November 1, 2013

Queer Review: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein
Director: James Whale
Writers: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston, Josef Berne, Lawrence G. Blochman, Robert Florey, Philip MacDonald, Tom Reed, R.C. Sherriff, Edmund Pearson, and Morton Covan. Inspired by the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Gavin Gordon, Gavin Gordon, Una O'Connor, O.P. Heggie

A campy horror flick, James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein serves just as much of a deconstruction of the first Frankenstein, as it does a sequel. Then there's the queer subtexts galore to consider, which spend most of the running time competing with each other for the opportunity to scream "it's alive!"

After a brief intro in which Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester) reveals that both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation survived the first movie, Dr. Frankenstein is approached by Dr. Pretorius with a proposal. He wants to work with Dr. Frankenstein to create something new and even more ambitious then either one had previously achieved. Dr. Frankenstein refuses, but after Dr. Pretorius joins forces with The Monster (Boris Karloff) and kidnaps Dr. Frankenstein's bride to be, Dr. Frankenstein agrees to help create the most monstrous creation possible, a bride for The Monster.

The Queering
It is not unusual to find queer subtexts in older movies, it is however unusual to find them quite like they are in The Bride of Frankenstein where they're running around each other under thunder clapped skies, dripping off of the ceilings of mad scientists' laboratories, and humping each other in the corner of every forgotten graveyard. Starting with The Monster himself, we have a creature shunned from society, blamed for crimes it cannot understand. When he tries to conform to societies standards of true happiness by getting married, he finds himself disgusted by the results. The revelation of the bride and subsequent destruction of Dr. Frankenstein's lab, can be read as a reflection of the potentially disastrous consequences that await (or at least the anxieties of) lesbians and gays who suppress their sexuality in order to conform to heterosexual ideals of wedded matrimony.

Furthermore, the scenes with the blind hermit are overladen with homoerotic suggestion. It is the hermit who introduces The Monster to the pleasures of smoking, which The Monster likes, a lot. *wink* *nudge* Dr. Pretorius also can be seen "initiating" The Monster into a deviant lifestyle when he offers Frankenstein's creation a cigar as well, while proclaiming that it's his "only vice".

Then we have the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius. On one level, you have the obvious reading of these two scientists attempting to usurp God in their pursuit of creating new life. On another, you have two men trying to create a family without the aid of a female mother.

Of course what must also be discussed is the fact that Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelly and The Bride Dr. Frankenstein created. This has interesting implications in that we have the creator becoming the created. Not only that, but very label The Bride (at least under traditional standards) is an image of something that is to also create new life. It suggests a sort of endless cycle of creation, one in which the creators of The Bride of Frankenstein openly suggest that the sequels are never, ever going to end. Or something to that effect, methinks.

Keeping in with the theme of endless sequels and cycles of rebirth, comes also the constant imagery of resurrection, namely in the form of dozens of crucifixes littering nearly every frame. When The Monster is captured early on, he is tied to a large post and held up in an image that is a cross between the iconic image of Sebastian being stuck with arrows, but of the image of Christ himself. In another scene, where the hermit and The Monster become friends, the screen slowly fades to black at the end, with the last item remaining visible is the crucifix on the hermit's wall. It's easy enough to see the connection, The Monster represents the resurrection/rebirth of each of the bodies that Dr. Frankenstein used to create him. But The Monster here is no misunderstood savior, by the end he saves no one, merely grants Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth the opportunity to escape.

The original Frankenstein was adapted to film from a stage play and while containing some memorable moments and showing hints of genuine creepiness, often felt stilted and a little silly. The Bride of Frankenstein however, was not adapted from a play, but takes elements found in the Shelly's novel that were not in the first movie, and runs in it's own direction with them. The result is a more organic, more enjoyable motion picture. True, the films do cheapen the themes of the original novel and ends up turning Frankensteins' creation into a farce. Given that the original novel is legitimately considered to be a classic of it's own right, this dumbing down is hard to excuse. On the other hand, how many people have read the novel today because of the movies? Not to mention this movie is a lot of fun it's own right and that is the deciding factor as far as my opinion is concerned.

Whether it's his wedding day or not, even the most superstitious groom should see make every effort possible to see The Bride of Frankenstein.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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