The impact of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in popular culture is almost impossible to ignore. After 70 years, the movie continues to be a favorite among fans, and it is often considered the most accomplished and enduring film from the Golden Age of horror cinema (1931-1939). Frequently parodied and often imitated, the now iconic image of the title creature is probably the first, and most memorable, depiction of a female monster in cinema.
However, while Bride of Frankenstein appears to be an inoffensive, innocent and perhaps even humorous horror film, it is in reality one of the most subversive cinematic statements of the period. Make no mistake about it, this is a politically conscious film that deals with a variety of highly controversial themes, and addresses complex social, racial, gender and sexual anxieties.
Produced by Universal Studios during the peak of their ’30s movie macabre boom, Bride of Frankenstein is the first of the many sequels that followed the timeless classic Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). Because of the tremendous success and even larger box office grosses, Universal Studios contemplated the possibility of a sequel early on. They realized, however, that the success of a second film would depend on the presence of the original director and actor that had made of the first movie so memorable . . . and profitable.
According to show biz legend, James Whale was hesitant about being involved with a second Frankenstein film. But he became interested when producer Carl Leammle, Jr. granted him complete creative control. This newfound freedom permitted James Whale who was gay in an extremely homophobic America to layer Bride of Frankenstein with subtexts that reflected his sexual orientation and personal political ideologies.
Bride of Frankenstein starts right where the original Frankenstein ended, and incorporates some plot elements found in Mary Shelley’s novel that were ignored in the first movie. Two crucial events make up the movie’s main narrative drive. The first one has the Frankenstein monster (Boris Karloff) taking refuge at the home of an old blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), who welcomes him, becomes his friend, and teaches him to speak. The second equally fateful incident is the arrival of Mephistophelean Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) to the Castle Frankenstein. Dr. Pretorius insists on working with Henry (Colin Clive) to create a female mate (Elsa Lanchester) for the monster.
With this storyline as a background, Bride of Frankenstein then subliminally deals with intense sexual, gender, social, racial, and religious implications. As with most films based on Mary Shelley’s book, Bride of Frankenstein presents a transgressive treatment of women. Indeed, Henry is portrayed as a man so terrified by female sexuality that his scientific research leads him to an asexual way of reproduction that does not even require a human womb.
Denied their role in natural human procreation, all the females in the film are portrayed as weak, powerless and irrelevant. Such is the case of Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), Harry’s fiancée. She always ranks second in his life: for Harry, his experiments are far more important than his love life. James Whale then visually reinforces the structure of their relationship by placing Elizabeth near the edge of every frame during even important scenes.
Interestingly, the gender politics of the film appear to change towards the finale, with the creation of the terrifying bride. The female monster is powerful and commands attention. In these sequences, Whale allows the bride to take prominence in the frame, and contrary to Elizabeth, she is at the center of the composition (with the males in subservient roles). However, she is still monstrous and deformed, with grotesquely exaggerated womanly traits (such as her outrageous hair and unearthly screams). As a consequence, this creature becomes a Freudian nightmare: she embodies the idea of unleashed female sexuality overpowering patriarchal authority.
Such a transgressive presentation of male/female roles is just the tip of a more complex homosexual subtext imbedded in Bride. For instance, the film hints at Dr. Pretorius’ homosexual tendencies. This was done, albeit indirectly and ambiguously to avoid public outcries, by relying on the popular representation of the male homosexual practitioner as a feminized, and seemingly androgynous character.
But James Whale goes beyond the obvious and creates a kind of intricate love triangle between Henry, Elizabeth, and the profane Pretorius. Think about the scene of the arrival of the good doctor at Henry’s house. Our monster maker is lying down in bed with Elizabeth. Rather swiftly, Dr. Pretorius seduces Harry. The pair head off to the doctor’s apartment so they can discuss the results of their experiments. Elizabeth is left behind.
The strong homosexual connotation becomes clear when one considers that this scene boils down to a man taking another man out of a woman’s bed, and leaving together to a secluded, secret rendezvous. The culmination of their metaphorical gay relationship takes place at the climax of the film, when both men successfully procreate, by giving life to the female monster, without the need of a woman.
Symbolically, Frankenstein’s original monster is shown as the son of both Henry and Dr. Pretorius, and at times seems to be confused about its own sexual orientation. For instance, the monster appears oblivious about the contextual differences between “friend” and “mate”. According to him, the hermit and his bride are interchangeable. One could argue that his relationship with the hermit is an allegory for gay marriage. It should not be surprising then that, as a result of the hermit’s blindness, the relationship between him and the monster is one that involves true unconditional love.
Later on, villagers arrive at the hermit’s home, wanting to kill the monster. This was probably a way for James Whale to express his discontent with the irrational homophobia that he endured during the ’30s. From the film’s point of view, the terrified townsfolk represent a conservative culture that does not listen to reason, and are obsessed with restoring the social order by any means even going so far as to forcefully splitting the couple apart.
The lynching and persecution of the monster has obvious overtones toward the tense racial anxieties that dominated ’30s America. In those days of generalized racism and segregation, the “otherness” of blacks was often represented in popular culture with irresponsible, vicious, criminal, and mentally retarded characters. One way or another, all these traits are present in the Frankenstein monster. Therefore, the creature is a real, rational metaphor for racial oppression.
The monster is indeed portrayed as a victim of irresponsible white enterprises. He is the product of Henry’s reckless scientific experiments, and he suffers because of the demented ambitions of Dr. Pretorius. It is up to the hermit, who is also an outcast from society, to correct the social injustice. One could argue that the hermit is blind and therefore cannot distinguish any “racial differences”. He treats the monster as an equal, and tries to integrate him into society by teaching him to speak. At the same time, the hermit is an outsider because of his blindness. Hence, the film appears to suggest that a racist society not only segregates people of a different skin tone, but also exiles those who are supportive of the idea of racial mixing.
The most extreme trait of the black stereotype of the ’30s was the identification of black males as violent and dangerous sexual predators avidly seeking white women. This unwarranted typecasting, usually referred as the “myth of the black rapist”, led to unjust lynchings all throughout the United States. This myth comes to life in Bride of Frankenstein, when the monster has a brief encounter with some women. The villagers misinterpret his presence, and an angry mob attempts to hang the unfortunate creature. At the same time, the film makes more problematic its racial discourse by symbolically presenting the monster as a rapist. Indeed, in a scene with strong sexual connotations, the monster breaks into Elizabeth’s room at night and kidnaps her.
At the end of the film, in an unselfish act of redemption, the monster commits suicide. In the process, he also destroys his mate and the blasphemous Dr. Pretorius. The embodiments of “difference” and “otherness” are eliminated, and the natural, “normal” order seems to be restored. Henry and his beloved Elizabeth survive the ordeal, reaffirming the mandatory survival of the heterosexual white couple, as well as the everlasting power of the patriarchy. However, in Bride of Frankenstein, as in most horror narratives, death does not signify an end. Instead, death is merely the beginning of something radically new that will eventually rise up to challenge the establishment at a later date. As such, Bride of Frankenstein became one of the first films to show the powers of horror cinema to convey social commentary about the many ills that haunt our world.