A Homosexual Reading of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein

A. Introduction

Bride of Frankenstein is considered to be one of the most important horror films in the history of American cinema. It was directed by British film-maker James Whale and stars Boris Karloff as the Monster, Elsa Lanchester in a dual role as his Bride and Mary Shelley, Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, and Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. It was a sequel to Frankenstein from 1931 and is part of the Universal Monsters film series, an important movement in film history. Despite initial difficulties with censorship boards, it became a commercial success upon its release in 1935 and earned critical praise.

Some film scholars argue that there is a gay sensibility in this film, which in turn triggered a rise of homosexual interpretations of the movie. As a matter of fact, some of the people involved in the production of the film were either homo- or bisexual, including director James Whale and co-stars Colin Clive and Ernest Thesiger. This article is going to explore a homosexual reading of Bride of Frankenstein with regard to James Whale’s homosexuality in the context of queer theory.

According to Arthur Flannigan-Saint-Aubin, “[t]here is an established tradition of examining the works of presumed or avowed homosexual writers, for example, to postulate the existence of a homosexual thematic and/or stylistic” (“Sexual Preference” 67). However, he also tries to establish a reader-response criticism based on the assumption of having a “homosexual reader”. This assumption neglects the original intention of the writer in order to establish a homosexual connotation for the reader which exists apart from the writer’s biography. This leaves us with an intentional gay reading, which is author-centred, and an unintentional gay reading, which stresses the text’s impact on the reader and in doing so legitimates a homosexual reading which does not have to be concerned with the question whether the author wanted his text to be read homosexually or not. These criticisms can be easily applied to film theory by exchanging the words “writer/author” and “text” with “director” and “film”, respectively. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein is a perfectly suitable example for a discussion on the applicability of both concepts as it has a homosexual director, a presumed homosexual reading, and the much-discussed question if this interpretation was intended by the director.

B. Dispute

Most film critics and Whale’s contemporaries focus on the author-centred intentional gay reading to either dismiss a homosexual interpretation as a revisionist view of the film that wants a movie shot in 1935 to transmit modern values or they clearly state that it was impossible for such a sophisticated director as James Whale not to be aware of all the film’s evidence of a gay sensibility.

I. Doomed: James Whale and his homosexuality

Considering the possible gay reading of the film and its homoerotic undertone, it is important to remember that James Whale himself was homosexual. At a time when the director was in full artistic control of his film, he is the one to analyse in order to establish a connection between a film and a biography. In fact, at least two of his homosexual relationships are known. Curtis Harrington mentions that Whale shared his house with his long-time companion, film producer David Lewis, who had worked at MGM and Warner Brothers (cf. Del Valle, “Curtis Harrington” 1f). Later on, he met Pierre Foegel in Paris who would eventually become his boyfriend and stay with him in California until his death in 1957. Harrington also reports that during their stay in Paris, both went to local gay bars (cf. Del Valle, 5). He further states that Whale was engaged to Doris Zinkeisen, a British artist. Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed Mary Shelley and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein and who was married to openly homosexual actor Charles Laughton, considered their not marrying to be a reason for James Whale’s “not having a normal life” (qtd. in Del Valle, 2f). This quotation can be read as an indicator for Hollywood’s homophobic stance in the 1930’s, since “not having a normal life” tends to suggest a notion of normality with regard to sexuality, where an openly gay life style is deemed to be not normal.

