Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2014 Evelyn C. Leeper.


INTO THE LOOKING-GLASS WORLD by Alberto Manguel:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/20/2002]

I also read Alberto Manguel's collection of essays, INTO THE LOOKING-GLASS WORLD. (He is the editor of the really excellent anthology of magical realism, BLACK WATER.) On one of the section title pages, he quotes Chapter V of Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS:

"There's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."

"Suppose he never commits the crime?" said Alice.

"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?" the Queen said.

Is this where Philip K. Dick got his idea for "Minority Report"?

I also started Avram Davidson's collection THE OTHER NINETEENTH CENTURY, about which I will probably say more later. [-ecl]

To order Into the Looking-Glass World from amazon.com, click here.


P>LA NOVIA DE FRANKENSTEIN (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) by Alberto Manguel (translated by Gabriela Ventureira):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/12/2014]

I am busy working my way through the BFI series of film books, and while most of the ones I am interested in are available via inter-library loan, a couple were not. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was one of them, but (not surprisingly) was rather pricy on the used market. However, the Spanish edition was considerably cheaper, so I bought that. LA NOVIA DE FRANKENSTEIN (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) by Alberto Manguel (translated by Gabriela Ventureira) (ISBN 978-84-9784-095-X) was not, alas, translated by Manguel himself, but one hopes he at least vetted the translation. In any case, the Spanish is very straightforward and quite easy to read, which was a relief after the "academic writing" in some of the volumes.

As is usual, I take copious notes when reading a book in Spanish and--lucky you!--you get to read then! (You are lucky--the book is only about ninety pages long.)

Manguel first saw THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN when he was ten years old (in 1958) as part of a Sunday matinee triple feature in the local Buenos Aires 1930s movie palace. The other two films were FRANKENSTEIN and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (at least that is what I am assuming ABBOTT Y COSTELLO CONTRA LOS FANTASMAS is--and yes, it is los fantasmas, although it is misspelled "ABBOT", the first of many annoying typos in this edition). Strangely, the IMDB says that while ABBOTT Y COSTELLO CONTRA LOS FANTASMAS is the title for ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in Spain and Mexico, the Argentinean title was ABBOTT AND COSTELLO CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN!

Anyway, even though he had never seen a Frankenstein movie before, he still had the "Platonic form" of Karloff as the Monster in his mind. However, he (and his friends) had no real fear in connection with the film, because everything in that Mitteleurope rural film was so alien to their life in the city considered the Paris of South America. Manguel also says he prefers the term ""terror" to "horror" in describing these films (as did Boris Karloff himself), in that terror expands the soul, while horror contracts it. (Perhaps a better way of expressing this in English is that one would feel terror in the face of a force such as a tsunami, but horror at a basement full of bugs.)

The Monster has a gigantic form, exceeding normal bounds, and is also the result of a gigantic imagination, exceeding normal (societal) bounds, on the part of its creator. (Manguel tends to refer to the creation as "el monstruo [de Frankenstein]" rather than "la creacion [de Frankenstein]".)

Manguel gives a brief history of Universal Studios and James Whale. After serving in WWI, Whale returned with an antipathy towards any authority, and a sense of "camp". He was also a snob (the Spanish for which is "esnob"!), and dismissed Karloff as merely a "truck driver" (which indeed Karloff had been, but still...).

Although THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was conceived by Universal as a continuation of the story, Whale never saw it as a sequel. Hence while the first film was tragic in tone, the second was pathetic in tone and even "grotesquely comical" at times. And while most of the principal actors were either carry-overs from the first film or under contract to Universal, Whale's sense of camp insisted on adding Una O'Connor and Ernest Theisiger. (When Theisiger was asked what about World War I made the biggest impression on him, he said, "The noise, my dear.")

