31 October 2015

Bride of Frankenstein

Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein

It’s not often that a sequel is better than the original but many believe that Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is one of those cases. Picking up where Frankenstein (1931) left off, the movie reunited director James Whale with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the Monster (Boris Karloff) and catapulted a little known actress named Elsa Lanchester into film history. 

In the opening credits, Lanchester is only listed as playing the part of Mary Shelley while the audience is teased with “The Monster’s Mate…?” Karloff, by the way, was so well known that he didn’t even need to use his first name; the credits just say "Karloff...The Monster."

Lanchester appears in the opening prologue of the film as Mary Shelley, who is in Switzerland on a dark and stormy night with her husband, Percy Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron, who expresses his amazement that this astonishing creature that’s afraid of the dark could write a tale that “sent my blood into icy creeps.”  “My purpose was to write a moral lesson,” Mary tells him. “The punishment that befell a mortal man that dared to emulate God.” She asks Byron not to remind her of the story she’s written but Byron ignores her and starts to recap Frankenstein. The accompanying clips from the first film serve to not only remind the viewers of the story but to bring them back to the final scene. When Shelley comments that it was a shame that she ended her story so suddenly Mary says, “That wasn’t the end at all. Would you like to hear what happened after that?” Entranced, Byron and Shelley sit next to her while she asks them, “Imagine yourself standing by the wreckage of the mill…”

Cut to the villagers cheering the burning of the mill and death of the Monster. Dr. Henry Frankenstein's housekeeper Minnie (played by the always delightful Una O’Connor) stands at the top of the hill and declares, “I’m glad to see the Monster roasted to death before my very eyes.” But she’s mistaken. The Monster is very much alive and soon is taking out his anger on the locals.

Henry Frankenstein, who was thought to be dead as well but is still alive, recovers and marries his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). He is trying to put his past behind him when his mentor arrives, the demented Dr. Septimus Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger who injects an element of camp into his scenes). Henry goes with Pretorius to his lab where he is shown a collection of homunculi, miniature people whom Pretorius has created from seeds and keeps in a collection of jars (how they manage to stay alive is never addressed). They include a king, queen, archbishop, devil, ballerina, and mermaid (the whole scene is surreal and very well done). Stumped in his attempts to create full-size people, Pretorius proposes that he and Henry work together and create a mate for Henry’s Monster. “To a new world of gods and monsters,” he toasts his reluctant former pupil.

Meanwhile the Monster has been wrecking havoc and after escaping being chained up in jail, stumbles upon a cabin in the woods where a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) lives. The old man, who has prayed for a friend, takes the Monster in and soon teaches him to talk including learning the word “friend.” (The only problem watching this scene now is doing so and trying not to think of Young Frankenstein.) The Monster calms down and seems to be content, even happy, until two hunters arrive and attempt to kill him (the Monster just can’t catch a break). In the ensuing fight, the cabin catches on fire and the Monster flees.

Entering a crypt, the Monster encounters Pretorius who offers him food and drink and even a cigar, telling the Monster that he plans on creating a mate for him. The Monster, who has taken to saying things like “Alone: bad. Friend: good” and “I want friend like me” is eager to follow Pretorius’s command.

When Henry refuses to help his former mentor, Pretorius has the Monster kidnap Elizabeth, forcing Henry’s hand. Having harvested the brain, Pretorius gets Henry working on the other parts. When a convenient storm hits the village, they prepare for the “birth” of their creation, an event very reminiscent of the Monster’s birth.

Lying on the table wrapped in bandages, the creature resembles a mummy, and a very female one at that (she even appears to have long fingernails). With kites flying and lightening striking, the table is raised up through the open rooftop of the lab. When it returns, a movement of the hands, open dark eyes, and a slight moan prompt Henry to utter a now familiar line, “She’s alive. Alive!” (This line never gets old).

The creature is unwrapped and presented in her full glory, draped in a white sheet that acts as a gown and her electrified hair (complete with a white stripe shaped like a lightening bolt) standing straight up in the air. She darts her face around, reminiscent of a baby bird’s movements. As if announcing her arrival at a ball, Pretorius introduces her, “the Bride of Frankenstein.”

