April 25, 2010

"My Trifling Experiments"

“Tell him Dr. Pretorius is here, on a secret matter of graaave importance!

Almost exactly fifteen minutes into Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Septimus Pretorius appears on Frankenstein’s doorstep. He is introduced as an old university acquaintance, a doctor of philosophy “booted out — booted, my dear Baron, is the word — for knowing too much!. The morbidly engaging character is played with great delectation by British actor Ernest Thesiger. It’s a rare case of absolutely perfect casting and, unarguably, one of the finest performances in the history of horror film.

Wrenching the feverish Frankenstein from the opulent comfort of his convalescent bed, Pretorius leads him across town, up dark stairs and into his narrow, caligaresque garret where, he says, “After 20 years of secret scientific research and countless failures, I, also, have created life, as we say, in God’s own image.

Dressed like a dark priest, Pretorius brings out a coffin-like box containing tall glass jars. “I cannot account precisely,” he warns, “for all that I am going to show you.”

The scene belongs entirely to Thesiger, given rich, humorous and sometimes transgressive dialogue, with Colin Clive’s Frankenstein reduced to twitchy, wide-eyed silence. What unfolds is an elaborate fantasy as Pretorius’ creations, revealed one by one, are homunculi, puppet-sized people dressed in fanciful costumes.

Science, like love,” Pretorius quips, “has her little surprises!” adding, ominously, “I, my dear pupil, went for my materials to the source of life. I GREW my creatures, like cultures. Grew them, as nature does, from seed!

None of the living doll actors are named in the credits, but they have all been identified.

The first creation revealed is dressed as a Queen who performs a mechanical windup-like curtsy. The actress in the sumptuous gown and crown is Joan Woodbury, a dark-haired beauty who appeared in some 80 films over a 30-year career. She is perhaps best remembered for her lead as Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1945. Woodbury married actor Henry Wilcoxon in 1937.

Next up is a King, obviously patterned on Charles Laughton’s gluttonous Henry VIII. It's director James Whale’s little joke, given that Mrs. Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, bookended his film as Mary Shelley and the title Bride. The actor is A.S. ‘Pop’ Byron, a busy bit player often confused with Arthur Byron, the Dr. Whemple of The Mummy. Pop Byron would probably be completely forgotten today if not for his very physical performance as the little King, excitedly signaling his beloved Queen, escaping his jar and racing across the tabletop, jumping over a book and a pipe, to be caught and lifted away by Pretorius with a pair of tongs.

Given an alluring Queen and a ribald King, the next doll introduced is a disapproving, finger-wagging Archbishop who blows a referee whistle at the King’s antics. Scottish-born Norman Ainsley was a character actor who specialized in butler, valet, clerk and steward roles.

Next is “The very Devil!”, an urbane, caped mephistopheles. Pretorius has a clear preference for this Devil doll. “There’s a certain resemblance to me, don’t you think? Or do I flatter myself?

The Devil is played by Peter Shaw, who would appear in but a handful of films before graduating to an executive’s chair at MGM, and then on to the William Morris Agency where he represented Katherine Hepburn, among others. Shaw married actress Angela Lansbury and produced her popular television series, Murder, She Wrote.

The next doll, a tutu’ed, tippy-toe ballerina is, according to Pretorius, “charming, but such a bore”. She only dances to Mendelssohn, and it gets so monotonous”. The perpetually pirouetting figure is played by Kansas DeForrest, whose only other screen appearance, also in 1935, was an uncredited bit as, again, a dancer, in something called Love Me Forever.

The sixth creation is presented, disingenuously as it turns out, as “very conventional, I’m afraid”, whereupon Pretorius reveals a spectacular mermaid languorously combing her long platinum hair with a seashell, dappled undersea light dancing on her sequined tail. “It was an experiment with seaweed”, Pretorius explains.

The lovely, unforgettable mermaid was athlete Josephine McKim, a relay gold medal winner for America at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. McKim would play a mermaid again in The King Steps Out (1936), directed by Josef von Sternberg, a puff-pastry operetta the notorious director detested so much that he asked for it be stricken from his credits and never shown again.

McKim made another famous, uncredited cameo as Maureen O’Sullivan’s nude double for an enchanting underwater ballet with fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan and His Mate (1934). The sequence was excised and long unseen, but it has been restored and it’s now on YouTube. Go look, it’s a knock out.

The entire living doll sequence is a triumph of trick photography by Universal’s resident special effects wizard, John P. Fulton.

Using a high camera to establish their small size, the actors were photographed on a darkened set and their images burned onto the jars in the Pretorius footage. A telltale sign: The jars reflect on the tabletop, but not their contents. A close look at the King’s run across the scene reveals that, except for the jar he leaps from, there were no oversized props for him to interact with. He was running an obstacle course of black velvet, almost seamlessly aligned with the objects on the table. Only close inspection shows fleeting matte lines.

Another neat trick has Pretorius partially revealing the little Ballerina while still holding the jar. You see her tiny legs, a dummy stand-in, before we cut to a closeup on the table, and the full figure is shown dancing. It’s a simple piece of legerdemain that makes the scene all the more convincing.

