“With a few exceptions, The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre,” claimed Andrew Sarris. The late critic had a point. By now, Whale’s blackened horror comedy sequel to Frankenstein (1931) has become so legendary, it is almost too easy to forget how much Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a standalone film, possessing a texture unlike anything before or since. Genre classifications be damned.
Director James Whalehad vehemently and repeatedly refused Universal Studio’s pleas for a sequel to his runaway 1931 hit, but when they promised him carte blanche, his enthusiasm was inspired. Whale set to work on a high camp satire, playing havoc with Western family values. Our contemporary idea of a Gothic celluloid baseball bat taken to the bourgeoisie might be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values (1993). Compared to Whale’s authentic island of misfits, the creepy, kooky klan are comparatively status quo.
It may be tempting to dismiss the endless essays addressing the film’s homosexual themes as wishful revisionist hindsight, but the head-in-sand types are as clueless as yesterday’s batch of “Liberace is gay?”naysaying muggles. Yes, James Whale was gay; shockingly, openly gay for the 1930s. The queered eye of Bride‘s hurricane blows in the form of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, extending his role of Horace Femm from Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). Accompanied by his horticultural box of little people, Pretorius endorses necrophilia, snubs his beautifully bitchy nose at homophobic mores, and constructs a deco bride for a simpleton bisexual monster, gesticulating with all the subtlety of a high-dive belly buster.
Although Thesiger practically walks away with thespian honors, Boris Karloff excels in his greatest performance. Karloff initially objected to the monster’s dialogue, which is understandable in light of his mastery of silent pantomime that rivaled both Chaplin and Chaney. However,Whale knew it was time to move forward, and his will triumphed in recognition of Karloff’s mellifluous vocal artistry.
The only authentic love between characters in the film is found in a same sex marriage of Monster and blind hermit (O.P Heggie). Examples of suburban bliss false facades abound: the unions between Monster and Mate (Karloff and Elsa Lanchester) and Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his bride (Valerie Hobson, replacing Mae Clark) are painted in hetero horror.
The often-criticized prologue sets Whale’s domestic milieu, with two flaming queens courting Mary Shelly (also played by Lanchester)—not so ironic, given fag-hag Lanchester’s real-life marital situation with Charles Laughton (both were off-screen friends of Whale).
Whale’s disdain for orthodoxy is manifested in Pretorius’ frequent snubbing utterances towards societal conventions, which is expected. More surprising is the peppering of gay spirituality throughoutBride. Whale’s position is clear when he places an illuminated crucifix sanctifying monster’s marriage to hermit. Karloff dons a martyred Christ pose when persecuted by the village idiots. Frankenstein’s creation is clearly a metaphor for Whale himself and the entire LGBT community. Identifying himself with Christ, the director is as audacious as Gauguin painting himself as a suffering Jesus in the garden, and like the painter, Whale gets away with it .
Una O’Connor’s shrieking villager Minnie (love the name) seems as out of place as a flamboyant drag queen in any town ending with ville. A hairy chinned meat-lubbin matriarch engages in a ritual of flesh eating; that is, until a raging misfit monster snatches it way from her poor, dull soul . The only missing ingredient is a Femm-served potato. One can almost hear Whale chuckling in his futile effort to keep the jokes private in his most perfectly realized work.
Bride of Frankenstein is the equivalent of a giant toy train set given to the filmmakers, who obviously enjoyed making it as much as we have enjoyed watching it for nearly eighty years.
The 2014 Blu-ray release of Bride of Frankenstein is an accessibly timeless presentation of a delightfully dated and idiosyncratic classic. Franz Waxman’s incomparable score has only aged for the better. The visual presentation is lucid and crystalline. Among the extras are a valuable documentary from historian David J. Skal, a Bride of Frankenstein archive, commentaries, and trailer.
The only better way to spend All Saints Day would be watching Bride of Frankenstein on a 100 foot screen.