Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Frankenstein at 200: It's Alive

When I think of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, I tend to think of them as a single, longer film that adapts the whole of Mary Shelley's source novel, although the two films were produced with some four years between them. And as indelible and enduring and influential as these films are, I have to wonder what kind of film we might have had if Colin Clive had not been crippled by alcoholism. This is selfish, certainly, to be handed a masterpiece and ask, "but what if...?"

Make no mistake: these two films are masterpieces. Masterpieces of horror, masterpieces of cinema. And they are masterpieces fitted together by a jigsaw of damaged human beings who continued the tradition, nearly 100 years on, of the outsider's love song that is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. And, believe it or not, here we are nearly 100 years later, looking back at these films. As I write this, the first film will soon be 88 years old. When I looked at the novel, I discussed some of the ways in which we are still wrestling with the themes that animated Shelley's 1818 work. When it comes to the films, though, the actual documents have less on the surface to do with ongoing human struggles of privilege, responsibility, accountability, and monstrosity, but many of those topics still roil under the surface of these films. What elevates the movies, in my mind, are the performances of Boris Karloff and Colin Clive under James Whale's direction.

Ernest Thesiger (L) and James Whale (R)
First, a quick look at the technical aspects of James Whale's direction. For an easy comparison, watch Tod Browning's Dracula and then Frankenstein. Browning's shots are almost all locked down, and treat the material like a stage play. This was common in the silent era, but directors began to innovate past it with moving cameras and using tracking shots to move through scenes in depth. But the advent of sound film set all that back again, due to the need to hide microphones in the scenes. You'd think from watching Dracula that directors might have still been limited in those ways, but Frankenstein gives the lie to that. There are gorgeous, subtle tracking shots, like the one that follows Henry Frankenstein and Fritz out of the graveyard shadows to the fresh earth they are going to dig up for body-harvesting purposes. And there are numerous extreme tracking shots. Some help convey the urgency of hunting for the creature in the Frankenstein home, shots that go through walls and from one room to the next to the next in single, unbroken takes. Another is the agonizingly long tracking shot that follows Maria's father at he carries her drowned body through the town as it prepares for a wedding feast and celebration.

Then, there are the performances. For all of the talk of "monster" and "creature," Boris Karloff does nothing but humanize the role he inhabits. There are the big moments, like when he reaches for the sun the first time he sees it — craving light in a metaphorical and literal sense — and the small, almost imperceptible moments, like when he pets Maria's small hand, marveling quietly at its perfection, in contrast to his own scarred hands. As lovely and engrossing as I find Karloff's performance in Frankenstein, it is in Bride of Frankenstein that he is permitted something not seen in any of the other Frankenstein films (Son of.., Ghost of..., House of...): he speaks. Karloff's wordlessness helps carry scenes like the famous moment in which he comes upon a hermit's hut in the forest, and two lonely souls find solace in each other's company (again, notice Whale's direction here in the slow dissolve out of the scene), but his joy at being able to begin making himself understood helps fully realize this character. Abnormal brain or no, this is a living being that simply wants to enjoy the company of others and not be tormented because of his appearance and the fears of others. I so connected with Karloff's performance in these moments that I wrote a song about it.

Boris Karloff and Colin Clive
 A decade before I did that, though, I wrote a different song inspired by Colin Clive's performance. There is a deep sadness in Clive's performance that has always struck me as conveying the weight of all that was lost in the gap between his ideas and their reality. The quest to stave off death, prolong life, and cure disease is certainly a noble one, although the introductions to both Frankenstein and Bride couch the doctor's obsession in terms of attempting to play God. I tend to think of this spoken moral more as a way to appease the censors of the time than the actual thrust of these films, but that could just be me. I find Clive's portrayal of Henry Frankenstein to be a deeply empathetic one, and the filmmakers have eliminated so much of what I find distasteful in the character of Victor Frankenstein from Shelley's novel. In the film, the doctor does not turn his back on his creation because of a shocking appearance, nor does he abdicate any responsibility toward it in favor of simply returning home to his former, aristocratic pursuits. Clive's Frankenstein agonizes over what to do with his creation, whether or not it can be taught, or helped, or made to understand. Yet his efforts are undercut by man's inhumanity to the other...first and notably by Fritz tormenting the creation with lit torches. Colin Clive's Frankenstein recognizes what Whale tells us implicitly in a lovely sequence of shots at the end of the first film, with Frankenstein and his creation looking at each other through the spinning mechanism of the windmill. Reflections of one another. Their fates bound together.

Clive's quiet intensity exists only in the first film, however. By 1935, the actor's alcoholism had purportedly advanced to such an extreme state that it isn't any wonder he spends most of The Bride of Frankenstein propped up in bed. He died less than two years later, at only the age of 37. As a result of Clive (and his character) being sidelined, much of the heavy lifting in the movie falls on the very odd shoulders of Doctor Pretorius, played by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorius is a deeply strange character, who I admit has grown on me, but it took a minute. What has not grown on me is the shriekingly hysterical performance of Una O'Connor. She was a longtime friend of James Whale, so I appreciate him giving her the work, but almost the first ten minutes of Bride revolve around her shrieking from one person to another about this and that. I'm reminded of the line in Ed Wood when Ed's financiers ask why he gave Tor Johnson all the lines, and Ed replies, "Lugosi's dead and Vampira won't talk. I had to give the lines to somebody." I cannot help but wonder what that film might have been with a more-active Frankenstein, but then, who knows? Maybe we would not have gotten the charming introduction featuring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley herself, explaining that the story continued past the burning windmill. Who can say?

My favorite picture of Elsa Lanchester
One thing I must point out, however, is that the credits for Frankenstein read, in part, "Based on the novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelley." This is abhorrent, even for 1931. To Whale's credit, as my wife pointed out, in Dr. Waldman's anatomy class at the university, which is shown near the beginning of the film, the students are both men and women, which had to be a conscious choice, and possibly one that somebody fought for. I can think of a number of other films with similar scenes (some of which I've reviewed for this site), and this is one of very few I can think of that features a co-ed science class.

In the end, I confess I enjoy the Universal Frankenstein movies, even those that came much later, and after a few other actors donned the flat head and neck bolts. I find Bela Lugosi very fun to watch as Ygor in both Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, and enjoy spotting the same three or four actors cropping up in different roles throughout the series. But it's the first two films that created, cemented, and deserve the legacy of the Frankenstein tale. While shaving off some of the thematic elements that I think make the book resonate even today, they nevertheless provide a relatively faithful adaptation that succeeds on its own substantial merits.

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.