Saturday, June 2, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological,sociological*

If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. 

 I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror...

My consideration of the two classic Frankenstein films by James Whale brings up the problem of "saying something new" in the wake of tons of film-criticism about these highly influential movies. I had the same difficulty when I wrote about the 1933 KING KONG and the 1960 PSYCHO. and I chose in both cases not to do a general review, but one homing in on specific issues. For the two Whale films, I'll address the way each film in terms of how each, possibly more by accident than design, focused upon paternal or maternal matters, respectively.

The two quotes from Mary Shelley's book are vital to understanding the novel's protagonist. Victor Frankenstein loses his mother to scarlet fever just at the time that he begins his university studies in Ingolstadt, and he throws himself into his education to avert grief. With his father the only remaining parent, Victor goes down a dark path when the elder Frankenstein fails to validate his son's interest in the archaic "system of science" known as alchemy. Around the same time Victor has also fallen in love with his adoptive sister Elizabeth, but in dreams he comes to associate her with his dead mother. Many commentators have interpreted Shelley's novel through a Freudian lens, though that case may be weakened by the fact that in the novel Victor's mother-substitute perishes before his father does, which would seem to be at odds with the familiar "kill-your-dad-THEN-boff-your-mom" scenario.

The 1931 film was not interested in depicting Frankenstein's full family history. The makers chose to pattern the film not on the novel but on an unproduced play-adaptation by one Peggy Webling, and this choice may not have been informed so much by aesthetics as a need for cinematic brevity. As in the novel,the mother of  young Frankenstein-- now dubbed "Henry" (Colin Clive)-- has apparently been dead for some time, but her existence has apparently had no impact on Henry's character. The most direct allusion to her role is no better than a familial place-holder, in a scene where Henry's baronial father talks about his hopes that someday soon Henry will enact with his fiancee the same wedding-ritual that the Baron did with his wife.

Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) is a stuffy aristocrat rather than the bourgeois figure of the novel. And whereas the novel's paternal figure is taken to task for not guiding the scientist-son toward healthy science, the Baron has no interest in science of any kind. Additionally, he seems to care nothing about his son except as another place-holder. Henry exists in the Baron's eyes to provide further vindication of the "house of Frankenstein" by bearing an heir with his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke, apparently not an adoptive sister this time round). Apparently for the playwright Webling and the scripters who adapted her play, this was all the motivation Henry needed for his transgressive act. His father wanted him for no purpose but to make a child, so Henry decided to make a child who would enshrine not the family name but Henry's own brilliance. To do this, he puts off Elizabeth, despite a genuine feeling for her, and culls parts from charnel-houses and medical colleges, including that darn "criminal brain." In both book and film, the scientist shows no deep awareness of his responsibilities in bringing forth a new form of life. In the 1931 film, there's an extra layer of irony in that Henry's neglectful behavior toward his "monster" (Boris Karloff) mirrors the Baron's neglect of Henry.

Additionally, Henry's former teacher Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) reinforces paternal injunctions against venturing too far away from the status quo. Though Waldman understands science as the ignorant Baron does not, Waldman has no sympathy for Henry's fascination with the mysteries of life. Thus his attitude that the monster is only a meaningless abomination mirrors the baron's utter inability to comprehend Henry's priorities. Amusingly, the Baron can only conceive one reason for Henry to avoid his familial responsibilities: that of dallying with another woman-- and though he never sees such a woman, he remains to the last utterly unaware of the deeper issues that have passed under his nose. The closing scenes, in which the Baron seems to have "won the argument," are undercut by a note of subdued irony.

Only in one sense do maternal matters of any kind appear in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN. After the barely sentient Monster runs off, Henry tries to lose himself in normalcy, surrendering to the entreaties of both Elizabeth and the Baron to get married. In both novel and movie, the creature can be seen as the "son" of Frankenstein-- an equation made explicit in the 1939 film of the same name. In both stories the creature assaults Elizabeth-- though for more dubious reasons in the film-- and in both the monster's attack can be seen as a deflected sexual assault, though the film's Elizabeth doesn't suffer the tragic fate of novel-Elizabeth. In any case, this is the closest the 1931 film gets to Oedipal issues, with the "son" of Henry's egoistic desires attacking Henry's bride on her wedding-day.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, though, gives both motherhood and women in general a greater role in the scheme of things. There is no figure comparable to Waldman here, and though an early script planned to use the character of the Baron, the object was to rewrite the triumphal ending of FRANKENSTEIN by having the old man die as a result of hearing news that his son had died. A surviving line by the Burgomeister alludes to the Baron still being alive at the time of Henry's non-fatal injury. Yet the Baron's death is never stated outright, and is only suggested when Doctor Pretorious greets Henry by conferring on him the title "Baron Frankenstein"-- presumably not possible if the father is still alive.

