She pursed together plump, bee stung Angelina Jolie lips before Ms Jolie was even a sparkle in Jon Voight’s eye. Her own lovely large eyes – rounded with permanent surprise – came framed with ramrod straight eyebrows that point up into her hairline like arrows; her figure – taut and perfectly proportioned – swathed in bandages before being elegantly draped in ceremonial white folds. She wore flawless studio makeup, only sullied by some stitches around her jawline and down her neck. And then there’s that little matter of her world-famous hair – frizzed and theatrically teased from her head, styled by lightning bolt, with white swirls curling up from either temple. She is the Bride of Frankenstein.
When it comes to female monsters, the Bride of Frankenstein stands alone. True, the horror story is littered with nasties of the feminine variety – like vamps, she-wolves, she-devils and other mythological creatures – but few have taken on a singular identity like the ‘Bride’ – as she is often fondly referred. As a film character, the Bride – as a ‘serious’ creature rather than the ‘Elviras’ and ‘Morticias’ of comic popular culture – is popularly considered one of the only iconic female monsters; a mantle she has ably held for more than 70 years. Given a Halloween brief, some industrious fancy-dressers might consider a snake-haired Medusa or HR Giger Alien bodysuit, but you can usually bet your bottom dollar that the Bride is the most identifiable of female monsters… and the most popular.
Just like Frankenstein’s Monster before her – that is, the ‘mate’ she so tactlessly rejects – the Bride seduces her cinematic audience without so much as a word. Upon laying eyes on her male counterpart and watching his cumbersome fingers gently stroke her far more delicate hand, she lets out a shriek that actress Elsa Lanchester confesses was modelled on the hiss of over-protective swans, which she would feed when strolling with her husband, actor Charles Laughton, along the Thames River in London. In fact, while she wholly owns the titular role of this film, the Bride is the carrot that is dangled throughout the narrative – the one we’re all waiting not so patiently to see (the original theatrical trailer even asked ‘what will she look like?’) – as we build to a climax where she receives hardly more than a few minutes of screen-time. That is all it took to make her a legend.
By the time Bride of Frankenstein went into pre-production in 1934, its precursor, Frankenstein, was well-established as the blockbuster of its day; a colossal hit, and one that would be as identifiable in the 21st century as it was the century before. Boris Karloff’s square-headed, sunken-cheeked, Neanderthal-browed mug would be powerfully ingrained in the collective psyche as both the face of terror and victimization; one of the most reluctant ‘heroes’ of modern times and a soon-to-be misunderstood hopeless romantic.
Eager to capitalize on the box office frenzy of Frankenstein, producer Carl Laemmle Jr insisted on a sequel, but took some time to convince the film’s writer/director James Whale that the venture was a good one. Whale’s reticence to accept responsibility for the sequel – and his superiority as a creative artist – resulted in him securing considerable power over the final output, which no doubt was instrumental in this sequel being one of the best ever made (similar to the way The Godfather: Part II trumps its original film).
For English character actress Elsa Lanchester, those few minutes of screen-time as the Bride of Frankenstein would be responsible for informing the entirety of her career – both before and after. A working actress until her death in 1986, she would appear in close to 100 different roles on the small and silver screen, but in lending her face (and vocal raspings) to the Bride, her image would become indelibly infused in the public consciousness along the lines of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or even that Che Guevara portrait t-shirt design.
Born in 1902 to bohemian parents – who caused intense public scandal by refusing to legalize their union – it would seem Lanchester was destined to do something unconventional. As well as the notoriety of the Bride, she was married to fellow British thespian Charles Laughton, who she ‘outed’ in the memoir she released after his death. According to Lanchester, she remained committed in holy matrimony to Laughton despite the private revelation of his homosexuality, but consequently, chose not to sire children with him. Others disputed Lanchester’s claim believing a botched abortion to be the real reason behind their barren relationship… and so the rumour mill has continued to turn.
In casting Lanchester as his Bride, filmmaker James Whale foreshadowed her appearance at the film’s conclusion by positioning her in the opening prologue as Frankenstein’s real-life author, Mary Shelley (in the credits, the ‘Monster’s Mate’ is merely listed as a question mark). Shelley, her husband Percy and friend Lord Byron pontificate on the greatness of her Frankenstein morality tale, while she titillates with the promise of more story to come: “That wasn’t the end at all. Would you like to hear what happened after that? I feel like telling it. It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.”
According to Lanchester, the decision for her to play this dual role was one of Whale’s unflinching demands. Shelley allegedly intended to include the Bride in the original book of Frankenstein, so therefore, mirroring the Bride in the author’s image helped demonstrate how the seemingly sweet and innocent can harbour wicked thoughts. As Lord Byron says in the script, “Look at her, Shelley. Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein, a monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves? Isn’t it astonishing?”
Played with a knowing smugness, Lanchester was alluring as Mary Shelley – maybe a little too much as many shots of her décolletage were removed from the final cut of the film. By the time Bride of Frankenstein made it onto the big screen in 1935, a total of 15 minutes had been sliced from the director’s running time, including a number of religious references that censors deemed blasphemous and inflammatory (or possible for such interpretation).
