Star Wars and Frankenstein

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition:Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.)

It feels almost impossible to judge the cultural impact of the Universal Monster movies as they began releasing in the United States almost a hundred years ago. Looking at the box office figures and the interconnected universe they spawned over the 1930s and ‘40s, it was something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars for audiences of its day. The Frankenstein films, for the most part, starred Boris Karloff and were very loose interpretations of the classic Mary Shelley classic from 1818. Its themes of creating life after death and playing God were powerful and the films brought these ideas to easily shocked or offended audiences in the time before the Production Code. It even had to be edited down for blasphemy in some parts of the country because of Dr. Frankenstein’s bold statement that he’s replaced God by giving life to the monster.

It’s no wonder that director James Whale’s vision of obsessed “men of reason” abandoning that reason in the pursuit of creating life would factor a strong influence in the Star Wars films. Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein were both syndicated on television thanks to Shock Theatre and Son of Shock, making indelible impressions on everyone who watched them on television through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and beyond. There’s certainly a chance that a young George Lucas was one of those kids watching creature features, and absorbing everything.

Frankenstein and Star Wars

Frankenstein (1931) was essentially a special effects picture. Between glass matte paintings, rear projection, model work, and the creature make-up effects of Jack Pierce, it was bold in its fairy tale vision of what the Frankenstein story could be. Sure, it stripped out so much of what makes the novel incredible, but it distilled it into something else that redefined horror cinema for generations to come.

At its heart, the film grapples with the moral quandaries that are present between a man’s obsession with playing God and pushing the boundaries of science. It’s a morality play, really, and as much a philosophical science-fiction story as much as it is a “horror” film. Colin Clive, who plays Henry Frankenstein, imbues the film with passion and tragedy in equal parts and his quest to conquer death is writ large in the character of Anakin Skywalker.

Although both characters seek to uncover the secrets to immortality, it drives both of them to the brink of sanity, and only one was able to conquer death the way they wanted. Throughout the story of Anakin Skywalker, his desire to cheat death becomes an obsession. Through Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and Frankenstein, you can feel the pulsing heartbeat of this obsession in the splendidly over-the-top emotional outbursts of Anakin and Frankenstein. Anakin’s scene in the garage where he reveals to Padme that he killed the Tusken Raiders has the same energy of Frankenstein proclaiming that he’s replaced God (the scene that was removed by censors in more than a couple of places.)

The scene between Anakin and Palpatine at the opera in Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine hints to Anakin that he’s aware of the secret to life everlasting, has all the same tone and energy of these same philosophical scenes in Frankenstein, where characters discuss the morality of what they’re doing. It’s reflected again in scenes where Anakin is torn by his moral compass, told by Palpatine that “good is a point of view.”

For Frankenstein, this is one of the central themes. Was the creature really the monster? Or was it the mob who misunderstood him?

Bride of Frankenstein and Revenge of the Sith

The better of the two films is Bride of Frankenstein. Whale is able to turn everything that worked about his original film up to 11, including the moral quandary and tragedy. It’s more stylish in the design and echoes back to the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang and Metropolis, another chief influence on George Lucas.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Bride of Frankenstein, it’s a direct sequel to the first film. Although it seemed as though Frankenstein and the monster were dead at the end of the 1931 film, they have survived. Naturally, Frankenstein’s creation wants to have a friend like him, and wants his father figure to create this partner. This would be the Bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the part of Mary Shelly in the film’s framing device. The poignancy of the film comes to fruition in its last moments when the Bride is brought to life and when she’s faced with living a life as the creature’s companion, she instead decides to end her own life. This drives Frankenstein’s monster to end his own life and destroy the laboratory around him.

This is mirrored in Revenge of the Sith, with Padme’s rejection of Anakin (and death), allowing him to lash out at everyone, especially those who love him most. Because of this loss, Anakin transforms into the monster—Vader—and is able to completely surrender to the darkness within him. Instead of killing himself bodily, he certainly kills himself metaphorically, emerging as Darth Vader.

Both Bride of Frankenstein and Revenge of the Sith are tragedies of the highest order that share these thematic elements. But it doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

“Noooooo!”

Perhaps the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned moment in Revenge of the Sith is the scene where Palpatine’s own monster, Vader, stands from his rebirth as Frankenstein’s monster stood from his electrical womb and screams from his loss. “Nooooo!” Vader screams as he discovers the loss of person he cared about most.

You’ll notice the production design of the table and the technological gadgets are reminiscent of the atomic-age future the 1930s brought to Frankenstein’s lab in the James Whale film. Vader crushes them with the Force, the sort of destruction Frankenstein’s monster is capable of when he’s afraid and doesn’t understand the world around him.

We’re meant to view this specific scene of Anakin’s final transformation with the same thrill and passion we view films of the ‘30s. It’s high melodrama and meant to evoke the design and emotion of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Anakin has truly become a monster and Palpatine has remade him from different parts, the same way Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, cobbled together parts for their own creation. Instead of using parts of the dead, Palpatine makes Vader more machine than man.

Twisted and evil.

For the best experience with the Star Wars prequels, one must try to view them through the same lens we use to watch  films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. This was a purposeful tool Lucas used to create period pieces inside the Star Wars films. With the original trilogy, the acting felt very contemporary to the era in which it was made: 1977 through 1983. It feels old-fashioned, but still retains the feeling of being grounded in reality. To create the prequels, instead of grounding them in the reality of the time of their making, George Lucas set the clock back on the universe. The prequels would take place 30 years before the classic films, so Lucas would employ and acting and writing style that fit the melodrama of the films 30 or 40 years prior to the films he’d made originally, bringing us to the cinema of the ‘30s and ‘40s. J.J. Abrams employed this technique again when starting off the very-modern sequel trilogy. Whether he realized it or not is a different story.

Films of the ‘30s were rife with melodrama, highfalutin dialogue, and an acting style that feels like an acquired taste for modern audiences not as well-versed in the history of film. Watching the prequels in that spirit answers so many of the the questions from audience members who ask, “Why did George Lucas make that choice?”

Watching Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as a double pre-feature before the prequels is going to give you a better appreciation of the genius of George Lucas and help contextualize his intentions. Aside from that, they’re terrific, important films in their own right that revolutionized the genre filmmaking in ways that are still felt to this day.

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Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are available to rent on most streaming services.

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