JAMES WHALE'S FRANKENSTEINS
The destruction wrought by World War One, its decline in human welfare and the lack of progress that became apparent as Europe began, once more, to mobilise for war were moulded, by British director James Whale, into perhaps the most significant film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Moreover, Whale’s films—Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—should be understood as narratives deriving from the two cataclysmic social crises of the time: the Great War and the post-war years leading up to the Great Depression. Through the prism of those events, Whale’s monster is rendered a returning and mutilated soldier, in turn a Forgotten Man and the dispossessed citizen of a depressed economy. Merging these into the now iconic figure of Boris Karloff’s monster, Whale’s films are emblematic of the inertia of those inter-war years, with hope, reconstruction and progress foiled by the return of history. In establishing the significance of the Great War in Whale’s adaptations, this essay also offers an analysis of some of the wider implications this influence brings with it2, such as the deterioration of the human community and the individual’s role within that community, as well as a comparison between Frankenstein’s materials and a trope most apparent in German art of the period, namely, the production of destruction.
In this vein, the work of Otto Dix and Ernst Juenger is examined to shed light on Whale’s theme of re-animation. Mary Shelley’s original concept of a creature borne from the executed criminals paraded in nineteenth-century anatomy theatres easily anticipates the modern, capitalist notion that the destruction of war can generate production and profit. This kind of production utilises death in both procreative and economic terms. As pervasive as the metaphor has become, in Whale, the male scientist assumes a generative role in the laboratory, where his research and creation can be viewed as analogous to fighting on the battlefield. As I’ll go on to elaborate by way of comparison with Dix and Juenger, both the laboratory and the battlefield should here be viewed as sites upon which death is regarded as the first step towards a new existence. Yet, as Whale indicates, any attainment of progress or of a new world simply returns the community to a harsher reality, a more unforgiving type of tradition and archetype than before.
As Steven Earl Forry has suggested, the events following World War One and preceding the Great Depression “validated some of the worst scenarios of the Frankenstein story... only in the twentieth century does the Frankenstein myth fully achieve its apocalyptic dimensions“3. From World War One onwards, popular culture began to depict machines as increasingly anthropomorphic, and humans as more mechanical. By the 1930s, technology and scientific progress had become increasingly accessible, both alleviating human function and exploiting it. Visualising and screening these new interpretations of science, Whale’s films borrow heavily from contemporaneous notions of technology and its relationship to the human. A manufactured product in need of very little maintenance, Frankenstein’s monster no longer reads Plutarch in the 1930s. Had Whale’s monster been as erudite as Shelley’s, he may have preferred Marx to Plutarch.
In each of these German films, as in Whale’s Frankenstein, the human is reduced and reconfigured as an automaton, a sort of monstrous humanoid. The Golem is a clay figure brought life by a disaffected human community, Dr Caligari mesmerises a somnambulist in order to execute deeds that further his own fantasies, Orlac’s hands are lost in an accident and replaced with the hands of a criminal, and Dr Rotwang creates a robot in the image of his rival’s lover in Metropolis. The progression from The Golem to Metropolis also indicates a cinematic move from mythical narratives of alchemical resurrection to a more technology-driven approach to screening the business of science.
Significantly, in most of these narratives, as in Frankenstein, the human/robot hybrid is fragmented, inarticulate and physically impaired. From its first appearance in the theatre to Whale’s two works, unlike Shelley’s creation, the monster has neither speech nor unlimited mobility. The transition seems to register disability and defect, rather than aptitude and proficiency; in other words, the emphasis seems to be on regression rather than progress; on lumbering re-animation rather than boundless vitality; on being more dead than alive7 It is little wonder that one of the monster’s few lines is “we belong dead”. What’s implicit in this transition is the influence of the First World War, where science and technology are distinguished by soldiers’ injuries and deformities, by tanks, by the use of chemical weapons, and by plastic surgery.
Furthermore, from Shelley to Whale there is also a shift in narrative focus; while the former largely focused on reconfiguring man as an idealised simulacrum of nature, the latter imagines the human community as an unforgiving mass positioned against the weakened, war-weary individual. As in Shelley’s text, Whale’s scientist is portrayed as a kind of artistic genius, but his environment is not a vitalising one from which he can draw strength, but a closely-knit and homogenous one. His monster, too, is mechanical, but Whale’s characterisation infuses this robot-man with the added pathos of being largely mute8 and like an animal9. Although the creature could be viewed as the product of a modernist aesthetic that championed the image of the fragmented, simplified and mechanised human being—indeed, one imagines how Shelley’s creation might have been depicted by Otto Dix or Fernand Lééger—he is still relegated to the uncanny status of a monster. He is a dismembered, re-membered and re-animated man who has returned from the (many) dead, and who inspires a kind of xenophobic fear, rather than admiration, for his durable constitution.
