Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gay Propaganda? Horror Classic 'Bride of Frankenstein'

by Eric Brothers (C) 2014
Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius): “one of the most outrageous queens of 30s movie queendom.”

Bride of Frankenstein is indeed a horror film, but did director James Whale, writes Gary Morris in his essay, "Sexual Subversion: The Bride of Frankenstein," discover “a strategy for creating a commercially viable product that would also—in subtext—subvert existing mores”?  It could be argued—quite strongly—that this film "full of fantasy and monster-outsiders" from 1935 was "the perfect medium for indulging the most radical aspects of a gay sensibility.”

James Whale (with cigar) directing Karloff on set of "Bride."
The reviewer of the film in Time magazine seems to have gotten the message back then. Published on April 29, 1935, he writes, “Director James Whale [has] given it the macabre intensity proper to all good horror pieces, but [has] substituted a queer kind of mechanistic pathos for the sheer evil that was [the] Frankenstein [monster].”

Elsa Lanchester is "mannish" while Shelly and Byron “look, talk, and act with an outlandish, caricatured femininity…”

1935 review says Elsa Lanchester is "mannish in dress"

The review, for some reason, discusses actor Charles Laughton (who was not in the film), the husband of actress Elsa Lanchester, who does appear in the film, as well as Miss Lanchester herself, “Although he [Laughton] is known for his plump effeminacy, she [Lanchester] is mannish in dress.” Why in the world would that be written in a film review of 1935?

Ernest Thesiger in full drag in the 1920s or 1930s.

Ernest Thesiger: "fruity" and "perverse"

Director Whale was gay and made no effort to hide that fact. Morris points out that major characters are played by gay or bi-sexual men, including Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius), who Morris writes was, “one of the most outrageous queens of 30s movie queendom.” Brunas, Brunas and Weaver write that Thesiger’s performance is “fruity” and “pompous and slyly perverse.” Known to be a “skilled” female impersonator, the actor once asked playwright W. Somerset Maugham why he never wrote any parts for him. Maugham claimed that he did, and quipped, “but Gladys Cooper always plays them.”

Percy Shelly and Lord Byron have "outlandish, caricatured femininity"

The opening prologue of the film, when author Mary Shelly chats in a “plush” parlor with husband Percy Shelly and friend Lord Byron, writes Morris, which is “allegedly irrelevant to the narrative, actually goes far in establishing Whale’s tone of homosexual revenge...” Both men wear heavy make-up and “look, talk, and act with an outlandish, caricatured femininity…”

Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth) and Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein) in "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935).

Henry and Elizabeth have "straight" relationship

The one “straight” relationship in Bride of Frankenstein is that of Henry Frankenstein and his fiancĂ©, Elizabeth. A major conflict of the film is that the experiments leading to the resurrecting of the dead are a threat to the “normal” relationship between them. Elizabeth says to Henry, “The figure of death seems to be reaching for you, as if it would take you away from me.” Morris writes that “death” can be interpreted metaphorically as “a heterosexist vision of homosexuality” that is a “barrenness, the inability--or worse, indifference--to producing children.”

Pretorious (standing) and Henry Frankenstein.

Two "queens": "mincing" Pretorius and "overwrought" Henry

When Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger) arrives, the maid Minnie (Una O'Connor) says in an aside, "He's a queer fellow!" Morris writes that Whale shows us two "queens": the "mincing" Pretorius and the "emotionally overwrought" Henry, "whose attempts to marry and enter into conjugal hetero bliss with his wife are endlessly thwarted..." Pretorius mocks "conventional" love throughout and even mocks the bible--in a 1935 film!--when he says, "Sometimes I wonder if we'd all be better off being devils, and no nonsense about angels." 

Karloff as the Monster.
Morris writes that the monster (Boris Karloff) is "society's paranoid vision" of the result of a "homosexual tryst." Pretorius is the monster's involved, but "manipulative" parent figure, writes Morris, "the embodiment of society's fears of the vast damage the homosexual, nefariously moving into the role of domestic caretaker, teacher of social values and sex-role attributes, is capable of doing."

"Domestic bliss" between monster and blind hermit

True "domestic bliss" in Bride of Frankenstein is found only in the scenes with the monster and the blind hermit. Morris sees these scenes as quite powerful, and resonating on different levels: satire of the nuclear family; full of interchanges resembling a "typical" family, "and as a bitter view of society's ultimate responsibility for seeing intelligent, sensitive people—read: homosexuals—as cripples and monsters."

The blind man is open and loving: "I have prayed many times for God to send me a friend...I shall look after you, and you will comfort me." This is a marriage, says Morris: the monster wants to learn and his blind friend wants to teach, and "both are driven by a need for acceptance and love."

"Domestic bliss": blind hermit and monster enjoy a meal.
Whale reminds viewers, however, that society does not approve when the monster—the outsider— "is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes [one the un-billed John Carradine] who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it."

"Birth" of the Bride of Frankenstein

The exciting climax of the movie—the creation of the bride—is well worth the wait and the price of admission. Lights flash, faces are locked in serious concentration—with Pretorius looking like a Mephistophelian drag queen. The Time review says, "they impregnate her [the bride] with crackling life from a lightning bolt brought down on gigantic kite-cables." We are bombarded "with dazzling forced perspectives, tilted angles, and wide angle close-ups of the crazed participants."

Pretorius and Henry "give birth" to the Bride of Frankenstein.
Morris's brilliant and scathing essay also builds to a climax that is worth the wait. "They"-— Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius—"work together to 'give birth' to a woman," writes Morris, "...two homosexuals replacing the heterosexual modes of male and female parenting."

In closing Morris writes, "Whale's magical rendering of this scene, one of the greatest in Hollywood history, validates the power [of Whale's] tremendous abilities as a gay artist...The intense dynamism of this scene serves as Whale's reminder to the audience...of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator."