It’s so easy to fall into the trap that time lays out for us. ‘They sure don’t make them like they used to!’ we say. Brave the weird waters of the Internet ocean and you find it teeming with souls drowning in content, crying out ‘In my day…’ or ‘Whatever happened to…’. I will fall on the sword- I cry foul on the shortcomings of cinema as much as the average grandparent bemoaning the awful music the kids listen to these days. Spoiler alert: entertainment may not be as changed as people think.
Of late, I’ve been gorging myself on cinema. Prior to my open-heart, I had been trying to work my way down the AFI Top 100 lists (both the original and the anniversary edition) for over a year. Then, during a heat wave that knocked out my apartment’s power for a day, I picked up a copy of 1001 Movies To See Before You Die by Stephen Jay Schneider, not realizing the irony of doing so mere weeks before I dodged the Grim Reaper.
I did the checklist and learned I had seen just over 200 of the films listed. This was disappointing, considering I saw at least one movie a week for two years, though few of them had gained reverence from the critical world. To be fair, we were hamstrung in that Bart and I weren’t allowed to review movies above PG-13 as the section we wrote for specifically targeted teenagers. We obeyed the editorial mandate but chafed against the restrictions, as it meant we had to watch the garbage like this:
Since recovery has limited me to A) walking in progressively larger loops to rehabilitate my lungs B) feeling accomplished because I’m now able to lift a pair of grocery bags and C) debate my existence to a degree a philosopher would warn me to switch to decaf, I decided to continue my education in historical cinema. I’ve had a feeling for some time now, probably since my second year back teaching, that I was building toward something. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but to what purpose? Maybe this blog is part of that. Maybe I’ll never know.
Maybe part of this quest to glean more from The Masters of Movies is meant to educate the next generation of filmmakers. While I still hold hope that some day I’ll be able to sell a script (and make good use of that WGA membership), I also have come to pray that one day, one of my students will go on to join the creative ranks and make a difference. Some have already gotten crew work for television and film shoots in LA and NYC, and for that, I am thrilled.
But last night, I had a bit of a revelation. As previously mentioned, TCM has been airing classic horror movies. Last night I finally got around to emptying my DVR of Bride of Frankenstein, a movie that didn’t make the AFI Top 100 like its predecessor, but did gain a spot in the 1001 Movies. I was aware of the movie primarily through pop culture references. Who doesn’t recognize that wide-eyed stare and that crazy I-just-dropped-my-hair-dryer-in-the-tub-while-still-in-it hairdo?
Frankenstein was a pretty damn good adaptation- there is a reason why Boris Karloff became such a big star as a result. The whole ‘It’s alive!’ moment is appropriately mad and euphoric (even if it takes a while to see the monster finally in his entirety). The set designs are staple visions revisited countless time in subsequent horror movies and they stand up to the test of time. And as a monster, the idea of Frankenstein’s creature is sufficiently creepy.
Then we get to Bride of Frankenstein, where director James Whale decided the Monster needed to evolve. Gone is the sunken face (a trick created practically when Karloff took out a partial bridge he had) and in is a surprisingly fast-learning monster that really is misunderstood. It’s quickly apparent that Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks leaned heavily on this variation of the character.
In his initial appearance, Frankenstein is shown playing with a girl and smiling before promptly tossing her to a watery death by accident. For the most part though, he justly goes after the more villainous hunchback Fritz. The Monster (which seems a harsh title considering how he behaves in his second film) shows up in Bride of Frankenstein looking for a friend! He save a girl from drowning! For crying out loud, he gets vaguely Christ-like at one point!
And what does he want? Well, a completely new evil scientist character gets him to believe he wants a wife! So Dr. Frankenstein, backed into a corner, gets to give a somewhat half-hearted “It’s alive!”as he recreates his initial experiment with his unhinged colleague.
Who do we get? The foxy Elsa Lanchester in a bee-hive ‘do and enough wrappings to make The Mummy say ‘Dayum!’ of course.
And then the movie…kinda ends. The Bride hisses and rejects her corpsesaw puzzle of a boyfriend, which pisses him off enough to blow up the tower everyone is in. Dr. Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth somehow manage to make it up several flights of stairs and then race to the nearby woods in time to beat the blast that levels the tower to its foundation (MOVIES!). Everyone…well, those two anyway…live happly (I guess?) ever after.
Total time screen time spent on the character the movie is NAMED FOR? A grand total of less than ten minutes.
I’m not going to go into the woman-only-in-this-as-a-motivation-for-the-man debate, because lets face it- women in Old Hollywood were screwed royally out of better plots and better pay AND better better recognition. At least not in THIS post. But that having been said, it’s worth pointing out that the whole plot hinges on introducing The Bride who is given NOTHING to do, save for reject Ol’ Flattop and do her best impression of an angry swan (literally what Lanchester said she was inspired by). Elizabeth disappears for large swaths of the movie and is usually hysterical when she returns. Before I get the throat-clearing and the condescending correction, yes, I’m aware that the movie’s primary thrust is the pursuit of a bride for The Monster, and by having her only appear at the end, it makes it seem as if it was all for nothing. That doesn’t excuse the fact that there was potential wasted for further exploration of what potential the undead couple had to become more life-like.
But hey, let’s include at least a couple of scenes where The Monster gets to smoke!
