How James Whale’s Character is Reflected in Bride of Frankenstein

The Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935) has been cited as an original blend of horror, comedy and satire. But why is it this film distinguishes itself so wholly from the plethora of films labelled under the horror genre? This essay’s analysis of Bride will confirm the reason as being James Whale’s conscious, superlative integration of his character into the film.

Due to his huge success with Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931), Whale’s dark humour and eccentricity were able to permeate his subsequent films, The Old Dark House (dir. James Whale, 1932) and The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale, 1933). Whale was opposed to directing a Frankenstein sequel and was quoted as saying, “I squeezed the idea dry on the original picture and never want to work on it again” (Shes Alive! Creating The Bride of Frankenstein, 2004). Desperate for a successful follow-up to Frankenstein, Universal persuaded Whale to return with the offer of complete artistic freedom. With this guarantee, Whale produced one of the definitive examples of a film that reflects a director’s personality.

Whale immediately establishes Bride’s central message of non-judgement during the opening sequence, as it is revealed that the seemingly angelic Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) is capable of conceiving such a monstrous tale as Frankenstein. Whale presents Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) as the embodiment of this message. Frankenstein’s Monster is presented as a sympathetic creature; an outsider longing for companionship and acceptance, which he is repeatedly denied. As a homosexual and an artistic individual who grew up in a factory town, Whale identifies with this characterisation.

The Monster created by Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and later nurtured by Pretorius (Ernst Thesiger) is a purely male creation and consequently the progeny of a homosexual relationship. Also, a creation of pure creative expression, Frankenstein’s Monster is the quintessence of Whale’s status as an outsider, being an artist and a homosexual. As an outsider, Frankenstein’s Monster is faced with fear and violence by the villagers, who are symbolic of society’s herd mentality. Their ignorance is equivalent to that faced by Whale and other non-conformists. It is not just the public masses that receive Whale’s disdain; ‘bumbledom’ is equally to blame for society’s intolerant attitude, as represented by the inept Burgomaster (E.E. Clive). Some critics believe that Whale also mocks Christianity. A shot of Frankenstein’s Monster bound to a cross paralleling Christ’s crucifixion is often cited as an example of this ridicule. Although the bigotry of organised religion and the small-mindedness of creationists is derided, the teachings of Christ are supported. The crucifixion shot draws a parallel between Frankenstein’s Monster and Christ’s teachings, which are supported by this extract from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake” (Matthew 5:11). A scene that was disapproved by the censors, in which Frankenstein’s Monster embraces a statue of the crucified Christ, recognising him as a fellow victim of persecution, would have reinforced this implication. The scene was replaced with one of Frankenstein’s Monster toppling a statue of a bishop, symbolically and literally assaulting the hypocrisy of organised religion.

The persecuted Monster does experience a short period of contentment when he is befriended and welcomed into the home of an old blind hermit (O.P. Heggie). The two outsiders are symbolic of society’s blinkered view of homosexuals as monsters or cripples. The Hermit, as a musician, is also representative of artists as outsiders, drawing another connection with Whale. Whale deliberately presents the couple’s encounter with sentiment and pathos as they enjoy the only truly loving relationship seen in Bride. Thus representing the beauty of a homosexual relationship and the domestic bliss two homosexuals might be allowed in a more tolerant society. Prejudice ultimately tears the couple apart, symbolising society’s dogged disapproval.

Frankenstein’s Monster and Pretorius indirectly acknowledge each other as contemporaries by recognising each other as ‘dead’. ‘Dead’ is used as a metaphor for outsiders, i.e. homosexuals, as they are apart from the rest of society, i.e. the living. Just before the introduction of Pretorius, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) makes it clear that Frankenstein’s experiments with the dead threaten their marriage: “The figure of death seems to be reaching for you as if it would take you away from me”. Subsequently, Pretorius arrives with his black cloak and skeletal frame, the perfect image of death. Pretorius threatens their marital bliss by luring Frankenstein away with the temptations of the dead. This is symbolic of society’s fear of homosexuality as a threat to the sanctity of marriage. Pretorius’s seduction of Frankenstein and his manipulation of Frankenstein’s Monster represent the way society views homosexuality as corrupting and immoral. As Pretorius coaxes Frankenstein to resume his experiments, he dictates, “Follow the lead of nature. Or of God, if you like your Bible stories”. The original end to the line, disapproved by the censors, was ‘fairy tales’, but Thesiger’s invective delivery makes the sly mockery of creationists apparent. Pretorius’ disdain for heterosexuality and religion reinforces him as a representation of society’s belief that homosexuals are wicked.

The film’s climax reveals the fantastic result of Frankenstein and Pretorius’ homosexual union with the creation of the Bride (Elsa Lanchester). Whale’s message of non-judgement reaches fruition as the angelic Shelly’s monstrous persona is revealed. The dynamic energy Whale projects in the creation sequence and the beautiful visage of The Bride defines Whale’s belief in the magnificence of the homosexual artist. The film’s conclusion sees Frankenstein’s Monster solidifying his connection with Christ, as he dies for Frankenstein’s sins, sacrificing himself, showing mercy where none was shown to him, and Whale proffers a final message of tolerance through his endorsement of Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s heterosexual relationship.


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