31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 8 – TCM’s Frankenstein Double Feature
21. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
22. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
If there’s anything I like better than old movies, it’s seeing old movies on a big screen. So of course I had to make it out to TCM and Fathom Event’s double feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It a pretty great screening, although I would have preferred to see some nice 35mm prints. But that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, so I’m glad for the cleaned-up digital restorations.
I’ll also throw it out there that I will be eternally annoyed at chumps whose only exposure to the Universal Frankenstein films is through Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein and thus can’t help themselves but laugh-at-the-thought-of/quote-loudly-from that movie any time a scene should however vaguely remind them of it. Especially since the James Whale movies are funny enough on their own! But anyway…
Frankenstein is a little problematic for me. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are all a lot more used to working on silent films and aren’t quite accustomed to the increased expectation for strict continuity that sound brings. This means that the actors have a tendency to jerk around in different positions during the frequent accidental jump-cuts, and their performances might vary willy from shot to shot.
I’m also not sold on the film’s positioning of Dr. Frankenstein as a sympathetic hero in the last act. Colin Clive is just so effective at being CRAZY in the first half of the movie that we never quite buy into his heroic actions afterward. Had he been killed by the monster, as in the original ending, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Plus, it makes John Boles, who is set up from the beginning as the romantic rival for Mrs. Frankenstein’s affections, a pointless character; he does nothing to advance the plot and doesn’t even get the girl in the end (plus his performance is terrible). I’ll lay the blame for most of this on the producers, who wanted a more conventional happy conclusion.
That said, Frankenstein is a fantastic movie. Boris Karloff is (duh) excellent in his moving portrayal of the monster, and he’s helped every step of the way by Whale’s sympathetic direction. The scene of the monster’s first appearance, as he looks up at the sun for the first time and reaches up to touch it, is a masterpiece in and of itself. The closing windmill sequence is also fantastically shot; the moment where the man and monster look into one another’s eyes and, through the turning of a grinding wheel that suggests the passing of frames of film, briefly become one another… It’s great, enough to bring you to tears.
It would be hard to beat Frankenstein at it’s own game, so for the sequel Whale camped it up big time and created one of film’s first masterpieces of Queer Cinema. There’s touches of gay subtext in the first film, but Bride of Frankenstein is filled with double entendres, not-so-subtly coded characters, and male-male relationships. And while Frankenstein had some comic relief from the Baron, his performance seemed out of whack with the film’s serious tone; in contrast, Bride is practically a comedy.
The new tone is set up immediately with a prologue depicting Mary Shelly telling the tale to her husband and a scene-stealing Lord Byron. The scene serves multiple purposes: first, it distances us from the Frankenstein sections of the film, since we are made explicitly aware that we are being told a fictional story. This emotional distance encourages us to view the proceedings ironically; we are encouraged further by the tongue-in-cheek tone of Byron’s retelling of the first film’s plot. Both Byron and Percy Shelly, the characters hearing the new story, are depicted as sexually ambiguous, cluing us in that we will be experiencing the embedded narrative through their campy sensibility. And finally, as Mary Shelly prepares to tell the story to the two men, each takes one of her hands and lovingly dotes upon it as they sit down on either side of her. If you’re not picking up on the non-heteronormality by this point, you’re watching the wrong movie.
The sympathy evoked by Karloff’s monster in the first film always surprises people; here, it’s taken as a given that we’re on his side, and he’s practically the hero (albeit a tragic one). Karloff’s performance is maybe even better in Bride, and he’s allowed to develop a little more character as the monster learns to speak (although we already know all we need to know from his body language).
Almost as major a presence in the film is Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius. He’s the villain, black-mailing Frankenstein into creating a mate for the monster as part of his fascistic plot to create a race of undead supermen. But he also acts as a disrupting agent for the diegesis of the film itself, constantly mocking the plot, the characters, and the illusion of reality necessary for a fictional film.
There’s a great moment when Frankenstein orders his maid to not let Pretorius into the house. The maid leaves, shutting the door behind her… and Pretorius walks through an open archway right next to it. It works on a horror movie level (“The killer is already in the house!” etc), but it also hilariously deconstructs the film’s “reality.” Of course the closed door can’t keep Pretorius away; he can just walk around to the other side of the set!
Pretorius, depicted as much as a magician as a scientist, has created tiny people that he keeps in jars. The scene in which he displays his creations to Frankenstein is a great comic set-piece. And best of all, it has gloriously little to do with the plot.
Listen: this is a movie where Frankenstein’s monster is literally crucified. This movie is awesome.
SCORE: 9 flower boats out of 10
Bride of Frankenstein
SCORE: 10 people addicted to smoking because the monster says it’s “GOOD!” out of 10