The success of Universal’s “Frankenstein” in 1931 quite naturally led to the studio’s desire for a sequel, and in 1935 they gave the audience more of Boris Karloff’s lumbering monster with “The Bride of Frankenstein,” which also brought back director James Whale and Colin Clive’s resurrectionist doctor. Whale took the opportunity to exercise a particularly dark sense of humor, and today “The Bride of Frankenstein” is probably best appreciated as an example of wry, sardonic comedy, although it also has the honor of introducing Elsa Lanchester’s iconic Bride image to the pantheon of Hollywood horrors.
Having miraculously survived the events that ended the first film, Karloff’s creature returns to terrorize the countryside, while his creator (Colin Clive) struggles with conflicted urges about continuing his work. Henry Frankenstein’s worried bride, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), begs him to give up his unnatural studies, but her arguments lose their force when Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a fellow scientist with sinister designs, turns up to coerce Frankenstein into making a mate for the original monster.
The modern viewer can’t help but realize that there are very few steps indeed between Whale’s sequel and Mel Brooks’ 1974 parody, “Young Frankenstein,” and in fact Brooks lifts whole scenes almost without alteration, particularly the segment involving the kindly blind man who befriends the monster. Una O’Connor’s screeching maid is a prelude to Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher, while the generally silly villagers and their burgomaster seem equally at home in either film.
Still, Whale introduces some uniquely crafted images. He puts his monster into tableaux of suffering that suggest his identity as a kind of Christ figure, tormented and abused by the pitiless mob. The monster, after all, is meant to represent humanity’s redemption from death, and like Christ he is something both human and other at the same time. Whale also gives us the macabre glory of Lanchester’s resurrected bride, and he has the genius to cast the same actress as both the monster and the ultimate maker of this myth, Mary Godwin Shelley. Lanchester only appears onscreen for a few minutes, as Shelley in the opening scenes and as the bride in the finale, but she makes a tremendous impression. Karloff’s creature, however, gets the final lines. “We belong dead,” he says, wiser at last than the man who made him and weary of a world in which he can find no acceptance, even from the mate who was created as his companion.
For more of Whale’s wickedly humorous horror, see “The Old Dark House” (1932) and “The Invisible Man” (1933). Look for Karloff in more talkative roles in “The Mummy” (1932), “Bedlam” (1946), and “The Raven” (1963). You’ll find Elsa Lanchester in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), “Lassie Come Home” (1946), and “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957). Some people might find Una O’Connor’s old biddies irritating, but if you like her as much as I do you’ll want to see her in “The Invisible Man” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938).
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