FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
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.