Franz Waxman’s music turns whimsical, underlining the absurd magic of the scene, like a Carl Stalling score punctuates a Warner Brother cartoon. The living dolls squeak like Mickey mice.

We last see the homunculi in a reverse shot, when Pretorius crosses over from behind the table to join the astonished Frankenstein. “Normal size has been my difficulty,” Pretorius says, “ You did achieve size. I need to work that out with you.”

But this isn’t science,” Frankenstein gasps, “Its more like black magic!

The reverse shot implied filming the doll actors from the back and from a higher perspective, making the entire scene more complex, but extraordinarily convincing. What’s more, close observation reveals a seventh jar, perched on a book.

The figure within, a gesticulating blond baby in a high chair, is 3-foot, 9-inch tall Billy Barty, a rousing entertainer whose career covered vaudeville, films and television. He founded the philanthropic Little People of America organization in 1957.

Why the baby reveal was cut is unknown, it was most likely a question of timing and tightening up the scene.

For all its eccentricity, the homunculi scene sets the film on its dark, doomed course.

Now think,” Pretorius says, “what a world astounding collaboration we should be. You and I, together! Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature, or of God if you like your Bible stories. Male and female created He them. Be fruitful and multiply. Create a race, a MAN-MADE race, upon the face of the Earth.
Why not?

Tragically mismatched partners, Frankenstein forced into an unholy conspiracy with the sinister Pretorius, the two scientists will now begin the work of creating a Bride for The Monster.

“Here’s to a new world of gods and monsters!

Related: A profile of Ernest Thesiger.



Outstanding post once again!

Peter Bernard said...

Best. Post. Ever.

Wings said...

GREAT post! I will hooked from word one! Never read a detailed account of this scene or of the actors hired to help make it magical. Awesome. Just wonderful, thank you!

Will Errickson said...

"It's my only vice!" is the line of I love of his, which he repeats throughout the film. Gin, cigars, bursting into men's bedrooms in the middle of the night...

Caftan Woman said...

Joan Woodbury?! See Joan Woodbury dance in "The Eagle's Brood" (Hopalong Cassidy flick) and "Charlie Chan on Broadway". In one she's a tough-as-nails good gal and in the other a tough-as-nails vamp.

It's been a grand week enjoying cake and your outstanding articles.

Martin Powell said...

Absolutely splendid! I always learn something every time I visit this blog, and what a joy to discover new truths concerning my favorite Frankenstein film. Bravo!

rob! said...

Wonderful post!

I feel like there was a whole separate movie that could've been made of Pretorius and his tiny creations.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I know you get tired of hearing this every day, but I have to say it: Absolutely Brilliant!

I never would have guessed the Billy Barty was in BRIDE. Of course I, like all good people, am a huge Barty fan. ;)

thiswomanswork said...

James Whale had fun with this film and you can tell.This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Thank you for this week-long Bride Fest!

Marcos Mateu said...

I've just seen the underwater Tarzan - Jane video. Great images, unforgettable sequence indeed!

Anonymous said...

It's obviously not the same Peter Shaw who married Angela Landsbury, he was born in 1918, the Devil is not being played by a teenage boy.

Pierre Fournier said...

Indeed, the Devil is not a tall, 17 year old. Unless, of course, he is. I’m going to try to track down this particular “Peter Shaw”, see if we can sort it out. There are tons of sources, including several Angela Lansbury bios, where BRIDE is listed among Shaw’s credits, but of course, one mistake can get repeated over and over again. I’d rather get it right. We’ll see.

PS: Why Anonymous?

Sam - leiksi2000@yahoo.com said...

The Bride Of Frankenstein has, by far, one of the most beautiful scenes ever caught on film.

The Creature meets the blind hermit. This scene runs almost 10 minutes, and makes me cry every time. The compassion the hermit shows the creature is overwhelming. That first touch, when the creature pulls away ignites a compassionate bond that none can compare.

When hermit prays for creature, and is thanking God for sending a companion is only outdone by the closeup of creature with tears in his eyes, patting hermit on the back, whom has knelt by the bed and laid his head on creatures chest and wept in gratitude.

If only we would be more blind like hermit, there would be less hatred and more compassion in the world today.

And, if you're wondering why this is such a special scene, it is taken from the Bible. Read Matthew, chapter 24, verses 34 - 40, then watch this scene. It will open your eyes and heart, showing that there is good in everyone if we just look with our hearts open and our eyes shut.


Diana Manister said...

Wonderful film critique! Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

The actor playing the 'The Devil' is obviously not the same Peter Shaw who later married Angela Landsbury. The later Peter Shaw was a 16 year old schoolboy in the UK when Bride was filmed and would not use the name 'Peter Shaw' and would not relocate to the US until after WWII. Also, if the actress playing the mermaid was working as a body double on the Tarzan film, then her appearance could hardly be called a "cameo."

Anonymous said...

The actor playing the 'The Devil' is obviously not the same Peter Shaw who later married Angela Landsbury. The later Peter Shaw was a 16 year old schoolboy in the UK when Bride was filmed and would not use the name 'Peter Shaw' and would not relocate to the US until after WWII. Also, if the actress playing the mermaid was working as a body double on the Tarzan film, then her appearance could hardly be called a "cameo."