When one of the library’s wonderful volunteers mentioned that Tinseltown was showing the original 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, I toyed with the idea of going. After all, everyone’s seen those movies over and over, so it would just be the novelty of seeing it on the big screen, right?
Only the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that I had ever actually seen the movies. Oh, sure, I’d seen clips galore of the iconic Karloff monster, and the Jack Pierce makeup was so distinctive that the square-head and bolts look has been copied and parodied endlessly on everything from “The Munsters” to Frankenberry cereal. But had I ever seen the entire movie all the way through? I wasn’t sure I had.
|The 1931 Frankenstein image is even used for the cover of a book of essays on the original novel.|
So off to the movies I went. It turned out this was another limited “Fathom Event,” which I note because earlier in the year I’d gone to see two versions of a stage play of Frankenstein. In times past, feature movies were usually shown as part of an evening’s entertainment which would include cartoons and newsreels in addition to previews, so the movies themselves were relatively short—about 70 minutes or so. To pad the running for this special event showing, there were interviews with Bela Lugosi, Jr., Sara Karloff, and modern master make-up artist Rick Baker. Sara Karloff was a delight, very outgoing and funny, while Lugosi was more reserved.
Now for the main attractions: what surprised me more was not what I saw but the amount I hadn’t seen or at least didn’t remember seeing. Some of the sets were obviously on a back lot but that didn’t stop me from enjoying. I didn’t remember any of the romantic back story with Elizabeth, and I’ll add parenthetically that had I been Elizabeth I would have taken off with Victor. Not only was he more handsome, he actually seemed interested in Elizabeth. Henry was more preoccupied with his great experiment than with his fiancé. (Yes, the names are switched: in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the main character is Victor Frankenstein who has a friend named Henry. In the movie, it’s Henry Frankenstein who has a friend named Victor.) Of course, being me I was very concerned about the kitten but it seemed to have had a lucky escape as did the hounds hunting the Monster.
As I sat in the theatre, I tried to imagine what it would have been like back in 1931, waiting to see what would happen. It really was pretty creepy and Karloff did a great job with a role that limited his opportunities to act. Watching it also disabused me of at least one misconception: Henry’s assistant is Fritz, not Igor. There were some bits of humor in the movie, but my favorite was the crediting of the novel to Mrs. Percy B. Shelley. (For the sequel, Mrs. Shelley did get her first name back as having suggested the story.) Highlights for me were the first stirrings of the Monster and, of course, Henry’s scream, ”It’s alive! It’s alive!”
I was much less familiar with Bride of Frankenstein, so I was a bit bemused by the frame story in which Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron discuss her book and are at great pains to point out how very wicked it is to even think about tampering with life. (The first film had been censored in part because of the line from Henry, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) There was a brief recap of the first film, complete with clips of characters played by other actors in the sequel. In keeping with the slightly altered tone, this time Henry has to be drawn back into creating a bride for the original Monster via a sinister former professor and the kidnapping of Elizabeth (now played by a different actress entirely.) This film had the Monster’s first words; according to Sara Karloff, her father was reluctant to have the Monster talk and had to be persuaded that it was right for the character. This is the source of the oft quoted “Fire—bad!” Also the film used quite a bit more humor to break the tension, most originating with Minnie the Maid who made pronouncements and mugged her way through the movie. This film was smoother than the first, but whether that was due to the original vision or due to heavy editing, I don’t know.
If you ever have a chance to see these films on the big screen, do it. The audience all seemed to enjoy it and I was pleased to find that the movies still had a certain amount of power. As someone pointed out, this was before they knew how to blow things up so they had to rely on more character and plot.