To be sure, though the Frankenstein Monster has no mother within the course of the story, he has one outside it. BRIDE's main story is preceded by a witty prologue, in which the novel's author Mary Shelley discusses her creation with husband Percy and with the poet Lord Byron. The prologue situates Mary Shelley as a contradiction in terms-- a gentle-seeming woman of breeding, alarmed by lightning but taking pleasure at the feeling that "the air itself is filled by monsters." One can't overlook the likelihood that having Elsa Lanchester play both the creator of the whole story (and "mother" to all of its characters) and the Bride of the Monster was conceived first and foremost as a Hollywood stunt. But if so, the stunt fits it with all of the other wildly playful-- and yet, strangely serious-- rethinkings of the first FRANKENSTEIN film.

One rethinking is the character of Elizabeth. Mae Clarke was unable to reprise the role, and this may have been of some benefit to the film, since the new concept of Elizabeth made her less the lovelorn representation of normalcy and more of a frenetic, half-oracular heroine out of Edgar Allan Poe. Whether Clarke would have played this Elizabeth well or not, one will never know, but the recasting of Valerie Hobson allowed for her to shine in the role. Though not an overbearing character like the comical maid Minnie (who boasts that she'd like to "bind" the Monster himself in the capture-scene), this Elizabeth is a more authoritative figure, commanding respect from the servants and attempting, albeit without success, to exorcise the devil who attempts to seduce Henry back to his unhealthy pursuits.

Even before the demoniacal Doctor Pretorius makes his first appearance, the dialogue between Henry and Elizabeth makes clear that Henry has learned nothing from his brush with death (to say nothing of the very real deaths suffered by the Monster's victims). He still wants to enshrine himself as the god of the secrets of life, and even thinks about perpetuating a race of scientifically created beings, mere minutes before the first appearance of Pretorius, Henry's acquaintance (or mentor) from the university. The Mephistophelean doctor is of course the evil shadow of Henry's transgressive desires, without even a smidgen of guilt. Additionally, despite having a loose mentor/student relationship with Henry at first, Henry is merely a means to an end for Pretorius, just as Henry was to his real father, and as the Monster is to Henry.

Pretorius, for all that he's played with coded effeminacy by Ernest Thesiger, paradoxically wishes to correct Henry's focus on an all-male creation. Nevertheless, Elizabeth does mostly win the day in the ethical struggle. Thus Henry balks at collaborating with the devil-doctor on contriving a mate for the footloose Monster. Only when Pretorius enlists the services of the superhuman Monster-- who has been deeply embittered by his rejection by "status quo" humankind-- does Henry give in and agree to create "the Bride."

According to one DVD commentary, an early script-proposal for a FRANKENSTEIN sequel, submitted to Universal long before Whale agreed to helm BRIDE, suggested that Henry might end up using some part of Elizabeth to construct the Bride. This would have been an even more Oedipal moment had it reached the screen, given that "father" Henry Frankenstein would be enjoining his "offspring" into having sex with his own bride. However, in the finished film Elizabeth is simply held prisoner by the Monster to force Henry to cooperate on the Bride, who is constructed from the parts of complete strangers. Nevertheless, it's significant that if the Monster is Henry's "son," then the Bride is his "daughter." In addition, though Pretorius is the one who made the greatest effort to bring about the Bride's existence, she never looks at Pretorius twice, but only has eyes for "daddy" Henry, and categorically rejects "sonny."

Having completed all these explorations of transgressive facets of the two films, I feel bound to say that I don't think Whale was a thoroughgoing Freudian, any more than was Mary Shelley. Both of them loved flouting the status quo, and their flirtations with incestuous elements are far more playful than those of artists who are consciously evoking Freud, as with the aforementioned PSYCHO from Robert Bloch.

Oh, and the other two statements that I put aside for these analyses:

(1) Boris Karloff is really great and the films could never have been done without his singular performances.

(2) BRIDE is without a doubt a better film than FRANKENSTEIN.



  1. Thanks so much for your review, Gene--if that's the right word, more like essay, I think--on the first two films in what would become the long running Frankenstein franchise for Universal (I'll leave the Hammer series aside for the time being as well as any "indie" takes on the family Frankenstein).

    I am a fan of the first three entries in the series from Universal. The original from 1931 is a stand alone classic in my opinion (and most people's, I would imagine,--those who've actually seen it, that is). It's a beautiful, dark and tragic film, wonderfully acted by its eclectic cast; all playing Germans! Wasn't Mary Shelley's novel set in Switzerland, though? It's been a dog's age since I've read it. I believe this would preclude there being a noble or titled family, but no matter. It's Germany at Universal, 1931; and given what would soon transpire in Germany on the political front, strangely prescient, with its failed New Man, torch bearing villagers (not quite rampaging Nazis but maybe a good intuitive guess on the part of director Whale & Company).

