Thursday, October 13, 2016
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
Much has been made of a perceived subtext of the film, based in part on the knowledge that its director, James Whale, and Thesiger were openly gay, and it's possible to see the plight of the monster (Boris Karloff) as analogous to that of the gays of their time, subject to ridicule and repression from a hostile society. In this reading, Whale and Thesiger adopt camp attitudes as a way of thumbing their noses at a hostile, uncomprehending society. But that's an unnecessarily reductive interpretation. The monster is the ultimate outsider, an anomalous and inarticulate being, whatever his sexuality. He briefly finds companionship in the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who begins to teach him to speak -- including the word "friend" -- but their relationship is doomed by the intrusion of the world of ordinary humans, a world he can never be part of. In the end, when the mate (Elsa Lanchester) who has been created for him rejects him, his only recourse is self-destruction. "We belong dead!" the monster proclaims. To see Bride of Frankenstein as some sort of parable about gays in society would then be an endorsement of suicide as the only option. Subtexts often reside only in the mind of the beholder, and Whale was too much of an artist to turn his film into any kind of message, however latent in the fantastic tale he is telling. Better instead to relish Karloff's ability to give a subtle performance that shows through pounds of makeup. Or Lanchester's remarkable control and timing in bringing the bride to life, including the squawks and hisses that she claimed to have developed by watching swans in the park. Or John J. Mescall's classic black-and-white cinematography, Charles D. Hall's set designs, and Franz Waxman's score. Yes, Colin Clive and Valerie Hobson are a most improbable couple as the Frankensteins. Clive was far gone into alcoholism and looks it, but nobody could have delivered the line "She's alive! Alive!" more memorably.