Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Frankenstein/The Bride Of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931/35)

"We belong dead!"

[This post is the Flying Maciste Brothers response (tardy as usual) to Frankenseinia's Boris Karloff Blog-a-thon that had raised Karloff's immortal mug high on the internet image-meter this past November.]

Director James Whale sure knows how to throw a dummy -- or -- more precisely -- knows how to let Boris Karloff throw a dummy.

A deceptively simple effect (the dummy-death), nevertheless receives a careful layering of abstractions/distractions/deceptions/substitutions and transformations -- both thematic and elemental -- visually represented in the form of statuary, shadow, silhouette, skeleton, illustration, and photograph -- that form an artful, cinematic variation on the old "shell game" in Whale's two-volume existential essay on human creation, death and rebirth.

The monster (Karloff) is, in concept and design, a collection of inert matter that has has been re-assembled and re-infused with life by Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and, as such, is a kindred spirit of the cinematic FX-dummy from the outset.

The irony of the first film is that -- though there are many opportunities for dummification, such as the sequence where little Maria, the monster's new-found friend, is substituted for a flower during lakeside playtime (and young actress Marilyn Harris takes the plunge) --

-- it is only at the film's conclusion, where the monster's creator becomes the dummy. This literalizes Whale's philosophy that dummies always deserve what they get and get what they deserve.


The Zoetrope inspired imagery during the windmill sequence links the director's powers of mechanical, cinematic animation with Dr. Frankenstein's powers of scientific, biological re-animation.

A Zoetrope.

James Whale's Zoetrope.

This sequence poetically animates the idea that monster and creator are actually distorted "reflections" of each other, an idea driven home by the doctor's own transformation into synthetic facsimile for his plummet -- a "death" that he, too, emerges from reborn (and presumably virile -- judging from the behavior of the gaggle of giggling maidservants urgently waiting in attendance -- ready to create "natural" children now that he is a married man) in the film's final scene.

At the opening of the second film, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the couple who die at the monsters hands are parents as well -- this time of Maria, the little flower-child who tragically drowned while playing with the monster in the first film.


The monster's hand coming up through the rubble is a deception perpetrated upon the wife by the monster.

This sets up the prosthetic deception of her dummy-dispatch perpetrated upon the audience by the film's director -- once again, James Whale. (The husband - who, ironically, shares the same demise as his daughter at the hands of the Monster -- has already transformed from one actor who had portrayed his character in FRANKENSTEIN, to a completely different actor in this film.)

This transformational sleight-of-hand unfolds in a hyper-stylized outdoor environment that includes studio-bound architecture into which the main characters are deposited.

Moving onto our third sequence: as if making up to actor Dwight Frye for depriving him of a transformation from man-into-laundry-sack in FRANKENSTEIN --

-- here, in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Whale bestows a reconstitutional fate unto Frye that perfectly symbolizes the less-than-human qualities that the characters he portrayed in both films embody.


One would think that flying kites on top of a tower in a lightning storm would pose the greatest possible threat to life and limb.

One would be wrong.

Having already been reanimated from previously deceased, cobbled body parts the Monster is re-reborn, phoenix-like from the fire, transformed outwardly by severe burns into an even more hideous, pitiful creature while transformed inwardly into an even more empathetic, sensitive, "human" monster/ martyr.

Gonna roll them Whale bones...!

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr


The Vicar of VHS said...

Great post! The Zoetrope imagery in particular is something that never would have occurred to me, but presented as it is here, there can be little doubt of its correctness.

I never realized there were so many dummy deaths in these two films. I guess if you're not looking, you could miss them.

And those shots of Karloff after tossing the old lady down the hole are things of beauty--like a painting, almost. This Whale fellow knew what he was doing!

Theodore said...