Gods and Monsters
When the British expatriate filmmaker James Whale was found dead in his swimming pool on Amalfi Drive in the posh Pacific Palisades on May 29, 1957, the world paid only passing attention. In Hollywood terms, the director of the stylish horror films Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man and the 1936 version of Show Boat already had been dead for sixteen years, the length of his retirement from making feature films. Sixteen years is an epoch in Hollywood: that period had seen such tumultuous developments as the government-ordered divorce of studios from their theater chains, the rise of television, and the gradual dominance of color and the wide screen. By 1957, Whale’s old black-and-white classics from the Thirties seemed even deader than he was. They were remembered, if at all, as quaint relics from a more gentlemanly age when horror was still portrayed on screen with a sense of discretion.
It was not until a few months after his death, when his Frankenstein movies and The Invisible Man were syndicated for television, that a new audience of movie-crazed youngsters began discovering his films and the enigmatic man standing in the shadows behind them. Thanks in part to Whale’s anointing as a gay icon, the director and his work have attracted a rush of interest in recent years. Ironically, this circumspect man who could not speak freely about his sexuality outside a limited circle in Hollywood now has had his inner life dissected with varying degrees of frankness in a biography, a novel, and a film.
In Christopher Bram’s 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein, a witty and moving speculation about the last two weeks of the retired director’s life, Whale is found dead at the bottom of his pool. In Gods and Monsters, writer-director Bill Condon’s multilayered 1998 film version of Bram’s novel, Whale (gloriously played by Ian McKellen) is found floating on the surface. That small difference may reflect Whale’s belated levitation to the top of the Hollywood pantheon. For, as any film buff will recognize, Whale’s death scene in Gods and Monsters is an hommage to that macabre masterpiece about Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which Joe Gillis, the hack screenwriter played by William Holden, begins narrating the tale of his self-destruction while the camera points upward at his floating body from the bottom of a swimming pool, the symbolic locus classicus of Hollywood decadence.
If it is true, as Father of Frankenstein and Gods and Monsters claim, that Whale committed suicide by throwing himself into his pool, then he remained a master showman to the end, arranging the mise en scène of his own death with his characteristically witty and astringent sense of symbolic effect. Alberto Manguel points out in his monograph on Whale’s 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein that the setting Whale chose for his death bore eerie resonances of his work, for “death or near death by water is a constant theme …