Still shaky on her feet, the two doctors help the Bride stand as she looks around. The Monster, who’s been waiting in the wings (well, he was on the roof for a bit and threw one of Pretorius’ henchmen to his death) steps into the scene and asks, “friend?” His Bride responds with a shriek and stumbles toward Henry. Sitting side by side, the Monster takes her hand and pats it (the blind man taught him well) as Henry looks on with concern. When the Monster reaches for her, she shrieks again and he says, “She hate me. Like others.” The three retreat while the Monster comes toward them. When he stops in front of a lever, Pretorius tells him to “Get away from that lever. You’ll blow us all to atoms.”

At this moment Elizabeth, who has managed to escape, arrives and begs Henry to come away. When he tells her he can’t leave the others, the Monster tells him, “Yes, go. You live. Go.” Turning to Pretorius he says, “You stay. We belong dead.” The Bride hisses at the Monster who has a tear falling down his cheek. He pulls the lever and the laboratory explodes. Henry and Elizabeth, who have escaped, stand wrapped in each other’s arms, watching the destruction.

The movie was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, with praise being given not just to the director and cast but also to cinematographer John J. Mescall, make-up artist Jack Pierce, and composer Franz Waxman for his score. 

The studio had wanted to make a sequel right after the original movie but Whale had initially refused. Luckily, he changed his mind and after several attempts by various writers, William J. Hurlbut wrote a script that met with Whale's approval. Karloff agreed to take on the role of the Monster again but was unhappy that this time round he would speak, believing part of the Monster's appeal was the fact that he was inarticulate. Speaking lines also meant that Karloff had to wear his dental plate, which gave the Monster a fuller face than in the previous movie.

The production was not without its challenges. Colin Clive broke his leg horseback riding shortly before production began and so he had to shoot most of his scenes sitting down. And during the scene at the destroyed mill, Karloff slipped into a well and dislocated his hip.

And then there was Lanchester’s Bride whose appearance is electrifying (no pun intended). Her face make-up took three hours alone to complete. Even with scars under her chin that run around her ears and neck, her painted eyebrows, mascara heavy eyelashes, and dark red lips make her into a glamourous monster. For her famed hairstyle, a wire cage was used to make Lanchester’s own hair stand up. The petite actress was placed on stilts while her costume was tightly wrapped around her body, making it impossible for her to move. She was carried wherever she needed to go and fed by her assistant. As for the hissing sounds that the Bride makes, Lanchester based those on the swans in Hyde Park.

The final result was an unforgettable performance as one of the most iconic monsters to ever grace the silver screen. Not bad for a five-minute appearance. 

Happy Halloween

Clara Bow

Happy Halloween! I love this holiday and who wouldn't? You get to dress up, eat candy, tell ghost stories, and with daylight savings time ending tomorrow, you can stay up past the witching hour knowing you have more time to sleep in. It's the best. So have a spooktacular time and enjoy your Halloween.

22 October 2015

Happy Birthday, Capa!

"Robert Capa" Gerda Taro (1937)

Today is the birthday of Robert Capa. Born on October 22, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, he planned on becoming a writer but a stint as a dark room assistant found him picking up a camera instead. By the age of 25 he was being hailed as "the greatest war photographer in the world" by Picture Post. He covered five wars including the Spanish Civil War and World War II but once said, "I hope to stay unemployed as a war photographer till the end of my life." Away from the battle fields, he photographed celebrated artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway as well as regular families in places like Russia and Norway. He even coined the term "Generation X" while working on a series on post-WWII youth. In 1947 he founded the photographic co-operative Magnum Photos along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David "Chim" Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert, which is still going strong. My ultimate crush (look how handsome he was), I could go on and on but will end with saying, Happy Birthday, Capa!

20 October 2015

Happy Birthday, Ollie!

Today is the birthday of Olive Thomas. Born on October 20, 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl and silent screen star who was named "the most beautiful girl in the world." During her short life she dazzled theatre and movie goers alike with her looks, charm, and joie de vivre. Watch her in one of her surviving films and you'll see what all of the fuss was about. When she enters a scene, you can't take your eyes off her. So Happy Birthday, Ollie! You'll never be forgotten.

