Greetings again from the darkness. It’s pretty easy to underestimate the importance of a couple of monster movies from 80 years ago. Since TCM and Cinemark teamed up for this double-feature, it seemed worth revisiting and discussing. Most people are aware of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (published when she was 21) and have probably seen some of the many screen versions throughout the years. It is interesting to note that while the brilliant (and often misunderstood) novel was the source, it was really these two films that jolted the monster film genre to life … and careers for many actors, directors, make-up artists and set designers.
When Carl Laemmle, Jr assumed control (from his father, the legendary producer and studio founder) of struggling Universal Studios in 1928, he was very aware that something special and different was needed to save the business. A string of Universal horror movies soon followed: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Two driving forces of this period were director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff. While Dracula with Bela Lugosi hit theatres first, it was Karloff as “The Monster” who really captured the interest of the movie-going public.
Frankenstein was Karloff’s 81st film and he was only cast because Lugosi turned down the non-speaking role. Wearing over 60 pounds of make-up, prosthesis and padding … including 26 pounds of shoes to make him over 7 feet tall …Karloff still managed to bring personality to the creature created by Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive). Yes, HENRY. Though named Victor in the novel, the name was “softened” for the film. In the film, Dr. Frankenstein is on a mission to create life from body parts and organs of the dead. His stated goal of a man-made race at his beck and call was a clear indication that his God complex was out of control. His fiancé is played by Mae Clarke. Ms. Clarke went on to Hollywood infamy when she took a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in Public Enemy.
The enormous success of Frankenstein begged for the first real sequel. Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935 with Karloff and Clive reprising their roles. Elsa Lanchester was cast as Mary Shelley (the writer of the Frankenstein novel), and we even get a scene with characters representing her husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and Lord Byron. Of course, Ms. Lanchester became famous for her Bride’s iconic hairstyle, as well as her hissing and screaming. Taking Mae Clarke’s place as Elizabeth was Valerie Hobson. Ms. Hobson later became famous as the stand-by-her-man wife of disgraced British Secretary of War John Profumo. Profumo lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Christine Keeler, the mistress of a Soviet Spy. The “Profumo Affair” forced his resignation in 1963 and was the source of the 1989 British film Scandal. Bride of Frankenstein is also renowned for the mad scientist Dr. Pretorius played by Ernest Thesiger. Much was made at the time of his “probable” homosexuality and, combined with the multiple crucifix imagery, the film was banned in some markets. It should also be noted that the film utilized a full score … just the second film after King Kong to do so. Previously, film music was thought to be distracting to viewers.
When discussing these early monster movies, revolutionary make-up artist Jack Pierce must be noted. He created the bolts/electrodes and flat head look for the monster, and even came up with the now-famous green make-up that looked ash gray in Black & White films. Mr. Pierce is easily the most famous of the early movie make-up artists and made his mark during the Universal horror period of the 1930’s-40’s. Director James Whale turned to monster movies after tiring of war films. His impact was felt as he turned the Frankenstein monster into a sympathetic character, and later added much humor to Bride of Frankenstein. Unfortunately, once he tired of monster movies, his career and life took a dark turn, and he took his own life in 1967.
Numerous remakes, spin-offs and spoofs have been released over the years and, tip of the cap to Abbott and Costello, the most famous is probably Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. It is a brilliant tribute and spoof, while also standing on its own as one of the best all-time comedies. With such creative works based on her writings, Ms. Shelley would surely be impressed to know that nearly 200 years after her novel; this can still be said about her monster …. “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”
watch the trailer to Bride of Frankenstein: