Thursday, October 29, 2015

Bride of Frankenstein: A Perfect Night for Mystery and Horror

(This post is part of the The Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes)

It is a very rare thing for a sequel to be considered better than the original movie. King Kong (1933) is counted among the greatest films of all time. Son of Kong (1933) is not counted among the greatest films of all time. Jaws (1975) is now considered a classic. Jaws 2 (1978) is not. The exceptions to the rule that sequels are inferior to original films are few and far between. Among these exceptions can be counted Bride of Frankenstein (1935). More often than not Bride of Frankenstein  is counted as a better film than Frankenstein (1931). In Time magazine's 2005 list of the "All-Time 100 Movies", Time critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel commented of Bride of Frankenstein, "This is one of those rare sequels that is infinitely superior to its source (for those who are wondering, Frankenstein didn't make the list)." Roger Ebert, in his January 3 1999 review of Bride of Frankenstein, called it "the best of the Frankenstein movies." Comcast's Xfnity website included it in their list of "Movie Sequels Better Than the Original".

Of course, Frankenstein itself is considered a classic and often counted among the greatest horror movies of all time. It was also a box office smash at the time of its release, truly the Jaws or Star Wars of its day. Throughout the country people stood in long lines to see the film. It broke box office records up to that time at several cinemas in the United States. Ultimately Frankenstein was the highest grossing film of 1931. Today such success would guarantee that a studio would set about making a sequel immediately.

Not surprisingly, Universal considered a sequel to Frankenstein while the movie was still doing phenomenal business at theatres in 1931. Robert Florey, who would go on to direct Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), wrote an 8 page treatment for a sequel entitled The New Adventures of Frankenstein: The Monster Lives, dated December 20 1931. It was rejected in early 1932.  Universal started to move forward with plans for a sequel in 1933, but had one major hurdle to overcome in its production. Quite simply, director James Whale had little interest in making the film. Universal then assigned the task of directing the sequel to Frankenstein, at that point titled The Return of Frankenstein, to Kurt Neumann, who would go on to direct the movies Rocketship X-M (1950) and The Fly (1958).

The Return of Frankenstein would go through several different writers before it finally became Bride of Frankenstein. Tom Reed, who had earlier worked on the titles for Universal's 1925 classic Phantom of the Opera, wrote the first script. Detective story writer Lawrence Blochman wrote a treatment dated December 1933. Lawrence Blochman would be followed by another detective writer, Philip MacDonald, who would go on to write the screenplays for The Last Outpost (1935) and Rebecca (1940).

Throughout all of this James Whale had been busy with other projects. He directed two films, the largely forgotten comedy By Candlelight (1933) and the classic horror movie The Invisible Man (1933). James Whale intended his next project to be a science fiction movie, A Trip to Mars. A Trip to Mars already had a script, written by R. C. Sheriff (who had also written the screenplay for The Invisible Man) and was even slated to go into production in March 1934. Unfortunately Carl Laemmle, Sr., the founder and head of Universal Pictures, did not like A Trip to Mars and effectively killed the project. James Whale then agreed to direct The Return of Frankenstein, but on two conditions. First, he wanted to adapt John Galsworthy's novel One More River as a film. Second, he wanted complete creative control.  Given the success of The Invisible Man and the fact that production on The Return of Frankenstein had been stalled for time, Universal met James Whale's demands and assigned him to direct the film.

James Whale was unhappy with all of the scripts for The Return of Frankenstein. Prior to going to work on the sequel to Frankenstein, Mr. Whale remarked to his friend R. C. Sheriff, "They've had a script made for a sequel and it stinks to heaven." James Whale asked Mr. Sheriff to write the film's screenplay, but he declined. Mr. Whale then turned to playwright and screenwriter John L. Balderston. Mr. Barlderston had been responsible for revising Hamilton Deane's stage adaptation of Dracula for American audiences--it would be his work that would form the basis for the screenplay of Universal's Dracula (1931). He would go on to write the screenplays for Mad Love (1935), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and Gaslight (1944).  It was John L. Balderston who seized upon an incident in the original novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in which the Creature demands Frankenstein build a mate for him, only to have Frankenstein destroy the female creature before she is even given life.

James Whale was not entirely happy with John L. Balderston's script, so in November 1934 he brought William Hurlbut on to the project to rework the screenplay. Mr. Hurlbut had written the early Universal horror movie The Cat Creeps (1930). James Whale and William Hurlbut reshaped the screenplay, retaining the idea of Frankenstein creating a mate for the Creature, but adding Dr. Pretorius, as well as the characters of Minnie (ultimately played by Una O'Connor) and the Burgomaster. They also gave the screenplay much more of a sense of humour and a bit of whimsy than the original film had.

James Whale and William Hurlbut pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for films in late 1934. As might be expected, then, they ran into trouble with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPDAA) Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen. Mr. Breen objected to any and all references in the script that compared Henry Frankenstein to God. He also objected to a scene in which the Creature rushes across a graveyard to try to  "rescue" a figure of Jesus crucified on a cross. Joseph Breen objected to a scene in which the Creature eavesdrops on a couple exchanging vows of love as well, worried it could be misconstrued by audiences as the Creature watching two people engaged in physical lovemaking. Mr. Breen also found the use of the word "mate" with regard to the Bride offensive, and he objected to the sheer number of murders in the script.

