Silence and Monsters
‘Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good.’ Dr. Pretorius
Shortly after the breakthrough of sound during the late twenties, with the significant success of Alan Croslan’s The Jazz Singer (1927), film had begun, for the first time, to show less ‘universal’ appeal. Translation was now crucial and many auteurs in the field, such as Charlie Chaplin, believed that the onslaught of sound had destroyed the mystique of film and therefore delayed adopting the technology for as long as their respective audiences allowed them to.
By 1931 the main established studios – Fox, Universal, MGM, United Artists, Paramount, Columbia, Disney, Warner Bros. and RKO – formed autocracy to control the film industry. Hollywood had now developed from an orange-groved real estate in to the archetypal American Dream town of hi-tech Deco studios and sunset boulevards – a realm that promised to offer the ultimate destiny through the soundtrack of Jazz, the curiosity of Egyptian motifs and extravagant, oriental attire. The thirties was a decadent time that placed its foot firmly on the accelerator and embraced the streamlined aesthetics of speed as much as it did the apparent ambivalence of sound. Whatever the likes of Chaplin thought, film was entering a new, golden age that was to be taken advantage of.
Horror was a genre that had already been explored during the 1920s with noticeable success. The distinctive, German expressionistic style of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F.W. Murnau’s Noseratu (1922) were two films in particular that were enhanced by the lack of sound – their distinct atmosphere and design allowing just the right balance of engagement for the audience to convey what is ordinarily held back in such early examples. The results of such deft direction and artistic rigor are some of the most poignant of early cinema and still have as much importance and influence on modern film and popular culture today. Obvious examples, such as Tim Burton’s gothic eye for detail has a tendency to evoke both whimsical tales populated with grotesque, nightmarish caricatures that have become much more than a legacy of Caligari. The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s 2002 single, Otherside showcases the four musicians playing various abstract versions of their instruments within a broken, fragmented cityscape reminiscent of Wiene’s original set-piece.
From the later success of Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the idea of creating iconic performances, in league with Lon Chaney’s haunted character, was to become Hollywood gold. Horror was now perceived to be ‘enjoyable’ and therefore cried out for more of the same incarnations brought to vivid life through such actors encased in heavy makeup and surrounded by innovative special effects that would continue to push the boundaries of filmmaking. Two films in particular – James Whale’s Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula, were both made during 1931 and although didn’t have the visual and atmospheric impact of their predecessors, shocked audiences through their use of heavily stylized set pieces and vivid imagery. Where Browning still tended to rely on the silence of Bela Lugosi’s central performance of Dracula, it was Whale in particular who had adopted the abstract techniques found in earlier German cinema to help convey a sense of unease. Although the theatrical acting style lent itself to rather ‘hammy’, stilted performances, the construction and shear craft of the sets were crucial in his effort to elevate Mary Shelley’s story through a relatively fresh medium.
Whale’s ideas deviated considerably from the original source material, begging many to consider over the years whether the original source material was read at all. This Hollywood classic hinged itself on Boris Karloff’s Monster – in a classic scene, his curiosity in a young girl begins with an innocent game and ends in a with her drowning. The audience watches in horror as the Monster, in a flight of panic and realisation of his crime, flees and leaves behind one of the most disturbing moments in the history of film. This particular scene has become a strong example of added depth to thematic approaches in film – an area of which was retained from earlier, silent examples that were forced to plant ideas rather than explain through subsequent dialogue and narration. Ironically, this early ‘talkie’ had given birth to a silent creature that helped convey the subtle complexities of humanity that allowed for the added depth to reach the surface. More than often a film’s script can become an abbreviated version of its original source and therefore loose certain depth and complexity. In this instance it is to be reminded that Mary Shelley’s original version of the Monster is articulate and tends to speak more frequently in the original novel. Classic literature has a tendency to verbalise internal monologues and therefore in adapting Frankenstein, Whale had made the decision to keep his version mute.
In his sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), cinematic techniques had developed rapidly since the original’s release. Although neither are far from good examples of adaptations – where Frankenstein moved away from key aspects of the novel, The Bride of Frankenstein reminded itself of its routes in both literature and modern filmmaking that helped create one of the strongest examples of how a sequel can surpass its predecessor.
During the opening scene, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), confident and reserved in her demeanour is questioned by her husband and Lord Byron on her infamous tale. She goes on to introduce her next chapter of how the Monster survived and in no time at all we are reintroduced to Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). Frankenstein is tested further in his madness when the insane Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on his doorstep. This is an individual torn from the very pages of fairy tales and gothic literature – an almost hysterical character that conveys the mischievous soul of Rumpelstiltskin in all his sinister, twisted glory. He is sharper than our familiar scientist and in a pioneering, unforgettable scene, taunts Frankenstein by showcasing his own scientific breakthrough. Closer to a page from Alice in Wonderland, he proceeds to reveal four bottled homunculi in order to narrate his tale. Pretorius, the master of deception, and a true alchemist, has researched the recreation of life and, much like Whale’s direction of the scene, Pretorius is very much the deceiver. The homunculi scene is Whale at his most creative and deceptive as he delivers an apparently redundant moment in the film, yet becomes one of the most memorable. It is surreal, poetic and a direct reflection of a filmmaker’s soul.
As a homosexual during these times, James Whale’s own alienation was none more apparent in how much his monsters outshine Henry Frankenstein and have gone on to become far more iconic. Karloff’s performance steps up to embrace the sensitivity – the mind of a brute now learning to live and love. This is a monster that is misunderstood in many ways – both in the context of the story and beyond. During the final scene, as the Bride is revived – her bird-like, erratic movements reveal repulsion and in those final moments we sympathise with the Monster more than ever.
As we struggle to hold on to the image of Henry and Elizabeth – their stilted, theatrical performances distracted by sound; it is the Monster and his own Bride that burn themselves in to our psyches in all their glorious, silent detail. Unforgettable machinations of a master pioneer.