This past May marked the 85th anniversary of one of the greatest films of all time. It broke ground in ways that were hardly noticed at the time but practically shout them from the screen today. Rivers of ink have been spilled exploring the many aspects of this film’s greatness and perhaps there is little I can add to its pioneering place in film history as a horror-comedy, a superbly crafted visual masterpiece, or an exploration of LGBTQ identity. The film, however, continues to reveal new secrets to me in viewing after viewing — and there have been dozens since childhood when this immediately became my favorite Universal Monster movie. So, allow me to get a little more personal with this article and share a few things that I continue to learn on this lifelong journey with Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
I remember very well my first forays into the world of the Universal Monsters. I cannot remember a time when the Karloff version of the Frankenstein monster was not known to me. The image is ubiquitous, seen everywhere from television commercials, to book covers, to cereal boxes. When I was very young, my mom got me an activity book called Famous Monsters Funbook by William R. Johnson that featured several classic monsters with short descriptions of the films they first appeared. I pored over this book and discovered others like it at my local public and school libraries. When we first got a VCR, among the first batch of checkouts from our local library was a surprise for me: the 1931 version of Frankenstein, a film I had been desperate to see. It marked many firsts for me: my first black and white movie, my first movie older than 1977 (Star Wars, of course), my first real horror movie, and my first Universal Monster movie. I was enthralled immediately for countless reasons, chief among them Boris Karloff’s performance as the monster.
In Bride, Karloff builds upon his performance in the original, adding new layers of depth and pathos to the rejected outsider who simply wants to be treated like the human being he once was and not the monster he is seen as now. He sheds tears, he harbors hate, he seeks friendship and love, and he speaks — something Karloff thought was a terrible idea. But even with these expansions to the character, Karloff still brings all the subtlety he imbued the creature’s “childhood” with to his “teenage” years. And that is essentially what is happening here: a movement from innocence and dependence upon the “father” (or “god” if you will) who rejected him in the original, to realizing his independence and seeking companionship and romantic love, only to be rejected again in the sequel. This brings up one of the key themes of the movie — the responsibility of the creator toward their creation.
A popular interpretation, and in my opinion misinterpretation, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the one uttered by the character of Mary (played by Elsa Lanchester) at the beginning of the film. “…my purpose was to write a moral lesson; the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” This does not seem to be atheist Mary Shelley’s purpose at all, nor does it seem to be the purpose of Bride of Frankenstein. Though both novel and film declare the act of creating to be god-like, neither condemns the act itself. Both, however, condemn shirking responsibility for what is created.
There are several creators in the film who achieve their goals in multiple ways. Frankenstein created his man from dead bodies out of rifled graves and those hanging from the gallows, stitching them together into a new creature. Doctor Pretorius (in a delightfully over-the-top performance from Ernest Thesiger) grew his creations — tiny people in jars — from seeds. The Hermit (O.P. Heggie) in the woods is a musician improvising upon his fiddle. In the prologue, we meet versions of the true-life writers Mary Shelley, her husband (though in real life they were not yet married) Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon Lord Byron, “England’s greatest sinner” as he calls himself, who spin tales and poetry with god-like acumen. In fact, all of these characters (with the exception of the hermit) see themselves as gods — particularly Frankenstein, Lord Byron, and especially Pretorius.
Henry Frankenstein’s conversation with Elizabeth early in the film reveals his struggle between the drug-like high of creating and the deep low of having lost control of his creation. He excitedly declares, “I created a man. I could have bred a race. In time I could have even found the secret of eternal life.” God-like words indeed but balanced with his realization that, “I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life — perhaps death is sacred and I’ve profaned it.” But still, he bargains, claiming his own partnership with the divine, “maybe I’m intended to know them, it may be part of the Divine plan.” Elizabeth attempts to draw him back to her, but, like an addict, Henry is lured back to his old ways by Dr. Pretorius, perhaps the most interesting character in the film.
There is no internal struggle with Pretorius; he revels in his self-perceived divinity. His famous toast, “to a new world of gods and monsters,” the “gods” no doubt being himself and Frankenstein, is followed by this observation: “the creation of life is enthralling! Distinctly enthralling, is it not?” And of course, there is nothing wrong with creating, but the film’s commentary is on creation without responsibility. Frankenstein’s redemption of this sin occurs in the first film when he ultimately does take responsibility for his deeds and seeks the monster out. At this point in Bride, he assumes that the monster is dead and his debt to those harmed was paid through his own suffering. But here, Pretorius is Mephistopheles calling Faust back to his dark arts. “Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature, or of God if you like your Bible stories. Male and female created He them. Be fruitful and multiply. Create a race, a man-made race upon the face of the earth. Why not?” What I find most interesting about this moment is Pretorius’s use of biblical phrases, in this case, the words of God himself, mixed with his own ideas to draw Frankenstein into partnership. This is not unlike the biblical story of the devil tempting Jesus in the desert, all the while quoting scripture.
And this is appropriate for the character of Pretorius. He is a user of everyone he encounters. He does nothing except for his own advantage and so conceals and twists the truth to get his way. He feigns sympathy for the creature even though he is merely using him to get to Frankenstein and as a means to his own ends. He feels no responsibility toward his creations, using them as stepping-stones to his own greater glory caring nothing of whom he harms in the process. He is the Machiavellian prince of the film and its true villain.
The Monster is cast in the villain’s role in the first film but never really fits the bill. He is, and always was, only guilty of being a misunderstood outsider. It is interesting to note that the hackneyed conceit of the monster having a criminal’s brain in the first film is completely expunged from the sequel, making the Monster a creature of choice whose actions come of his own volition rather than an accident of his nature. A wise move on the part of director James Whale and writer William Hurlbut in developing the script.
As I have returned to the film at various moments of life, I find that it speaks to me in different ways as great art always does. It holds “the mirror up to nature” as Hamlet observed and reflects the psyche of the viewer — and it is a reflection that is ever-changing. Now, on the film’s 85th year and my 42nd, I am in a time of creativity; I see the film commenting on this process in ways I never have before. Who knows what I will see in the film upon its 100th or 125th anniversaries? Who knows what the world will see between now and then? And of course, what will I experience between now and then?
Ultimately, movies speak to each of us in their own unique ways. No two of us see exactly the same film because no two of us have exactly the same perception of anything. And so, though the actors, the editing, the dialogue, and all the other elements remain forever frozen in time, because we grow and change, the movies will always continue to speak in new ways. May the great ones, like Bride of Frankenstein, never cease to reveal new secrets, raise more questions, and help us discover more about ourselves. Movies are magic and may they forever continue to cast their spell.
(Note: Posters and other marketing materials usually title the film, The Bride of Frankenstein. In this article I have chosen to refer to the film as Bride of Frankenstein as appears on the film’s title card.)
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