"Warning! The Monster Demands a Mate!"
So screamed the ads 60 years ago for "The Bride of Frankenstein," which the Alex Film Society will screen Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
According to Randy Carter, the society's vice president, "Bride" is that rarest of horror movies--a good film as well as a first-rate shocker.
"It's the first follow-up movie that was as good or better than the original," he says. Fans will see a rare archival print of the movie loaned by the Library of Congress. And at the evening show, makeup man Rick Baker, whose most recent Oscar was for "Ed Wood" (1993), will talk about the groundbreaking makeup that transformed Boris Karloff into the world's most sympathetic monster.
James Curtis, an authority on director James Whale who will speak at the matinee, thinks "Bride" is both Whale's masterpiece and "probably the best horror film of all time."
A quirky stew of artful filmmaking, fine performances, strange sensibilities, black humor, pioneering special effects, an evocative score by Franz Waxman, the movie is uniquely rich and layered. Little wonder, Curtis says, "that the whole genre never achieved that critical mass again."
"Whale never again achieved the perfect balance of inspiration and control that he had on that one film," says Curtis, who is finishing a book called "A World of Gods and Monsters: The Life and Films of James Whale." The director died in 1957.
As the film historian explains, Whale's chief patron at Universal (and the film's producer) was Carl Laemmle Jr., who largely supported Whale's artistic choices. In 1936, Whale lost his safe harbor.
The Laemmle family sold the studio, and, soon afterward, Universal got out of the horror movie business, at least for a time. A reunion of the cast was also precluded by the death of Colin Clive, who is Frankenstein, the man who played God. Clive died in 1937, probably as a result of his alcoholism.
But acclaim as a masterpiece was all in the future when "Bride" was released in 1935. Universal had a picture to sell, a sequel to its hugely popular "Frankenstein" of 1931, and the publicity department went into overdrive.
"Who Will Be 'The Bride of Frankenstein'? Who Will Dare?" was a major theme of the campaign, and the studio, coy in the compelling interest of commerce, didn't reveal the answer even in the movie's credits. But the monster's bride was played by Elsa Lanchester, whom Whale knew from their days in the London theater.
According to film historian Gregory Wm. Mank, Lanchester was "the love child of Socialist vegetarians" and "a slender elfin girl with wild red hair." In 1979 Mank interviewed Lanchester, who died in 1986, about the making of the film (his essay appears, along with the original shooting script, in the Universal Filmscripts Series, published by MagicImage Filmbooks).
Whale wanted Lanchester to play both the monster's bride and--in the history-based sequence that opens the film--writer Mary Shelley, who first dreamed up the monster while swapping scary stories with Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron.
As Lanchester told Mank: "James' feeling was that very pretty, very sweet people, both men and women, had very wicked insides. . . . So James wanted the same actress for both parts to show that the bride of Frankenstein did, after all, come out of sweet Mary Shelley's soul."
As the monster's mate, Lanchester spent up to four hours a session being made up by Jack P. Pierce. (The film's star, whom Universal was billing simply as Karloff, needed five hours in Pierce's chair).
Lanchester was wicked in describing the pretensions of the great makeup artist. She told Mank that Pierce "did really feel that he made these people--that he was a god who created human beings. In the morning he'd be dressed in white, as if he were in a hospital to perform an operation."
She also revealed that the bride's wild hairdo, just what you'd expect from a woman jolted to life during an electrical storm, started with her own hair, which was combed over a cage and augmented with hairpieces.
And it was she who came up with the bride's terrifying hiss. She got the idea from swans she and husband Charles Laughton would feed in a London park, then practiced the sound of a furious swan until she needed codeine to soothe her aching throat.
Many of the cast and crew, including Karloff, were British, and Universal couldn't resist taking publicity photos of them at teatime. It's especially incongruous to see Karloff in his monster makeup with a delicate teacup at hand.
Karloff was living in the San Fernando Valley when he made the film. With the wages of Hollywood stardom, he had bought a hacienda-style home at 2320 Bowmont Drive in Coldwater Canyon, where he kept a 400-pound pet pig named Violet.
At home, Karloff was an avid gardener, who occasionally buried, Mank reports, "under the roses the cremated remains of old stock-company cronies whose last wish was to rest in their now-famous friend's Eden."
Karloff makes your heart break for the monster who wants, not so much a bride, but a friend. But, as Lanchester told Mank, the only person who seems to have been impervious to Karloff's charm was his director.
Karloff wanted the monster to remain mute, as he had been in the first film. Whale insisted that Karloff speak lines that have become camp classics, such as "Smoke . . . Good!" when the big guy tries his first cigar.
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* WHAT: Screening of "The Bride of Frankenstein" by the Alex Film Society.
* WHERE: The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
* WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
* HOW MUCH: $6 matinee, $7.50 evening.
* CALL: (818) 243-2539.