Hi again. I meant to post this last night, but there were obviously more important things going on. I’m hoping to have a more regular posting schedule in the coming weeks, rather than week long breaks between posts. Stupid school. Anyway, before we begin, look at this picture my friend Naomi made for me!
I love this picture, because it looks like it would be taken in one of those photo booths at the mall. The inspiration for it was my “Frankenfest” a few weeks ago, when I watched 4 films with “Frankenstein” in the title in 24 hours. This marathon also inspired today’s post, about those movies.
Now, countless movies, books, comics, plays, and songs have been based on or inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic tale, but the dominant image of Frankenstein’s Monster will always be Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film.
I have now (proudly?) seen all 6 of the movies Universal Studios made prominently featuring the Monster, and the sequels are hilarious and fun, but today I’ll mainly be looking at Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This post will be taking a different approach than the last, and will be more of a comparison. Many, maybe even most film critics and connoisseurs believe that Bride surpasses its predecessor. Now, I know a little bit about film – I took an “Intro to” course in first year, and I’ve read a bit about the subject, but I don’t pretend to be an expert. Perhaps Bride is the superior film, but I prefer the original, and that’s what I plan to talk about today. Unfortunately, by nature a comparison like this could sound like I have something against the sequel, but let me assure you that I don’t. I could explain why I’ll generally choose pie over cake, but I still love cake. Cake rocks, I just enjoy pie a little more.
|I dressed as the Bride for Halloween because I love her. I think it turned out well.
For those of you who haven’t seen this (and are seriously missing out, my friend), the basics are probably pretty clear: mad scientist makes a man from dead tissue, Monster goes on rampage, villagers give chase with torches and pitchforks, it all ends in the windmill. I’m going to assume that even if you haven’t seen the film, you know enough about the plot that I probably can’t spoil anything, so I’ll proceed with that assumption.
The mood for the whole film is fantastic, and is set right away with the creepy graveyard with the statue of death – into whose face Frankenstein lobs dirt. This is the perfect example of why black and white filming just works better sometimes, especially in horror. Hitchcock chose to make Psycho in B&W because it makes everything seem shadowy, and real shadows seem more tangible. Add to that the graininess you’ll get just from age and the whole world of the film seems to be under some kind of menacing cloud. The lack of score is also effective for mood, I think, although some prefer Bride because it has a score, but I’ll talk more about that later. The famous “It’s alive!” scene is orchestrated only by thunder, and to tremendous effect. The audience’s proper introduction to the Monster is also eerily silent – I can only imagine it with a big, kitschy, ‘30s orchestrated score when he turns around, going DUUH-DUUUUUUHNNNNNN! That would be hilarious. But what we do get is Karloff’s creepy shuffle followed by a great reveal of Jack Pierce’s superb make up. With dull, lifeless eyes, he seems terrifying initially, but the following scene makes it more than clear that he should be pitied rather than feared. The scene where he tries to capture the rays of light is just tragic. He gets scarier once he starts killing people, but they’re all either self defence or accidental. His make-up, sounds, and general physique are frightening, which is why he is such an iconic monster even today, but there’s a reason that his name is frequently associated with the term “misunderstood.”
While Karloff is undoubtedly fantastic, he is not the only one in the movie. Colin Clive, as Frankenstein is most impressive when he is playing crazy. He seems wooden and apprehensive when he is playing the romantic scenes with Elizabeth, but in his earlier scenes, there’s something of a Norman Bates about him. I am quite enthusiastic about his performance in the scene where he finally gives his creature life, as evidenced by several quotes typed out in all caps, the most famous of which is the controversial “By God, now I know what it feels like to God!” In the ‘30s, this line unsurprisingly caused a stir, and Clive delivers it perfectly. His “IT’S ALIVE!” passed into cliché, but seeing it now, it is just as convincing and chilling as it was when it first played. Bride has no moments of crazed intensity, he just mopes and whines a lot, which is far less fun.
As Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz, Dwight Frye puts his famous stage whisper to good use in a small but memorable role. Frye was in a number of other Universal films, including Bride of Frankenstein, but his best role was indisputably that of Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula. He had played the role on Broadway along with Lugosi, and I would argue that his unnerving performance is as large a reason as Lugosi’s for the film’s success. In Frankenstein he plays the hunchback, not called Igor, who provides most of the film’s comic relief. He gets spooked by thunder and classroom skeletons and rambles as much as he speaks. The rest of the comedy in the film comes from Henry’s father, the Baron Frankenstein, played by Frederick Kerr. He’s basically just a stuffy old man, but when isn’t that funny? Edward Van Sloan, as Dr Waldman, essentially reprises his role as Dr Van Helsing, but he does a good job as the “voice of reason” for Frankenstein – until he is killed, of course. Mae Clarke’s Elizabeth is unimpressive by today’s standards, but she is serviceable when compared to Valerie Hobson in the sequel.
One of the more general things I love about this movie is the sense of the characters having off-screen lives. The first time we see Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, she is talking to his best friend, bafflingly named Victor (in the book, Frankenstein’s first name is Victor, his best friend is Henry Clerval, and his family’s servant is called Justine Moritz. In the movie we get Henry Frankenstein and Victor Moritz. I don’t know why). Victor proclaims that he would “go to the end of the Earth” for Elizabeth, when she says “I wish you wouldn’t.” Intimations of a past (or hell, present) affair are further enforced when we see Frankenstein’s reactions to both of them when they go to see him. As he is preparing to do his final experiment, he commands Victor to sit down several times, then gently asks Elizabeth to do the same. Watching it for my 5th or so time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching some kind of dick measuring contest. It seemed to me that Frankenstein is aware that there is something between his friend and his lover and wants to remind Victor that he won’t put up with it. In addition to this slice of life, we get glimpses of the villagers and the servants. There is even a sampling of their class structure, when Baron Frankenstein won’t let his servants drink his nicest wine. All of this combined makes a world which feels much more real and vibrant.
