#3 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
This is what every B-movie monster mash wanted to be: a mixture of heady thematic ideas and pure entertainment, but very few ever got it as right as James Whale did in Bride of Frankenstein. Alternatively intelligently advancing the ideas presented in the first Frankenstein film while also providing pure camp as a counterbalance, Bride of Frankenstein is a combination of entertainment and intelligence that expands on the little world created in the original and finds a surprising emotional core at the same time.
The film begins with a framing device (the latter half that should have come at the end of the film apparently cut before release) where Mary Shelly (Else Lanchester) entertains her husband and Lord Byron with the “true” ending of Frankenstein (after a brief recap of the first film, of course). It seems as though the monster (Boris Karloff) survived the burning windmill as did Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) who is being cared for by his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). The first bulk of the film serves two major purposes. The first is to reset the first film’s ending, to get it back to a point where Henry is of a mind to leave his experiments behind and the mob is pursuing the monster. The second is to provide most of the film’s comedic goods, and a lot of that centers around Elizabeth’s maid Minnie (Una O’Conner). Una was a very distinct character actor who worked with John Ford and, perhaps most famously, as Maid Marian’s nurse in The Adventures of Robin Hood. She spends the first twenty minutes front and center nearly constantly screaming at the events unfolding around her. She sees the monster rise from the ashes of the windmill, tries to deliver the news to the townspeople who ignore her, and welcomes the mysterious new visitor Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). What would this opening be without Una camping it up? I wonder if Whale designed this to help hide the fact that the opening is really just backtracking, providing a wild distraction that would hopefully provide laughs (maybe even simply guffaws) while doing something actually rather retrograde narratively.
Dr. Pretorius is there to get Frankenstein to return to his research. Pretorius has also pursued the reanimation of dead tissue to life, but he has taken a different approach. Instead of stealing bodies, he has used cultures to grow life. In a bravura special effects sequence, he shows off his creations, a series of tiny humans he’s dressed up in royal outfits. Similar to Una’s screeching, these tiny humans are a more amusing way to deliver information than some potential alternatives, like tiny dead bodies. Pretorius’ problem is that the cultures he grows only sustain life at the smallest of scales, unlike the full scale of Frankenstein’s monster. He wants to work together to make the monster a mate. Frankenstein requires some convincing, though.
The monster, after escaping yet again from the mob, ends up at a small hut of a blind man (O.P. Heggie), and we get our kindest, warmest moments for the monster in the whole of both films. He’s finally treated like a human being by someone, and that helps him overcome some of his fears like of fire while teaching him some simple words and the beginnings of the ability to communicate. It’s really sweet the way the monster learns to love music, wine, and bread. It can’t last, of course, and everything burns, driving the monster into the arms of Dr. Pretorius.
We then get a rapid recreation of the monster creation sequence of the first with extra flourishes (the retrieval of a new heart is rather gruesome if implied, and the machinery has been expanded). The interesting part comes with the rise of the monster’s mate (also Lanchester).
The film continues the ideas of the first where man has the hubris to act as God (Shelly says it explicitly in the prologue for anyone who didn’t get it the first time), and I think it corrects some things about how the first monster was created. I really didn’t like the use of an abnormal brain for the first, but in this, Dr. Pretorius grows a new brain from his culture, it’s purely the creation of man. And what does this new brain create? An animalistic creature who instinctively rejects the monster, hissing at him instead of even trying to accept him. The human creation, the approximation to human life created by human hands, is a failure again. Could it be a success given the time and attention required of it? The monster grew and became intelligent enough to understand his own limitations through basic instruction, but that included the realization that he was never going to be loved by anyone.
Pretorius is also a wonderful extension of Frankenstein. Colin Clive hurt his leg before filming which led to most of his scenes being filmed with him sitting. I do wonder if this led to some rewrites to put a heavier emphasis on Pretorius who is some form of the Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch. He is amoral, feeling himself above the morality of the common man (hence the line about the new age of gods and monsters), and his desire to create new life is to become like a god himself. Frankenstein seemed obsessed with finding the limits of human ability, not necessarily becoming a god (though he does have that one famous line in the first where he equates his feelings to that of God’s). His explicit ambition wasn’t to become a god, but Pretorius’ is. Pretorius is the logical extension of Frankenstein’s hubris and ambition.
Whale also returns to the German Expressionistic influences of the first film after having left them behind for The Invisible Man, applying them appropriately to the story here. There’s the return of the ornate sets, including a completely new layout for the Frankenstein mansion that pushes it far further into gothic territory, and a large number of Christian imagery in the background, especially the graveyard where a large crucifix stands above the ground, and in the blind hermit’s hut.
I don’t love the opening with its over-the-top camp from Una O’Connor’s performance and the backtracking narratively (there had to have been a cleaner way to do this), but everything after that is intelligent and surprisingly touching. A lot of that has to do with Karloff who imbues the monster with real emotion, building on what he had established in the first film and expanding it. Bride of Frankenstein is often called the best of the Universal Horror films. I think it’s near the top, but not quite there. It’s fun and thoughtful, but I just can’t quite get into the comedic camp that dominates the early parts of the film.