April 6, 1974: The Bride of Frankenstein (1936) / The Return of Dr. X (1939)

Synopsis: On a stormy night in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron are discussing Mary’s just-completed novel Frankenstein. Lord Byron marvels that the ladylike Mary could have penned such a ghoulish tale. He eagerly describes the plot of the story, and we see a montage of scenes from the original film. Lord Byron concludes by wondering what might have taken place after the monster was destroyed in the burning windmill.

Mary then tells the men that she has indeed devised a continuation of the story, and she begins to narrate a tale that begins where the 1931 movie ends.

As the flames of the windmill fire begin to die down, the pitchfork-bearing mob disperses. But the father of the young girl who drowned in the first film remains. He refuses to accept that the monster is dead until he sees its charred bones, and he begins to pick through the ruins to find them. The floor of the windmill gives out from under him and he falls into a flooded chamber below. The monster (Boris Karloff) appears nearby, evidently having been saved by the water in this subfloor, and the enraged creature drowns the man. The creature limbs up out of the ruins to find the man’s wife searching for her husband, and the monster kills her as well.

As the creature wanders the countryside, Henry (Colin Clive) recuperates at home. He is sorry for what he has done, but still gets that crazy gleam in his eye when he talks about the god-like power he had briefly harnessed. One night he is visited by Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), a “professor of philosophy” who was fired from Henry’s university “for knowing too much”.

Pretorius wishes to form an alliance with Henry in order to create a new race of artificially-created humans. Henry has the power to restore dead tissue to life, but Pretorius claims to have mastered an entirely different trick – he can create new life out of inert material. To demonstrate this he takes Henry to his home, where – in a very odd scene – he unveils a series of tiny people he has grown in glass jars.

Meanwhile, the public learns that the monster still lives. It is captured and hauled into the village, but it soon escapes, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Later it happens upon the cottage of a blind hermit, who befriends the creature, teaching it to speak a little, and to appreciate the finer things in life – namely, smoking and drinking. But a couple of townsfolk come looking for the monster, and in the course of the monster’s escape the cottage is burned down.

Pretorious wants Henry to use his knowledge of reanimating cadavers in tandem with his own knowledge of building new tissue. His plan is to procure the body of a young woman and create for it a blank brain that Pretorius has constructed. With a female, the monster will be able to reproduce and start a new race. Henry is tempted by the possibilities, but racked with guilt and uncertainty.

The monster stumbles into a vast crypt just as it is being raided by Dr. Pretorious and his assistants. Pretorious is not afraid of the monster in the slightest, and offers it a drink and a cigar, which the monster greatly enjoys. He brings it back to Henry’s estate, knowing that if Pretorious cannot force Henry to bring the new woman to life , the monster can….

Comments: The Bride of Frankenstein is the rare sequel that not only equals but surpasses the original. Its themes are more complex than those in Frankenstein, its humor is more subversive and the characterizations are far richer and more nuanced.

It’s rewarding to watch the movie carefully, because there is a significant sleight-of-hand going on here.  In the first movie we met Henry Frankenstein in the worst possible light: he and Fritz were preparing to dig up a fresh corpse in a graveyard.  His moral transgressions were countless and long-standing,  and he had already made a devil’s bargain in order to secure forbidden knowledge.

But in Bride of Frankenstein, we are asked to accept that Henry has been redeemed by the love of a good woman — almost mystically redeemed, in fact.  Presumed dead, Henry is brought to the Frankenstein mansion, and it isn’t until hearth angel Elizabeth touches him that his arm moves, recalling the initial stirrings of the monster in the first film.  The line between life and death, already hazy in Frankenstein, has become blurrier still.

We quickly learn that it’s necessary for Henry to be born again; he has work to do.  He must earn our sympathies in order to make way for a new antagonist: the sinister Dr. Pretorious, who is less interested in revealing hidden knowledge than he is in kick-starting a new moral code, one in which he, rather than God, makes the rules.  That the new code requires the creation of a new species is entirely incidental.  It’s clear that Pretorious would have been happy realigning the values of his own species.  Unfortunately for him, the society he favors — one in which we are  “all devils — no nonsense about angels and being good” lacks a significant claque of support among his fellow humans.  And Pretorious’ pursuit of such a society seems to be what has really gotten him “booted” from his teaching post, and has left him friendless and without portfolio.

But Pretorious can always make new friends, or at least grow them in glass jars, and losing his job has simply given him more time for mischief. When Henry refuses to go where Pretorious leads, the solution is obvious: Elizabeth is held hostage, and the monster is pressed into service as hired muscle.  Henry — oddly enough considering his resume —  is now presented to us as a victim, being made to do Pretorious’ bidding entirely against his will in order to save the woman he loves.

It all seems rather unlikely, yet somehow it works. The movie was well-received by critics when it premiered four years after the original.  “Another astonishing chapter in the career of the Monster is being presented by Universal on the Roxy’s screen,” proclaimed the New York Times on May 11, 1935:

In “The Bride of Frankenstein,” Boris Karloff comes again to terrify the children, frighten the women and play a jiggling tune upon masculine spines as the snarling, lumbering, pitiful Thing that a scientist formed from grave-snatched corpses and brought to life with the lightning.