As far as editing, Whale felt that the real editing should happen ahead of time, in the script and its shooting directions, rather than afterwards. But it still had to pass through the "menacing hands of the censors." The first film was made in 1931, before there was industry censorship. There were some cuts made on a state (or perhaps even local) level, but even the drowning of Maria was not cut from all prints until the film was re-released in 1937. But with THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Whale had to deal with Joseph Breen, who objected to any comparison of Dr. Frankenstein with God, any suggestion of the Creature having a physical relationship, and the use of the word "female". Later Breen added even more objections, but Whale managed to preserve most of his original conception.

[One learns the most interesting idioms reading other languages. As translated into Spanish, Whale manages to preserve his original concept "contra viento y marea"--"against wind and flood," or as we would say, "come hell or high water." What is surprising is how similar the idioms are.]

Manguel points out that the text prologue to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (called, by the way, only BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on the title card of the film itself, but THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in all other materials) credits the original story, written by Mary Shelley in 1816, hence it permits us "to fix the year, to determine the epoch) of the story. And the dramatic prologue with Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron fixes it as well--yet clearly the first film took place over a hundred years after 1816, and the second must take place even later (my observation, not Manguel's). One could argue, I suppose, that she is telling a science fiction story set a hundred years in the future, but clearly her book is no such thing.

Manguel quotes Graham Greene as saying he hates this sort of scene, where one character says of another to a third something like, "You see that man over there? The world will hear much from him, mark my words. His name is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart." Nevertheless, we get this sort of introduction to who these people are, and in the process Byron says that Mary has "created a Frankenstein," thereby conflating the creation with the creator. [Actually, given that many critiques of the novel indicate that one of Dr. Frankenstein's major failings is in abandoning what is effectively a son, calling the creation "Frankenstein" is perhaps not entirely incorrect.] Later Praetorius does the same thing.

The purpose of the prologue, however, is not to set the date, or to tell the audience things that they already knew. It was, rather, a sop to the censors who objected to the "blasphemy" of the first film. By making THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN explicitly a fictional story told by Mary Shelley, this apparently removed the taint of blasphemy, at least enough to soothe the censors.

Manguel describes the Monster's face is the opposite of that of another screen icon, Greta Garbo. Where Garbo was beatifically and angelically empty, the Monster is subhuman and demoniacally full--Manguel compares him to the portrait of Dorian Gray or to Mr. Hyde. There are conflicting stories of how Karloff was originally "discovered," but at any rate, Whale decided his face was the perfect base for his conception of the Monster. One problem, however, was that Karloff's eyes were too bright and intelligent ("comprensivo"), so wax caps were added to his eyelids to give them that half-closed look.

Jack Pierce takes credit for the look of the "crown, as if it were a lid," but the script actually describes it as looking like the lid of a box, so Pierce's story of how he spent a lot of time deciding that was the right look for the Monster seems perhaps a bit ... embellished. Neither were the bolts in the neck Pierce's idea--Karoly Grosz (the Universal Studios artist, not the Hungarian politician) drew them in a sketch in 1931.

When the Monster kills the old man in the mill, Manguel says, it is no accident, but premeditated. The Monster, he says, adopted the fate of the marginalized in adopting the impression that society has of him. He is seen as a rampaging monster, so he becomes one. [A bit of language synchronicity here: Manguel refers to the deaths being observed by a "buho"--a horned owl. "Buho" is also a Spanish word for hermit, and a hermit later figures importantly in the film!]

The campiness of Minnie's (Una O'Connor's) screams, Manguel claims, jars us from seeing the deaths from the point of view of the victims to seeing them from that of the Monster. (I think he attributes this to the unrealistic nature of Minnie's screams--we no longer take the film as realistic or "serious.) In response to Minnie's screams--"or rather, shrieks"--saying the Monster is alive, Manguel describes her as a "comical Cassandra." Henry's placement on the table mirrors that of the Monster's during his creation in the first film, and there is this mirroring throughout (Mary Shelley and the Monster's bride being played by the same actress, both Henry and the Monster desiring a bride, and so on). This is emphasized by Minnie's scream of "He's alive!" when Henry's hand moves; the phrase recurs a third time when the Bride comes to life. Manguel notes that in all three cases, it is the movement of the right hand that signals life, and says this hand is traditionally linked with the heart and the "vital energy." (It is?)

