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:
His body fell in wire as thick as briers. It was hanging there the next morning, a hundred yards from the line, too far out for anyone to fetch it during the day. They began a new bombardment that night, shelling us nightly, so we had to leave him on the wire. We saw him at morning stand-to and evening stand-to, just a speck in a rusty spiderweb unless one used field glasses or periscope. But one couldn’t not look. “Good morning, Barnett,” we’d say each day. “How’s ole Barnett looking this morning?” “Seems a little peaky. Looks a little plumper.” His wounds faced the other way and his tin hat shielded his eyes, so it was difficult to believe he was dead…. I could admire his figure, without fear of impropriety.
Whether in the horror genre or in other types of films, Whale keeps returning, usually with ironic detachment and amusement, to what Alberto Manguel identifies as “the no-man’s land beyond society’s borders, a land for which we have no vocabulary and whose geography we only dimly recognise in dreams.” The Faustian experiments of Frankenstein and Pretorius, who treat science as a deranged form of artistic creation, are the best-known examples of such boundary-crossing behavior in Whale’s work. But Whale found ways of exploring transgressive states of mind while attempting a wide variety of other genres. He took the organized lunacy of war as his subject in Journey’s End and dealt with war’s chaotic aftermath in The Road Back, a 1937 film version of Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. In the comedic murder mystery Remember Last Night? (1935), the characters can’t remember who killed someone at a raucous party the night before, because they were all in a state of intoxication. Two of Whale’s films center on illicit forms of sexual behavior, prostitution in Waterloo Bridge (1931) and miscegenation in the Jim Crow world of Show Boat. The blurring of lines between illusion and reality in the theater itself offers Whale rich opportunities for humor in both Show Boat and The Great Garrick, his 1937 biographical film about the eighteenth-century British actor David Garrick (played by Brian Aherne).
Whale’s fascination with boundary crossing and artifice clearly stemmed from his upbringing in a rigidly hierarchical society in which the pursuit of an artistic career was one of the few means allowed for advancement. His artful re-creation of his own persona, transforming himself from a humble factory lad into a gentleman, was one of his finest accomplishments. He played the exiled British gentleman in Hollywood with such élan that eventually it became impossible to tell how much of it was acting. With his coolly poised demeanor, prematurely white hair, dapper three-piece suits, and general savoir-faire, Whale quietly reveled in a respectability he never could have achieved back home. As a refugee from a country that continued enforcing its buggery laws until well after his death, and as a man who had to continue leading a “double life” even in a relatively tolerant corner of his adopted land, Whale knew that such artifice was not an idle game but a matter of life and death.
Because the horror genre tended, then as now, to be regarded as critically disreputable, and probably also because of his lifelong dread of externally imposed limitations, Whale resisted being typecast as “the Monster Man,” a nickname he detested. He made only four horror films, and he was always eager to demonstrate his versatility in other genres; that was one reason he insisted on a prologue to Bride of Frankenstein with the actress who plays the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) introducing the story in the guise of its author, Mary Shelley. To the frustration of their creator, Whale’s films outside the horror genre rarely had the same popular appeal; the presold property Show Boat was a notable exception.
By encouraging “the return of the repressed,” the horror genre allows a sophisticated filmmaker such as Whale license to explore dark and recondite areas of the human psyche in a format acceptable to an unsuspecting mass audience. It doesn’t require any great leap of critical imagination to see that what makes Whale’s horror films so emotionally satisfying—in addition to his subversive sympathy for the “monster”—is a quality inextricably entwined with Whale’s own perception of himself as a social outsider. That self-image owes as much to his upbringing as it does to his eventual liberation from its stifling conditions by recognizing his homosexuality and becoming an artist. In understanding the evolution of Whale’s cinematic work, none of these factors can be viewed in isolation.
Unlike Bram, who makes sexuality the primary focus of his novel, Whale’s biographer James Curtis treats the director’s sexuality in an overly decorous fashion. He handles the subject gingerly, in brief, scattered passages, as a side issue:
As James Whale’s homosexuality became widely known in the nineteen seventies and eighties, revisionist criticism found a gay subtext to the isolation and scorn endured by the monster in Frankenstein…. But analogies drawn from Whale’s life as a homosexual presume he must have seen himself [as] a societal misfit on the same scale as the monster, and there is no evidence to support this. Whale never went to any particular trouble to conceal his homosexuality, and if he perceived himself as an “antisocial figure,” such feelings would more likely have been the result of his working-class origins than anything having to do with his being gay.
While this is true enough as far as it goes, Curtis’s biography tends to undercut itself by refusing to acknowledge that an artist’s inner life has any more than a superficial connection with his work.