To provide some context for this shift, it is useful to look at Whale’s own involvement in the War, as well as the socio-economic and cultural milieu of the war and post-war years. Whale, the sixth of a Worcestershire blast-furnaceman’s seven children, enlisted in the army in 1915 as an officer cadet, arriving at the Western Front in the summer of 1916 as a second lieutenant. According to Mark Gatiss, Whale’s commission “was no mean feat for the son of a Dudley furnaceman, even allowing for the tremendously high casualty rate among junior officers on the Western Front”10. Whale rarely spoke of the war in later years, but it is understood that he was held by the Germans as a prisoner-of-war for most of its duration and that, while held captive, he directed a number of plays with his fellow prisoners. Whale eventually found fame on the London stage in 1928, when he directed Journey’s End, “the greatest of all war plays”, according to a contemporary critic11. Its playwright, R.C. Sheriff, said of Whale that
Whale’s war experiences clearly enabled him to reproduce its atmosphere in palpable detail. This suggests a sensibility capable of grasping the sensuous and paradoxical links that could be made when thinking about war—indeed, Sheriff’s connection of a “terrifying sense of imprisonment“ with “a romance that was fascinating and exhilarating“ evokes the war’s conflation of life and death. Whale’s idiosyncratic treatment of Shelley’s text also easily invites such contradictory comparisons in its allusion to the transformative, life-giving force of the war over its combatants.
Following his theatrical production of Sheriff’s Journey’s End, Whale continued to contextualise the war throughout much of his short career. He worked on Hell’s Angels with Howard Hughes, a movie about the air force; filmed Journey’s End and Waterloo Bridge in 1931; and the second of his horror quartet for Universal, The Old Dark House, made its lead character a cynical war veteran. In 1937, he filmed The Road Back, Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. With the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda threatening to ban the studio’s film if it did not agree to cut the scenes they deemed anti-German, Whale was so outraged the film had to be re-made with another director13. When filming began on Frankenstein in 1931, Whale re-used the outdoor sets for Universal’s 1930 film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. While this might be no more than an extraordinary coincidence, Whale must surely have recognised and exploited this material. In fact, Skal even goes so far as to suggest that the audiences themselves would have recognised the earlier film’s sets and sub-consciously related the film to the war14.
I see no reason why Whale himself would not have seen similar connections and taken advantage of them. Casting Colin Clive, whom audiences had recently seen as Lieutenant Stanhope in the film version of Journey’s End, in the role of Dr Frankenstein was another such connection. One might speculate that his presence in both films forged a connection with Journey’s End and thus, inevitably, with the war. Maybe audiences even saw Clive, as Joanna Bourke says of the injured man in war, as “mutilated and mutilator in one“15—once a dying combatant, now an aggressive surgeon, amputating and grafting limbs to create a fitter race.
Clearly, connections abound, but none resonates more than the notion that the monster visually alludes to mutilation, war-time surgery, and the myth of the returning dead. As Whales’ monster stumbles into Frankenstein’s sitting room, many in the audience would have caught the reference to the rebirth of the fallen solider, an emblem of sacrifice inserted into the film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, and seen some years earlier in Abel Gance’s 1919 J’accuse (re-made in 1937). In his seminal examination of the cultural history of the Great War, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Jay Winter even describes the rising dead soldiers of Gance’s film as “wrapped in tattered bandages, some limping, some blind walking with upraised arms, some stumbling like Frankenstein’s monster“16. Surely, if such a comparison can be drawn decades later, why not in 1931, when the reference was still fresh?
The Great War gave rise to an enormously pervasive symbolism of re-animation and re-birth. Bernd Hüppauf, one of the most interesting commentators on war and violence, calls such regenerative symbolism a “civil religion“, which was created, he continues,
Each of these myths contributed to raising the concept of death to a level where it could be expected and even desired, as well as to transforming “death into a higher form of life“18 in the popular imagination. Although the war and its purpose were, for many years, understood in starkly different terms by those at home and those fighting it at the front, it appears that the experience of violent death began to be rationalised as both beyond one’s control and as merely another station of life, as the following statement by a young soldier implies: “I’ll think of my future life as leave from death“19.
