SHE NEVER HAD A NAME, only a title. And although she was seen for just a matter of minutes in a film released nearly a century ago, The Bride of Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic figures in the history of cinema.
Credit the great Elsa Lanchester for that. Her performance in the role is simply brilliant. For every precious second her character appears onscreen you can almost believe that you are looking at a monstrous newborn spawned from weird and macabre circumstances. Couple that with the Bride’s audacious design, and you get a character for the ages.
Much has been written about the Bride and her long journey to the screen. Here are the 6 Funtastic Facts I’ve culled out for comment.
While it’s hard in retrospect to imagine anyone but Elsa Lanchester in the role of the Bride, I have to admit that it is fun to ponder what Brigitte Helm might have done with the role. Eight years before The Bride of Frankenstein, in 1927, the German actress made a big splash playing the dual role of “Maria” and her robot double in Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis. According to most accounts, Bride director James Whale offered her the role opposite Boris Karloff‘s Monster, but she turned it down.
On the screen Helm was a formidable force of nature, her fiery intensity offset by the impenetrable countenance of a renaissance statue. Her take on the Bride might have been interesting, but alas, we’ll never know.
You’re going to think I made this stuff up, but here goes.
One early story for what was originally to be called The Return of Frankenstein had Doctor Frankenstein and his wife, Elizabeth, joining the circus, presumably as a way to hide out after the terrible events of the first film. Frankenstein’s monster tracks them down, however, only to be killed in a climactic battle with a lion.
In another draft of the screenplay, set to the drumbeat of impending war in Europe, the Doctor applies his scientific expertise to the creation of a death ray for the League of Nations. The weapon accidentally revives Frankenstein’s Monster, though, and the creature promptly uses it to destroy entire cities.
When asked one time how the development of the project was coming along, director James Whale reportedly said “They have a script prepared, and it stinks to heaven.”
This is understandable, coming from an artist of Whale’s calibre. But there is a part of me that would love to see those crazy stories put onscreen.
The final script was penned by John L. Balderston (The Mummy, 1932) and William Hurlbut (Imitation of Life, 1934), with an assist from Whale himself.
When asked over the years what inspired her characterization of the Bride, Lanchester would recall the swans in London’s Regent’s Park, which she’d regularly encounter during walks with her husband, actor Charles Laughton. “They’re really very nasty creatures, always hissing at you,” the actress once said. “I used the memory of that hiss. The sound men, in one or two cases, ran the hisses and screams backwards to add to the strangeness.”
I’d venture a guess that those swans inspired the Bride’s quick, birdlike head movements as well.
It’s been reported that, for her character’s creation scenes, Lanchester wore nearly 2 miles worth of linen bandage, which rendered her nearly immobile. That would account for the wicker chez lounge we see Lanchester reclined on during this on-set tea break, in the undoubtedly urbane company of (l. to r.) Ernest Thesinger, Colin Clive, and Boris Karloff.
The Bride’s electrified hairstyle was achieved by weaving Lanchester’s own locks and some add-on hair into a wire mesh cage that was affixed to the actress’s head.
The Bride represented yet another triumph for Universal’s resident monster maker, famed makeup artist Jack Pierce. In later years, Lanchester remembered Pierce as being a very serious artist. She had the impression that he saw himself almost as a godlike creator; so much so that whenever she entered Pierce’s makeup room she was careful not to speak first, but rather, wait to be acknowledged.
While there doesn’t seem to be much known about how the overall look of the Bride was conceived, it is known that Whale was a rather subversive filmmaker, so it is safe to assume that his idea was to turn the prevailing Hollywood beauty image of that era on its head, making the character glamorous enough to look like a typical movie star, but dangerous and otherworldly around the edges.
While things didn’t work out for Frankenstein’s Monster and his would-be mate onscreen, the big guy at least got to make his pitch. In Mary Shelley‘s 1818 novel, they never even met!
In the book, the monster does succeed in coercing his creator to make a woman like him to be his companion. But the doctor gets only as far as constructing the body before he’s struck with the idea that if he brings it to life, the monster and his mate might spawn a race of super beings that could eventually supplant humanity.
I won’t say more, because that would be spoilery and you really should read the book. But let’s just say that it wasn’t until 1935 that the world finally got to see the Bride of Frankenstein rise from the table.
In Shelley’s novel, Doctor Frankenstein’s quest to create life takes him at first into the mysterious realm of alchemy. Further on in the story, he incorporates conventional scientific methods involving electricity, and through this combination of disciplines gives life to his creation. But by the time this story made it to the screen in 1931’s Frankenstein, the alchemy was gone.
It returned four years later, however, in The Bride of Frankenstein—reintroduced by the sinister Doctor Pretorious (Ernest Thesinger, above). His contribution to the Bride’s creation is her brain, which he cultivates from scratch, like a culture. When Pretorious demonstrates this ability to Doctor Frankenstein by introducing him to several miniature people he has similarly grown from scratch, Frankenstein observes that the practice is more akin to “black magic” than science.
And it’s this aspect of the Bride’s creation that has always made her so interesting to me; this hint of the mysterious and possibly evil that differentiates her from her male counterpart, the Monster Frankenstein. What sort of person would she have become had she had the time to develop? Writers who’ve handled the character in recent years seem to believe that she’d be evil. In works as far-ranging as television series (Penny Dreadful) and comic books (Joe Frankenstein), the Bride is—to put it succinctly—hell on wheels.