Ultimately James Whales complied with nearly every one of Joseph Breen's requests, although there was enough "questionable" material remaining that there were those who found parts of Bride of Frankenstein (as The Return of Frankenstein was retitled) offensive. The film ran afoul of the Ohio censorship board, who demanded a number of cuts to the film. Universal asked Joseph Been to have Will H. Hays, head of the MPDAA, to intervene. Mr. Hays was eventually able to get the Ohio censorship board to agree to cutting only one scene in the film. Bride of Frankenstein was rejected outright by the countries of Hungary, Palestine, and Trinidad. Sweden demanded so many cuts that Universal withdrew the film from that country.

Bride of Frankenstein received a good reception upon its initial release in 1935. The film was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. The New York Times praised the cast, James Whale, the film's settings, the film's photography, and makeup artist Jack Pierce. In its review of Bride of Frakenstein, Variety echoed The New York Times' sentiments, saying one could not review or talk about it "...without mentioning the cameraman, art director, and score composer in the same breath as the actors and director." The Oakland Tribune called the film, "...a fantasy produced on a rather magnificent scale, with excellent stagecraft and fine photographic effects." Bride of Frankenstein proved popular with audiences as well. While it did not break box office records as Frankenstein did, it did do remarkably well.

Seen today Bride of Frankenstein seems more modern in its execution and its attitudes than many other films released while the Production Code was in force. Strangely enough, it seems much more like a Pre-Code film than many of the films Universal released before the Code was more strictly enforced in 1934. James Whale was able to get a remarkable amount of material past the censors. While Joseph Breen got all comparisons of Henry Frankenstein to God cut from the film, an amazing amount of religious symbolism remained. At one point angry villagers captured the Creature and tied him to a pole in a cruciform pose. The figure of a crucified Jesus in the graveyard remained, even though the Creature did not try to "rescue" him as in the original script. In the hut of a hermit there is a crucifix on the wall. James Whale's motivation for incorporating so much cruciform imagery in Bride of Frankenstein is difficult to say, although one has to suspect he did so as he suspected any and all comparisons between Henry Frankenstein and God would probably be cut.

Beyond the amount of religious imagery in the film, there is also the matter of Dr. Pretorius, who has been interpreted by many as a coded homosexual. Ernest Thesiger's performance as Pretorius is flamboyant, if not outright camp. In the book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, David J. Skal describes Pretorius as "...a gay  Mephistopheles." Even if Dr. Pretorius is not interpreted as a homosexual, there were plenty of other things that James Whale also got past the censors. Particularly when compared to other horror movies released immediately after stricter enforcement of the Production Code, Bride of Frankenstein was in some ways a very violent movie. Throughout the film 10 different people are killed. Bride of Frankenstein also skirted the Production Code in allowing Henry Frankenstein to survive. Quite simply, the Production Code required characters in films to pay for their crimes.

Particularly for a Universal horror film made after the Production Code was being more strenuously enforced. Bride of Frankenstein was in many respects a very subversive film. Indeed, the film is very well known for its humour. Much of this humour comes through the insidious Dr. Pretorius, whose wit is razor sharp, although it is also seen in Minnie and the Burgomaster, who both serve as comedy relief. Prior to Bride of Frankenstein many, although hardly all, horror films tended to be grim affairs with little in the way of humour. With Bride of Frankenstein James Whale was able to incorporate humour, sometimes very dark humour, into the proceedings without it overpowering the movie. While Bride of Frankenstein is very funny at times, it still remains a very serious horror movie.

Indeed, at its core Bride of Frankenstein is still a frightening movie, particularly as James Whale succeeds in making viewers care very much about the characters. All of them are well developed in the film, especially the Creature as played by Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff gave a bravura performance as the Creature in Frankenstein and makes him even more human and sympathetic in Bride of Frankenstein. Since the audience actually cares about the characters, then James Whale was able to exploit the audience's fear of something happening to them, and he does so most effectively.

Today Bride of Frankenstein remains one of the best loved horror movies of all time. It is counted by many not only among the greatest horror movies of all time, but among the greatest films of any genre. As mentioned above, Time included it in its list of "All-Time 100 Movies." Empire magazine included in its list of the "500 Greatest Films of All Time." In 2008 The Boston Herald counted it as the second greatest horror film of all time, second only to Nosferatu. Bride of Frankenstein is widely considered James Whale's masterpiece. It is a sterling example of what a brilliant filmmaker can do if he is given near total creative control.


Dan Day, Jr. said...

This is one of my ten favorite movies of all time. Your point about how the movie is very pre-code is quite astute--but in many ways "Bride" is also a very religious film.

Caftan Woman said...

Like all true classics, "Bride" never wears out its welcome with the viewer. I love your description of the film as "subversive". Excellent.