For more on Olive Thomas, check out some of the posts I've written here and here. And get her most famous film, The Flapper, here.

13 October 2015

The Wolf Man

Every October is monster movie month in my household. First up—The Wolf Man (1941).

In the pantheon of classic monster movies, one of the best is The Wolf Man (not to be confused with the 2010 misfire with Benicio Del Toro). Produced and directed by George Waggner for Universal, the original was filmed in glorious black and white with a screenplay by Curt Siodmak and a star-studded cast of Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man.

The film opens with a definition of “Lycanthropy” (Werewolfism): “A disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf-men. According to an old LEGEND which persists in certain localities, the victims actually assume the physical characteristics of the animal. There is a small village near TALBOT CASTLE which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature.” 

Cut to the arrival of Larry Talbot who, upon news of his brother's death, has returned home to Wales after living in California for 18 years to help his astronomer father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), run the family estate. There probably isn’t a more unlikely pairing of father and son as Rains and Chaney, the latter of whom is about twice the size of his co-star, but I’ll take Rains’ dulcet tones and solid acting any day.

Larry’s first act of filial duty is to help set up his father’s new telescope, which he promptly uses to spy on a comely young woman, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), in her apartment above the antique shop that she runs with her father. Larry later calls on Gwen and tells her that he's interested in a pair of earrings that she has in her bedroom. At this point Gwen should kick him out but she continues talking with him. When Larry asks her out, she says no but he tells her he'll be back at eight.

Before he leaves, Larry purchases a walking cane with a silver handle shaped like a wolf with a pentagon, unaware of its symbolism. Gwen explains to him what a werewolf is, reciting a line from a poem that will be repeated in the film:

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf's bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

She goes on to tell him about the significance of the pentagram, about how "every werewolf is marked with that [pentagram] and sees it in the palm of his next victim's hand." Larry is skeptical but nevertheless asks his father about it when he gets home who repeats the same line of poetry. One question, if the lore is connected to the village where he grew up, wouldn’t Larry have learnt about werewolves as a boy? 

Later that evening, Gwen meets Larry with plans to visit the Gypsy camp to get their fortunes told. She brings along her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) as a chaperone. As they wander through the fog-covered woods, Jenny points out some wolf's bane and repeats the now familiar line, an omen of what’s to come.

At the camp, Jenny sits with one of the gypsies, Bela (Bela Lugosi), whose theatrics turn to concern when he sees a pentagram on her palm and commands her to go. Turns out Bela is a werewolf. But his attempts to protect her fails. He turns into a wolf and kills Jenny. Hearing her cries, Larry arrives and attacks the wolf, killing it with his cane but not before being bitten.

The police arrive and find a dead Bela with his head bashed in and Larry’s walking stick on the ground. At Talbot Castle, they question Larry who insists that he killed a wolf. When he tries to show them his bite mark, he finds that it has disappeared. The chief constable, Captain Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy), is suspicious while Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) believes Larry’s suffering from mental anguish. 

Larry, feeling remorse, goes to the church where Bela's coffin lies. When the old gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya ), enters he hears her recite some lines over the coffin: “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela, my son. Now you will find peace.”

Maria Ouspenskaya knocks it out of the park as Maleva. Not only does she look the part, her delivery and body language are spot on. There is a weariness about her that conveys someone who has seen too much in the world as well as an air of wisdom.

The news of Bela’s death spreads through the village and the locals begin to whisper about Larry. Gwen’s intended, the Talbot gamekeeper Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles), warms her that "nothing but harm will come to you through him."  

Later at the Gypsy carnival, Larry runs into Maleva who tells him that Bela was a werewolf and that werewolves can only be killed with a silver bullet, silver knife, or silver stick. She then delivers the other classic werewolf line from the film:

Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.”

Maleva gives Larry a charm to wear for protection and tells him to keep it over his heart. Larry, not being the brightest or maybe in love, gives Gwen the charm instead after telling her about the conversation with the Maleva including the part about how he's now a werewolf.

