Bride of Frankenstein

excerpts from THE MONSTER SHOW by David Skal - Angry Villagers

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.

James Whale, who was living openly as a gay man in Hollywood (not an easy thing in 1935, and not an easy thing now), presumably was well acquainted with the games heterosexuals play; his films are filled with the ironic sensibility known as "camp."

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.

Whale was intent on having the last laugh, and he would have it in spades. Under the apparent guise of "moralizing" the picture, the film's omnipresent cruciform imagery would finally make a statement more "blasphemous" than anything Breen ordered cut, i.e., the direct comparison of the Frankenstein monster to Christ. Whale made numerous adjustments. and concessions (Elizabeth was allowed to live, and escapes with her husband at the end) but, due to his powers of diplomacy, was able to get the Production Code seal while keeping his most subversive material intact. Breen never picked up on the monster/Christ equation (not even in the finished film, where Karloff is trussed to a pole and raised aloft before a jeering mob), and the question of Dr. Pretorius' sexuality went similarly unchallenged (even when he swept into Henry Frankenstein's bedchamber, bitchily banishing the young man's bride and tempting him with the promise of an alternative way to create life.* Like a character in Poe's "The Purloined Letter," Whale seemed to know that there were some things best hidden in plain sight.

But his one misstep was an elaborate low-cut gown for Elsa Lanchester to wear while she rambled on about her "moral lesson." Any lesson implied was lost on Joseph Breen, who informed Universal that "the shots early in the picture, in which the breasts of the character of Mrs. Shelley are exposed and accentuated, constitute a code violation."

The studio agreed to eliminate the close-ups. Fortunately, Lanchester's second appearance, as the Bride, required no such trimming; she was covered from head to foot in bandages, and later in a kind of wedding-shroud. The publicity unit posed pic tures of Lanchester and the other British cast members sipping tea in their costumes, but, as Lanchester later remembered, it was all for the camera. "I drank as little liquid as possible. It was too much of an ordeal to go to the bathroom-all those bandages-and having to be accompanied by my dresser."

* 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."