Frankenstein (1931) was a hit, so Universal doubled the budget for the sequel to over $400,000. I believe it's generally regarded as better than the original and I won't disagree, although "better" is a crude word. I'll merely note that it's better acted, better edited, doesn't waste our time blithering on with Frankenstein's father and has an ending more powerful than that of any other classic Universal horror movie.
Firstly, the actors. They've brought back all my favourites and cleared out the dead wood. Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and even Dwight Frye have all recovered from being killed off last time, although the last of those is playing a different character with the same plot function. Ironically it's the previous film's survivors who've been disposed of, despite the fact that this is a heel-and-toe sequel like Dracula's Daughter, picking up immediately after the last scene of its predecessor. Needless to say, all three of these are great. Frye doesn't get much to do, but he's transformed himself so much that I hardly recognised him. Colin Clive is being asked to play a more passive Frankenstein this time, but he's still intense and perhaps a little disturbing.
However, needless to say, the most important is Karloff. Interestingly the script's drawing on his performance from last time and has thus given him character development and a more sympathetic, richer role. A blind man teaches him to speak! It's a surprisingly quick process, but presumably his brain still contained some vestigial memories. Note incidentally the surprising way in which Karloff delivers those early, childish lines of dialogue. Far from being the dead-eyed, sluggish beast of popular stereotype, he's excitable enough to be goofy. He's not dissimilar to Herman Munster, in fact. The poor chap's delighted to have found a friend and to have become capable of communicating in more than grunts. His motor control is still poor, as is demonstrated when asked to put a hand on his friend's shoulder and Karloff can only thump an arm there, but I love his "sit down" arm gestures. This man is putting a surprising amount of depth and energy into being a shambling zombie thing that goes around killing people.
I adored the mute Karloff, but I love this new version too. You feel even more for this Monster. Everyone he meets either screams, flees or tries to kill him. Admittedly the first thing he does here on being found is to commit murder, but he's grumpy because they'd just tried to burn him to death in a windmill. You forgive him. Anyway, Karloff becomes downright chilling once he's been given lines to deliver. The Monster understands his own condition, which is perhaps the most terrible thing about him, and speaks straight from his savage heart. He says he hates life and love death. If anything, he's the film's tragic hero.
One of the Monster's early victims is Mary Gordon, by the way, better known as Mrs Hudson opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. She was also in the previous Frankenstein film, albeit uncredited as a mourner.
Turning to the original's supporting players, Frankenstein's father (Frederick Kerr) dies offscreen between scenes! He never appears in the film, but in the beginning he's presumably alive and well, yet later Henry starts being referred to as the Baron. No one offers condolences on his loss either. Meanwhile Henry's best friend (John Boles) isn't mentioned, while Mae Clarke has been replaced by Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. None of this matters a jot. The substitution I didn't even notice immediately, despite having watched it only the day before yesterday and Hobson being brunette while Clarke was blonde. Hell, they've even got a new Burgomaster. The first one looked as goofy as Kerr, but his replacement is E.E. Clive, unusually playing an non-comedic role.
Of the new characters, two are worth talking about. I suppose I should count the blind man, but there's nothing particularly difficult about being nice. The odder of the two guest stars is Una O'Connor, in what should have been the non-role of Minnie the housekeeper. You might remember her from The Invisible Man (also directed by Whale) and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Anyway she's extraordinary, shrieking like a banshee at every opportunity and playing it so broad that she steals every scene she's in.
The more important guest star though is that preening old queen, Dr Pretorius. He reminds me of James Whale himself, actually, although maybe I'm just thinking of Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters. He's a Mephistopheles character, at one point likening himself to the Devil, but more importantly he introduces a gay subtext. If it weren't for him, this film would be straightforwardly heterosexual. Frankenstein has his fiancee Elizabeth. His Creature will get a Bride, although poignantly he only thinks this means "friend". Dr Pretorius though comes and blackmails this famous man into doing wicked things with him, incidentally resulting in scenes which look for all the world like an illicit love triangle when Frankenstein's trying to hide the truth from Elizabeth. Eventually the two together produce the ultimate parody of male-female union by giving unnatural birth.