The movie spends a lot of time explaining werewolves to Larry because it had to introduce the subject to moviegoers. Prior to this movie, the only werewolf movie was another Universal production, Werewolf of London (1935), which had received little attention. And unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, there wasn't a werewolf novel that audiences would have read. So screenwriter Curt Siodmak used some anecdotes from folklore but made up the other aspects of the werewolf legend, like the poem that’s repeatedly quoted. The result was that a lot of his inventions became part of the werewolf mythology that one finds in subsequent werewolf tales.

That evening, Larry transforms into the Wolf Man. The camera focuses first on his legs that sprout long hair and his feet that turn into paws (it should be noted that he remains fully clothed). You see him walking on tiptoe across his room and then the scene cuts to him in the foggy woods, again focused on his legs. Finally, he creeps around a tree and the camera lights on his fur-covered face.

The appearance of the Wolf Man doesn’t happen until halfway through the movie. This was smart on the filmmakers' part, helping to build the audience’s anticipation. Unlike Bela who appeared as an actual wolf (in real life it was Chaney’s German Shepherd), Larry’s Wolf Man is in human form albeit with a snout-like nose and excessive facial hair.

His first act is to kill a gravedigger. The next morning Larry wakes to find a pentagram-shaped bite on his chest and wolf prints leading to his room. He tells the men who have come to the house that they're looking for a werewolf. Dr. Lloyd, concerned about Larry's mental state, tells Sir John to send him away but is rebuffed; Larry's father thinks the best thing for his son is to stay put.

With the villagers in an uproar and fingers pointed at Larry, it is a dangerous time for him. Yet he can’t stop his transformation. That evening, he turns into the Wolf Man and goes out into the woods only to get his foot caught in one of the traps the men have planted. Maleva appears and recites the same words she said over Bela's coffin, and Larry turns back into a man. Distraught and horrified by what he's done, he goes to see Gwen and tells her that he’s leaving. She offers to go with him but when he sees a pentagram in her palm he rushes home and confesses his crimes to his father. Sir John doesn't believe him but tries to placate his son's fears by tying him to a chair before joining the other villagers in hunting down the wolf. At his insistence, he takes Larry's wolf-head cane with him.

Larry transforms again and heads back to the woods where he attacks Gwen (a sign of a classic monster movie—no one can keep out the woods). Sir John arrives on the scene and kills the creature with the cane only to discover after Maleva recites the words from before and the Wolf Man turns back into Larry that he's killed his son. When the others arrive, Montford surmises that Larry must have been killed trying to save Gwen but some people know the truth.

The Wolf Man proved to be highly popular with audiences and Chaney would go on to play the Wolf Man in five more films including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which reunited many of the actors from the original film, and my personal favourite, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In the vein of more is better, the Wolf Man was often paired with Frankenstein or Dracula in these later movies.

While Chaney would go on to play other roles, The Wolf Man typecast him and he often ended up playing other monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, to name a few). Yet the power of Chaney’s performance here shouldn’t be overlooked. In The Wolf Man he created a complex character, showing Larry’s torment and making the audience sympathetic to his plight, not an easy task for a monster.

06 October 2015

American History Digitized

For a period of ten years (1935-1945), the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) hired photographers to document American life, particularly in areas hit the hardest by the Depression, and to show the effects of the government’s relief programs. The result was some of the most iconic images of the 20th-century, many taken by photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks. 

Stored at the Library of Congress, 170,000 of these images have recently been digitized by a group at Yale University and uploaded to Photogrammar, an archive site that allows for easy searching and viewing. It also includes an interactive map that shows the location of roughly 90,000 images.

These are just a sampling of some of the images I found when I looked up New York City.

"Strike pickets, New York, New York" Arthur Rothstein (1937)

"42nd Street and Madison Avenue, Street hawker selling Consumer's Bureau Guide, New York City" 
Dorothea Lange (1939)

"Grand Central Terminal, New York City" John Collier (1941)

"New York, New York. Dancing and music on Mott Street, at a flag raising ceremony in honor of neighborhood boys in the United States Army" Marjory Collins (1942)

"New York, New York. Drinking fountain in Central Park" Marjory Collins (1942)

 I could spend hours looking through these. To check out Photogrammar, visit here.


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