Monday, June 6, 2011

30 Day Horror Challenge Strikes Back Day 5: Character who you know is secretly gay.

This character is not quite so “secretly” gay any more, but at the time it sure as hell a secret. In Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale managed to flaunt a flaming queen in the face of the Production Code without them even realizing it. The character of Doctor Septimus Pretorius is almost always viewed as a gay character today. This is one instance where it is way too obvious for it to be a case of revisionist viewing of the film in terms of today’s social climate. In 1935, Pretorius’ homosexuality was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets.

First, a little history lesson for the kids. Gather round, Uncle Nathan’s gonna tell you a story. Once upon a time, the movie industry was new and, like with any new entertainment technology, people tried to censor how it was used. Various state and local boards had started cutting or banning films they found offensive. This was the 20’s and 30’s, so “polite society” was offended by damn near anything and scared by the more libertine sensibilities that were somewhat prevalent at the time. Fearing that the federal government would give in to the moral pressure from the vocal minority to “protect the moral fiber of America” the way they had with alcohol, the studio heads decided to censor themselves before the government got a chance to. They allowed a journalist and a catholic priest to write a moral code they would make their movies adhere to. Basically, anything that could be even remotely considered immoral could never be portrayed in a positive way in a movie. Some things couldn’t be addressed at all no matter what. Homosexuality was one of those things.

James Whale, a director way ahead of his time, was also one of the first openly gay Hollywood filmmakers. He often pushed the envelope to see just how much gay subtext he could sneak into a movie. Bride of Frankenstein was no different. Whether or not the film is as chock full of homosexual symbolism as some would have you believe is debatable, but one thing is clear; Whale and his off screen friend Ernest Thesiger teamed up to present what is basically the first flaming queen in American cinema history.

He is a former professor of Henry’s, who lures him into the lab once more to make a mate for his monster. Reportedly, Whale’s instructions were to play the role “"like an over the top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual." According to biographers, that wasn’t too far off from Thesiger in real life. He all but prances through the movie; with his flamboyant, limp wrested gestures, prissy speech, and exaggerated lisp. In dialogue, he emphasizes that the “conventional” methods of creating life aren’t open to him. Henry’s housekeeper describes him as “a queer looking gentleman.” When he eyes Henry and makes some of the least subtle innuendos and double entendres ever put on film, you’d almost swear that you can hear Whale laughing in the background. He even sabotages the only heterosexual relationship in the whole movie, making his appearance and dragging Baron Frankenstein back to his place on, of all nights, Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding night.

Dr. Pretorius is more than just a gay stereotype. He is one of the most well crafted and well performed characters of the 30’s. I’ve used his “It’s my only weakness” shtick myself many times. The PCA (Production Code Administration) must have thought so too. They didn’t object to him at all, instead attacking the religious undertones and macabre subject matter. Did film audiences and critics get it? That’s hard to say, as it’s difficult to look at a film’s reception in terms of the era it is released in instead of your own. There are a couple of interesting indicators though. At the time the word “queer” was almost a gay code. While it was a common word meaning “odd”, its homosexual meaning was around but wasn’t in common usage yet. Mainly it was used as code by those “in the know.” If you look at reviews of the film from that period, quite a few of them use that particular word to describe the film, often referring to Pretorius. It is used so disproportionately much, that it almost can’t be anything but a little “wink-wink, nudge-nudge.”

I would guess that audiences got it, because all of a sudden the PCA started paying more attention, and went to ridiculous extremes, to watch for homosexual references and innuendos. Shortly following Bride of Frankenstein’s release, “sexual perversion,” as homosexuality was classified, became a much more prominent complaint of the PCA. Kinda seems like someone was trying to compensate for letting Doctor Pretorius past them, huh? Whether or not audiences did get it at the time, knowing that the director and actor were both gay and loved sneaking things into their movies, it’s doubtful that when Pretorius turns up his nose, glares at Henry’s new wife, and sneers “My business with you Baron is…private” he was just talking about putting parts together. Wait…I mean putting body parts together. No, I mean dead parts. For the monster. Nevermind. You know exactly what I was getting at. Perverts.

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