On screen, Whale’s homosexuality is tougher to discern, revealing itself most fully in the overt campiness of some of his players…. Most likely, Whale would have been appalled by the inference of a gay agenda in his films…. Whale would not have identified with the monster from a homosexual perspective…. Whale’s gay sensibilities display themselves in more subtle ways—the frills and fripperies of his scenes, the outlandish props, oversized arrangements of cut flowers, the florid but chaste presentation of women as decorative (rather than sexual) beings.
Curtis’s position is especially limiting given Whale’s sexually daring exploration of such subjects as the interrelationship between death and eroticism. What is Bride of Frankenstein, after all, if not a delirious meditation on the joys of necrophilia—as when the Monster freely announces in that film, “I love dead. Hate living.”
Whale’s sympathy for social outsiders was not limited to his work in the horror genre. Show Boat, the second and best of the three screen versions of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical, was viewed by many observers at the time as a surprising choice of material for “the Monster Man.” Curtis gives credit to Carl Laemmle Jr., the much-maligned head of Universal during that period, for his enlightened patronage of Whale, who enjoyed virtually complete creative freedom under “Junior’s” casual supervision. Laemmle intuitively understood that Whale was the right (if decidedly unconventional) choice to direct Show Boat, a musical that delves into some of the most disturbing aspects of the American psyche, dealing with the challenges posed to a racist and puritanical society by miscegenation and racial “passing,” as well as with society’s ambivalence toward the relative freedom and equality enjoyed by theatrical vagabonds.
Placing great emphasis on the intricate relationships between whites and African-Americans, including the allegiances between “disreputable” white show folk and the black serving class, Whale creates a subtly oppressive atmosphere laced with ironic, purely visual commentary on the racial tensions of the society he portrays. He is constantly showing the action and musical numbers from the viewpoint of black spectators exiled to sidelines and balconies; he has Irene Dunne emulate a Southern black dancing style of the period in a wonderful number with Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel; and Whale’s beautiful montage visually elaborating on “Ol’ Man River” treats Robeson’s Joe as a figure of mythic proportions, employing the same crucifixion motifs Whale uses for the Monster during the lynching scenes in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Whale’s identification with Joe, whose strength of character and stature belie his subservient position, and the director’s rich appreciation of McDaniel’s wise, slyly subversive Queenie are among the film’s most memorable qualities.
No doubt Whale would have been both astonished and amused to find that in death he has become not only a Hollywood legend but a gay icon. Some recent books even call him “the Queen of Hollywood.” But the rise of interest in Whale in gay circles in recent years has depended on a view of his life as myopic, in its own way, as Curtis’s. Every liberation movement needs its martyrs, and in Whale’s case, it has not been enough simply to look back and praise him as a gay man who prospered for a time in Hollywood while leaving an enduring legacy of several classic films. Because of the abrupt decline of his career in the late 1930s, his long period of inactivity, and his mysterious death, his life has been rewritten to make him seem merely a victim of his sexual orientation, a scapegoat to Hollywood hypocrisy and homophobia.
Vito Russo’s influential 1981 book about gays in Hollywood, The Celluloid Closet, quotes director Robert Aldrich, a longtime president of the Directors Guild of America, as saying,
Jimmy Whale was the first guy who was blackballed because he refused to stay in the closet. Mitchell Leisen [the director of Easy Living and Hold Back the Dawn] and all those other guys played it straight, and they were on board, but Whale said, “Fuck it, I’m a great director and I don’t have to put up with this bullshit”—and he was a great director, not just a company director. And he was just unemployed after that—never worked again.
That view is disputed by Bram, who insists in Ehrenstein’s Open Secret that sexuality played no real role in Whale’s rise and fall. In his sharp and lively social history of gay Hollywood, Ehrenstein points out that “‘openness’ as a concept is of recent vintage, with no resonance in the world Whale knew.” Within the hermetically enclosed world of Thirties Hollywood, as long as private sexual activities didn’t lead to vice-squad arrests or other public scandal, and therefore to problems for the industry at large, people generally took a laissez-faire attitude toward what other people did in their own bedrooms, or in anyone else’s, for that matter. Hollywood gay life was often gay in both senses of the word: acceptance led to a relative ease not available to gays in most other American communities. But it was a time when homosexuality was still regarded as “the love that dare not speak its name,” so a rigid hypocrisy was mandatory for movie people in dealing with the public at large. You could be gay but you could not flaunt it (beyond certain limits) or publicly admit it.