Thankfully the actor's playing it as theatrically as everyone else in the film. He's effeminate, but he's also created something even more ghastly than Frankenstein did in the form of his miniature bottle people. That's a deranged idea, but the film pulls it off with astonishingly good special effects and a sprinkling of fairy-tale technobabble. He's also an entertaining character in his own right. "Have a cigar. They're my only weakness." He'd previously said the same thing about gin. His presence in the film could be argued to weaken the Frankenstein character, but he definitely makes the film richer. Theirs is an almost Faustian relationship. Eventually Frankenstein's giving orders to Dwight Frye that will mean murder, even if he's denying it to himself. "There are always accidental deaths occurring." Naturally Pretorius agrees with him.
Personally I don't see gay subtext in the scene with the Monster and the blind man, though. It's a touching emotional turning point involving a relationship between two men, but imposing sexual subtext on the Monster seems like a misreading to me. It would be like a cross between bestiality or paedophilia.
Unconventional love triangles and gay subtext seem to fit even the prologue, by the way, even though ironically it's only there in the first place because of the censors. The Hays Code was up and running by 1935, so James Whale had been worried about getting them to accept a movie like this and thus added a prologue to point out that Frankenstein is a work of fiction written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. (D'oh.) He does this by showing Lord Byron and the Shelleys discussing their work, but of course that's fairly racy company and their dialogue was originally full of boastful references to their immorality and adultery. Most of that went. It's a bizarre scene, but to be fair it mirrors Edward Van Sloan's less outre introduction to the 1931 film and gives us the fascinating idea of casting the same actress (Elsa Lanchester) as both Mary Shelley and the Bride of Frankenstein. That's foreshadowing the link between creator and creation that will run throughout the film with Clive and Karloff.
The story is unusual for a Frankenstein movie, or indeed for the horror genre. A great chunk of the middle of the film is given over entirely to the Adventures of Boris Karloff, in which the Monster roams the countryside. He's childlike. If you tried and failed to murder a four-year-old who could kill as easily as breathing, this is pretty much what would happen. He leaves plenty of victims in his wake, but he also saves people from drowning only to get screamed at and shot. He's delighted when he finds that the blind man will accept him like anyone else.
In other words, he's being treated as the hero. What's more, he's a much more interesting hero than you'll get almost anywhere else, since his easily roused brutality is so at odds with what he's looking for. Admittedly for quite a while he's just blundering around, but the film's laying on its themes so thickly that you always know where the story's going. The Monster wants a friend. Every hand is against him, he'll kill without a thought and even he's disgusted by how he looks. The entire living world is his enemy. Nevertheless he's looking for a mate and that's what drives the film. That's what almost every scene ends up being about, whether we're watching Karloff or Clive.
This film is unmatched in the entire Universal classic canon, both for thematic unity or its treatment of "monster as hero". The Mummy's Ghost has that deliciously deranged ending and The Wolf Man is more clearly focused on tragedy, but neither of those films' plots are as character-driven as this. It's obvious what will happen when Frankenstein and Pretorius finally complete their Bride for him, but it's Karloff's reactions that makes it powerful. Universal would never make another ending like it.
James Whale's work is still ground-breaking for its era, but he's toned down the German Expressionism in the set design, at least. They aren't as dizzyingly tall and alienating, but the film still looks great and you've got to admire the scene where they animate the Bride. That's where Whale really gets experimental, with super-fast cutting, dramatic shadows and grotesque close-ups. It's an extraordinary sequence even today and the most striking Frankenstein reanimation I've ever seen, whether in a Universal movie or otherwise.
After that, the Bride herself is this jerky insect-like creature that owes a debt to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Whale's also less careless with his editing, although there is one scene where Karloff either has his hand pressing down on a girl's face or nowhere near her head, depending on where the camera's standing. Even with that, though, it's still a clear improvement on last time.
There's more technobabble than in 1931, but only one howler. "The human heart is more complex than any other part of the body." Er, no. It also seems strange that this Germanic village would be policed by French gendarmes, but maybe it's meant to be near Switzerland.
Is this the best Universal horror film? Maybe. Their best Frankenstein film? I don't think there's even room for discussion. I'm a fan of the whole series, right up to the Abbott and Costello one, but Bride is clearly on a different level. Even the 1931 original has big flaws, not to mention a bland ending. Incidentally this is one of those sequels that builds upon what went before so well that it feels like the second half of the story, but is also an excellent standalone. Its mere existence improves its predecessor. Together, they become the two halves of my favourite adaptation of this novel.
One final comment. The 1931 film ended on Frankenstein's father raising a toast to a possible future grandson. This film ends with what feels like a similar nod to the next film, Son of Frankenstein. That would take another four years and by then Colin Clive would be dead. He left us a hell of a legacy, though.