Images of re-animation and re-birth continued to prevail long after the war had ended. The idea that the war had achieved no aim or purpose was difficult to accept even for those who had been more or less inclined against it; as Remarque’s hero Paul Bääumer says shortly before he falls, human life “cannot have collapsed in the shelling, the despair and the army brothels……as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not”20. Whether one was a romantic or a pragmatist, it became necessary to believe that life had some kind of purpose even as it went on amidst and beyond death. Indeed, even as late as 1940, a survey was conducted to discover what kind of film ending the cinema-going public preferred. It found that “the majority of 577 people who responded said they like to see the dead heroes and heroines of the story marching off reborn”21, a happy end that promised a new beginning for the dead and fallen, implying a far better life beyond death.
Whale’s Frankenstein begins with images of death (a funeral, a hanging and a dissection), and ends with a toast to an unborn “son of Frankenstein”. Depicting a reversal of the life cycle and thus a movement from death to creation, the narrative proceeds in reverse by suggesting the emergence of birth from destruction. Like so much of the Great War’s “civil religion”, Whale’s text is representative of a contemporaneous notion that the destruction wrought by the war could be viewed as a productive and even creative achievement.
In both Shelley’s and Whale’s Frankensteins, production emerges from destruction. As Bernd Hüppauf notes, Walter Benjamin was among the first to consider that destruction of the unprecedented scale of World War One had been transformed into capital, that, in other words, it had become a modern mode of production. Exploiting the materials made available through the war’s devastation of private and public domains thus became a most profitable endeavour. In Benjamin’s words, the losers’ captured material was transformed into the winners’ “Kulturgüter”, their cultural commodities22. Hüppauf goes on to propose that the Great War
If capitalism and production can be said to be at their peak during wartime, then, under the terms proposed here, Frankenstein’s birth thrives when death is at its most abundant. That is, Frankenstein’s project of re-animation should similarly be viewed as linking plundered resources with a more or less productive outcome.
Like Whale, the German painter Otto Dix had also served in the Great War. Dix frequently portrayed the ruin of war as simply another phase in the growth of an organic nature. In her examination of Dix, Maria Tatar extends the transformation of one sphere’s destruction into another’s production to include the seizure of female function to create a parthenogenetic moment for the male. She argues that Dix’s war paintings depict the “displacement of the female body” altogether, and convey “the appropriation of its biological functions through the creative energies of male autogeny”, an appropriation that represents “a new order in which men engage in regeneration as they expire on the battlefields”24. Dix himself proclaimed that “even war should be perceived as a natural occurrence” and that “all wars are waged over and because of the vulva”25. With this claim, he suggests a decisive correlation between male combat and female reproductive capabilities; further, he suggests that the latter gives rise to the former.
Similarly, given the theme of generation in Mary Shelley’s original, it could be claimed that Whale re-interprets the male destruction that takes place in his films’ laboratory as both feminine and lucrative. This analogy appears to be a very common literal and visual motif during and following the war, particularly in German art. As in Lang’s Metropolis, for instance, the union of femininity and capital emphasises destruction as sexually generative, even promiscuous. Given his admiration for German Expressionist film, it is interesting to consider that Whale’s two Frankensteins may well be representative of a peculiarly German aesthetic; that the war’s devastation can supply the material to deliver new life. If procreative generation can be said to be female then, in the context of mutilation and production, re-animation is its male equivalent. As Tatar states, making war was like “a second birth from a male parent”26. In this way, the kind of birth performed by Frankenstein goes even further than the spiritual re-birth of Hüppauf’s “civil religion” because it is corporeal.
Ernst Jünger, a German writer who had also served in the war, and who, even more than Dix, was pre-occupied with what he saw as the fecund creative powers of war, claimed in his autobiographical Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (1922), “combat is not only destruction, but also the male form of generation”27. In Whale’s case, the male form of generation on the battlefield is reconfigured as re-animation in the laboratory, where the female is entirely subsumed into, and hybridised with, the male. Casting the effeminate Ernest Thesiger as Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein is thereby not so much an instance of one of the director’s whimsical flourishes as a real indication that Whale understood the gender overlap of Shelley’s original. We might even go so far as to say that he comprehended it more fully than Shelley herself—at least on a conscious level. Of course, this is impossible to establish definitively, but it is evident that Whale was aware that focussing on not just one but two male scientists would only emphasise Shelley’s displacement of traditional procreative roles. Indeed, Whale even has Henry lock the door to his bride Elizabeth’s room on the day of their wedding, despite her begging him not to, so that he can be free to pursue his monster.