As a matter of fact, Whale’s career came to a sudden end in 1941, only eleven years after his directorial debut and after a decade of commercial and critical success with films like Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein. Many consider his not remaining in the closet as the main reason for the end of his career, although John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman suggest that in the 1930’s “relations within genders were slowly altering” (Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 413) with homosexual expressions in literature, music, and psychology, so that “the resources for naming homosexual desire slowly expanded” (qtd. in Young, 413). Due to the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral censorship guidelines, – which had been partly triggered by Whale’s gory and much-discussed Frankenstein from 1931 – he already had a hard time with censorship boards during the production of Bride of Frankenstein. Whale was “undoubtedly aware of the need to restrain overt displays of brutality and violence – as well as of sexuality, adultery, and anything that threatened the so-called sanctity of marriage and the home” (Young, 414). Considering Whale’s biography and the artistic circumstances provided by the then newly established Code era, there were no other options left for the director except to portray one of the major themes of his own life – homosexuality – in allegorical movies. Whale’s situation of strict censorship combined with a sexual orientation that was socially unaccepted resembled that of gay German film-maker F.W. Murnau during his years in Germany in the 1920’s due to the strict German laws at that time. On the director of Nosferatu and Faust, film critic Natalie Edwards wrote that “it may well be that it was partly as a result of this forced restriction that his films of that period so often contained horror, dread, fantasy and perversion” (qtd. in Russo, “The Celluloid Closet” 52). Despite D’Emilio’s and Freedman’s results on homosexuality in the 1930’s, gay film historian Vito Russo claims that James Whale was given the cold shoulder in homophobic Hollywood for being openly gay. He cites director Robert Aldrich who said that “Jimmy Whale was the first guy who was blackballed because he refused to stay in the closet. . . . And he was just unemployed after that – never worked again” (qtd. in “The Celluloid Closet”, 50). Russo also mentions Will H. Hays’s so-called doom book. Hays had been the driving force behind the Motion Picture Production Code, which was popularly renamed Hays Code, and he created a list of actors, directors, and others in the film industry, who, according to the values established by the Code, lived “contrary to public morals”. An inclusion in the list meant an unofficial working ban, since the major Hollywood studios would not employ someone whose name appeared on that list and instead inserted moral clauses in their contracts. Unfortunately for James Whale, homosexuality was one of the main reasons for inclusion in the list (cf. Russo, “The Celluloid Closet” 45).

II. Why Bride of Frankenstein?

Bride of Frankenstein is therefore at the same time just one example of his being a homosexual film-maker and a film which stands out from all his other works regarding the influence of his sexual orientation. On the one hand, it is just one example because many of his films are considered to have a camp aesthetic, such as The Old Dark House from 1932, “in which all the characters can be read as gay” (Russo, “The Celluloid Closet” 52), while others depict outsiders, who suffer because they are different, such as The Invisible Man from 1933; or who are treated inhumanely because of who they are, such as The Man in the Iron Mask. Even his first Frankenstein film from 1931 can be read as a homosexual allegory, with Frankenstein’s father begging his son to “leave this madness” and come home to marry Elizabeth, eventually forcing him with Elizabeth and Victor to leave his “creation” for his own sake and to forget his “obsession”. Later, the monster prevents the consummation of Frankenstein’s and Elizabeth’s marriage by kidnapping the bride and is hunted by the townspeople for being different (cf. Russo, “The Celluloid Closet” 51). On the other hand, James Whale had “become a more confident and much more personal director” (Skal, “The Monster Show” 182) in the years since his directorial breakthrough with Frankenstein. Although heavily confronted with censorship boards during the production of Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale felt enough confidence to stick to his artistic vision in spite of the studio bosses’ demands and society’s opinion on his life style. It is therefore unsurprisingly not only considered to be his masterpiece, but also his film which is most consistently associated with homosexual interpretations.

1.) James Whale as a homosexual creator: means of film-making in Bride of Frankenstein

For Curtis Harrington, who clearly opposes a homosexual interpretation of Bride of Frankenstein, “the closest you can come to a homosexual metaphor in [James Whale’s] films is to identify that certain sort of camp humor” (Del Valle, 7). Many of Whale’s films are regarded as being loaded with a sense of camp, including Bride of Frankenstein, which is considered by Martin F. Norden to be “one of the world’s first camp classics” (qtd. in Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 403), with its effeminate character Dr. Pretorius, the constantly excited and nervous Dr. Frankenstein, Una O’Connor’s character Minnie, who clearly functions as a comic relief and “come[s] off like [a] shrieking drag queen” (Morris, “Sexual Subversion” 1), and the opening sequence with Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Since a camp style is perceived to be a homosexual creation and is closely associated with homosexual artists, there is certainly a connection between this stereotypical homosexual aesthetic and a gay interpretation of the film.

