[From Classic Movie Monsters.]
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.