If Frankenstein’s laboratory can be configured as a battlefield, a place where modern warfare is waged to bear new life, then we also see two further reversals; firstly, the dead and fallen are returned to life as a sturdier composite of their former selves and, secondly, the modern male destroyer or scientist takes on the function of female generation. Ironically, this potentially subversive process does not create innovation and progress, but manages merely to resurrect a phoenix made up of the same conflicts that preceded its creation. Unlike Hermann Hesse’s idealistic image of revolution, of a world being “rent asunder” so that “it might be born anew”28, Whale’s film adaptations of Shelley’s Frankenstein reflect a more pragmatic and cynical attitude towards the war, particularly Bride of Frankenstein, made three years after Hitler’s rise to power. With all of its radical technology and its potentially subversive reversal of gender and death, re-animation is here moulded into a representation of proto-fascist homogeneity and resistance to progress.
At a time when ‘the war to end all wars’ looked to have resulted only in greater hardship for everyone, the creature’s re-emergence from the dead destabilises the meaning of death and responsibility towards those who had sacrificed everything to protect their communities. In Abel Gance’s 1917 J’accuse, for instance, the “villagers” run away from the reborn soldiers and are not, contrary to expectation, overjoyed to see their fallen sons once more. This, as Winter claims, is because they know that the soldiers have returned to see if their deaths have been worth the sacrifice, and have instead found “the pettiness of civilian life, the advantage being taken of soldiers’ businesses, the infidelity of their wives”29. Gance’s villagers’ guilt, the knowledge that the deaths have produced nothing apart from scavenging and greed, makes them flee in shame. Whale’s monster shares the characteristics of Gance’s soldiers—he is both innocent (repeatedly portrayed as a Christ-like figure) and wrathful, both sacrificed and repeatedly disappointed. Unlike the eventual amelioration of Gance’s villagers, however, here we see a systematic refusal to treat the creature justly.
But, she goes on,
Frankenstein’s monster thus represents another important emblem of the returning solider; wounded and posing a potent threat to the villagers’ dubious status quo.
David J. Skal has suggested that “the Frankenstein monster is a poignant symbol for an army of abject and abandoned laborers, down to his work clothes and asphalt-spreader’s boots“33. But, unlike Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people, he is not their beacon but their object of scorn; at their hands, he is persecuted, imprisoned, crucified, tortured and incinerated. In his attempt to create a new social order by re-animating the dead and fallen, Frankenstein manages only to induce the community’s slide into baser instincts, as well as his own entrenchment in the role of traditional, married and organically procreative union. So while the monster derives from and represents “Everyman“, he is also rejected by a town that consists of “Everyman“.
In light of the era under the discussion, and of the events following the Great War, James Whale’s rustic villagers should themselves be viewed as representatives of an army of abject labourers (many of them old enough to have been World War One’s Forgotten Men). By 1935, those roles are even more compounded in Bride of Frankenstein. The abject, impotent and unemployed mob has become a cogent assembly rejecting modernity in preference for the rather more fascist ideal of agrarianism and national inclusivity. This is further emphasised by the fact that the creature’s re-emergence from the dead back to the city and countryside from which he came is not liberating. Following his initial incarceration in the cellar of Frankenstein’s tower laboratory, the creature is plunged into an environment that has evidently never experienced change. Whereas Frankenstein’s imminent marriage was to draw the community together, the monster’s appearance transforms the absurdly childish peasant-folk into a bloodthirsty mob, exchanging their dirndls and lederhosen for fedoras and pin-stripe suits. The abruptness of this turn both in fashion and attitudes suggests that this stage of the story firmly propels the villagers into Whale’s present, and into the heart of another trauma: the Great Depression.
The monster can here again stand for the Everyman of this landscape, as the (fallen) soldier returned to his homeland’s failing economy. The creature’s emergence into this environment is a constantly de-humanising experience. Indeed, the atmosphere of the inter-war years (1928–34 being the official duration of the Great Depression) could be condensed into one contemporaneous, rather melodramatic reference: the monster’s outstretched and pleading hands, which the director visually refers to repeatedly. Although not overtly identified with this association, the monster’s hands represent the plea of the returning soldier who receives nothing from the administration that created his destitution: truly the “Forgotten Man”34.
While Shelley’s Frankenstein’s refusal to meet his creature’s requirements was portrayed as an abnegation of basic responsibilities, in Whale, this is transposed onto the villagers and their efforts at persecution. These instances of “increased callousness and neglect towards the weak in general”35 grow in force and vehemence in the 1935 film. This suggests that it is the conduct of the masses being held up to scrutiny, not Frankenstein’s irresponsibility, because Whale’s emphasis seems to be overtly upon the mass positioned against the individual (echoes of Metropolis reverberate). Yet, rather than drawing a contrast between one and the other, he reveals their similarity, because the villagers’ persecution of the monster is essentially an attempt to exorcise or suppress their own hopelessness. Fearing their own abjection (possibly at the hands of the aristocratic Frankensteins), the villagers render the monster abject, making him a victim whom they are justified to hate. A “Forgotten Man“, the monster’s destitution is turned against him so that he can be despised as a savage, a sub-human.