For Gary Morris, the creation of the bride becomes the crucial scene in his homosexual reading of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, while for Elizabeth Young, this scene also conveys a phallic imagery, “from the long shaft that elevates the bride to the roof . . . to the men’s excited shouts of “It’s coming up” as she is raised” (“Here Comes the Bride” 410). One of horror film history’s most well known scenes, the bride’s creation is portrayed as an epic symphony of stunning visual effects shot by cinematographer John J. Mescall and edited by Ted Kent with dramatic music from composer Franz Waxman. This portentous presentation of the film’s climax glorifies Frankenstein’s and Pretorius’s work. They can be seen as a homosexual couple about to “give birth” to a woman, both defying God’s role as creator of life and replacing the heterosexual way of birthing children, thus challenging religion and society. By presenting their standard sex role-defying, God-replacing creation as such an elaborate, complex scene, James Whale compares himself to Frankenstein and Pretorius. He not only glorifies their work, but also presents his own abilities as an artist, orchestrating his homosexual creativity, which lies in his film-making. Whale’s film-making is his creation of the bride; his critically praised and commercially successful Bride of Frankenstein is his monster; and he is one of Pretorius’s proclaimed “Gods”. As Morris puts it, “[t]he intense dynamism of this scene serves as Whale’s reminder to the audience . . . of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator” (“Sexual Subversion”, 3).

2.) James Whale as a homosexual creator: means of storytelling in Bride of Frankenstein

a.) Everyone’s a little gay: relationships in Bride of Frankenstein

Gary Morris, founder of the Bright Lights Film Journal, sees the film as purposely defying standard sex roles and family values. By examining the relationships portrayed in the film he comes to the conclusion that the only successful one is that between the monster and an old blind hermit. This male-male relationship includes two outsiders that can be seen as two representations of homosexuals in the eyes of a hostile society; one being a monster and the other one a cripple.[1] The homosexual as a monster is someone unnatural who harms the “normal” world, whereas the homosexual as a cripple represents someone who lacks something “normal” people have and is – psychologically – disabled. Nevertheless, these scenes show a carefree partnership of two sympathetic outsiders which is soon wound up by two hunters who fight the monster and burn the cottage down. Despite its harmonious nature, Whale reminds us that “society does not approve” (Morris, “Sexual Subversion” 2) of two men living happily together. Although they do not harm anyone and seem to enjoy each other, the two hunters instinctively break them apart, ending a relationship that resembles a marriage. Their affection for one another finds its verbal expression in the hermit’s words “I shall look after you, and you will comfort me”.

All other relationships, especially the ones between the sexes, are dysfunctional and full of homosexual symbolism. Frankenstein is not able to consummate his marriage with Elizabeth because of Dr. Pretorius’s visit – who appears to literally convince Frankenstein to leave his marital bed and invites him to his apartment – and their experiments. These experiments finally give birth to a woman, thus replacing the traditional, heterosexual way of creating life. Pretorius even seems to act as the bride’s father at the end when she is presented to the monster in what resembles a wedding dress, giving her away the way a father would do. Furthermore, it is Dr. Pretorius who seduces Frankenstein to make use of his creativity, which is a telling circumstance, since you can read “using his creativity” as “exploring his sexuality” in this context, especially given the fact that his “creativity” creates life. Elizabeth acknowledges Frankenstein’s experiments as a threat to their marriage, stating that “the figure of death seems to be reaching for you, as if it would take you away from me.” According to Gary Morris, the figure of death “can . . . be read as a heterosexist vision of homosexuality” (“Sexual Subversion” 2). To use “death” as a metaphor for homosexuality would once again categorize it as something unnatural, which opposes life, matching the fact that Frankenstein’s and Pretorius’s offsprings are monsters. Nonetheless, it is not only Pretorius and Frankenstein’s work that separate the newly-wed couple, but also Henry Frankenstein’s presumed death at the beginning and Elizabeth’s kidnapping by the monster at the end. Even when Pretorius allows Frankenstein to speak to her, she “only appears in order to disappear” (Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 406). Ultimately, the film shows Elizabeth and Frankenstein finally united but at the same time contrasts their reunion with the bride’s rejection of the monster, portraying one working heterosexual relationship against all odds, and a forced heterosexual relationship that collapses. Instead of restoring the heterosexual order with the creation of the bride, the film’s last scene “marks the recognition that at least two of the male identities in the film cannot be reconstituted for normative heterosexuality” (Young, 411), showing the death of these two, the monster and Dr. Pretorius, whereas Dr. Frankenstein, the only one who is able and willing to live a heterosexual life from now on, is permitted to live. It is the monster itself that in its rage addresses Frankenstein and decides that “You live!” and then turns to Pretorius to conclude “We belong dead”, resuming the fates of the different ways of dealing with homosexuality. Nevertheless, it is notable that although Frankenstein ends up in a heterosexual coupling with Elizabeth, his way to this state exposed the underlying violence of suppressed feelings, resumed in an allegory of monsters, abuses, destruction, and death.

