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The Joys of Necrophilia

Gods and Monsters

a film written and directed by Bill Condon. Condon’s screenplay appears in Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter 1998-1999).
Universal Studios Home Video, $98.99 VHS; $34.99 DVD

Bride of Frankenstein

by Alberto Manguel. (distributed in the US by Indiana University Press)
London: British Film Institute, 69 pp., $10.95 (paper)

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 in Whale,” whose very surname suggests a creature of the sea. (The most memorable of these watery deaths is the drowning of a little girl by Boris Karloff’s Monster in the original 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)1

Although he cultivated the manner of a British gentleman, James Whale emerged from an unglamorous working-class background in England’s West Midlands. Some of the most poignant passages in Father of Frankenstein and Gods and Monsters are Whale’s reminiscences of his dismal upbringing in the grimy industrial area known as “the Black Country,” where his father was a blast furnaceman.

Whale’s haunting stories are delivered in the novel and the movie to his handsome young gardener, Clayton Boone, who also poses for his sketches. A former US Marine who (as played on screen by Brendan Fraser) anxiously regards himself as strictly heterosexual, Clay sports a flattop that gives him a resemblance, in silhouette, to Karloff’s Monster. Clay is wary of the older man’s overtures of friendship while sketching him, unsure whether they somehow will compromise his own fragile sense of manhood. Whale’s anguished reveries of his boyhood (quoted here from the novel) are the first to stir pangs of sympathy in his listener:

I was an aberration in that household, a freak of nature. I had imagination as a child, cleverness, joy. Where did I get that joy? Certainly not from [my parents]. They never even noticed I was different. They took me out of school when I was fourteen and put me in a factory…. Oh, but I hated and feared them when they did that. I was such a child. I thought they were punishing me for being too clever…. They meant no harm. They thought I was just like them. They were like a family of farmers who’ve been given a giraffe, and don’t know what to do with the creature except harness him to a plow. There’s no dignity in hating the dead.

Ironically enough, Whale’s ultimate escape was made possible by the event that devastated his generation of young men, World War I. In his recent biography James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters,2 James Curtis reports, “Whale spoke little of the year he spent alternating front line and reserve duty on the western front, but he survived unscathed, no mean accomplishment considering his rank and the places he saw action.” Captured during the Flanders campaign, Whale spent the last fifteen months of the war in a German prison camp. Curtis’s workmanlike recital of dates and places fails to capture the essence of what must have been both a horrifying and transforming wartime experience for the young officer.

Kevin Brownlow’s 1998 documentary film Universal Horrors convincingly demonstrates that the horror-film cycle of the Thirties was a disguised way for Whale and other filmmakers to deal metaphorically with the terrors they experienced during the war. Gods and Monsters draws similar connections with its surreal blending of horror- and war-movie landscapes, climaxed with Whale searching through a trench full of dead soldiers for the body of the young man he loved. It was no coincidence that Whale flourished as a filmmaker, creating his ghastly images of death and dismemberment, in the same period of disillusionment that produced several of the finest books, plays, and films about the war and its futility. Universal’s film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by Lewis Milestone, won the best-picture Oscar for 1930, the year before the same studio released Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula.

Whale’s own service in the war “made his career in a way,” Christopher Bram observes in David Ehrenstein’s Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998. Whale “became an officer very early, and he started mixing with a different class of people. When he was in prisoner-of-war camp he started doing both his sketching for theater and cartoon work, and he began to direct plays and act a little.” After the war, Whale turned professional as an actor on the provincial stage. By 1922, he had made his way to London, demonstrating remarkable versatility as an actor, set designer, stage manager, and director. In 1928, Whale somewhat grudgingly accepted the job of directing a play about the war by a novice playwright, R.C. Sherriff, a veteran of the trenches who made his living as an insurance salesman. Journey’s End became a runaway sensation.

Whale soon found himself in Hollywood, which was then in the throes of the transition to talkies and desperately in need of directors who knew how to handle dialogue. He directed the talking sequences of the Howard Hughes aviation extravaganza Hell’s Angels before making his solo directing debut with the 1930 film version of Journey’s End. That won him a contract with Universal, where he soon established his cinematic reputation with Frankenstein.

In Frankenstein Whale crafted a cautionary tale against the arrogant amorality of modern science while also evoking powerful sympathy for the Monster as its unfortunate victim. Karloff made the Monster startlingly real, with his combination of soulful lugubriousness and almost boyish innocence. Starring the deliciously overwrought Colin Clive as the Monster’s creator, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, the movie has a visual elegance comparable to that of 1920s German expressionist cinema.

