The Bride of Frankenstein
based on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
1935 • 75 minutes • Universal Pictures
In recent months, Captain Cinema and I had a week long Robert Downey, Jr film festival. It was a career view, by and large, starting with Less Than Zero and ending with The Soloist. (I mean, the good Captain did trot off to go see The Judge, a film I only ever refer to on the subway as “So which one of them has cancer?”, but that wasn’t part of the festival.) We were tracking several elements of Downey’s career, but we were looking for the moment, if it even existed, when Robert Downey, Jr’s current star image was codified into being. (It’s between Gothika and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You’re welcome.) Everything is weird until it isn’t, as we say at the Church of Bowie, and that turn is both a fascinating and powerful force in our culture.
The Bride of Frankenstein is such a turn. While the original novel still exerts a powerful pull all its own, it’s this film—in concert with its predecessor, Frankenstein—that codifies so much of what we think of Frankenstein in pop culture. Even the title may have contributed to the much-despaired over nominal confusion between Frankenstein the doctor and Frankenstein’s Monster by teenage intellectuals. (The much more interesting and engaging answer, of course, is that we, as a culture, prefer our monsters easily identifiable and are timid of rebuking authority.) Here is a film so utterly recognizable as part of the Frankenstein ouevre that it supersedes the original. It teems with vaguely Eastern European mobs, torches, and mad scientists. It gives the monster his voice. And, most importantly, it gives us the Bride.
Given her legacy in pop culture, I had no idea that the Bride only appeared on screen for five minutes. (She also holds the virtuous honor of being the only classic Universal Horror Monster that has never killed.) But what five minutes they are. Finally unwrapped and unveiled, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius adjust the surgical gown that enrobes her towering figure like a priestess’ robes. (That regality is reflected in her iconic hairstyle, apparently based on a headdress of Nefertiti’s.) She’s beautiful, yes, with only a small network of scars along her jawline and full, crimson lips, but she’s not of the world of the living. Her head jerks back and forth like a preying mantis. She thrusts her arms out entirely rigid, as if still in the grips of rigor mortis. And she can only scream and hiss. The rest of the film fades away in the face of that scene and that performance. What Elsa Lanchester does in those five minutes is what actors wish they could do with a whole film.
Lanchester is only credited as Mary Shelley in the credits; like Karloff in Frankenstein, the Monster’s Mate is credited only as “?”. Shelley is seen only in a prologue that allows the film to retell the story of the first film, and both the film and Lanchester try to frame her as a prim little thing whose tale of blood-chilling horror was just a morality play. In doublecasting Lanchester as both Shelley and the Bride, however, director James Whale wanted to hint at a darker side to Shelley. I’m not sure if it comes through. (What does come through is Shelley’s gorgeous and opulent dress. It’s a stunner.)
The rest of The Bride of Frankenstein is no slouch itself. Colin Clive’s arch Frankenstein returns in high form, but he’s surpassed by the brilliant Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, the man who tempts Frankenstein back into the body business and then kidnaps his wife Elizabeth to make sure he goes through with it. (Dr. Pretorius, it seems, read farther into the novel than anyone else in the film, albeit not far enough.) “He looks like Peter Capaldi crossed with a stick insect,” I marveled to Captain Cinema. “Or like Peter Capaldi crossed with Peter Cushing,” she said. His arch, diabolical glee is sublime, from the mad glint in his eyes to the pride he takes in showing off his collection of miniature humans to the casual way he shares a meal in a tomb with the monster. He is nothing short of perfect. Thesiger himself had an intensely fascinating life, as a stage and film actor whose career covered silent and sound film and a not so terribly closeted gay man in the early twentieth century, and I’m glad to have met him in his most famous role.
So the question is really this—who do I go as for Halloween next year?
(That’s a trick question, because Dr. Pretorius is going in the pile of costumes I have to age into, like Winifred Sanderson.)
My roommate rented this DVD from the public library.