There is, however, a much more explicit anti-heterosexuality in the first cut of the film. After first test screenings, Bride of Frankenstein had to undergo further editing to avoid being censored by the Motion Pictures Production Code, removing approximately 15 minutes from the film’s original length of 90 minutes. One alteration was made to the film’s ending, which suggested that the mate’s heart might be that of Elizabeth, the other bride of Frankenstein (cf. Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 414f). If Whale had been allowed to release the film as originally intended, it would have meant that for his and Pretorius’s mutual goal, for their creativity, Frankenstein would have sacrificed Elizabeth, literally breaking her heart, who was supposed to be his wife but who would end up as an obstacle to the realization of his true passion – the creation of life, the will to replace God. He would have abandoned a life with Elizabeth for his experiments with Pretorius; he would have chosen a homosexual partnership over a heterosexual marital union. With this information in mind, it becomes obvious that the film’s well-known ending of the surviving couple Frankenstein and Elizabeth, probably living happily ever after, weakening all the homosexual interpretations of the movie’s previous 75 minutes, is but the result of an enforced moral code, of politics’, society’s, and the industry’s fear of James Whale’s artistic vision.

Although, unlike its bride, the monster was not created by Frankenstein and Pretorius, both act as its parents. Frankenstein created the monster on his own in the first film as a “hysterical scientist tampering homosexually with “God’s plan” of creation” (Morris, “Sexual Subversion” 3), but Dr. Pretorius somehow resembles a parent figure in Bride of Frankenstein. The way both behave towards their creations stands for different attitudes towards one’s own sexuality. On the one hand, Frankenstein alternates between enthusiasm and repulsion, torn between what he is and what he should be, at least bearing in mind society’s expectations. Pretorius, on the other hand, is a much “more involved, but manipulative, even abusive parent figure” (Morris, “Sexual Subversion” 2). He is the one who talks to the monster, who comes to see it in the graveyard, and who wants to fulfil its dreams by creating a mate for the lonely creature; but he is also the one who uses the monster to blackmail Frankenstein and who forces the monster to kidnap Elizabeth, an atrocity that does not help to convince people that the monster can be trusted. Therefore, his ambivalent role in the monster’s education can be seen as representing people’s paranoid fears towards homosexual parents. Pretorius is responsible for damaging the monster’s perception of such concepts as right and wrong, unable to teach it social and religious values, and not in the right position to be a male role model. The outcome is an aggressive, uncivilised, sexually unsettled monster. It is violent and kills several people, although it longs for affection; it cannot talk and does not know what culture is, but it seems to have a sense of beauty and enters the old blind man’s cottage after enjoying his violin version of Ave Maria – who then teaches the monster to talk; and it asks its mate at the end “friend?”, using the same concept for it that it used to apply to the hermit, thus being unable to differentiate between male and female, maybe even on a sexual level. This is the result of a socially unaccepted “marriage” of Frankenstein and Pretorius.

b.) How queer: homosexual interpretations of the monster, Pretorius, and the constellation of characters

