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Thursday, October 20, 2016

James Whale | Bride of Frankenstein


little monsters
by Douglas Messerli

William Hurlbut (screenplay, adapted from Hurlbut’s and John L. Balderston’s adaptation of the novel by Mary Shelley), James Whale (director) Bride of Frankenstein / 1935

Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein confirms what we all suspected after watching his Frankenstein, that the monster survived the mill fire. But this time around, having truly discovered his métier, Whale—at first resisting the directorial assignment—clearly determined to just have fun, creating a kind of homosexual hoot, which any gay man born before 1970 would have immediately recognized as pure camp.

      

      By framing this sequel within the context of Lord Byron’s friendship with the Shelleys (Byron, one should recall, was self-admittedly bisexual), wherein Mary picks up the tale with the end of the first film, Whale also allows himself to weave in, throughout Bride of Frankenstein, a tale of—if not of homosexuality—at least of bisexuality. 
       Although this film finally sees the recovered Henry Frankenstein (once again Colin Clive) married to his Elizabeth (this time, Valerie Hobson), who helps in his redemption from his former evil ways, he is “tempted”—or perhaps we should say blackmailed—to return to his black arts by his former philosophy teacher, Doctor Pretorius (played with relish by Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius, it is clear, is homosexual, urging his student to “'Be fruitful and multiply’. Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open me but the scientific way.”

      The homunculi Pretorius has created have been “spawned” and grown, not sewn together from dead corpses as Henry’s monster has been, and they represent—the King, the Queen, and the Ballerina—figures that might be in the imagination of just such a “sissified” being.* No soldiers, boxers, or ordinary workers are contained in his cabinet of curiosities. Gay film historian Vito Russo has described him as a “gay Mephistopheles.”
     Not only is the evil Pretorius able to convince the newly married Henry to return to his dark past, but, being in love with death itself, meets us and befriends the monster within a crypt, using the monster himself as a tool to convince Henry to join him in creating a “mate” for the Frankenstein monster.

     We discover that the monster, with the brain of a 10-year old, does not really know anything about sexuality, particularly through the hermit scene, where the monster discovers his first “friend,” in the form of a blind man (O. P. Heggie), who offers him the holy sacraments of  bread and wine—while praying to God for the monster’s visitation—as well as introducing his new guest to the delights of smoking, the latter of which the monster particularly enjoys—once he is rid of his fears for the fire it requires to ignite it. But, once again, society intrudes in the form of two passing hunters, who, reasserting his dread of fire, burn down the hermit’s hut in their attempts to rid the world of this “monster.” 
     Even when he finally gets a glimpse of his bride—whose heart, the movie hints, may have been Henry’s new bride (although Whale historians have denied that the director ever intended this, the movie certainly suggests it when the monster carries her away, and Pretorius’ assistant Karl, soon after, brings him a “fresh” heart) she too is simply a “friend.” In short, we know that the monster has no comprehension of sexuality, which Elsa Lanchester’s memorable screams and hisses seem to confirm. She is as repulsed by the monster just as he is confused about what his bride might mean to him.

      Whale, in this “hoot” of a film, does not stop there, however. This time around his cardboard Tyrolean characters are truly crazies, led by the miraculous cackling of the Frankenstein servant, Minnie (Una O’Connor). His previously “aroused” peasants are now a kind of mob out to get not only the innocent monster (who has, in this film alas, killed a great number of people—a disturbing fact for the Hays Office), but its creators, both the unwilling Henry and his devious mentor, Pretorius. Yet it is, finally, the monster himself—who admittedly prefers death—who destroys himself, his bride, and Pretorius by pulling the lever which will blow up the laboratory in which they are assailed. 
     In so doing, the monster, in fact, allows the continued existence of his God, reversing the myth of Wagner’s the Ring cycle. In Whale’s fantastical version of the Shelley story, it is the sinful humans who allow the Gods, whatever their destructive infatuations, to continue to live. And in the mad Valhalla of Frankenstein-land the hierarchical worlds (of both the Frankenstein’s and the idiot Burgomaster) survive. In Whale’s films even the most absurd of hierarchical society is preserved, just as the little monsters in all of us are forever destroyed. Did I say forever?

Los Angeles, October 20, 2016

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