Fragments #3: Continuity and the Universal Monsters, Part One

For this multi-part series within a series, we’re going to look at three examples of film continuity through the lens of generational examples: The Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 40s, the James Bond series of the 1960s through today, and lastly the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.  When I talk about continuity here, I’m not talking, “is the right shoe untied from shot to shot” most think of when “continuity” is used within the film lexicon, but a larger version of the same thing: is character consistent throughout a franchise? How does a character evolve from sequel to sequel? If a character died from a stake to the heart, how do we bring that character back? Ignore it? Use it? How can you deepen the world of a series by using the agreed-upon tenets of that storyworld?

brideoffrankIn this first installment, the Universal Monsters present a fascinating case study in early franchise continuity and the lengths studios will go to to keep a franchise alive, including twists, turns, endless convolutions and/or outright ignoring. We’re going to trace the evolution of Universal’s franchise storytelling, beginning with 1931’s Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi and his Lugosi-ness, and Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff under the slathers of Jack Pierce’s iconic Monster makeup, and then examine the standalone sequels to to those films: what made those sequels different and how those sequels led to the creation of a fascinating early exercise in a shared universe in the 1940s.

A quick note: though Universal would produce a seemingly infinite number of horror films, each spawning their own sequels, throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, we’re going to focus on the toothy, the lumbering, and the hairy; rather, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man (who, like the character himself, doesn’t take a starring role in this series until part two), and the convergent series featuring those three icons from 1931 until their black and white retirement in 1948.

THE DIRECT SEQUEL – 1935 & 1936

In 1935, Frankenstein director James Whale, with the success of both Frankenstein and his follow-up, Universal’s other resounding horror success, The Invisible Man, as leverage and his demands for a green light on a non-horror project met, returned to the Frankenstein world with not only the greatest sequel of all time, but one of the greatest films of all time (fact, not opinion, so there), Bride of Frankenstein. Picking up directly following the events of the first film, we learn that neither the Monster nor Henry Frankenstein perished in the climactic, dummy-drop windmill fire of the 1931 film, because, well, sequel.

Unlike most sequels that are content to recycle and rehash what worked before, Bride brought something new to the table: a deepening and expansion of the Frankenstein mythos transformed by Whale’s growing brilliance as a filmmaker (the progression of his filmmaking powers from 1931’s Frankenstein to 1933’s Invisible Man to 1935’s Bride is truly remarkable) into a tragedy tinged with dry, biting humor. Bride expanded the backstory of Henry Frankenstein and had a relic from his past (in the form of Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius) come back to haunt him and make his own self-created nightmare even more nightmarish. In the end, as all monsters must, the dejected Monster and his eponymous Bride, along with Doctor Pretorious (representing Henry Frankenstein unencumbered by morality or conscience), perish in a spectacular laboratory explosion. “You stay, we belong dead,” indeed. But, remember: sequel.

1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, directed by Lambert Hilyer (who would direct the first live-action Batman film in 1943), followed Bride of Frankenstein’s model and picked up minutes after the conclusion of its parent film with intrepid members of Scotland Yard bursting in on Van Helsing (Von Helsing in this film) staking Dracula through the heart and arresting him for murder. But, unlike Bride, Dracula’s Daughter didn’t resurrect the vampiric monster; instead, the film starred Gloria Holden as the eponymous daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska, who, in a precursor to the Universal film monsters of the the next decade, wanted to be free of her paternal vampirism. Of course, because it was a monster movie, we couldn’t have that, and the Countess reverted to her paternally-gifted instincts before succumbing to an arrow through the heart.

Though nowhere near the quality of Bride of Frankenstein (but in many ways superior to Browning’s 1931 original Dracula), Dracula’s Daughter is a unique beast: both a direct sequel and the forerunner of Universal’s next bid for Monster franchise immortality.

THE LEGACY SEQUEL – 1939 to 1943

Taking place years after Bride of Frankenstein, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein brought Basil Rathbone into the mix as Wolf Frankenstein, the titular son of Henry Frankenstein, who takes it upon himself to return to the village bearing his family’s name and clear his father’s name by bringing the Monster (Boris Karloff in his final performance, this time, sans the ability to speak and with a penchant for fur vests) back to life and showing that hey, the Monster isn’t such a bad guy after all. Since it is a horror film, that doesn’t work out so well, and carnage, arm-ripping and Bela Lugosi’s best performance (far surpassing his Dracula) as Ygor ensue.  Despite Wolf’s ultimate success in returning the village of Frankenstein to the people and defeating the Monster by a heroic swing on a chain and dunk in sulfur, the villagers distrust the name again in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, featuring another son of Frankenstein, Ludwig, who, through a convoluted plot involving blackmail, spectral paternal visitations and brain switches, unwittingly puts the brain of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor into the Monster, who, we find out, isn’t the same blood type, and is thus rendered blind, which thoroughly enrages Ygor-Monster, resulting in the destruction of Ludwig, his laboratory and, allegedly, the Monster.

Despite its rampant B-movie-ness (or perhaps because of it),The Ghost of Frankenstein made an invaluable contribution to the next era of Universal Monsters: the non-specific European town of Visaria, which will be the focal point of the crossover storyworld we will explore in the next installment of this series. But first, we have to talk about the most unusual–and final–entrant of the standalone monster sequels.

The year after the Frankenstein quadrilogy came to its conclusion, so to did Universal’s Dracula trilogy with Robert Siodmak’s (who, in 1946, would make The Killers, a brilliant adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner) 1943 film, Son of Dracula.  Starring a woefully-miscast Lon Chaney Jr. (a popular story has his father, Lon Chaney Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame, as Universal’s first choice to play Dracula, but that his death in 1930 prevented this; this story has never been proven) as Count Alucard, who is revealed, during the course of this odd Louisiana film-noir take on the legend, to be Dracula; whether or not he is the Dracula of the Lugosi film is up for debate: Chaney could be the son of Dracula, Dracula Jr.,  even though he’s called Dracula (in the credits and from the mouths of a supporting cast that can spell backwards), thus putting it somewhat in continuity. Despite its odd pedigree and possible misnomer of a title (seeming only present to fit with the first Dracula sequel, Dracula’s Daughter, in 1936 and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), the film is an entertaining and atmospheric entrant in the series, with an absolutely wonderful conclusion and fascinating film noir overtone… that has no bearing whatsoever on the Count’s next appearance (discounting the mustache) in House of Frankenstein, as Boris Karloff’s Dr. Niemann pulls a stake from the heart of Dracula, as he died in the 1931 film, thus adding some credence that maybe Lon Jr. could be Dracula Jr.

Then again, I could be overthinking everything, but therein lies the rub of franchise continuity: Continuity can be a scrambled mess, especially when monetary success demands that you have to construct worlds from projects conceived only as stand-alone projects in a non-serialized medium like film.

•••

With Universal’s creative juices fizzled out on direct and legacy sequels, they needed another formula for Monster immortality. They would find their answer in a legacy actor, more iconic Jack Pierce makeup and a healthy dose of comic book inventiveness. In 1943, the Monsters would meet, and, in true crossover fashion, they would beat the living crap out of each other and live to tell the tale.

The fists and fur will fly next month. Stay tuned.

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