No institution — society, religion, marriage, or heterosexuality — was safe from the penetrating queer eye of James Whale. Make way for the homosexual creator!
James Whale’s initial refusal to do a sequel to his immensely popular Frankenstein (1931) eventually faltered when he discovered a strategy for creating a commercially viable product that would also — in subtext — subvert existing mores. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in the guise of a comic horror tale, assaults the notion of the sanctity of standard sex roles and “family values.”
While hindsight is rightly suspect as a critical tool, particularly when it’s a cover for revisionist views that expect an earlier era to reflect contemporary values, Whale’s campy masterpiece almost demands to be treated as one of the historical high-water marks of sexual subversion. The Bride can be read from a modern perspective as a homosexual joke on the heterosexual communities Whale — a gay man — served and benefited from: his “masters” at Universal and the mass audience to whom he could present unconventional images and ideas and see them unknowingly endorsed and approved in the most direct way possible: from the moviegoer’s pocketbook. This is not to suggest a diabolical, schematic plan on Whale’s part — it’s more that a genre effort like The Bride, full of fantasy and monster-outsiders, was clearly the perfect medium for indulging the most radical aspects of a gay sensibility, a fact the sophisticated Whale — judging from the mountain of evidence within the film — was aware of on some level.
The film teems with homosexual presences behind and before the camera and within the narrative itself. In addition to the director’s well-known orientation, there are major characters played by gay or bisexual men: Ernest Thesiger, one of the most outrageous queens of ’30s movie queendom, and the rumored bisexual Colin Clive. Even the bride’s (Elsa Lanchester) true-life husband, Charles Laughton, was a noted gay masochist, a fact that fits her nicely into the film’s schema of the camp assault. Secondary characters like the maid Minnie (Una O’Connor) come off like shrieking drag queens, while the only successful, loving (if woefully brief) relationship in the film is that between two unmistakable outsiders, both men— the monster and an old blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) — who set up house like the blissful married couple they might, in a more just society, be permitted to be.
Some critics have complained about the opening sequence, where Mary Shelley sits in a plush parlor sewing and chatting with her husband Percy Shelley and their friend, Lord Byron. This scene, allegedly irrelevant to the narrative, actually goes far in establishing Whale’s tone of homosexual revenge on his patrons. The two men are heavily made up and look, talk, and act with an outlandish, caricatured femininity that has no discernible purpose except as camp comedy. The elegance of the interior, the high-pitched humor of the scene, and the relaxed, amused, adult relationship of the three present a model of what might be read as Whale’s ideal family: two gay men and a sympathetic but sexually undemanding female; three intelligent, creative beings on an equal footing. It’s significant that this scene which radiates not only archness but also wholeness, pleasure, and satisfaction, cuts — through Mary’s storytelling — to one of heterosexual horror, a violent tableau of a mob wreaking havoc on a “monster” it can’t comprehend.
The film posits Henry Frankenstein’s experiments with resurrecting the dead as above all a threat to the “normal” functioning of the chief straight (at least theoretically) relationship here, that of Henry and fiancée Elizabeth. She states it plainly: “The figure of death seems to be reaching for you, as if it would take you away from me.” The seductiveness of “death” threatens to part them. But “death” here can also be read as a heterosexist vision of homosexuality, a kind of barrenness, the inability — or worse, indifference — to producing children. Henry’s crime, and his lure, is therefore: homosexuality.
When Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives, he becomes part of a trio that echoes the opening scene of Mary, Percy, and Byron. Again, 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 by the film. Thesiger plays the part as the grand dame he was in real life; in the film he is the diabolical ticket for Henry’s re-entry into the demi-monde of fantastic homosexual creativity that finds its ultimate visualization in the stunning “creation of the Bride” sequence that ends the film.
Of course, society will not tolerate such stuff and Pretorius tells us, in typical smirking, superior homosexual style, that he was “booted out” of the university “for knowing too much.” His dislike of conventional love is oft-repeated; when he shows Henry the miniature people he’s created, he points to a king and queen and says, “Even royal amours are such a nuisance.” His stance of amused disgust at not only straight relationships but the religious institutions that buttress them is revealed when, somewhat shockingly for a 1930s movie, he mocks the bible and says things like, “Sometimes I wonder if we’d all be better off being devils, and no nonsense about angels.”