    Along these same lines, before getting to the Freudian business, that the (initially mute) movie monster is quite different from the articulate one of the novel, nicely suggested, probably without much struggle on the film's creative end, that Germany's Superman (or Ubermensch) of the future would, due to meddling and yes, some criminal brain business (on the part of the Nazi leaders, many of them criminal brains in their own right) muck things up badly in the future, which was right around the corner back then.

    That things German would play a role in many Hollywood movies of the early talkie era only seems fitting, what with the anti-war All Quiet On The Western Front at one end of the spectrum, and the elegant Grand Hotel at the other. Modern Germany was, for good reason, on the minds of many creative people back then. The Frankenstein franchise didn't begin modern but it got there fast, as by 1939 it had become, literally, contemporary.

    As to the "Freud business" in all this, more specifically the Oedipal, good call on Henry, the loss of his mother, the borderline incestuous nature of his relationship with Elisabeth; plus, it's worth adding, the casting of the (much younger than Mae Clarke) Valerie Hobson in the role in Bride. That Miss Hobson was so young could, arguably, accentuate the "incest angle", as transferred from mother to step sister. Also good in casting Hobson is her Britishness, making her nearer to Colin Clive as to type, which is to say nationality, which binds them in what is still, on screen, 19th century Germany.

    Frederick Kerr's old baron is a far cry from King Laius, as he is not so much slain as rendered irrelevant, even in the first film. Yet he plays as a comical figure, or so it appears, or is this a contemporary 21st century perspective? At times he seems like comic relief! Dr. Waldman seems to me nearer to a spiritual (if you will) father figure for Henry than the ancient baron, and he is murdered, by the monster, however, not by Henry. There's a fantasy element to the monster from the start, isn't there? On the one hand he's like Henry's self-made son, on the other hand it's like he's doing Henry's dirty work for him; while near the end he becomes a walking, stalking nightmare figure.

    To return to father/son and male/female relations, the monster becomes Henry's son and also, being child-like, a sort of boy-trying-to-become-a-man in his initially innocent "dalliance" with little Maria prior to his accidentally drowning her. In time, he becomes a man only in his rage and his resentment, and through the power of his emotions. The next film tries to give him a (much needed) woman, but she rejects him. Still, his "courtship" of the child Maria was real and touching and didn't, at first, feel like it was going to end so tragically.

  2. Alas, I ran out of the alloted space, thus shall return and try to wrap up my ideas quickly: both Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein are simultaneously cerebral and emotional films, as each plays, in a different style from the other, to the brain and to the gut. Of the viewer, I mean. Neither deals a lot with passion in a sexual sense, and arguably this is a flaw. Or is it? It was a necessary limitation, and Whale and his people got around it nicely.

    I'd say the extraordinary electrical gadgetry of Ken Strickfaden created a nice substitute for sex, as it represented the passion of creation if not the reality of real life body to body contact between man and woman. That couldn't be shown or even too strongly suggested back in the day, and those snap, crackle and pop machines do rather give us "the idea".

    In the business of human relations both films push envelopes, utilizing symbolism, irony and humor to get their ideas across. As to the characters as specific to their gender, it seems to me that Henry is rather split up between Superego Great Scientist on the one hand and darn near semi-retarded and near deranged child man,--perhaps hinting at lack of much real experience with women--in the figures of his lab assistant ghouls, Fritz and Karl. Both characters seem like cases of arrested development. Can you imagine either of them romancing a woman? Any woman? They're almost pre-sexual, as to their place in the world, which is about as kindly as I can put it.

    Dr. Praetorious, in Bride, essentially replacing the more normal and vital seeming Waldman as Henry's second substitute father, feels post-sexual (and maybe outright gay). Unlike Henry and Waldman, he comes off as a dandy and a poseur; and rather a faux aristocrat, as compared to the essentially anti-snob Henry and Waldman's solid citizen of a good bourgeois. Henry, as we get to know him, has no desire to be another Waldman; nor does he aspire to the Camp Olympian posturings of Praetorious nor sink to the degeneracy of Fritz and Karl.

    It is, ironically, the monster who, in the end, becomes the true good bourgeois and blows up the watchtower. He comes to his senses in a world in which he has been rejected from the git, and,--by of all people! (okay, creatures)--a rough justice is at last achieved.

  3. Excellent commentary, John. Just read it today and will comment further soon...

  4. Some thoughts, now:

    When you asked about the locale of the novel, I glanced at Wikipedia. It kinda looks like Victor makes the monster in Germany, and it follows him in some roundabout way to Geneva. So Germany is at least implicated in the story, possibly because in Shelley's day Germany was a major center of world culture. I imagine that even James Whale probably saw the country in those terms despite the horrors of World War One, if only because WWI seemed like a war fought less for ideals than for sheer land-hunger. We know, at least, that Whale was familiar with films like THE GOLEM and METROPOLIS...

    I hadn't thought about Valerie Hobson's comparative youth. She's a much more emotional heroine, and that fits the youth angle too. That might tie into the fact that BRIDE is willing to engage with the Monster's sexuality to the same extent that Shelley does. The first film, having made the Monster almost mindless, can't very well have him plot to intrude on Victor's wedding night as the character in the book does. And in the second film, he has to pushed to do something about getting a mate by Pretorius, just as Pretorius must tempt and finally extort Victor into the experiment. Waldman as you say is a controlling bourgeois, and so he arguably makes things worse when Victor's gone ahead and made his Adamic man. Pretorius is the opposite, a liberator who tells Victor to go ahead, a response to Victor's dreams before the doctor ever shows up.

    One thing I hadn't thought about: what does Pretorius really want in the long term? If he is gay, why does he care about mating two Monsters? The only thing I can come up with is that he's been fantasizing about creating a super-race even as Victor dreams about it idly. That's presumably why he was creating mini-humans of both sexes, but only Victor's methods could make it possible to make super-humans.

  5. Maybe so, Gene, re Praetorious and his gayness. Or is that Ernest Thesiger's vibe? It's always difficulty to tell with actors like that. A more recent version of the same type, though rather more humble, would be Cyril Delevanti, whom I saw in the wonderfully romantic hour long Twilight Zone Passage On The Lady Ann the other night.

    As to what Praetorious wanted, I can only guess the super race you suggested, something actually along the lines of what the Third Reich was aiming for,--whether all Nordic blonde gods and goddesses is another matter--perfect men and perfect women as an ideal. Maybe for Praetorious that was in itself the aphrodisiac. That's pretty hot stuff, I think.

    Again, James Whale & Company knew what was going on in the world, and by 1934-35 Germany was already a very different place from that it had been just three or four years earlier, when it was still thought highly of, looked up to. My father learned German, was a practicing musician, and he literally trumpeted his way across the Atlantic around that time, when Berlin was in Cabaret mode. I grew up hearing stories about cabarets. It was a grand place for a young man to be back then, and also for a budding physician-physiologist-life scientist it was living at the center of the scientific universe. Hitler and his minions were regarded as minor annoyances...

    and thanks for responding. Some fascinating topics here, well beyond movies and the arts and such.

  6. I looked up Wikipedia's bio on Whale, just to see what if any exposure he had to German culture. I was familiar with the story that he'd become interested in stagecraft while he was a POW in German territory during WWII, but I'm curious if he'd been a fan of German horror cinema before he ever got a shot at cinematic work, or if he started delving into films like CALIGARI and GOLEM just to give himself touchstones to the genre.

    You make a good point, that Nazi influence was in the air by the time BRIDE was in production, not least because Old Adolf became Chancellor in 1933. Two years later, Whale directed THE ROAD BACK, an adaptation of Remarque's sequel to ALL QUIET. and I can see why the Nazi party objected to any filming of its anti-war content, for all that it's a book firmly on the side of German soldiers. The party persuaded the studio to cut Whale's film heavily, much to the director's disgust, and then the party got the film banned in Germany and other countries anyway. This probably had some impact on Whale's leavetaking from cinema.

    As always, great hearing from you, John.

  7. (Did I write World War II above? Of course I meant "One...")

  8. Thanks for all that, Gene, and for the telling of the fate of The Road Back. I didn't know the whole story. That's enough to demoralized a serious artist, especially in the medium of film. Lucky for Whale, he had other interests, had saved some money, turned to his first love, painting.

    At a purely personal (and selfish) level I'd rather he'd have given making movies more effort after 1940, but it wasn't there for him, or rather within him. Whale no longer had the desire, the sense of urgency. I do, btw, believe that Whale was quite familiar with German cinema, which he channels a good deal of in both of his Frankenstein pictures.

    Another director who also became famous for his work in horror, Tod Browning, fell off the radar screen of active directors around the same time Whale did. Both men were highly eccentric and had maybe pushed their envelopes too many times to have remained active in Hollywood anyway, leaving aside their aversion to playing the studio game.

  9. Yeah, as different as Whale and Browning were from one another, their offbeat viewpoints seem to have found favor at the Laemmle Universal, and it's probable that they wouldn't have fit into the changing priorities under any circumstances.

    I've sometimes wondered if Edgar Ulmer would've adapted, if he hadn't been exiled for non-creative reasons (having an affair with the wife of Carl Laemmle's nephew). He might've been able to make a few more subversive films like BLACK CAT under the right circumstances.