Victoria Large on the female creation in Bride of Frankenstein

Though we often forget it, the Universal horror films of the 1930s are among the most enduringly iconic in the history of cinema. Look around next Halloween and consider it. A great majority of the representations of Dracula, from costumes to dolls, will be in the likeness of Bela Lugosi, and the ubiquitous green-skinned, square-headed images of Frankenstein’s monster will be derived from Boris Karloff in his makeup. Universal’s classic monster movies have long since made the rare and momentous leap from the screen to the collective subconscious. You needn’t have seen the films to recognize the characters and or even quote them offhand, imitating the accent of Lugosi’s vampire count or the exultant “It’s alive!” spouted by Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein. The films have been imitated and lovingly parodied through the years, and, in the realm of pop culture, their representations of the famous monsters have largely superseded even the novels from which the creatures originated. Perhaps it is appropriate then that The Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935 sequel that ranks as perhaps the most highly-regarded of all the classic Universal horror films, introduces another truly iconic – and this timely wholly original – monster in Elsa Lanchester’s characterization of the eponymous Bride.

Director James Whale was reluctant to helm a sequel to his 1931 version of Frankenstein until the process of finding a suitable script for the film yielded the idea of introducing a monster bride. From that seed sprang a unique and lively film with room enough in its scant 75 minutes for daft camp humor (a cheeky prologue sets the tone), uncommonly daring use of pseudo-religious imagery (Karloff ’s monster tied up cruciform, for one thing), and a winking gay subtext that arrives largely in the person of Ernest Thesiger’s preening Dr. Pretorious. Yet despite its title, only a small fraction of the film’s brief running time actually features the Bride at all. Lanchester appears in the first moments of the film as Frankenstein novelist Mary Shelley, but doesn’t reappear as the shock-haired, hissing Bride until the last few minutes. It would be all that the character needed to earn cinematic immortality. Pauline Kael wrote that the scene of the Bride’s birth, and “the way she said ‘Eeeek’ in revulsion when she saw her intended – was so satisfyingly silly that whenever we saw Elsa Lanchester in other roles we were likely to break out in a grin of childish pleasure. She won our hearts forever, as Margaret Hamilton did as the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.” And truly, Lanchester’s wide-eyed, highstrung performance, and that hiss, which she claimed to have copied from the hiss of angry swans in the park, goes a long way toward making her character so memorable. The rest: the Nefertitiinspired, lighting-enhanced hairdo, the delicate stitches under the Bride’s chin, the towering height achieved by putting Lanchester on stilts; can be traced back to Whale and makeup artist Jack Pierce, whose vision for the female monster is notably, tellingly divergent from Karloff ’s lumbering, block-headed creature. The Bride of Frankenstein replaces, “It’s alive!” with “She’s alive!” and something happens as a result. It befits The Bride of Frankenstein’s arch tone to present a monster whose oddball appearance is more likely to raise a giggle than a shudder, but the Bride’s look has a kind of twisted glamour to it – her thin, penciled eyebrows, long eyelashes and full, rouged lips – that reminds us of her gender and raises the not-entirely-outrageous question: could there be a double standard for monsters? The film’s answer is just as slyly subversive as you would hope: the men do make sexist assumptions about the woman that they mean to create, but it ultimately leads to their undoing.

In the original 1931 Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein is fairly unconcerned about how the pallid, stitched-together being on his slab is going to look, and he also views the creation as an end unto itself: he is simply thrilled to be imbuing life into dead tissue, to make a living being with his own hands. By contrast, the Bride is created to be just that. She is not created for the sake of it or simply to exist, but rather has a very specific purpose, to be a companion to her male counterpart. Beauty also becomes an issue for the first time. After the men select the body of a nineteen-year-old to reanimate as the unholy Bride, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Karl (played by wonderful character actor Dwight Frye) remarks, “Pretty little thing in her way, wasn’t she?” If the men are concerned about whether the monster will find his bride suitably attractive, they never stop to question how she will feel about being betrothed to Karloff ’s gruesome, bolt-necked giant. Of course, as our story concludes, her shrieks of horror and hissing dislike prove that perhaps they should have considered it. Though Karloff ’s sympathetic portrayal of the monster does give the story some real tragic heft in its final moments, the Bride’s rejection of her presumed role as mate is almost comic in its inevitability. They resurrected her for this?

Rejected by the one being that he presumed would love him, the monster chooses to pull a forbidden lever in the laboratory, thereby destroying his mate, himself, and the other driving force in creating this folly, Dr. Pretorious (that there is a readily available lever that will cause the entire tower housing the laboratory to self-destruct is one of the film’s most amusing quirks). Whale didn’t intend for Dr. Frankenstein and his own future bride, Elizabeth, to escape the wreckage either, but in a sop to the studio and the censors, they do, a reaffirmation of the status quo in the wake of Whale’s iconoclasm. Yet the contrast drawn between this couple and the would-be monster paramours buried in the ruins is perhaps not the most interesting example of dramatic foils within the film. Pretorious, Frankenstein, Karl, and even the monster prove to be men who are failures in their attempts to create life, and in a way they become foils to the novelist Mary Shelley, who, as the prologue reminds us, really created them all. A deleted ending to the film was to include an epilogue returning us to Lanchester’s Mary Shelley in her parlor, which would have only strengthened the marvelous disparity in the actress’ dual roles, moving us from the Bride, a strange, wobbly female creation, to the Author, a successful female creator. Whether intended or not, this contrast adds another subversive wrinkle to an already delightfully dangerous bit of filmmaking.

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