The monster (Boris Karloff) can be seen as the terrifying “child” of the unholy “marriage” of Pretorius and Henry — Henry the father in giving it life, Pretorius a mother-figure who nurtures it. The monster is society’s paranoid vision of the logical outcome of a homosexual tryst. It is a child in many ways: inchoate, demanding affection and attention, unreasonable and violent when crossed. Like a child, too, his sexuality is unsettled, bisexual, his attentions captured equally by the male hermit and his possible female bride. Henry exhibits an overall revulsion toward his “child,” alternately excited and repulsed by what he has produced; Pretorius is the monster’s more involved, but manipulative, even abusive parent figure — 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.
Whale’s own Pretorius-like distaste for the heterosexual model of domestic bliss is evident in the sequence of the monster and the blind man. Their scenes together are extraordinarily powerful, resonant on several levels: as satires of the nuclear family, full of the little familiarities and comic-sympathetic interchanges supposed to be typical of families, and one of their chief pleasures; and as a bitter view of society’s ultimate responsibility for seeing intelligent, sensitive people — read: homosexuals — as cripples and monsters. Whale moves brilliantly between pathos and humor in these encounters, with their ultimate effect being to cast the monster into a highly sympathetic light.
Unlike the censorious society around him, the blind man — the monster’s first mate — is not judgmental. He assumes that Frankenstein is a criminal, or someone in trouble, but says, “You needn’t tell me about it if you don’t want to.” He is in fact 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.” He even refers to the two of them as children, hence innocent: “Out of the silence of the night … you’ve brought two of your lonely children together.” No mistake — this is a marriage, and a viable one. The monster wants to learn, the hermit wants to teach, and both are driven by a need for acceptance and love. But Whale reminds us quickly that society does not approve. The monster — the outsider — is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it.
The rest of the film continues to find Henry and Elizabeth separated. First it was Henry’s supposed death that stood in the way. Then it was his obsession with death and forced friendship with Pretorius. Then it was Elizabeth’s kidnapping by the monster. Finally, the film allows the relationship to proceed, but ironically only after offering another strikingly bizarre tableau of marriage: the bride in her tattered, bandagey version of a wedding dress, given away by substitute father Pretorius, to the tune of Franz Waxman’s mock-wedding bells. The final shot of Henry and Elizabeth united outside the ruined castle cannot eradicate the fantastic vision of the bride’s hissing hatred of her “mate,” the monster.
Rejected by his betrothed, the monster in a sense grows up, becomes able to make moral decisions. He decides to dispatch himself along with Pretorius and the castle-laboratory. This allows Whale to return the world to “normal” as convention and his bosses at Universal would have dictated; it lets Henry and Elizabeth emerge finally as a successful — mated — couple. Still, Henry seemed much more at home as the hysterical scientist tampering homosexually with “God’s plan” of creation.
The film’s major set-piece is the creation of the Bride, shot (by John Mescall) in a spectacular studio lightning storm with dazzling forced perspectives, tilted angles, and wide-angle close-ups of the crazed participants. The mixture of comically portentous music and wild visuals create a symphony of creation — but of what? This is the final flowering of the Pretorius-Henry “forced marriage.” They work together to “give birth” to a woman, two homosexuals replacing the heterosexual model of male and female parenting and replacing God — annihilating those noxious enemies of homosexuality, society and religion, in one blow. Whale’s magical rendering of this scene, one of the greatest in Hollywood history, validates the power not only of Pretorius-Henry’s homosexual creativity, but also of his own tremendous abilities as a gay artist. His orchestration of the creative elements of filmmaking — acting, music, camera, cutting — mirrors the orchestration of the elements of life by his stand-ins, Thesiger and Clive. The intense dynamism of this scene serves as Whale’s reminder to the audience — his Hollywood bosses, peers, and everyone watching — of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator.