As far back as 1933 Universal were looking to develop a sequel to Frankenstein. Several scripts were produced over the next 2 years which ranged from a scifi-style tale of Frankenstein developing a death ray to a bizarre saga with Henry and Elizabeth running away to join the circus and posing as puppeteers. However none of these found favor with the studio heads or James Whale who they were keen to get back for directing duties.
However despite the lack of a decent treatment for the proposed film, then titled 'The Return of Frankenstein', Universal managed to secure Whale's services. His first action was to junk all the previously developed concepts and comission John L. Balderston to dream up a completely new plot...
Bearing in mind our conclusions on the original, it is somewhat ironic that the fresh finished script created by Balderston and William Hurlburt (and no doubt polished by Whale himself) actually draws more heavily from Shelley's original work. We now get a monster who speaks (though admittedly not as verbose as in the book); scenes detailing his education and of course the whole plot of the monster blackmailing Frankenstein into creating a mate for him. It even flags up it's credentials with a nifty prologue featuring Lord Bryon and Shelley asking Mary about the monster's fate. Naturally these elements are more reworked than accurately recreated but we still have a film that is nearer to the novel than the original.
However the script's great strength is that it is a smooth continuation of the first film. This is no lazy rehash of the first outing, it picks up directly from the close of Frankenstein and then carries on with logical progressing both the story and it's themes. Actually this is so deftly done, one who think that a second film had been planned alongside the original. Furthermore with adding more of Shelley's elements it feels like the second half novel filtered onto the screen. And if you consider the movies as two halves of one film, the result would be arguably the closest adaption of the novel ever filmed.
Of course there are a few niggles with sitting down and watching both films back to back. Firstly Elizabeth is recast. Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark - but in all fairness she gives a far better performance. Secondly the Frankenstein home is now gloomy and gothic than pleasantly summery as in the first film.
Finally though, the third niggle is the extra added humour. Don't panic, Bride of Frankenstein doesn't go all out into out and out horror comedy territory (it would be a good few more years before this happens at the hands of Abbott & Costello). In the main it's a case of the black humour present in the 1931 film has been polished and sharpened. Ernest Thesiger's arch Doctor Pretorius has a great many witty lines but none which undercut his villainy or the atmosphere of horror.
However, in all fairness there are two scenes where the comedy arguably oversteps this mark. One is the scene where Pretorius unveils his creations, who turn out to be little hommunculi in belljars which have been dressed in satirical costumes. But what tips this scene is not so much the antics of the King who escapes from his jar, but the high pitched squeaking voices of Pretorius' creations - it's hard for the modern viewer to watch this without being reminded of Alvin & the chipmonks/the Smurfs/Pinky & Perky/insert suitable helium-voiced pop culture reference.
Similiarly it's hard not to keep a straight face when the monster starts drinking and puffing on cigars with the blind hermit. When I rewatched this, all Karloff's shouts of 'Smoke!" and "Drink good!" made me wonder if this performance was an inspiration for Father Jack in Father Ted.
And there's further comedy in that due to the lighting the cigar the monster happily smokes looks very like a monstrous reefer! (Presumably this is unintentional, but with Whale's flamboyant private life one never knows).
However neither of these broadly humorous vignettes harm either the atmosphere or the film overall in my opinion. Pretorius' hommunculi ultimately underline the madness and perversity of his character, and the monster enjoying the hospitality of the blind hermit, though amusing are at the same time quite touching. They also form a key point in the plot in that the subsequent shattering of this idyll propells the monster into further villainy.
Niggles aside and whether you watch it as a sequel or a 'Part 2', this film is a classic in every sense equal to it's predecessor. Clive and Karloff turn in accomplished performances, Dwight Frye returns as an unscrupulous graverobber from the Burke & Hare school, and Ernest Thesiger excels as the corrupting Pretorius. Whale's actually manages to out-direct himself, creating a film filled with iconic shots and resonant images. He also manages to subvert the audiences' expectations at every turn - the crowning example of this being the actual Bride herself.
After her animation in a scene that tops the original in both tension and Ken Strickfaden-created sparking apparatus, the reveal of the monster's mate was a surprise in itself. Rather slowly peeling away the bandages, Whale opts for a dissolve to the Bride dressed in suitably nuptial robes and after some hair dressing. Instead of a hulking female Karloff clone, we have a rather glamourous if not attractive girl.
Now when I first saw the Bride in a still reproduced in Alan Frank's fabled Horror Movies back in my much younger days, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that Jack Pierce hadn't delivered a squared headed, scar festooned harpy. But it was a very different matter when I got to see the movie. The first impression still jars the expectations, but then she moves. Firstly Elsa Lanchester gives the Bride a sinister doll-like body language, moving in almost clockwork actions which given the character a truly uncanny nature. But the real kicker is when she turns and we see the intersecting stitching where they attached her head. Whereas Karloff's sutures had a patchwork feel, the Bride's scars have horrible fresh out of car wreck surgery feel to them.
Pierce apparently spent a great deal of time on creating the stitching, much to Elsa Lanchester's displeasure. However the time and care did really pay off; the Bride's perfect porcelain complexion is truly corrupted by the bristling threads. The design in itself is inspired - the stitching is all the more horrid for the way the two lines form a 'V' shape, hinting at a very messy assembly job and leaving the audience wondering how well Henry and Pretorius have put her together - that gown she's wearing probably has long sleeves and hemline for a very good reasons...
Bride of Frankenstein is often claimed to be that rarest of beasts - a sequel that actually improves upon the original. Whether you concur with this, I suspect will largely come to down to how you react to the touchs of humour, black or otherwise. Certainly it at least equals the first film and deserves it's status as a classic in it's own right.
Bride of Frankenstein definitely can be held up as the perfect example of how to contruct as a sequel. Of course this begs the question, would Universal follow it's lead when they came to Son of Frankenstein?