Frankenstein’s Monster: You make man like me?
Dr. Praetorius: No. Woman. Friend for you.
Frankenstein’s Monster: Woman….Friend….Wife
Many, many versions of Frankenstein and his Monster exist at this point. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel has been adapted and changed, used as a reference point for new writings and for films.
The quest to create the Bride informs the whole of James Whale’s 1935 masterpiece. Everything–the fits that Elizabeth Frankenstein throws, the (rather impressively rendered, especially given the time) Homunculi in jars, especially the Queen’s distaste for the King and King’s dogged pursuit–it all leads to the last moments of the film when the Bride is finally revealed.
And my god, is she something. We first see the Bride all wrapped up, much as Frankenstein before her. The expressionist film techniques (highly informed by German films like Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis), the light and shadow, play marvelously as a storm rages, giving the machines that Frankenstein and Praetorius have built the power they need to create. Sometimes the Bride, wrapped on the table, is just a human-like for from far away. Sometimes there are close-ups, and the shape of a woman is clear.
Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Bride of Frankenstein in the film, and what do we do with that? As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, at the beginning of the film, she settles down with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron to tell the rest of the story. As the Bride, she’s entirely different. Or, almost entirely different.
Much like the stage tradition of the same actor for Hook and Mr. Darling in productions of Peter Pan, I think it establishes continuity of character. Further than that, though, it suggests that the female imagination is haunted in its own way. This is further underscored by something Lanchester herself said once.
She reportedly wrote in her journal that “Whale felt that if this beautiful and innocent Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley could write such a horror story . . . then somewhere she must have had a fiend within, dominating part of her thoughts and her spirit . . . My playing both parts cemented that idea.”
And then there’s the immortal image of Elsa Lanchester, white dress billowing around her, lighting-bolts of silver in her blown-back hair. She moves sharply, quickly, when she moves—she’s somewhere between bird and human. She hisses at the Monster, rejecting him even as Dr. Praetorius plays father figure and tries to give her away to the Monster.
She doesn’t blink. She faints a bit, unsure of where she is or what is going on. To be brought back must be very trying (Recall the Monster earlier saying: I love dead. Hate living.) And though there are no words, the Bride makes her dislike of the Monster and of being returned very clear—the hisses and screams from her, the jerky head movements and unblinking eyes suggest confusion, fear, and anger.
And then she’s doomed to die as soon almost as soon as she’s created. The Monster says “we belong dead” and readies to blow up the lab, killing himself, the Bride, and Dr. Praetorius. But that’s the price of returning to normalcy. Though it’s been the humans, by and large, who’ve been monstrous, and who can continue being so, the monsters must be destroyed as the story closes.
That’s part of what our monsters do. They’re destroyed so we can live, so we can learn. So we can see our own monstrosity.
(Surprise! A Neil Gaiman video:)