversteps his bounds, but that doesn’t really happen, and that is perhaps the film’s greatest fault. In the novel, Victor loses everything that matters to him, and all he is left with is rage. Henry, however, makes the same mistakes again and again, but always just barely gets away with it. I guess it is up to your interpretation whether Whale is using this fact to make a point. To me it reeks of Hays Code-era Hollywood’s need for happy endings, but then there are The Monster’s final words to his creator in The Bride of Frankenstein. “Go!” he says, “You live. Go!” Then, turning to Dr. Pretorius, “You stay. We belong dead.” It seems The Monster is a better judge of character than anyone else in his reality. Perhaps he is more human, as well.