David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
In the summer of 1816, a young Englishwoman named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin found herself in Switzerland, in the company of two great poets. One was Lord Byron and the other Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she had just eloped. Inasmuch as Shelley already had a wife, this was a rather impressive bit of nonconformity for that time. The atmosphere of this literary ménage seems to have brought out the authoress in Mary Godwin.
A suggestion had been made that everyone in the group should write a story dealing with the supernatural, so Byron produced a narrative about a vampire. No one seems to remember what Shelley wrote, but Mary invented a tale that still retains its power to chill human marrow at a distance of 150 years: a story about a scientist obsessed with the idea of creating an immortal being. Working with what might be described as spare parts, the scientist at last succeeds in manufacturing a living monster--lacking only a soul. You guessed it-the one and only "Frankenstein," a creature who has in the intervening years somehow assumed the name of his creator.
In 1931, at Universal Studio, a director with a talent for the macabre, James Whale, made this story into a horror movie that would manage to scare the pants off several generations of Saturday-matinee-goers and would make an international star of an English actor named William Henry Pratt--you know him as Boris Karloff. In Hollywood, it goes (almost) without saying that one good turn deserves an imitation, and indeed the phenomenal success of FRANKENSTEIN generated a sequel. Four years later, James Whale and his imaginative crew produced a picture in which the mad scientist, who has observed that his firstborn monster seems to be pining away, decides that what he needs is a mate.
For all its bizarre subject matter, the original FRANKENSTEIN movie was a serious horror story, and although it was shot through with marvelous improbabilities we accepted it on its own terms. However, by the time the sequel went into production the film makers realized that the climate of dread that had worked so well with earlier audiences could no longer be sustained; so in the sequel there is an atmosphere of camp, of tongue-in-cheek. Even the title is ridiculous, having been dictated by the need to establish a connection with the first film. Frankenstein is not the monster but the scientist, who is assembling a pawnshop Eve for the demolition-derby Adam in his laboratory Paradise.
The sequence in which the female monster is brought to life is wonderfully ghoulish, and the music composed by Franz Waxman propels this episode to its harrowing climax with the same deadpan seriousness as James Whale's visuals. On the one hand we witness the cumulative horror of the life-giving ritual, while on the other we observe the anxiety of the prospective groom (again played by Karloff), who mopes around as though he had a bumper-sticker saying "Even Monsters Need Love!"
If you haven't seen THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, you will find that the lady turns out to be the wondrous Elsa Lanchester, and she makes her distaste for this kind of junk-mailorder nonsense clear immediately by letting the Karloff monster know that, whatever his plans may be, she has a headache. His response to this rejection at the hands of his dream girl is of such violence as to indicate to the least sensitive among us that the spare parts from which he was constructed didn't come from no gentleman. The post-Wagner, post-Strauss (post-mortem?) effusion that accompanies this inspired nonsense is masterful.
Franz Waxman, the young man who composed this coroner's version of the "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde, was born in Königshütte, Germany (now Chorzow, Poland) in 1906. In what seems the traditional pattern, his family tried to discourage him from pursuing a career in music on the theory that he would not be able to earn a living. Franz worked for several years as a bank teller and used his salary to pay for lessons in piano, harmony and composition. As soon as possible, he quit this job and moved to Berlin where he continued his musical education, supporting himself by playing and arranging for one of those German jazz bands. I used to enjoy kidding him about its outlandish name: Weintraub's Syncopaters (sic).
A measure of the success he eventually achieved in film music is evident from the list of his scores, which include in addition to THE BRIDE: FURY, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, OBJECTIVE BURMA, AIR FORCE, REBECCA, SUSPICION, PRINCE VALIANT, HUMORESQUE, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, and the two for which he won Academy Awards: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951).
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author