It was 75 years ago today, April 22, in 1935, that Bride of Frankenstein was released to critical and popular acclaim. In time, this extraordinary film has only grown in stature, now considered by many as the best horror film ever made, and certainly one of the jewels of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Back in 1931, the phenomenal success of Frankenstein made a sequel inevitable, but director James Whale, feeling he had done everything he could with the story, wanted no part of it. Universal turned, ironically, to Robert Florey.
The French-born writer-director had originated the Frankenstein project, writing a script and filming the now legendary, lost screen test with Bela Lugosi as The Monster, only to be pushed aside when Whale stepped in and took over. Florey would be denied again. His screen treatment, The New Adventures of Frankenstein: The Monster Lives!, was unceremoniously shelved, and the writing chores passed on to a succession of writers, a list that would grow to eleven in all.
Storylines in various states of development would include one where The Monster took over his creator’s work, and another in which Dr. Frankenstein builds a death ray. German expatriate director Kurt Neumann was briefly involved in the project, now titled The Return of Frankenstein.
By mid-1933, news of the proposed film started appearing in newspapers. In July, the New York Times announced that Universal was producing The Return of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, "who was the original what-is-it that frightened children" with The Ottawa Citizen adding, if incorrectly, "practically the entire cast of the original being kept for this one."
On July 28, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried a short piece by syndicated showbiz columnist Harriet Parsons on Karloff and the new Frankenstein film (see at left).
The film’s phalanx of uncredited scribes included Josef Berne, whose cinematic output was coming up with settings for 3-minute “Soundies”, the early film equivalent of today’s music videos. Then there was Philip MacDonald, writer of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto films, the Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945), and several TV dramas including episodes of Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Fantasy Island. Tom Reed was an early contributor whose first screen job was writing the title cards for The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He also collaborated on Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Another uncredited writer was Lawrence Blochman, a prolific mystery and detective writer who translated the works of George Simenon and served as president of the Mystery Writers of America.
One particularly interesting contributor was Edmund Pearson, who came up with the scene where Dr. Pretorius reveals his living doll creations. His only other screenwriting gig was an assist, again uncredited, on Werewolf of London (1935). Pearson made up for his poor screen creds with a phenomenal career as a true crime writer. His books, notably his essays on the Lizzie Borden case, are considered classics of the genre.
By 1934, James Whale was finally persuaded to return, with the understanding that he would have complete control over the production. A new script was tailored to his wishes. R.C.Sherriff, who had beautifully adapted H.G.Wells’ The Invisible Man for Whale, was briefly involved, as was John L. Balderston, who had co-scripted Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. It was Balderston’s idea to use Mary Shelley’s concept of The Monster demanding a mate. In the end, the shooting script was delivered by veteran playwright and screenwriter William Hurlbut. The title change, to Bride of Frankenstein, was only confirmed once shooting started.
The working title stuck around a bit. When writer Edmund Pearson and actor O.P.Heggie (the blind hermit) passed away, both in 1937, their obituaries listed The Return of Frankenstein among their credits. The title was also used, briefly, in the early stages of the making of Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Amazingly, considering the scale of the production, barely four months elapsed between the film starting up and its theatrical release. Shooting began on January 2, 1935 and completed March 7, running ten days over schedule and a whopping 30% over budget. Less than a month after wrapping, a first edit was being previewed even as James Whale was busy retooling, dropping scenes and shooting new ones, right up to the release date. Notably, Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein was again saved from extermination.
In the original film, Frankenstein was to be killed when thrown from the burning windmill by The Monster. The producers thought better of it and a new closing scene showed the scientist being nursed back to health by his fiancée. In the sequel, as originally shot, Frankenstein perished in the exploding castle laboratory along with the evil Dr. Pretorius and his two monstrous creations but, again, a reprieve was given and a new scene was shot with Colin Clive’s Frankenstein and Valerie Hobson’s Elizabeth escaping the conflagration. Actually, Clive had it both ways: Despite the modified ending, a reshoot of the spectacular lab explosion was out of the question and Clive’s Frankenstein, whom we’ve just seen booking to safety on the castle path, is still visible inside the lab, at left, backed up to the wall as the tower comes crashing down.
Bride of Frankenstein’s engrossing tale unfolds on massive sets. Its superlative cast is given splendid, highly quotable dialogue, accompanied by a lavish wall-to-wall score. The film is filled all through its brisk, 75-minute run time with unforgettable scenes, none so glorious, perhaps, as the climactic birth of the fiercely independent Bride.
Bride of Frankenstein was an instant classic and has proven an enduring one.
Tomorrow: What did the critics say?