The changing role of women in a world driven by male scientism is an arguable subtext of the Mary Shelley novel, as dozens of feminist analyses of Frankenstein in recent years amply attest. James Whale instinctively dipped into the feminist subtext of Frankenstein for his sequel, decades before any formal feminist inquiry.
Frankenstein is a visionary novel dramatizing, among many other things, a feminist writer's anxiety over scientific man's desire to abandon womankind and find a new method of procreation that does not involve the female principle. As Anne K. Mellor points out in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, "At every level, Victor Frankenstein is engaged upon a rape of nature, a violent penetration and usurpation of the female's 'hiding places,' of the womb. Terrified of female sexuality and the power of human reproduction it enables, both he and the patriarchal society he represents use the technologies of science ... to manipulate, control and repress women." The impulse is thus autoerotic ("With my own hands!" as Dr. Frankensteins are usually fond of saying, all the time wringing them in glee---or is it guilt?) and/or homoerotic-life created with the help of male assistants (often cowering dwarves who are seen sticking their heads through portals and trapdoors, who spill precious concoctions, "fuck things up," etc.) And the Karloff monster, with its stalking height and rigidity, is an obvious inversion/erection of the shrunken assistant.
And it was this sensibility that allowed him, with the help of his screenwriters, to create a new and enduring mad-scientist icon that would playfully embody the sexual warfare that had been part of the Frankenstein brew from the very beginning. Conceived specifically for the celebrated British stage actor Ernest Thesiger, the role of Dr. Septimus Pretorius brilliantly elucidated not only the Faustian elements of the story but its sexual ambiguities as well: Pretorius, Frankenstein's mentor at school, would be a gay Mephistopheles. Waspish and epicene, with a long foxy nose that made him rather like a male stand-in for the actress Martita Hunt, Thesiger's portrayal is an over-the-top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual. In real life, Thesiger was married to the same woman for fifty years, and further belied stereotypes with his World War I combat record.
The expanded vigilance of the Production Code Administration now could involve elaborate wrangling with censors over the smallest nuances of a script, and the screenplay Whale presented for Bride of Frankenstein was a lulu. As if anticipating the familiar objections, the film would begin with a prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester; all the main parts were written for specific actors) reminding her husband and their guest Lord Byron that it had been her intention in Frankenstein to pen a "moral lesson. " The prologue dissolves to the climax of the first film, where we learn that Frankenstein's monster (Karloff) did not die in the burning mill, but survived the conflagration in an underground cistern. Scorched and more horrible-looking than ever, he once more terrorizes the countryside, alternately brutalizing and being brutalized by the stupidly unpleasant townsfolk. After befriending a blind hermit and learning how to talk (an idyll ruined, of course, by the intrusion of ill-tempered locals) the monster meets up in a graveyard with the scheming Dr. Pretorius, who promises him a mate and uses him to blackmail Henry Frankenstein (Cohn Clive) into collaborating on the unholy nuptials. Pretorius has also created life-miniature, toy-like beings in jars (a king, a devil, a mermaid) and wants to merge his techniques with those of his former student. Henry's wife Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, later Mrs. John Profumo) is kidnapped by the creature, killed, and her heart transplanted into the she-monster. When the bride comes to life, she spurns her intended, who sets off a cataclysmic laboratory explosion that blows to atoms all concerned and assembled.
Whale was walking on thin ice with the Production Code Administration, but seems to have relished the challenge. "When Joe Breen wrote to a producer that a film ... could not hope to receive a seal, a vaultlike door slammed shut," wrote Gerald Gardner in his book The Censorship Papers. Breen, a Catholic journalist prior to his appointment, immediately noted the story's irreverent tone. "Throughout the script," he wrote, "there are a number of references to Frankenstein which compare him to God and which compare his creation of the monster to God's creation of Man. All such references should be eliminated." Several months later, when a revised shooting script was submitted, Breen again requested numerous changes, most of which had to do with religious references and imagery. Whale proved to be a charming correspondent, even as the Breen Office tried to bowdlerize his film. Ever polite, and eager not to be perceived as "difficult," he even went so far as to remind Breen of his earlier objections that may have slipped his mind.
* ln an elaborately embellished novelization of the screenplay by "Michael Egremont" actually novelist Michael Harrison-published in England in 1936, Pretorious is more candid about his motivations in the laboratory. "Come," he says to Henry, " '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 to me but the scientific way."