[From Classic Movie Monsters.]
It’s been a bit of a monster-fest around here lately. I promise to write something about Bela Tarr, and a piece on Shinoda’s Double Suicide will follow shortly. In the meantime, let’s all enjoy the spectacle of Boris Karloff hanging out with a family (does anybody know who they are?) on the set of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. I love these backstage portraits, especially when they show such an iconic figure with his guard down. So complete is Karloff’s physical performance, and so distinctive the make-up that completes the character, that it is strange to see him acting loose and cool. These shots (there’s another one I’ve seen of him taking a cup of tea and cigarette break with Colin Clive) demonstrate the totality of his onscreen presence – all it takes is a bit of slouching or an incongruous prop and all of a sudden he’s just some guy again, albeit one with some apparent cranium issues.
[Picture sourced from Dr Macro’s incomparable gallery of high quality movie scans.]
After randomising James Whale’s Frankenstein, I couldn’t help but turn immediately to its sequel. I can’t watch one without reaching for the other. For a sequel that hinges on the contrivance of a “he’s-not-really-dead-after-all” get-out clause, it never feels like a cash-in, probably because it ups the ante and wittily reconfigures the tone and meaning of the original. From the lusty prologue that imagines Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who will also play the Bride, setting up a nice game with the author’s status as creator and created), to Whale’s obvious glee at being allowed to bring his British chums (Ernest Thesiger, Lanchester, Valerie Hobson (recently seen on this blog in Kind Hearts and Coronets) etc.) over to Hollywood to camp around in incredible sets, The Bride of Frankenstein develops the tragic figure of the monster even as it pumps the franchise full of comedy. I hope the randomised frames give us a glimpse of the Bride, and perhaps Thesiger’s wonderful Dr Pretorius (“I hope her bones are firm”), but the random number generator can be an erratic beast. This time out, it is giving me the following numbers: 27, 47 and 70. And that means I have to start with…
… the monster stuck on a mound of rock, surrounded by another in a series of angry mobs that will pursue him across innumerable sequels with their hive-mind bloodlust. The trees on either side of the monster pen him in, visually articulating his entrapment. The conveniently placed boulder is not a realistic touch, but it does mark the rock out as an opportune weapon: perhaps the audience is invited to side with the monster here, willing him to crush his assailants. The sore-thumb boulder is tempting in its prominence: come on, Karloff – it looks loose. Stop flapping that big hand around and give it a shove! The shadowy, grunting creature of the first film now becomes ever more victimised, and sympathies are tipped in his favour.
Bingo. Not quite the image I was hoping for. Ernest Thesiger looks like he’s been lit for a glamorous close up, the three-point lighting giving him a clearly defined outline and a shock of bright white hair. A good friend of director James Whale (I think they’d worked together on The Old Dark House, and he’s appeared with Boris Karloff in The Ghoul), Thesiger beat Claude Rains to this part: thank goodness. Rains would have made a much more serious and sinister Pretorius. Thesiger seems to perceive the baroque nuttiness of this film, and drifts through it with glorious ease. There are far more obvious ways to depict the arrogance of a mad scientist certain of the rightness of his actions than this, so it’s a blessing that he snipes instead of rants, grins instead of fumes. Here he is charming the newly socialised monster with booze, smokes (his newfound penchant for good cigars is a sign of his mastery of fire in a controlled form) and conversation. Faced with the beast that has inspired mobs-with-torches and screaming maidens, he doesn’t recoil or beg for his life, but smiles the smile of a concerned uncle.
I was so tempted to wait a couple of seconds and grab a picture of the Bride with her amazing sparrow face and electric hair, but honesty won out in the end and I’m left with the 70 minute-mark’s powerful image of the monster’s hand, about to grasp the lever that will blow up the castle and destroy him along with his reluctant dame. His firm assertion that “we belong dead”, and his decisive suicide makes this his ultimate rationalised act, the point at which he gains sufficient consciousness to ponder his own abjection and act to obliterate it. Finally, it is he who takes control of the mad machines in the laboratory; finally, it is he who gets to flip a switch. The close-up of the hand summarises this reclamation of agency beautifully. Unfortunately, this conclusion is arrived at only once his advances have been spurned by the Bride, whose sexual unavailability makes him realise the perversion of his existence: he can’t even get a date with a corpse.
For those who enjoyed the Jaws Randomised post, or those who hated it so much they’d love to see me crash and burn again, I’m taking another stab at formal analysis of three randomly selected frames from a movie, as instigated by Nick Rombes at Digital Poetics. Nick seems to be getting a lot of fascinating mileage out of it (look at how interesting he makes a forgettable film like About a Boy seem), and I’m quite taken with the technique, too. Today’s film, to keep it orthodox, is James Whale’s Frankenstein. The three frames must be chosen by computer. I use a random number generator to choose me three minute-marks from a DVD of the film, then discuss only the information I can glean from those images. So, let’s get started. Frankenstein is 67 minutes long according to my DVD edition, so I enter 1-67 into the generator, and I get: 36, 48 and 58. That sounds like the scenes will be bunched together, but I don’t know until I fire up the disc and start grabbing those frames, beginning with…
… this. I hope my luck stays this good; a wonderful shot encapsulating so well the conflict between the scientist and his unruly creation. It also affords us a good gawp at the stolid chunk of one of Universal’s massive, magnificent studio sets. This shot lasts for 40 seconds, with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, left) and Dr Waldman (Edward van Sloan, right) trapping the monster by luring him through the door: one of them will distract him while the other injects him with a heavy sedative. At this stage in the struggle, though, all three of them are poised, shoulders hunched, ready for the eruption of physical violence that is about to come. The monster’s cowering is odd: he’s easily more powerful, and has no real incentive to enter the room. His body is driven by a series of conflicting impulses, zapped into uncomprehending life by a bolt of lightning, twitching from attack to retreat, fear to fury, with lurching rapidity.
After making his escape, the monster has a brief idyllic interlude by a sparkling lake with Little Maria. He is imitating her, tossing flowers into the water and watching delightedly as they float on the surface. So far, he has only been seen in shadows, growling and pummeling stuff in the brick fortress of Frankenstein’s lab. To see him in broad daylight, outdoors and playing with flowers with a baby’s gurning grin on his face is quite a shock. It will be short-lived. Not until the sequel will he find a friend and manage to hang out in the open air without killing stuff.
On its release in 1931 in the US, the film was passed uncut by the federal censor, but several state censors could and frequently did cut out objectionable moments. For the 1937 re-release, Universal were forced to cut the conclusion of this scene, which was not restored until a 1985 restoration for TV broadcast: Karloff tosses Maria into the lake to see if she too can float like a flower (she can’t – she drowns), a simpleton’s mistake connecting objects and environments due to their basic similarities (Maria doesn’t look like a flower, but maybe the monster sees her like one, as delicate and pretty as the petals he holds in his hands) rather than distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects: he himself is trapped between life and death, so it makes sense that his actions should articulate that confused duality, that mortal category error.
No telling of the Frankenstein story would be complete without an angry mob thirsty for monster blood (except, of course, Mary Shelley’s original book…). That fierce and inexorable lateral movement across the frame depicts the unstoppable march of the crowd. Their torches are reflected in the water to double up the force of the flames that Karloff’s monster fears so much. Fire had been used to control him with fear. Now it will be used to burn him up. This proliferation of flames is a nice metaphor for mob mentality – each flame marks out one member of the crowd, but once fueled, it can spread independently without control, taking on a mad, ravenous life of its own. I’m not sure why the guys in the boat think they’re going to get there any quicker, but it does suggest that everyone is eager to get there by any available means and start torching someone.