“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.
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.