Manguel says that Clive is the most "envarado" of the cast--I think this probably means "wooden." At any rate, he elaborates that Clive seems to have only one facial expression for everything from exaltation to fear, and this wasn't helped by the fact that he torn the ligaments in his knees in a fall and spent a lot of the film seated or on crutches. Luckily, Henry is really a secondary character, with Karloff turning in the best performance of his career (in Manguel's opinion), and rest of the picture really belonging to "the unforgettable Bride and the infamous Doctor Praetorius."

When Minnie opens the door to Pretorius, she says his name seven times in "the next few seconds" (the translation inexplicably says "the next two seconds," which I'm sure is physically impossible). Manguel likens this to a medieval invocation of the Devil. Where Mary Shelley drew inspiration from Milton's "Paradise Lost", Whale drew from Goethe's "Faust". (Is that true, or is it rather than the screenwriter, William Hurlbut added the Faustian subtext?)

Manguel points out the emphasis on the four classical elements in Whale's "Frankenstein" films. The Monster is constructed of parts taken from the earth, and brought to life by lightning taken from the air. The Monster is first threatened with fire, then comes to see it as a friend. (One could also see the lightning as a form of fire.) The Monster (accidentally) drowns his first victim, is frightened by his reflection in the water, and finds another victim by the water.

Manguel also notes that while Shelley explains (albeit poorly) how the Monster learns to speak and read, in the films he seems to understand some words and sentences, particularly from the hermit, before we see him learn them. The hermit offers him bread and wine, the traditional substances of Communion. (The hermit could, after all, have offered water.) Though Manguel does not say this explicitly, this would appear to be what makes the Monster a full member of the human community, what (definitively) gives him a soul. Certainly he appears to have human attributes before this, but this might reinforce that for believers. How this got past the censors is not clear.

Though the hermit and Monster are perfectly content in the cottage, the villagers will not leave this "unnatural" pair alone. Manguel draws a connection between this and the treatment of gay couples in the 1930s, since he feels that it must have been one made by Whale (as a gay man in the 1930s).

Of the director of cinematography, Manguel writes, "[John J.] Mescall, who worked better when he was drunk, photographed the laboratory full of equipment and the fantastic operation from all possible angles with a tilted camera [Dutch angles]..." This sort of angled shot was first used in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and then widely in other German Expressionist films. It also showed up in THE THIRD MAN and the "Batman" television series and 1966 movie.

Manguel sees the Frankenstein myth as carrying through a huge swatch of literature and film: Doctor Moreau, the scientist in THE FLY, the Tin Man of Oz, the replicants of BLADE RUNNER, the dreaming man of Jorge Luis Borges's "The Circular Ruins", and the Terminator, as well as descended from the myths of Adam, Prometheus. and the Golem. But he also sees it as a metaphor for cinema: just as Frankenstein pieced together inanimate parts and gave them life, so does a filmmaker piece together still photographs and make them move--or at least make them appear to move.

Although he sees Shelley's creation as descended from the myths of Adam, Prometheus, and the Golem, he says that before the creation, all the monsters of literature either began born as monsters, or were not originally monsters, but were normal creatures transformed into monsters. Only with the creation of Shelley did we have something artificially created of parts of other creatures, so it began neither inherently evil nor inherently normal.

And indeed, our perception of the Monster itself has changed over time. For example, Manguel says, "in the Kenneth Branagh version he is more a victim than a rebel." (And would are more likely to says "the Monster himself" than "the Monster itself.")

To order La novia de Frankenstein from amazon.com, click here.


Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.