Little public attention was paid in the Thirties to the private lives of movie directors whatever their sexual persuasion, so gay or lesbian directors such as Whale, George Cukor, and Dorothy Arzner did not have to worry much about scandal-seeking reporters digging into their lives. “A director?” scoffs Whale in Father of Frankenstein. “To care about our behavior would have been like worrying over the morals of a plumber before letting him mend your pipes.” Unlike gay or lesbian stars of that era, homosexual directors usually did not have to bother concocting phony heterosexual love affairs to distract the public, although when Cukor was directing Garbo in Camille, a few items did appear in the press absurdly suggesting that the “bachelor” star (as Garbo described herself in Queen Christina) was romantically involved with her bachelor director.3
As for Whale, “There was nothing flamboyant about him,” Curtis writes, “yet he made no attempt to conceal the fact he lived with another man, nor did he feel the need to have a woman on his arm at industry functions.” Indeed, Whale lived for many years in a comfortably committed relationship with David Lewis, a producer whose films included Camille as well as the fascinatingly morbid Kings Row, starring Ronald (“Where’s the rest of me?”) Reagan, and Raintree County, the movie Montgomery Clift was making at the time of his disfiguring car crash in 1956.
Curtis blames Whale’s career difficulties and early retirement largely, if not entirely, on causes other than his homosexuality. Chief among the reasons Curtis gives for Whale’s difficulties was a five-year string of flops resulting from a change in studio management at Universal in 1936 that deprived Whale of his autonomy, eventually forcing him to leave that privileged haven to freelance. The only support Curtis finds for the notion that Whale’s homosexuality hurt his career comes from two colleagues of Whale’s who think that the homophobia of studio executives “possibly” might have made it easier for them to reject him when he needed a job. While that wouldn’t have been surprising, it’s also a known fact in Hollywood that when someone is already on the skids, everything seems to be working against him and it can be hard to distinguish gratuitous snubs from root causes.
Whale’s unraveling began in 1936- 1937 with the making of The Road Back. Remarque’s story of disillusioned soldiers returning home in post-World War I Germany had been a pet project of Whale’s for several years. While filming was underway, the German consulate in Los Angeles raised objections to the film as “an untrue and distorted picture of the German people.” The new studio ownership cravenly appeased the Nazi regime by cutting and reshooting parts of The Road Back to mute its antimilitarist intent. Brutally demonstrating his loss of creative freedom after the departure from Universal of Junior Laemmle, the incident left Whale bitterly disenchanted. He withdrew into what Curtis calls “a protective shell of indifference” to the business and even the craft of filmmaking. Like Joe’s lordly refusal to work at menial jobs in Show Boat, Whale’s disdain was a form of passive resistance. But when even that posture became repugnant to him, he made his decision to retire in 1941 at the age of fifty-one.
Rather than wallow in feelings of victimization or self-pity, Whale seems to have made the most of his retirement. His hedonistic credo could have been expressed by Joe’s insouciant song in Show Boat “Ah Still Suits Me.” Living modestly by Hollywood standards but still comfortably thanks to his careful investments, Whale occasionally dabbled in theater and even directed two short films,4 but mostly expended his creative energies through painting. He began with images from his own films, perhaps a sign of his stubborn need for control, and eventually progressed (if that’s the word) to imitating the work of the old masters. But this curiously sterile occupation inevitably began to bore him. As McKellen, as Whale, wistfully admits in Gods and Monsters, “Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world—working with friends, entertaining people. Yes, I suppose I miss it. But I chose freedom.”
Like the novel Father of Frankenstein, the film Gods and Monsters is essentially a meditation on mortality, an intimate account of a man feverishly reviewing his memories, hoping to sort out the meaning of his life before it ends. The movie’s Whale complains of “my inability to close my eyes without thinking of a hundred things simultaneously…. I’ve spent much of my life outrunning the past—and now it floods all over me.” For Whale in Gods and Monsters, the “electrical storm going on inside my head” is both an excruciating torment and a source of final wisdom, enabling him to see the pattern in his existence.
Serious studies of mortality are rare in American movies, a medium that generally does its utmost to bear out the truth of Leslie Fiedler’s argument in Love and Death in the American Novel that since American writers are uncomfortable with love and death, they deal instead with sex and violence. Gods and Monsters ultimately is about love and death, but it still reaches that purifying terrain by walking through the fires of sex and violence. Both novel and movie flirt uncomfortably with the stereotypical image of the older queen deliberately playing with fire by lusting after “rough trade.” Yet they do so in radically different ways.