Like much of the art and popular culture inspired by the Great War, Whale’s two films exhibit a substantial connection between the shattered physicalities of Wold War One, destruction and renewal. Just as Mary Shelley’s idea of creation emerged from the medical dissection of executed criminals, Whale’s vision of re-animation is a sutured amalgamation of traumas inflicted by subjecting the body to modern warfare. Whale develops this theme further by construing the traumas of the Great War and the Great Depression as plains upon which both the monster and the persecuting masses suffer hardship, loss and abjection, while the scientific elite stands to maintain absolute sovereignty in a broken economy. That is, by exerting complete domination over the way the human mechanism is created, Frankenstein not only utilises the very incidence of hardship by re-animating the dead, but also controls under what conditions his subjects exist.
In his focus on both the monster and the villagers, Whale indicates that re-animating the dead into a new life succeeds only in creating homogeneity and a complete lack of social progress. Passing from the abjection of the First World War to the desperation of the Great Depression, Whale’s adaptations, like Shelley’s own story of re-animation, register only a consolidation of the status quo and the fortification of tradition.
1 Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet on the Western Front, Vintage, Sydney, 1996, p. 38
2 In addition to Steven Earl Forry, quoted elsewhere in this article, the influence of the Great War on Whale has also been critically assessed by David J. Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, Plexus, London, 1993.
3 Forry, Steven Earl, Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1990, p. 93
4 Titles include Dr Skinum (1907), Galvanic Fluid (1908), The Electric Policeman (1909), The Electric Leg (1912), The Electrified Hump (1914) and so on.
5 In his biography of the director, Mark Gatiss notes that Whale screened these films "to reacquaint himself with the German Expressionism he so admired. In addition, he watched MGM's 1926 The Magician, which contained the now-familiar elements of a tower laboratory and evil dwarf assistant" [Gatiss, Mark, James Whale: A Biography; or, The Would-Be Gentleman, Cassell, London, 1995, p. 72].
6 Curtis, James, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, Faber & Faber, London, 1998, p. 149
7 It is little wonder that one of the monster's few lines is "we belong dead".
8 The monster's lack of speech, according to James Curtis, was due to the screenwriter's intention to "further deny him any trace of humanity" [Curtis, 131].
9 This, indeed, seems to have partially shaped the monster's pathos. The script indicates that the creature's "first off-screen sound was to be haunting, piteous... like that of a lost animal" [Skal, 130]. It also, however, states that the creature "does not walk like a Robot". Clearly, he eventually did.
10 Gatiss, 4
11 Quoted in Gatiss, 31
12 Sheriff, R.C., No Leading Lady: An Autobiography, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1968, pp. 47-8
13 Anger, Kenneth, Hollywood Babylon II, Arrow Books, London, 1986, p. 202
14 Skal, 136
15 Bourke, Joanna, Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1996, p. 38
16 Winter, Jay, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 15
17 Hüppauf, Bernd, "War and death: the experience of the First World War" in Hüppauf, Bernd and Mira Crouch (eds.), Essays on Mortality, Kensington Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences: The University of New South Wales, Kensington, 1985, p. 76
19 Quoted in Hüppauf, 1985, p. 72
20 Remarque, p. 207
21 Winter, 142
22 Benjamin, Walter, "Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen" in Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1965, p. 83
23 Hüppauf, Bernd, "Modernity and Violence: Observations Concerning a Contradictory Relationship", in Hüppauf, Bernd (ed.), War, Violence and the Modern Condition, Walter de Gruyer, Berlin, 1997, p. 17
24 Tatar, Maria, Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 70
25 My translation; quoted in Conzelmann, Otto, Der andere Dix, Klett-Cotta, 1983, Stuttgart, p. 133
26 Tatar, 78
27 My translation; Jünger, Ernst, "Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis", in Werke, Band 5, Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart, 1960, pp. 53-4
28 Hesse, Hermann, Demian, transl. W.J. Strachan, Panther: Granada, Great Britain, 1974, p. 153
29 Winter, 15
30 Bourke, 16
31 Ibid., 44-5
32 Ibid., 56
33 Skal, 159
34 Those intervening years saw a shift in the cinema's slowly increasing acknowledgement of the war and an almost complete avoidance of the Depression, with Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933 a notable exception. Like the image of the pleading monster, its number "My Forgotten Man" synthesises the war and the Depression in the figure of the disenchanted returning soldier.
35 Bourke, 56