While talking about all these relationships, we also have to bear in mind how the monster is seen by the people. In her review of John Flynn’s The Seargant from 1968 and referring to Rod Steiger’s role of a psychopathic homosexual soldier, Pauline Kael states that “homosexuality is, to all appearances, unknown and without cause [so that] it does begin to seem as if only a monster could have such aberrant impulses” (qtd. in Russo, “The Celluloid Closet” 48). Although the monster is presented to the viewer as a sympathetic being that longs for affection, he is constantly attacked by a mob or by individuals. The already mentioned scenes with the old blind hermit demonstrate that the monster is not a destructive force per se. The blind man, the only one who is not judgmental towards the monster, sees a friend in this hulky outsider, whereas everyone else just sees a monster they cannot comprehend. His outer appearance, the reason people are scared and want to kill him, can be read as a symbol for homosexuality or for any other type of “otherness”. In fact, it is not his outer appearance that makes him a monster; it is the way people react to that look. His being a monster is a construction of society and only exists in relation to their definition of “normality”. With that interpretation in mind, Whale seems to implore the audience to change their reaction towards people who are different, be it racially, culturally, or concerning their sexual orientation. The monster is not responsible for the situation he is in, he only reacts to it. The scene with the blind hermit implies that everything would be fine, if people treated the monster accordingly.

Dr. Pretorius, a character that was not part of Mary Shelley’s original novel, seems to have been introduced by James Whale to trigger all these homosexual interpretations. He is a character with a campy style, the one who seduces Frankenstein to the creation of the bride, and, as we are going to explore later on, a decisive factor in the character constellation presented in this film. Besides, he also acts as the voice against society and religion. In some way, he stands for a homosexual pride that in some cases converts into arrogance. He knows that society does not tolerate gay behaviour and notes that he was banished from university “for knowing too much”. Thus, by presenting his being different as being superior to the rest, he shows his dislike for society, and therefore for conventional love. He does not feel ashamed for the fact that society does not tolerate his life style and he does not even try to alter this situation, but dismisses their reaction as an act of low intellectuality. For David J. Skal, he is “a bitchy and aging homosexual” and by seducing Frankenstein, he acts as if he were a “gay Mephistopheles” (“The Monster Show” 185). When he shows Frankenstein the homunculi he has created, he goes over to a sweeping attack on authorities, heterosexual love, and religion. He comments his miniature king and queen with the words “even royal amours are such a nuisance” and “wonder[s] if we’d all be better off being devils, and no nonsense about angels”, thus mocking religious morals, which clearly oppose homosexuality as a valid alternative to heterosexual love, seemingly amused in his self-declared superiority. Later on, we see Pretorius dining alone in a crypt, with a bottle of wine, a cigarette, a seemingly careless attitude, and a decorative skull in front of him, as “the homosexual as decadent aristocrat” (Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 410), once more emphasizing his arrogance and pride in his self-destructive behaviour. In the novelization of the screenplay by Michael Egremont, which was released in England in 1936, Dr. Pretorius is much more explicit, telling Frankenstein: “Come, . . . ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way” (qtd. in Skal, “The Monster Show” 189).

Another indicator for a homosexual undertone is the constellation of characters. In the opening sequence, Mary Shelley, portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, is seen with two men, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. As already mentioned, this scene conveys a campy style with both men behaving as if they were effeminate caricatures. It can be argued that they simply behave the way 19th Century aristocrats and bourgeois personalities are presented on stage, but their effect on a 20th Century film audience is that of a humorous androgyny. Both men wear more make-up than Mary Shelley, they dress fancily, and they talk and act dramatically and hyper-sensitively, in an “unmanly” manner. Some shots in this scene also imply an interesting separation of the characters. The camera switches from Mary Shelley, who sits alone on one side of the room, to her husband P.B. Shelley and Lord Byron, who stand together on the other side. Lord Byron even leans against P.B. Shelley, with his arm bend over Shelley’s shoulder, offering an implicit homoeroticism to the audience early on in the film. With this character constellation, Whale presents an alternative model of family to his audience; two gay men and “a sympathetic but sexually undemanding female” (Morris, “Sexual Subversion” 1), a “means of channeling suspicion of homosexuality into heterosexual appearances” (Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 409.). Moreover, it is also interesting to observe that the actress who played Mary Shelley, Elsa Lanchester, was in fact married to an openly homosexual actor, Charles Laughton, so that her role in this menage à trois gets an autobiographical component. This character constellation of a trio consisting of two men and a woman is picked up once again in the story Mary Shelley tells her two companions. With the arrival of Dr. Pretorius, we have two overtly homoerotic male characters, himself and Dr. Frankenstein, and a rather dull woman, Elizabeth. By again using this unusual triangular model, Whale “transform[s] the competitive force of male rivalry into a subversive mode of male homoeroticism” (Young, “Here Comes the Bride” 404). Later on, this constellation of characters is slightly modified by replacing Elizabeth with the monster’s mate. This replacement, however, seems to imply two important aspects. First of all, it suggests the substitutability of the female part in Frankenstein’s and Pretorius’s triangular relationship, which is enforced by the film’s title. Bride of Frankenstein carries a certainly intended double meaning. The audience is left unsure about whom the film title refers to, since there are two brides of Frankenstein. The title alludes to both Elizabeth, who is about to marry Frankenstein, and to the monster’s mate, who is created by Frankenstein; as Elizabeth Young puts it “she, too, is “of Frankenstein,” if not his wifely property then his artistic and scientific achievement” (“Here Comes the Bride” 408). Furthermore, the title also omits the definite article. There is not the bride of Frankenstein. The female part in Frankenstein’s life is interchangeable, whereas his relationship with Dr. Pretorius is presented much more elaborately and their ties seem to be stronger.