Like Death in Venice, Gods and Monsters revolves around an aging gay artist’s fatal flirtation with an apparition of young male beauty. Clay Boone’s name signals his status in Whale’s eyes as a malleable Adam, a “clay” man and model who ambiguously appears to his would-be Dr. Frankenstein as both carnal “bone” and spiritual “boon” companion. Despite the physical immediacy of the film medium, Gods and Monsters leans toward a more spiritual reading of Boone than the novel Father of Frankenstein, which offers a more carnal interpretation and shows Whale flirting with the young man in a suicidal attempt to arouse his capacity for homophobic anger. The film’s softening of this theme may be a concession to the broader audience sought by Condon, who also somewhat deemphasizes Whale’s lustfulness in favor of his desperate urge for friendship. Whale in the film still goads Boone to kill him, but more playfully than earnestly until he suffers a fit of abject despondency the night before his death. The casting of the gentle hunk Brendan Fraser ensures that Boone is far less brutish and more androgynous than the novel’s rough-trade angel of death.
Condon’s movie traces the bond of affection that develops between this unlikely couple as they cross into the ill-defined no man’s land between straightness and gayness. When the two men discuss homosexuality while puffing on large Havana cigars—Whale with ironic amusement, Boone with boyish nervousness—Condon is cleverly echoing the famous scene in Bride of Frankenstein of the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) sharing cigars with the Monster. “Alone—bad,” the Monster observes, in a passage emphatically quoted at the end of Gods and Monsters. “Friend—good. Friend good!” No doubt all the phallic symbolism in this funny and touching sequence was fully intentional on Whale’s part, including what Bram calls the director’s “private joke” in which, “seen from behind, the hermit praying and shuddering over the prostrate Karloff seems to be rendering him an obscene service.”
No such act ever occurs between Boone and Whale in the movie—Whale soon abandons the hope as futile—but Boone finally strips off his shorts in a tender but pathetic attempt to relieve the old man’s unhappiness with an image of visual beauty. Boone’s experiences with Whale awaken no latent gayness in him, however, at least any that would rouse him to sexual contact. Condon unwisely concludes the film with a coda reassuring the audience of Boone’s “normality” by showing him a few years later living contentedly with a wife and son. But if that stratagem is somewhat insulting to Whale’s memory, Condon makes amends with his eerie final shot of Boone outside during a lightning storm, walking in the stiff-legged, arms-outstretched manner of Frankenstein’s Monster.
McKellen’s justly celebrated performance as Whale, one of the most finely nuanced screen characterizations in recent memory, bristles with the sort of elegance and irony that distinguish Whale’s films. The subtly humorous way McKellen’s Whale toys with Boone and with his own emotions is dramatically complex and in keeping with what we know about the personality of this supremely civilized director.
Open Secret reports that during preproduction, Gods and Monsters stirred some controversy among gay people in Hollywood. The ending of the story and Whale’s obsession with a younger man bothered gays who “wanted me to make a movie about how Whale was a wonderful ‘out’ person,” said Condon. “They didn’t want the rest. It’s sort of like what black movies were in the Sidney Poitier days. All the gay movies are supposed to have these upbeat, positive images. It was actually a battle to do something that has these sides to it that are pretty dark.” Political correctness seems beside the point in telling the story of James Whale, for the film deals with a man living in a world long before the gay liberation movement. In that world, self-hatred was not an uncommon psychological response for people harshly stigmatized for their sexual inclination.
One of the most poignant scenes Whale ever created can be read as an acknowledgment of that insidious process: seeing his own reflection in a pond in Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster reacts with anguished revulsion. Following his rejection by the woman created to be his mate, the Monster sees no reason to continue living. He blows up himself, his bride, and Dr. Pretorius in a finale of Götterdämmerung proportions. That temptation to self-destruction is part of the fascination of Whale’s morbidly seductive vision. It also may have figured in Whale’s own death. Could it be that, like the characters in his own movies, the “Father of Frankenstein” saw death as a supremely erotic experience, a last climax to be enacted in the very place where so much of his erotic life with handsome young men was centered in his final years?
July 15, 1999
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 book is an extensively revised version of Curtis’s 1982 biography James Whale (Scarecrow Press). ↩
One flaw in Gods and Monsters is its distorted portrayal of George Cukor (played by Martin Ferrero). While Cukor undeniably had a waspish side to his personality, and while it could be argued that the film simply reflects Whale’s spiteful envy of a more durably successful gay director, Cukor was effervescent, not sour, and nowhere near as bitchy as he appears in the film. Nor was Cukor as much of a social climber as Condon makes him seem. The location chosen for Cukor’s house in Gods and Monsters is a stereotypically vulgar Beverly Hills mansion, complete with swans floating in a pond. Cukor’s actual house above Sunset Boulevard in a less fashionable (but more gay-friendly) part of Los Angeles was smaller and far less pretentious, as I saw at first hand when Todd McCarthy and I visited Cukor in July 1981 for a Film Comment interview (“Carry On, Cukor,” September-October 1981). We spotted no swans. ↩
A US Army training film, Personnel Placement in the Army (1942), and Hello Out There (1950), a short film originally intended for television but not shown publicly until 1967. ↩