Liberated by the commercial and critical success of Frankenstein, Whale was able to imbue his subsequent work in the horror genre with his characteristically dry wit, treating the Gothic goings-on of The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein almost as parodies of themselves. The director’s sense of the ridiculous is an inextricable part of his way of seeing the world. His darkly comic sensibility left its unique mark on such films as The Old Dark House, a hilarious yet unnerving yarn about an odd assortment of travelers left stranded with a family of lunatics, and The Invisible Man, whose impish style mimics the title character’s morbid enjoyment of his truly appalling predicament. Even though his face is seen only in the movie’s final shot, Claude Rains became a star in this adaptation by Sherriff of the H.G. Wells novel about a misguided scientist whose experiments render himself invisible. A blend of suavity and megalomania, Rains’s Jack Griffin at one point inhabits a pair of seemingly disembodied pants seen skipping down a country lane as he gaily sings, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May….”

Whale’s films are far ahead of their time in their self-referential, winking humor, taking sophisticated viewers into the filmmaker’s confidence and enabling the stories to be appreciated on multiple levels. Some of this comes out in Whale’s films as a camp sensibility, as in his enjoyment of the wickedly fey British character actor Ernest Thesiger, so droll as the skeletal Horace Femm in The Old Dark House and the flamboyant Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s ghoulish partner in reanimating dead bodies. Whale discovered the delights of camp humor long before Susan Sontag codified it, and he helped translate it from gay culture into the American mainstream.

On one of the rare occasions when Whale verbalized his intentions, he let slip that he hoped movie audiences would find Bride of Frankenstein a “hoot.” That’s the way audiences regard the film today, fully appreciative of the delight Whale takes in his outrageous array of flaming creatures, from the giddily sinister Pretorius to the skittish Bride (Elsa Lanchester), with her electroshocked hairdo, and the lovelorn Monster who just wants a “Friend” (either gender will do). However, when Whale went to watch the film with paying customers in 1935, his constant chuckling angered a female patron who turned around and snarled, “If you don’t like the show, you can damn well leave!”

Pitched brilliantly on a fine line between comedy and terror, Bride keeps the viewer unsettled, inhabiting uncharted terrain in which conventional rules no longer apply, the absurdist modern universe Dr. Pretorius toasts with amoral glee as “a new world of gods and monsters.” Bram’s novel plausibly suggests that Whale’s pervasive tendency to view horror as black comedy was one of the legacies he carried away from the war. Gallows humor is a crucial survival mechanism in combat; mocking the omnipresence of death enables a soldier to survive combat with his psyche more or less intact. In a harrowing monologue in his Father of Frankenstein, Bram brings all the themes of Whale’s life together in one unforgettable memory image, the imagined death scene of the young man Whale loved during the war, a soldier named Barnett:

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    Some mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Whale’s death. In Hollywood Babylon II (1984), Kenneth Anger wrote that Whale’s “suicide note was kept secret for some time, and until its existence became known, there were persistent rumors of foul play concerning the director’s death in his swimming pool.” According to Mark Gattis’s James Whale: A Biography, or The Would-Be Gentleman (Cassell, 1995), a young male lover of the director “was suspected of having assaulted Whale. Another story of near-legendary proportions spoke of Whale’s murder at the hands of a beautiful boy whose nude portrait he had been painting.” In that gay urban legend can be found another major element that went into Father of Frankenstein, in which the “beautiful boy whose nude portrait he had been painting” is courted by Whale as a likely candidate for his angel of death.

    The truth as Whale’s biographer James Curtis sees it was more mundane. Curtis reports that Whale killed himself after suffering two strokes and undergoing ill-advised electroshock treatment for depression. On the day he died, Whale wrote a note reading in part: “Do not grieve for me…. I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away…. The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye all and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.”

    Curtis tells us that Whale “walked to the shallow end of the pool—where he had waded so tentatively in years past—and threw himself into the water head first, striking his forehead against the bottom in an attempt to knock himself unconscious.” The maid, Anna Ryan, “found the body when he failed to answer the intercom for lunch.” She placed a frantic phone call to a young lover of Whale’s who couldn’t understand why she was upset that Whale was in the pool. “He’s in the bottom of the pool,” she supposedly said. However, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported the following day that “Whale was found floating face up in the pool by a maid, Anna Ryan.” Curtis hedges a bit on how the death occurred by adducing “the chilling possibility that Whale had not been knocked unconscious by the impact and had to breathe water into his lungs to finish the job.”

    Ryan found Whale’s suicide note in his painting studio and gave it to his business manager, George Lovett, who did not give it to the police. The police told reporters they believed Whale fell into the pool after suffering a heart attack, and without the additional evidence of a suicide note to rely upon, the coroner’s office concluded that the death was accidental. The lingering mysteries about Whale’s death might never have existed if the people around Whale had been more candid about it from the beginning. Perhaps the aura of secrecy surrounding gay life in 1950s Hollywood, as well as the social taboos about discussing mental illness and suicide, made such obfuscations seem necessary.

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    The book is an extensively revised version of Curtis’s 1982 biography James Whale (Scarecrow Press).

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