Even at this early stage in cinema’s history, the horror genre was the casualty of intellectually snobbery, seen as somehow inferior to ‘nobler’ theatrical excursions. What Frankenstein did so well was raise horror to a level of social commentary more powerful than any preachy drama. Frankenstein’s Monster is the ultimate outsider – the most punished of pariahs – the embodiment of the ills suffered by any marginalised group. The fact that he is chased down by a flame-carrying lynch mob calling for his blood in the conclusion of the first Frankenstein film is no coincidence – it is cinematic poetry.
With the re-emergence of a burnt (emotionally and physically) and singed Monster in Bride of Frankenstein, Whale got to build on the concept of ostracisation that he’d so beautifully established in the first film. Against the judgement of Karloff, he insisted the Monster harness the ability to speak and, with only a handful of words, this man-made man turns philosopher. “I love dead, hate living,” he declares in his monotone. When presented with the prospect of finding a bride, His Loneliness says, “Women… Friend… Yes…”
In Bride of Frankenstein, Colin Clive’s Dr Frankenstein character is eclipsed by the mad scientist persona of real-life kook Ernest Thesiger as Dr Septimus Pretorius. Not only does Pretorius collect little people in jars – in a marvellous display of early special effects cinematography by John J. Mescall – but, also, he’s keen to further Frankenstein’s god complex with a collaborative project: create a bride to, hopefully, satiate that big lumbering lug. As such, her creation and final reveal is what really drives the movie forward. Before she takes on a living and breathing physical form, she infiltrates the film as a Wagnerian leitmotif created by composer Franz Waxman. When Pretorius talks about the Bride’s birth, we hear the three-note theme (that sounds remarkably similar to South Pacific’s Bali Hai) as an aural cue for the ethereal, mute creature that will eventually grace the screen.
Hardly what one would call an obvious beauty – more curious-looking than say the willowy classicism of ingénue Valerie Hobson (who took over the role of Baroness Frankenstein from Mae Clark) – Elsa Lanchester is recognisable by her distinct quirkiness, with natural features that include a pert nose, slightly gapped front teeth and clefted Kirk Douglas chin. In her memoirs, she recalls undergoing the laborious process of makeup application under the hand of Universal’s legendary Head of Department, Jack Pierce, who was also responsible for creating the look of the Monster. Pierce, uniformed in something like hospital scrubs, had taken on the ‘eccentric genius’ personality of Dr Frankenstein – no one dared say ‘hello’ to him before he proffered such a greeting for fear of his chagrin.
In constructing the archetypal female monster, her attractiveness was obviously of paramount importance. There would be little obstruction to Ms Lanchester’s porcelain-skinned face, except for the scars that Pierce would pedantically paint and paste under her jawline. The script described her outrageous beehive as “curled close to her head and straight and dark on either side.” In actual fact, it was constructed from a wire cage placed on her head and then interwoven with her own marcel-waved hair and artificial weaves. Since the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, Egyptology had been all the rage in the US, informing many aspects of design from jewellery to furniture, and the Bride’s hairstyle was no exception, obviously recalling the elaborate headdress of the ancient queen Nefertiti.
The audience is never afforded a really good, lingering look at the Bride, as Whale’s camera is frenetically moving in a series of jump cuts – jarringly non-matching – capturing her expression from a variety of acute, uncomfortable angles. In one shot, Whale even padded out Lanchester’s mouth with wadding to distort her features. She stares this way and that, frantic movements like a bird or cornered deer, and recoils from everything around her – most dramatically from the Monster of which she is meant to welcome as her mate. On her full body reveal, Franz Waxman’s theme, of which we are now subconsciously familiar, wells up into its satisfying orchestral whole, complete with chiming wedding bells.
It’s hardly a few minutes more before her fate is resolutely sealed – destroyed before she’s had the opportunity to explore this new world or relate to her mortality, but, considering the pain and suffering Frankenstein’s Monster had endured, we can only conclude that she’s better off this way and he’s actually done her a favour. As swift as her demise may seem, the Bride lingers on in our collective cultural memory. Her hairstyle would appear on haute couture catwalks, and in the styling of other film characters – even men – such as Boris Karloff himself in The Walking Dead (1936). In 1985, rocker Sting would take on the role of Dr Frankenstein, while Jennifer Beals would endeavour to recreate the Bride-Monster. Even the satirical film director Mel Brook’s would pay homage to Bride of Frankenstein by replicating the set from the film in his 1974 hit, Young Frankenstein.
Whether Bride of Frankenstein remains the best horror movie ever made comes down to personal opinion, although it is a brave critic to argue against it being anything but the ‘Citizen Kane of its genre.’ And, of course, the Bride herself can proudly walk tall as one of the very few iconic female monsters ever created. In terms of being a monster, she didn’t even really do anything horrible, only reject the advances of a ‘man’… Maybe in the patriarchal Hollywood system of the time, this was truly ‘monstrous’ behaviour from the likes of women who should be submissive and thankful in their servitude? If that’s the case, then may I pose a toast to her – ‘All hail the Bride… May she live on forever.’