91301: A Cultural Experience


Dr. Pretorious: “Alone, you have created Man.  Now we will create . . . his mate.”

Dr. Frankenstein: “Do you mean . . . ?”

Dr. Pretorious: “Yes, a woman.  That should be really interesting!”

We live in a world where the word “classic” is tossed around rather casually; so much so it becomes difficult to distinguish what is truly classic simply because it is old instead of being significant, excellent, and exemplary, and all three terms can easily be applied to Universal Studios’ 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein which will receive a special 80th Anniversary screening at the Reyes Adobe House on July 11th.

Universal had initiated the horror film cycle during the silent years with such films as The Hunchback of Norte Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), but the sound era’s first sensational success came in 1931 with Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, followed that same year by director James Whale’s Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff.

Then the horror parade really got going with such notable films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks (1932), The Mummy (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), White Zombie (1932), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).

Whale had not only directed Frankenstein but Invisible Man and Dark House, and all three films distinguished themselves from contemporary efforts with superior production values, over-the-top acting, and a distinctive style laced with morbid humor.

Frankenstein had been such a “monster” hit that Universal was most anxious to create a sequel – Dracula’s Daughter was already in the (bat) wings – but Whale was absolutely opposed to such a concept.  After all, the monster had died a most definite death and the director had other and for him more personally significant projects in mind.

Born in Dudley, England in 1889, Whale longed for the theatrical life despite his blue-collar environment and had been involved in set design and directing, helming the highly-acclaimed 1928 Journey’s End dealing with the horrors of World War I trench warfare.  His skill and success brought him to Hollywood where Universal signed him to a contract in 1931.

Whale had not been the first choice to direct Frankenstein as that responsibility was assigned to Robert Florey with Bela Lugosi cast as the Monster, but the studio was disappointed with the test footage and Florey was removed from the project.  Other directors were offered the unconventional assignment and flatly refused, but Whale courageously accepted the challenge.

Whale’s  companion David Lewis had recently seen a struggling character actor who had made a deep impression on audiences and critics in a local play called The Criminal Code.  The actor playing one of the convicts had striking features: an unforgettable face, an unusual voice, a discomfited posture and an overall sense of supreme menace.  The actor was Boris Karloff.

Whale thought Karloff better suited for the role of the monster than Lugosi and Frankenstein was more progressive in its filmmaking than the stagy and stagnant Dracula and a much-bigger hit, but doing a sequel was the last thing on the director’s mind.

Universal persisted and Whale agreed but only on condition he be given total freedom in constructing the film.  After rejecting several drafts he brought Broadway playwright William Hurlbut onto the project along with several distinguished English character actors, including E.E. Clive to play the pompous Burgomaster, Una O’Connor as a screeching maid, and the eccentric Ernest Thesinger as the wily, witty, diabolic and “queer” Dr. Pretorius.

The rest of cast was as unconventional as the film: Colin Clive would repeat his role of the torn and guilt-ridden Dr. Frankenstein but was already deep in the throes of alcoholism and would die from the disease just two years later.  Mae Clarke played the original love interest but her poor health dictated she be replaced by a 17-year-old Valerie Hobson.  Dwight Frye, who had played the role of the hunchbacked assistant in Frankenstein, returned to play another gauche assistant, and Australian character actor O.P. Heggie would play the crucial role of the violin-playing blind hermit who befriends the monster, while Elsa Lanchester – wife of acclaimed English actor Charles Laughton – would essay the role of the title character, whose idiosyncratic hiss was inspired by angry swans.

The horror film cycle had already produced a marvelous succession of sensationally imaginative films, but Bride of Frankenstein represented the epitome of the genre with supreme masters of their craft.  With atmospheric sets from Charles D. Hall, John Mescall’s artistic photography, Franz Waxman’s  morose musical score, and Jack Pierce’s imaginative makeup, Bride of Frankenstein is today considered as the greatest – and certainly the most stylish – horror film of all time.  Whale would go on to direct a number of fine films but had reached his pinnacle with Bride and would never again repeat its success, and even though Karloff was violently opposed to having his once mute monster now having dialogue (“Speech?  Stupid!”) he nevertheless pulled out all the stops and created what may consider to be his finest film performance.

Whereas modern horror films stress rapid-paced action, horrific suffering and graphic shock effects, despite its antiquity, Bride of Frankenstein is still entreating and as seductive as it is sadistic.  Whale’s tasteful direction of his talented cast results in a marvelously malevolent tableau of memorably-moving performances, creative crudity, pitiless irony and delightful blasphemy.  Existent in those days was the Production Code, an omnipotent administration headed by Joseph Breen who didn’t like horror films.  He was particularly upset with the violence and sardonically religious undertones in the early drafts which Whale seemed to insert if only to keep the devout Roman Catholic bureaucrat on his toes.  In retrospect it’s a wonder the film got made at all, particularly regarding the stringent censorship regulations being imposed upon the film industry at that time.

For modern audiences Bride has much to offer: mainly that of watching a supreme artistic accomplishment with a bravado and bravery sadly lacking in today’s films which prefer to play it safe with established monetary formulas.  Happily, Bride of Frankenstein was a success, and the film demonstrates more than any other what can be achieved with daring, ingenuity, and flair.

A masterpiece of the macabre and a cinematic triumph, Bride of Frankenstein is unforgettably fascinating, and – as they say – a “must see.”

(Peter H. Brothers is an Agoura Hills actor and author.  His most recent book is Atomic Dreams and the Nuclear Nightmare: The Making of Godzilla (1954).