The Importance of Being Ernest Thesiger

Ours is an Ernest Thesiger worshipping house. Thesinger (1879-1961) is best known for playing Dr. Pretorius, the campy, flamboyantly effeminate mad scientist mentor in James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the guy who keeps all those homunculi in those little glass jars. Early in our relationship my wife and I rewatched the film after not having seen it in many years, and (having forgotten about the Pretorius business) laughed ’til the tears streamed down our faces. Those are some gone, way out choices on both Thesiger’s and Whale’s parts.

Nor does Thesiger’s biography, once you start to explore, disappoint. His father was a Clerk of Parliament and a Knight of the Realm. His grandfather, like Dr. Frankenstein, was a Baron. Other near relatives included a Viceroy of India, an Arabian explorer, and a hero of Anglo-Zulu War (a hero to the English, that is). Those aware of Thesiger’s cultivated, Wildean effeminacy may be surprised to know that served bravely as a rifleman during the First World War, and was injured in the trenches. (Whale had served in the war as well, and had been captured by the Germans).

Immediately after being invalided out of the service, Thesiger starred in the West End play A Little Bit of Fluff, a smash hit that played over 1200 performances 1915-1918. He then starred in the 1919 silent film adaptation. Other early film stuff included the role of Pitt the Younger in Nelson (1918), Joseph Chamberlain (Prime Minister Neville’s father, also a Liberal Party leader) in The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), Mr. Jingle in The Adventures of Mr. Pickwick (1921), and a lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s unfinished first film Number Thirteen (1922). He was a friend of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s, and thus got to know Shaw, who wrote the role of the Dauphin in St. Joan (1923) for him. In 1925, he appeared in Noel Coward’s On With the Dance. (Thesiger married in 1917, but he was surely bisexual. He was also an associate of John Singer Sargent, whom many scholars believe was gay. Sergent sketched Thesiger in the years before the war).

After Whales’s successes with films like the original Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), he sent for Thesiger to appear in the all-star cast of The Old Dark House 1932). This was followed by the British horror film The Ghoul (1933) again with Karloff. The remainder of his career was divided between the British and Hollywood film industries. After Bride (1935), he was in such things as The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), They Drive By Night (1938), Olivier’s Henry V (1944), A Place of One’s Own (1945), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), The Ghosts of Berkley Square (1947) and The Winslow Boy (1948). In 1950 he appeared opposite Katharine Hepburn in Broadway’s longest running production of As You Like It. Later films include the Alec Guinness comedies The Man in the White Suit (1951), Father Brown (1954), and The Horses Mouth (1958); as well as Scrooge (1951), The Robe (1953), Benny Hill’s Who Done It? (1956), and Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961, his last).

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