Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 22, 2010: The Bride’s Many Veils: 75 Years of Bride of Frankenstein

When this site was in its infancy, one of my first posts was a list of my 100 favorite horror movies. I’ve since deleted the post because tastes change. But one thing hasn’t: James Whale’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein is still #1 as far as I’m concerned. At the time, a reader took issue with this, writing that while the film has its charms, it does not even try to be frightening, and, therefore, doesn’t qualify as a horror movie. A few months later I attended a showing of Bride of Frankenstein at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. I was on a date with my then girlfriend, now Bride, Elise. She’d taken me to see her favorite movie, West Side Story, at MOMA recently, and though I’m not a fan of musicals, I went along to score new-boyfriend points. To my surprise and delight, West Side Story was a brilliant piece of work: colorful and energetic, but deepened by a strong atmosphere of dread (actually, this shouldn’t have been that surprising since director Robert Wise also made the brilliantly energetic and powerfully dreadful The Haunting). What made the film all the more enjoyable was the responsive audience. The attendees who were moved to sing along were pretty annoying, but the ones who laughed at the odd moments of humor and swooned at the stretches of romance and shimmied in their seats to the music made the film a more engaging experience.

Going tit for tat, I asked Elise to come to that Bride of Frankenstein screening with me, even though she’s pretty indifferent about horror movies, classic or otherwise. Seeing the theater was full of folks who were probably old enough to have seen the movie during its original release, I felt a little twinge of disappointment. I figured this wouldn’t be the invigorating experience that West Side Story showing had been. Well, call me an ageist bastard, because I guess that’s what I was, but I certainly learned my lesson that evening. As soon as the Universal logo flashed on the screen, the crowd sprang to life. But what really took me by surprise was the way they audibly shuddered when Karloff first appeared in his monster make-up.


As much as I loved the movie for its humor and its bizarre imaginativeness and its wonderful characters and its Gothic style, I couldn’t really argue with that commenter who insisted that Bride of Frankenstein wasn’t scary. Yet now I was sitting in a theater full of spectators who would disagree. There truly was a time when Karloff’s square-head haunted dreams, there was a time when the abomination of reviving stitched-up corpses was a concept too ghastly to ponder, and in a way, this screening was like traveling back to 1935 and experiencing that firsthand.

Elsa Lanchester hissing like a goose."

That Bride of Frankenstein could be viewed as a genuinely horrifying horror film, as opposed to a merely ironic one made by master-ironist James Whale, added an extra level to a film that already possessed so many levels that to accept another made it seem almost greedy. Bride already stood as a brilliant comedy, what with Una O’Connor’s snappy housekeeper Minnie providing a bit of slapstick and the diabolic Dr. Pretorius offering wry double-entendres and dry witticisms (“Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.”). As James Whale was one of Hollywood’s earliest luminaries to intrepidly step out of the closet, the film is also often viewed as a milestone of gay cinema, with Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Pretorius (openly gay Ernest Thesiger) serving as a male couple who father the monster together. This theory is particularly emphasized in Bill Condon’s bio-pic Gods and Monsters when Ian McKellan’s Whale tells Matt McKenzie’s Clive that his character is a little in love with Pretorius. Most film historians suggest the gay subtext of Bride is revisionist theorizing and wasn’t Whale’s intention. David Lewis, Whale’s longtime boyfriend, insisted the director never created a film in accordance with any social, sexual, or political agenda. Still, while Whale may not have consciously allowed his homosexuality to influence his work, he may have done so subconsciously, and Bride is difficult to view outside of that context today.

James Whale and Ernest Thesiger on the set of Bride of Frankenstein
Along with being a (definite) comedy and a (possible) pioneering gay text, Bride of Frankenstein is also an affecting melodrama (the Monster’s absurd yet undeniably moving encounter with a blind hermit; his brief and tragic courtship of Elsa Lanchester’s Bride), a trove of indelible cinema iconography (the Monster, the shock-quaffed Bride, Frankenstein’s oft-referenced shriek of “She’s alive…alive!”), a fairy tale (Pretorius’s miniature people; the fantastical forest the Monster wanders), a goofy history (the uproarious prologue in which Lanchester plays author Mary Shelley), a costume spectacle, and a knowing parody of monster-movies. And now, on top of all this, we’re to also accept Bride of Frankenstein as an actual horror movie? Most younger viewers will have a tough time swallowing that, even though the film was deemed “a grotesque, gruesome tale” by the New York Post in 1935 and was heavily edited for its horrific content overseas (particularly in Asia and Sweden). For my six pence, the only horror picture of the ‘30s that still holds up as genuinely scary is Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and perhaps “disturbing” or “upsetting” might be more accurate descriptors than “scary.” As such, Jekyll can’t really be called “fun,” even though Fredric March’s early scenes as Hyde are quite funny. Bride of Frankenstein, however, does not possess a frame that isn’t delirious fun, which is the real reason viewers have been returning to it for precisely 75 years. No other classic Universal monster flick can match it for sheer enjoyment, and few films of any other ilk can, either. I suppose that was the most overwhelming revelation of that MOMA screening: everyone in the joint—whether they were in their ‘20s or their ‘90s—was having one hell of a great time.

Bride of Frankenstein was released 75 years ago today.
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