Then, Elizabeth’s replacement is also interesting because of Elsa Lanchester’s dual role. She plays Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and the bride, who replaces Elizabeth as the female part in this triangular relationship. For the audience, Elsa Lanchester represents the story’s creator as well as Frankenstein’s and Pretorius’s creation within the story, which suggests a causality dilemma. Was the story written by Mary Shelley, which seems improbable in Bride of Frankenstein, since she is presented as an innocent young angel-like female, who needs male protection, not capable of thinking of such a dreadful tale, or did the story “create” Mary Shelley, at least as the novel’s writer? The latter interpretation sounds interesting to those who interpret the story, and consequently the film, as a homosexual metaphor, since it would abandon the need of a homosexual creator for a possible gay reading of a text, because the author is ultimately the text’s creation and not the other way round. In this particular example that would mean that Mary Shelley’s being a heterosexual female could not be considered a backlash for a homosexual interpretation of her work, legitimating James Whale’s perceived attempt of creating a gay reading of Frankenstein with his films. The story could carry homosexual meanings within itself, independently from the author’s biography. With such a theory in mind, it becomes viable to interpret the homosexual creators Frankenstein and Pretorius as the story’s inherent gay metaphor, who in turn create the bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, who represents Mary Shelley, the author. It may have been a heterosexual female who created Frankenstein but the gay reading that lies within the story is older than the author it “chose” to tell its story.

III. Criticism

Some of James Whale’s contemporaries and close friends, such as film-maker Curtis Harrington, dismiss the idea that his homosexuality had something to do with the end of his career, nor do they see any intentional gay sensibility in his films. Harrington resumes that everyone who knew Whale knew that he was homosexual and that “nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive” (Del Valle, 3). However, although he considers Whale to have been openly homosexual he denies that there was ever such a thing as an “outing”. Harrington compares the situation of homosexual artists in the late 40’s and early 50’s to the former United States policy on gay men serving in the army, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Whale did not hide his sexuality, but neither did he come out to the public nor was he ever asked about or subsequently judged for his life style.

Gary Morris’s gay reading of the film is turned down by Harrington because he thinks “that’s just pure bullshit” (Del Valle, 7). According to him, none of these interpretations were in Whale’s mind when he shot the film, although he believes that all art is influenced by the artist’s unconscious. He also questions Whale’s responsibility for the film as a gesamtkunstwerk, because the screenplay was written by John Balderston and William Hurlbut and it is hard to distinguish between their writing and Whale’s interpretation and whether those elements of the film which are considered to be of importance for a homosexual reading were ideas of the film’s heterosexual writers or of James Whale. The consequent causality dilemma asks if we read Bride of Frankenstein homosexually 1) because we know of James Whale’s sexual orientation or 2) if there is indeed an intended gay sensibility in the film. If the former assumption was right, then we would be able to read other films by James Whale or any other gay director homosexually as well, such as The Invisible Man. It would be easy to put a layer of homosexuality over it, because just like Frankenstein’s monster the invisible man is an outsider, which could function as a starting point for a coherent homosexual interpretation.

