Ever since I was a kid in the pre-internet, pre-cable 1970s, I’ve loved the classic horror films of the 1930s and 40s. Black and white alone seemed to lend a mysterious, nightmare quality missing from later technicolor slash-ups flowing with redder-than-life blood. But it was more than just black and white. The old classics were works of art, often weaving literary themes and social commentary into stories borrowed from the great masters.
James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are perfect examples and my personal all-time favorites. They really should be viewed back to back, as one continuous film, even though that was not Whale’s original intention. He was reluctant to make a sequel to his 1931 original, and Boris Karloff didn’t like the idea of having the monster talk (although it did in the Mary Shelley novel). Thank goodness neither got his wish.
If you’ve never seen these films, you’re in for a different kind of treat. I don’t know that they were ever really scary for me, even when I was very young, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Every scene in the first film is a classic, from the opening in the graveyard to Colin Clive’s famous, “It’s Alive!” scene to the memorable climax in the windmill, where the camera alternates between Frankenstein’s and his creature’s faces as they stare at each other through a turbine.
You needn’t have a film degree to appreciate Whale’s cinematic mastery. After viewing any of his films, watch it again with the sound turned all the way down. Even his 1936 musical Show Boat still works as a silent. This guy was good.
But there is more than cinematic mastery at work. Whale’s two-film masterpiece has the kind of depth usually found only in great works of literature. On the surface, it is a morality play about Man not infringing on God’s prerogatives through scientific discovery. Indeed, that is how the Mary Shelley character in Bride describes the first film’s story. The theme is solidified during the iconic “It’s Alive!” scene when Colin Clive as Frankenstein, in hysterical joy over the success of his experiment, exclaims, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”