Now, many prefer Bride because it had a bigger budget, more lavish sets, better filmic quality, great special effects, and a score, not to mention Dr Pretorius, Minnie the maid, and the Bride herself. It’s also got more funny scenes and the plot is a little… more than the first. More happens, is what I’m saying. These are all good things, and perhaps it is the better film, but I just enjoy the original more. Let’s start with the positives, shall we? For starters, I just love Dr Pretorius. He is flamboyant and hilarious, and very creepy when he’s lit from below. His gaunt features make him an odd looking guy to begin with, add his pomposity and dandy-esque mannerisms, you get a wonderfully fun villain, a precursor to Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, although even he can’t compete with his tiny creatures. The effects are absolutely phenomenal, and the personalities given to each of the people in the jars make the whole scene just delightful.
On the subject of effects, the “it’s alive” scene in this film is even bigger and louder than the first time around, a tendency with sequels that continues to this day. It looks like they amped up the electrical/sciencey looking machines, and the sound of a beating heart provides the background noise, underneath the machines. However, add to those a love theme score, and you get something rather… inappropriate. Another Monster is about to be created, and the melody that plays in the same one used at the end when Henry and Elizabeth escape. The music for the Bride should be much more ominous, I feel – even if we had seen the Monster waiting expectantly for his mate, the love theme would have made sense, but I found it so distracting. However, the score in other places (particularly when the villagers chase the Monster through the forest, and the use of the “Ave Maria” in the hermit scenes) is very effective. The Monster’s make-up though, while still impressive is less frightening in the sequel. His eyes are more aware, and his cheeks less gaunt. He is still unmistakably the Monster we know and love, but he is not nearly as unnerving.
So hopefully I have made it clear that I do love this film and have huge respect for it – I dressed as the Bride for Halloween, after all – but I do have some issues. One of the biggest is the decision to give the Monster speaking abilities. Obviously, everyone realized that was a problem, since he loses that ability after Bride and never regains it. It does make him seem pathetic and childlike, since he can only speak in simplistic sentences, and I admit that his cries of “Friend?” and “She hate me!” do get sympathetic noises out of me, but I realize how much more I am being manipulated this time around. In the original, it’s up to Karloff to make the Monster sympathetic through gesture and expression, but now he sounds like a five year old, and it’s practically being shoved down our throats that we’re supposed to sympathize with him. I find it harder to sympathize though, since the death toll in this movie is higher and more senseless than in Frankenstein. The Monster kills Fritz and Waldman in self defence, and a little girl by accident, thinking she will float. He scares Elizabeth, but does her no real harm. He starts Bride by killing the dead girl’s parents for no reason, and later throws Karl off the roof. The audience knows that Karl killed someone, but the Monster, presumably doesn’t, and he just chucks him off the roof for – what? Getting in his way? He ends the movie by killing himself, Pretorius (okay, bad guy), the Bride, and presumably the other criminal working for Pretorius who was still on the roof. So why did the Bride need to die? She has been harmless, she got scared and looked to Frankenstein for help, showing no signs of aggression. She has a non-criminal brain, and looks human for the most part – she probably could have gotten away with faking humanity. You could argue that she is an abomination, I guess, but she didn’t really need to die.
Now, I would be remiss not to mention the other Universal sequels at this point. They become increasingly silly and reliant on having the Monster fight one of the other monsters, usually the Wolf Man. They’re ridiculous movies, but fun nonetheless, and prove that making endless sequels for money is no new thing in Hollywood. Henry Frankenstein does not return after Bride and the rest usually involve someone searching for his journal or records, which make me hope that the Monster in the book burned the diary along with himself. One of the highlights of the sequels is the addition of a character called Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but he’s actually not the “Igor” in the public consciousness. Lugosi’s Ygor is a murdering blacksmith who befriends the creature and uses him to get revenge on the men who condemned him to hang. Ygor survived a hanging, so his neck is broken, but he is not a hunchback. His first appearance is in the third film, Son of Frankenstein, and he is the highlight of the film, as he is both menacing and funny, while the Monster (the final time Karloff played the role) is sort of periphery and less threatening.
I’ve actually tried to figure out where the Igor stereotype originated, but the earliest example of a hunchbacked lab assistant by that name that I can find is in Mel Brooks’ brilliant Young Frankenstein. The first hunchback in a lab seems to be a brief glimpse in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Fritz, in the first Frankenstein fits the bill, but the name is wrong. It seems like Young Frankenstein would have been spoofing an existing stereotype though, so who knows where it started. Either way, that film is absolutely brilliant, whether or not you’ve seen the source material. It is obviously funnier when you get the joke, but there is enough absurdist humour to make it funny on its own. If I haven’t convinced you to see the Whale films, check out the parody, it’s just as good.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings about Frankenstein, I bet many of you are surprised that anyone could think about it this much. But I am good at overanalyzing stuff like this. Here’s one more picture of my costume so you can see my hair better (also I just love this picture), this time I am joined by Lieutenant Uhura and Party Cat.