James Whale’s biographer James Curtis considers homosexual interpretations of Bride of Frankenstein to be revisionist, since there is no evidence that supports Vito Russo’s claim that James Whale compared himself to the monster. According to Curtis, “if he perceived himself as an “antisocial figure,” such feelings would more likely have been the result of his working class origins than anything having to do with his being gay” (“James Whale” 143). Film-producer and Whale’s long-time boyfriend David Lewis shares Harrington’s and Curtis’s opinion, stating that “Jimmy was first and foremost an artist, and his films represent the work of an artist – not a gay artist, but an artist” (qtd. in Curtis, “James Whale” 144).

C. Conclusion

The dispute that started in the 1980’s, with film historians such as Gary Morris, Elizabeth Young, Vito Russo, and David J. Skal considering that there is a homosexual reading in Bride of Frankenstein which was intended by James Whale, while some of Whale’s contemporaries such as Curtis Harrington and David Lewis and his biographer James Curtis dismiss this notion, centres around the question if there was an intentional gay sensibility in James Whale’s works, especially in Bride of Frankenstein. Since the opponents of this idea either knew Whale personally or, in the case of James Curtis, brought about the most profound research on Whale, they certainly have a high degree of authority on all matters concerning James Whale. Nonetheless, there are some good points in the film historians’ reasoning, which challenge Harrington’s and Lewis’s stance on this question. Whale was too sophisticated to not have been aware of the implications his version of Frankenstein would have and Lewis’s claim that Whale was “not a gay artist, but an artist” is highly questionable. Every biographical aspect plays a role in an artist’s work, influencing not only the outcome of his creativity, but his very ideas on life themselves. Of course, you should not pigeonhole all of Whale’s work as homosexual expression, since you have also to bear in mind his working class origins, his English nationality, or his background as a stage actor-director, to only name a few biographical aspects, but it certainly played an important role in his film-making.

However, every single contribution to this dispute covered in this thesis fails to consider the possibility of what we called an unintentional gay reading in our introduction. Arthur Flannigan-Saint-Aubin’s reader-response criticism based on the assumption of having a “homosexual reader” goes far beyond the question if James Whale was aware of the homosexual implications in his Bride of Frankenstein. James Whale’s intentions play only a secondary role in this theory; it is far more important what the film means for the audience. According to this criticism, the simple existence of a homosexual reading legitimates itself, since it corresponds to what the film means for this particular person. The only reasoning which could be objected would be to claim that James Whale had some sort of homosexual agenda. This claim cannot be proven and Whale’s close-friends and his biographer dismiss this idea, so that it gets a revisionist aura. The meaning of the film itself, however, varies from person to person and a homosexual reading of Bride of Frankenstein is as legitimate as any other interpretation.

Works Cited

Curtis, James. James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. London: Faber and Faber,


Del  Valle, David. “Curtis Harrington on James Whale”, in: Films in Review; 2009. URL:


(Visited on Feb. 23, 2012)

Flannigan-Saint-Aubin, Arthur. “The Mark of Sexual Preference in the Interpretation of

Texts: Preface to a Homosexual Reading”, in: Minton, Henry L. (Ed.). Gay and

Lesbian Studies. Binghamton, 1992.

Morris, Gary. “Sexual Subversion”, in: Bright Lights Film Journal; 1997. URL:

http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/19/19_bride1.html. (Visited on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row,


Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton &

Company, 1993.

Young, Elizabeth. “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in “Bride of

Frankenstein””, in: Feminist Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 403 – 437, 1991.

[1] The use of the offensive term “cripple“ is meant to stress the negative connotation of this representation.

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Rafael Alves Azevedo lives in Germany and has a master's degree in English, History, and Education. Despite his interest in politics, art, and culture, he firmly believes that association football is the most important thing in life and supports Benfica Lisbon. However, he is well known for his questionable beliefs, such as insisting that Rocky IV is the best film ever made and that 1980’s Italo pop is superior to other musical genres.

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