So vividly are etched the memories of the Monster’s first screen appearance that it seems scarcely possible that the original “Frankenstein” was shown on Broadway in December, 1931. Three and a half years was long to wait to learn whether the Monster died in the blazing tower where the end of “Frankenstein” left him. With this second chapter we know, of course, that he survived.

[…]In more ways than one, this is a changed Monster. At first, one must recall, he was pretty much of a thorough-going brute, a killer for the killing’s sake. Now, possibly under the unfluence of Spring at Universal, he is slightly moonstruck, hungry for kindness and even—oh, perish the thought—for love. 

Well, anything’s possible at the movies, right?

The Return of Dr. X

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Walter “Wichita” Garrett (Wayne Morris) is thrilled to score an interview with celebrated actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys).  But when he arrives at her apartment, Garrett finds Merrova dead, stabbed through the heart. Like any good newspaperman, he calls not the police, but his editor.  Before you can say “stop the presses!” his newspaper blares this scoop on its front page.  It’s only after the late edition comes out that the police find out about the crime and arrive at Merrova’s apartment, but they find no body, and no sign of a struggle.  Garrett is perplexed, but insists that Merrova is dead and someone must have moved the body.

Later, Garrett is called into his editor’s office, where he is astonished to find Angela Merrova, not only alive, but threatening a monster lawsuit.  Garrett insists that he saw Merrova dead, and that this woman must be an imposter. The editor sees things differently and Garrett is fired. But because he is that plucky breed of newspaperman that we often encounter in old movies, this doesn’t deter him.  He seeks out his friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to ask him whether someone with a stab wound of the type Angela Merrova sustained could survive. 

The good-natured Dr. Rhodes is tolerant of Garrett’s questions but he’s a little busy.  He is preparing to assist hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) with a tricky blood transfusion.  The donor, a man with a rare blood type, hasn’t shown up.  Nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) tells him that she has the same rare blood type, and volunteers to take the donor’s place for this procedure.

Joan clearly has a crush on the handsome Dr. Rhodes, and volunteering for a transfusion succeeds in catching his attention: after the procedure he asks her out on a date.  But instead of dancing under the stars, she ends up tagging along as Rhodes and Garrett check up on the missing blood donor.  They find him dead in his apartment, his body drained of all blood.  In fact the only blood they do manage to find doesn’t seem to be human blood at all.

They take the blood sample to Dr. Flegg, but Flegg seems rattled by it, angrily asserting that it’s ordinary human blood.  While there, they meet the doctor’s creepy assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart), a pallid man with a streak of white running through his hair. Certain that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, Garrett searches the newspaper archives until he stumbles onto the photograph he’s looking for: Quesne is none other than Dr. Maurice Xavier, whose diabolical experiments sent him to the electric chair years earlier.  Garrett now knows of two dead people who have turned up alive.  But how is it possible?

Comments: The title Return of Dr. X would have you believe this uneven thriller from Warner Brother is a sequel to the studio’s two-strip Technicolor hit from seven years earlier, but it isn’t; like Devil Bat’s Daughter, the film seems confident that you’ll buy your ticket without remembering anything that happened in the first installment. Maybe you’ll remember a goofball reporter in a hat, and Wayne Morris plays this pratfall-prone character in much the same way that Lee Tracy did in that earlier film. Thankfully, we’re not asked to believe the female ingenue is going to fall for such a low-rent stumblebum here; instead Joan latches onto Dr. Rhodes, who is presented to us as much more of a leading-man type, and for much of the time Wichita Garret and Dr. Rhodes pal around together while gathering clues to the crime, while poor Joan is squeezed in the front seat of the car between them, hoping to get a dance or at least a steak dinner out of the doctor at some point.

But both these leading men are eclipsed by the elephant in the room — that is to say, the presence of Humphrey Bogart as Marshall Quesne. Bogart hadn’t yet established himself as a leading man at Warner, and while he specialized in playing crooks and tough guys he was still occasionally called upon to play against type (giving a winning performance, for example, as a cheerful studio screenwriter in 1938’s Stand-In). But he was dreadfully miscast as Marshall Quesne and he knew it. He petitioned the studio to let him out of the picture, but they wouldn’t allow it; someone had to play the role now that Boris Karloff was no longer on the lot, and it fell to Bogart. To his credit he really seems to be trying his best, but he simply comes across as eccentric, not particularly menacing. Bogie’s tough-guy cadence doesn’t really fit the character, who is supposed to be a mad scientist who’s returned from the dead, and the pasty make-up and white shock of hair just look silly on him.

Bogart isn’t the only one to blame. The script doesn’t make a lot of sense, and its structure is peculiar. The lead roles are actually split between two actors (Wichita and Dr. Rhodes), as are the heavies (Quesne and Flegg); and Joan, ostensibly the romantic lead, has so little to do it’s not clear why she’s there at all. Moreover, Dr. Flegg’s motivations for resuscitating the dead still aren’t clear to me, and I’ve seen the movie three or four times now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.