January 15, 2010

Gods, Monsters, and Ernest Thesiger

Dr. Pretorius pulls the switch that electrified the Bride of Frankenstein to life. Careful of that overhead lever, please. That one’ll blast everyone to atoms!

Ernest Thesiger was born on January 15, in 1879. His family was a storied one, with barons, war heroes and a famous explorer among his ancestors. As a young man, Thesiger worked or socialized with some of the great British artists, among them George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. The famous American-born painter John Singer Sargent, the leading portrait painter of his era, captured a smiling 32-year old Thesiger in a charcoal sketch in 1911.

In addition to his work as an actor on stage and in films, Thesiger was an accomplished painter and an expert at needlework, eventually writing an important book on the subject, Adventures in Embroidery (1941). A wounded veteran of the Great War, Thesiger joined the Church Army League of Friends of the Poor, helping to form the Disabled Soldiers Embroidery Industry and earning the humorous title of Honorary Secretary Cross-Stitch. His work teaching needlework to severely disabled men was admired by Queen Mary (consort of King George V), no less, and Thesiger became a frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace.

Thesiger’s first film part came in 1916, playing a comical witch in The Real Thing At Last, a film that mercilessly spoofed how Hollywood would stage Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The now lost epic was written and largely directed by Peter Pan creator J.M.Barrie. A showing at the London Coliseum was held on March 7 with King and Queen in attendance and proceeds going towards the YMCA fund. A smattering of silent film roles over the next few years would include a part in Number 13, an abandoned project directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1922.

By the early Thirties, Thesiger was in America, appearing on Broadway, when he was called to Hollywood by an old acquaintance from the London days, director James Whale. The part offered was that of Horace Femm, the archly sinister patriarch of The Old Dark House (1932), perhaps the most sophisticated horror comedy ever made. The largely British company included Boris Karloff, fresh off his success in Frankenstein, now cast as a brutish, disfigured menace. Thesiger and Karloff would work together twice more. First came The Ghoul (1933), marking Karloff’s triumphant return to England. Here, Thesiger plays a devious butler who steals an amulet, provoking Karloff’s gruesome rise from the grave. Their next collaboration came in 1935 with The Bride of Frankenstein.

Universal had originally penciled in Claude Rains as Frankenstein’s one-time mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, but Whale held out for Thesiger, a brilliant piece of casting. Spider-like, sardonic and sinister, dominating all his scenes, this maddest of scientists plays off the actor’s sometimes flamboyant gay persona. Writer Mark Gatiss (James Whale: A Biography or, The Would-Be Gentleman, 1995), describes Thesiger’s Pretorius as “a desiccated homosexual imp” displaying “waspish malevolence”. Driving the story forward, Pretorius manipulates Colin Clive’s Frankenstein and Karloff’s Monster with equal aplomb. He first calls on Frankenstein’s sense of wonder, seducing him with alchemical creations, including a doll-like mermaid in jar — “an experiment with seaweed” — then proceeds to more robust methods as needed, having Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth, kidnapped and held hostage. Unlike Frankenstein who was awkward and impatient with his creation, Pretorius immediately understands The Monster’s simple-minded outlook and simple needs, providing him with friendship, food, drink, and a promise to build him a mate.

The script by William Hurlbut, closely supervised by Whale, provides Thesiger with wonderful and sometimes loaded lines, like “Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature, or of God… if you like your Bible stories.” Best remembered is a running gag line “It’s my ONLY weakness!”, applied first to a glass of gin and later to a fine cigar, and a famous, unforgettable toast to success, “Here’s to a new world of Gods and Monsters!

In the film’s feverish climax, Frankenstein and Pretorius’ magnificent Bride rejects her betrothed on first sight, and Pretorius as well, pushing him away and launching herself into Frankenstein’s arms. The heartbroken Monster grabs the doomsday leeeever, orders Frankenstein and Elizabeth to leave, “You live!”, and brings down final, terrible judgment upon the hissing Bride and the grimacing Pretorius, “You stay... We belong dead!”.

A marvelous backstage photo shows the English actors, Colin Clive and the two monsters, Karloff and Elsa Lanchester, enjoying afternoon tea while Thesiger displays some of his recent paintings. Thesiger also transformed his hotel suite into an impromptu art gallery and was known to work on his embroideries during breaks in filming.

Bride of Frankenstein would be Thesiger’s last American film. His output from then on would be exclusively British, including several mystery and light fantasy films like The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953). Most notably, Thesiger played “the silk stocking murderer” in They Drive by Night (1938), a rarely seen but highly praised thriller said to provide Thesiger with one of his best roles.

As a writer, Thesiger produced an early biography, Practically True, in 1927. A second biography, presumably including a mention of his horror films of the Thirties, remained unpublished upon his death. The manuscript resides in the Thesiger collection at Bristol University. Thesiger also provided an introduction to an edition of T.W.Bamford’s Practical Make-up for the Stage (first published in 1940). In 1957, he contributed to the London Times obituary of James Whale.

Thesiger worked until the end, appearing on stage a few months before he passed away on January 14, 1961, the eve of his 82nd birthday.

Quentin Crisp would pay homage to Thesiger as a Pretorius-like assistant in the opening sequence of Franc Roddam’s The Bride (1935), and Australian actor Arthur Dignam appears briefly as Thesiger in the James Whale biopic, God and Monsters (1998).

An excellent overview of Thesiger’s genre films on The Missing Link.

The Ernest Thesiger Collection catalogue, University of Bristol.


Caftan Woman said...

Grand article. The sketch by Sargent is amazing. I could never have pictured Thesiger as a young man. To me he's always the undertaker in "Scrooge". Yes, even before Pretorious.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent stuff--Theisger's Praetorius is definitely the pattern for all the best mad scientists to follow.

And that behind-the-scenes shot is absolutely amazing!

Bill (RSR) said...

Fantastic work, Pierre, and an amazing tribute to an amazing actor.

Christopher said...

after all these years..I think thats the most info I've read on the much seen but little known,Thesiger..great stuff..Saw him once in Benny Hill comedy from the 1950s..Who Done It ..I think..

Al Bruno III said...

Great article about very interesting person.

Tor Hershman said...

He 'twere born on the same day of the month as moi.

How amusing

BTW The Lady Frankenstein pics are amaZING!!!

Guy Budziak said...

Thesiger was just an outstanding character actor, vividly memorable, I've enjoyed him in pretty much every film I've seen where he's starred. I've watched THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT a number of times, love the scene of him feeding milk to the kittens. Reading this post was a real pleasure, thank you.

ari_1965 said...

Nice. Thank you.