Word has it that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the result of a dare from a friend.  The friend was poet, Lord Byron and he challenged her to write a ghost story.  Drawing from state of the art medical experimentation at the time, Mary, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, wrote one of the most influential books in the history of popular literature, a book that has transcended time and space.

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” – Frankenstein, 1818

Frankenstein was published in 1818 when Mary Shelley was 21 years old.  She wrote it at 19, a fact that is ever fascinating to me.  The book was a huge success and, in a real sense, played a very important role for women and their acceptance as credible contributors to literature.  Although, poet Percy B. Shelley (Mary’s husband) wrote an introduction to the original publication that lead many to believe she couldn’t possibly have written the book.  But she did and has since remained – by way of print and technology – the most accessed author of gothic literature ever.

I’ve read Frankenstein twice.  The first time while a junior in high school many moons ago.  I remember being deeply affected by the book.  The heartfelt story of deep isolation, alienation and loneliness really affected me.  By that time I was very familiar with Universal‘s versions of the Frankenstein story and the creature was practically part of my family.  Universal’s Frankenstein monster was worthy of pity and Karloff’s performance brings that to the screen beautifully beyond the horror make-up.  But it wasn’t until after reading the book that I appreciated him so much more.  Or at least on a level where I was always conscious of the depth of his sorrow from then on.

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” – Frankenstein, 1818

Earlier this week I had the privilege of seeing the two greatest creations of Frankenstein that have been produced since Mary Shelley’s novel was written.  Thanks to Turner Classic Movie‘s (TCM) Event Series, which presented a double-feature of the two original Universal Frankenstein films, James Whale‘s, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
My excitement was palpable as I walked into a multiplex in Paramus, New Jersey to feel classic terror caused by the greatest horrors the world has ever known.  I was very happy to see the theater was very nearly filled to capacity by a pretty enthusiastic crowd.  As has been the case in all the TCM-sponsored events/screenings, the evening’s line-up was introduced by Robert Osborne, our beloved TCM host, followed by special interviews that were filmed at this year’s TCM Film Festival.  The interviewees were Bela Lugosi, Jr., Sarah Karloff (daughter of the legend), and seven-time Oscar-winning make-up artist, Rick Bakerwho fell in love with make-up in film as a result of the classic Universal Horror films.  I really enjoyed the commentary as both Lugosi and Karloff recalled exchanges with their famous fathers and talked about their careers with emphasis on definitive roles.The main attraction started – huge in all its black and white glory.  Of course, I was in my “geek seat,” which is situated in the last row of the furthest front section of the theater.  If I go to the movies I want it to be BIG.  It was.  More magnificent – those uncomfortable, skewed close-ups that show the severity of the madness depicted in the films.  So uncomfortable, yet so artistic.  The ones that stood out most are the shots of both Doctors Frankenstein and Pretorius while the Brideis brought to life.  As we walked out of the theater at the end two women were talking about these shots and one stated, “when you have talent you just don’t need any special effects.  No one could have shown the extreme madness better than he did (Whale).  It was jarring.”Boris Karloff is magnificent as the Monster.  That’s it.  I’ll add only that his introduction in Frankenstein is one of the greatest introductions to any character in any film – ever!  Two shots in this first installment absolutely took my breath away, this is one of them.  The way he walks in backwards, turns ever so slowly and then raises his head – a “WOW” moment.  I imagined what that must have been like to audiences in 1931.  My goodness!

The other shot I adore is the one on the mountain where Doctor Frankenstein encounters the Monster.  Hidden behind a rock, the creature waits until his maker is close, alone, separated from the villagers who are out en force searching for him.  At that moment the Monsterreveals himself to his maker.   Up from behind the rock he stands, ever so slowly against the back-drop of clouds – doom now faces the mad genius as he stands very UN-god-like and small against his monstrous creation.  Another WOW moment for me.

“Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!” – Frankenstein, 1818

The Monster has a nice introduction in Bride of Frankenstein as well but nowhere near as impactful as the original, which stands to reason.  I will say I find Karloff’s look scarier in Bride than in Frankenstein overall, but I’m guessing it’s like that for most people.

One thing that surprised me about the special screening – Bride of Frankenstein had always been my favorite of the two films.  Until this week.  I went into the theater in a horror mood so preferred the darker, original film.  Although I’ve always recognized the humor in Bride of Frankenstein, it didn’t occur to me it was as funny as the audience found it that evening.  I laughed too, don’t get me wrong, but many barely stopped.  The difference in the reaction to the two films was very interesting.

I must mention the great, Una O’Connor who got the biggest ovation during either film when she first appears on-screen as Minnie, Elizabeth’s maid.  She’s hilarious in the film and much of the laughter is due to her screeching performance.  Also worth noting is the fact that the second loudest ovation went to Ernest Thesiger‘s, Dr. Pretorius, the madder of the two mad doctors (and the more enjoyable to watch).  “To a new world of gods and monsters!”  That’s one of my favorite lines in all of film.

While we all laughed at Una’s hysterics in Bride, appropriately, there was also a lot of laughter during scenes not intended to be funny, which is what made audience reaction so interesting.  I have to attribute some of that to Mel Brooks.  Several of us mentioned how it was impossible not to think of his 1974 film, Young Frankenstein during several of the key scenes in both of these films – scenes that were formerly recognized as horror.   The comedic genius of Brooks may well have spoiled the horror in these forever – to some degree.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein

I want to give one last mention to Elsa Lanchester as the Bride.  It seems to me that she gets the least attention of all the Universal Monsters.  She’s really on-screen for a very short period of time and she also doesn’t do monstrous things – I mean, she doesn’t kill anyone.  Actually, she never leaves the one room.  But her performance, the way her head moves in that jerky motion (yes, that’s a professional term), the way she throws her head back to hiss and of course, those odd angles and close-ups are all quite memorable – chilling, even.  If one is going to have only a few moments to make an impact Lanchester shows how that’s done.

As far as the “look” of the films as presented in the theater, I can only opine as a non-expert and say that I really didn’t notice any new and improved “look” compared to the previously released DVD special editions.  However, for me, perfect or not it was still a thrill to watch the images as originally intended – on the big screen.  Seeing these classic films in a theater is still a very new experience for me.  For thoughtful and compelling commentary on the restoration and presentation of these films, I strongly suggest you read Will McKinley’s (@WillMcKinley) post on his Cinematically Insane blog.  While I am fascinated by the topic of film restoration I know very little about it.  Will is certain to enlighten you.

This double feature was a great experience for everyone in attendance at the Paramus theater – I could tell from the buzz as the crowd left the theater that evening.   And here is yet one more reason why I am so thankful for TCM – our home of the classics.

“My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus

Theatrical posters:

24 thoughts

  1. What an excellent write-up Aurora! Great details & insight. Love the photos & posters. And SO jealous I couldn’t have been there with you! What a memorable experience, no doubt.

  2. This is so good Aurora. I’m not a scary movie girl, but…BUT. 🙂 I’m jealous of you getting to see it on the big screen, I know I probably would have loved it. Especially after reading this. I’m not gonna lie though, even this post scared me. Those pictures! Terrific! Maybe I do like being scared? l

    I always love your writing too, it’s so engaging.

    1. Hi Sarah! Always happy to hear you like my ramblings. It was really fun to see those images I’d seen all my life on a huge scale. As far as scary, these are not really that and I scare easily. Although if even my post scared you you may want to pass. 🙂 I recommend you take a look at these classics. So memorable.


  3. I had never seen Bride of… before, but I was kind of put off by the audiences reactions. Yes, it’s funny that Creature talks and smokes and drinks, but it wasn’t THAT funny. Lots of people chuckled several times during Frankenstein too, including the guy next to me and I shot him the iciest glare I could muster.
    I was kind of surprised how well both films have aged, but Bride of… is much cheesier than I anticipated.
    Great write-up!

    1. Hi Andy – Thanks!

      I saw the films with a few brand-new classic film fans. Or, more accurately, people who I’ve convinced to go to these special screenings in hopes they’d give the films a chance. And it occurred to me as I watched Bride that it was too bad the “atmosphere” was as it was in the theater because, as I mentioned in the post, although that film has a lot of humor, it is not cheesy. Yet, with audience reaction it somehow came across that way to a large degree.

      I was absolutely shocked (and a bit outraged) when a few people laughed when the monster kills Dr. Waldman – as his hand comes up to choke him. NOT funny at all. Those fools!


  4. I feel strange about FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE now. They used to be extreme favorites for me, but the last time I saw them on Sky – all tarted up and HD – the magic wasn’t there and I could only see the flaws. I ended up concluding DRACULA, which I’d previously not much liked, was actually a much better-made film. So, I feel as if I lost an old friend. 😦

    1. This was definitely a bit of a change in “feeling” toward Bride for me, as I explained. But these are still two outstanding films. Particularly true for 1930s releases. When you think of how many subsequent “Monster” films were produced that cannot compare, it puts them in perspective. But I get where you’re coming from.


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