The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
NOTE: it seems silly to post a spoiler alert for a film that was made in 1935 and has been this widely-discussed, but this review does contain spoilers. Proceed with caution if you have not seen it.
I have been hearing about The Bride of Frankenstein for nigh on forty years now, since the first mass-market monster movie paperbacks I picked up in the mid-seventies. And yet, somehow, I had never gotten around to actually seeing the movie until earlier this week. Given that the film’s iconic image is that of Elsa Lanchester just awakened and gazing upon her prospective groom for the first time, I have to say I rather expected Lanchester’s role here to be a great deal meatier than it actually is. Paradoxically, however, it is her minuscule amount of screen time that lends the film much of the enduring power it has obviously had over critics; as of this writing, the canonical 1000 Best Movies list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (“canonical” because it is, likely, compiled from a larger number of professional critics than any other list, three hundred forty-seven)’s most recent update, in February 2013, has The Bride of Frankenstein at #308. Over the years I have read any number of times that it is better than the original; the blurb at TSPDT as I write this, from Roger Ebert, even kicks off with his assessment that Bride is “…the best of the Frankenstein films…”. (Frankenstein itself, on that same list, resides at #471.) I am guessing that, if you follow my reviews at all, me uttering the phrase “I do not agree” will be as much of a surprise to you as, say, the fact that the sun rises in the east.
Plot: If you’ll recall the original Frankenstein, or at least James Whale’s filmed version, the monster is trapped in a mill and burned alive, or as alive as Frankenstein’s monster can actually be. In the opening of the film, we have a flashback to the party that started it all, and Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley (Lanchester) and that gang coming up with ways that the story might be continued. And so there we are in the fantasy world again, where a worried member of the mob—the father of the young girl the monster accidentally drowned in the first film—heads into the burning wreckage and plummets through the floor into an underground lake where, he discovers, the monster (Boris Karloff, reprising his role) has not perished at all. Mad at humanity, and with pretty good reason, the monster becomes what people thought him to be in the first film—a truly nasty piece of work forced to take to the woods to avoid being killed on sight. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, also reprising his role from the original), has sworn off crazy experiments and wants nothing more than to live in obscurity with his bride-to-be Elizabeth (Kind Hearts and Coronets‘ Valerie Hobson), but is approached by sinister Dr. Pretorius (The Man in the White Suit‘s Ernest Thesiger), whose own research dovetails with Frankenstein’s, and attempts to convince him that the two should collaborate. When Frankenstein refuses, Pretorius resorts to extortion, and the two set about building a mate for the monster.
Good stuff indeed, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply in that first paragraph—as I read it over, I think I might have—that this isn’t a bang-up film and a worthy sequel to Whale’s original. But, let’s be kind, Whale has all the light touch of a mallet to the head; it’s not exactly subtle, especially with the country in the throes of Prohibition, to draw the parallel between the monster deciding that he has a liking for potent potables and his degeneration into, well, a monster. (That the end of the film comes in what is, by that time, a rare moment of sobriety for the beast is even less so.) Frankenstein himself is an interesting character study here; he starts out cardboard, the archetypal white knight, about as interesting as he is colorful now that he’s given up his experiments, and his “degeneration” into a man of science (this parallel is not, I think, unintentional) makes him more interesting as the film goes along—especially in relation to Pretorius, whose aura never moves one centimeter from black, black, black.
A good film? Yes. A great film? Arguably. As good a film as its predecessor? In my humble opinion… not on your life. *** ½