Joking aside (well, mostly joking), I do enjoy this movie. The fact that Karloff’s name is right there on the title card proved his work ethic had paid off. Whale apparently was a bit of a bastard and made Boris repeat some heavy-lifting stunts that strained the already-injured actor’s back in the original movie and I’m sure Karloff made sure that crap didn’t continue for the sequel. He endured hours of makeup chair time, while Lanchester’s getup was so claustrophobic, her stand-in had a full on panic attack.
It’s worth observing that, again, we may shake our fists upon the mount that is the Hollywood Hills and say, “Why must you forsake us with another adaptation? Another sequel?”
Ahem. Um. Sorry to interrupt guys. This is your old pal History here. Just wanted to remind you that adaptations have been a staple of Hollywood output since DW Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Erich Von Stroheim were the major players. We’re not going to suddenly stop re-making movies because…well, we never stopped before? How many Zorros have there been? For God’s sake, they had an Anne of Green Gables adaptation in 1919! They made a Titanic silent film WITH A SURVIVOR STARRING IN IT!
But let’s get to talking about the definition of classic films. They are meant to withstand the test of time. Decades later, we’re still talking about them. They’re zeitgeist moments or utter game-changers for the genre or even the medium. They’re memorable for the stories they tell, the actors who reach into our consciousness and makes us feel and for the beautiful painting the production team create with the camera.
That having been said, I’ve watched enough to note that many of them are FAR from perfect. Let’s take this pasty bloodsucker.
Before you hiss like a child of the night caught in one of those pesky rays of light, no, I’m not going to attack Bela Lugosi. The man was a genius in this role. Ingratiating, creepy, charming, conniving…there’s a reason he became the mold for which future vampires tried to pour themselves from. And I fully admit, the sets are great and man, Dwight Frye is absolutely chilling as the screwloose sidekick Renfield. If this didn’t influence Jerry Robinson in creating The Joker, I’ll eat my hat:
That having been said…the climax of the film is a COMPLETE COP-OUT! I’m sure there were concerns about blood or death being portrayed too violently in such an uptight era (never minding the fact that it was totally fine to have characters as opium or cocaine addicts a few year prior). But come on now- a vampire staked in total darkness off screen? Dracula bites it (NAILED IT) (OOH, DOUBLE PUN!) in a shadow-infested room that, while foreboding, also gives the impression the film crew ran out of budget to buy more set-pieces and film stock. Consider the Dracula-adjacent “sister” film, Nosferatu.
If The Joker may have a little bit of Renfield DNA in his creation, Joss Whedon must have have borrowed a little bit of Nosferatu’s look for his infamous Gentlemen in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer classic, “Hush”. This vampire doesn’t do banter. He’s not out to play games (though he does enjoy the dress-up-as-a-humble-carriage-driver trick) and instead focuses on his bloody needs. Dracula may be the better performance, but I feel in a lot of ways, Nosferatu is creepier, ending on a down note and with an infinitely more dynamic climax.
How about Phantom of the Opera? Everyone knows the story even if they don’t really know the story well- disfigured opera lover, the girl who ‘falls for him’, the tragic “love” story…
The big reveal, that the infamous Phantom, is a disfigured dude in the basement of the opera house, completely horrifies the new star of the stage and despite pledges of fidelity, she promptly peaces-out with nary a Dear John-it’s-not-you-it’s-me-and-my-fear-of-uggos note to be found.
Christine goes from being a fairly interesting character to being a kind of shallow, hysterical damsel that pretty much ends up getting The Phantom killed. Depth=gone.
Sure, you can argue that The Phantom was, despite his appreciation for the arts, a creeper. He did, after all, have multi-layered traps set for Christine’s suitor, Raoul. Makes you wonder if those traps were already there before all of this went down or did he have some kind of underground crew working around the clock to get it ready? He murders people, he threatens more, he decides to upgrade ‘live with my lady love’ to ‘prisoner sounds so much more elegant, right?’…it becomes pretty apparent that Christine fell for a bit of a hard case. But again, what happens?
After a thrilling climax where Raoul survives layer after layer of a silent-era Temple of Doom, the mob literally beats The Phantom to death. Exhibiting no trauma, we get to see Christine and Raoul on a happy honeymoon. MOVIES!
Why bring this stuff up? Because it feels empowering! These are legendary films featuring actors that, for the most part, have been forgotten by the general populace! Who is the hunchback in Frankenstein? If you answered Igor, you’re wrong! What was the actor’s name again? Can’t remember? What a shame such an energetic performance is left in the haze of the public’s memory. And these are AFI Top 100 films! These are the movies every other horror film have tried to replicate, emulate or pay tribute to!
Then you have to remember that these films had limitations too. They had budget concerns, technical limitations, worried studio heads, actor timetables to meet. The creators broke new ground in adaptation but still were left wondering ‘Can I do this better?’. They put out the best work they could and hoped it would catch on. Hell, the Horror genre wasn’t even a thing until Nosferatu and Dracula put it on the map.
It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to perfect in your art as a creator. You want to please so many and live up to the standard that you have for yourself in your mind. With existing material, you get the added pressure of living up to the source material and satisfying the admirers of the original work. That’s why I admire people like JJ Abrams and Peter Jackson and Chris Columbus, who take big properties that people have grown up with and still put out good work that millions enjoy.
Not every film you see will be a classic, but one thing is for sure- no one sets out to make a flop. And when a gem comes along that gains Legendary stature? It’s worth admiring, flaws and all.
Until next time,