Today is the 132nd birthday of the film director James Whale. He directed several of the original Frankenstein films and Sir Ian McKellen played him in a movie about him. That is a hell of a mark to leave. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: James Whale
DATE OF BIRTH: 22-Jul-1889
PLACE OF BIRTH: Dudley, Worcestershire, England
DATE OF DEATH: 29-May-1957
PLACE OF DEATH: Hollywood, CA
CAUSE OF DEATH: Suicide
REMAINS: Buried, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, CA
BOYFRIEND: David Lewis (film producer, b. 14-Dec-1903, d. 13-Mar-1987)
BEST KNOWN FOR: James Whale was an English film director, theatre director and actor, who spent the greater part of his career in Hollywood.
Whale was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, at the heart of the Black Country, the sixth of seven children of William, a blast furnace man, and Sarah, a nurse. He attended Kates Hill Board School, followed by Bayliss Charity School and finally Dudley Blue Coat School. His attendance stopped in his teenage years because the cost would have been prohibitive and his labor was needed to help support the family. Thought not physically strong enough to follow his brothers into the local heavy industries, Whale started work as a cobbler, reclaiming the nails he recovered from replaced soles and selling them for scrap for extra money. He discovered he had some artistic ability and earned additional money lettering signs and price tags for his neighbors. He used his additional income to pay for evening classes at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts.
World War I broke out in early August 1914. Although Whale had little interest in the politics behind the war, he realized that conscription was inevitable so he voluntarily enlisted just before it was introduced into the British Army’s Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in October 1915, and was stationed initially at Bristol. He was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Worcestershire Regiment in July 1916. He was taken prisoner of war in battle on the Western Front in Flanders in August 1917, and was held at Holzminden Officers’ Camp, where he remained until the war’s end, being repatriated to England in December 1918. While imprisoned he became actively involved, as an actor, writer, producer and set-designer, in the amateur theatrical productions that took place in the camp, finding them “a source of great pleasure and amusement”. He also developed a talent for poker, and after the war he cashed in the chits and IOUs from his fellow prisoners that he had amassed in gambling to provide himself with finances for re-entry into civilian life.
James Whale lived as an openly gay man throughout his career in the British theatre and in Hollywood, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1920s and 1930s. He and David Lewis lived together as a couple from around 1930 to 1952. While he did not go out of his way to publicize his homosexuality, he did not do anything to conceal it either. As filmmaker Curtis Harrington, a friend and confidant of Whale’s, put it, “Not in the sense of screaming it from the rooftops or coming out. But yes, he was openly homosexual. Any sophisticated person who knew him knew he was gay.” While there have been suggestions that Whale’s career was terminated because of homophobia, and Whale was supposedly dubbed “The Queen of Hollywood”, Harrington states that “nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive”.
With knowledge of his sexuality becoming more common beginning in the 1970s, some film historians and gay studies scholars have detected homosexual themes in Whale’s work, particularly in Bride of Frankenstein in which a number of the creative people associated with the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were alleged to be gay or bisexual. Scholars have identified a gay sensibility suffused through the film, especially a camp sensibility, particularly embodied in the character of Pretorius (Thesiger) and his relationship with Henry Frankenstein (Clive).
Gay film historian Vito Russo, in considering Pretorius, stops short of identifying the character as gay, instead referring to him as “sissified” (“sissy” itself being Hollywood code for “homosexual”). Pretorius serves as a “gay Mephistopheles”, a figure of seduction and temptation, going so far as to pull Frankenstein away from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of non-procreative life. A novelisation of the film published in England made the implication clear, having Pretorius say to Frankenstein “‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way.” Russo goes so far as to suggest that Whale’s homosexuality is expressed in both Frankenstein and Bride as “a vision both films had of the monster as an antisocial figure in the same way that gay people were ‘things’ that should not have happened”.
The Monster, whose affections for the male hermit and the female Bride he discusses with identical language (“friend”), has been read as sexually “unsettled” and bisexual. Writes gender studies author Elizabeth Young: “He has no innate understanding that the male-female bond he is to forge with the bride is assumed to be the primary one or that it carries a different sexual valence from his relationships with [Pretorius and the hermit]: all affective relationships are as easily ‘friendships’ as ‘marriages’.” Indeed, his relationship with the hermit has been interpreted as a same-sex marriage that heterosexual society will not tolerate: “No mistake—this is a marriage, and a viable one”, writes cultural critic Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal. “But Whale reminds us quickly that society does not approve. The monster—the outsider—is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it.” The creation of the Bride scene has been called “Whale’s reminder to the audience—his Hollywood bosses, peers, and everyone watching—of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator”.
However, Harrington dismisses this as “a younger critic’s evaluation. All artists do work that comes out of the unconscious mind and later on you can analyze it and say the symbolism may mean something, but artists don’t think that way and I would bet my life that James Whale would never have had such concepts in mind.” Specifically in response to the “majesty and power” reading, Harrington states “My opinion is that’s just pure bullshit. That’s a critical interpretation that has nothing to do with the original inspiration.” He concludes, “I think the closest you can come to a homosexual metaphor in his films is to identify that certain sort of camp humor.”
Whale’s companion David Lewis stated flatly that Whale’s sexual orientation was “not germane” to his filmmaking. “Jimmy was first and foremost an artist, and his films represent the work of an artist—not a gay artist, but an artist.” Whale’s biographer Curtis rejects the notion that Whale would have identified with the Monster from a homosexual perspective, stating that if the highly class-conscious Whale felt himself to be an antisocial figure, it would have been based not in his sexuality but in his origin in the lower classes.
Whale died by suicide by drowning himself in his Pacific Palisades swimming pool on 29 May 1957 at the age of 67. He left a suicide note, which Lewis withheld until shortly before his own death decades later. Because the note was suppressed, the death was initially ruled accidental. The note read in part:
To ALL I LOVE,
Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.
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. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way. The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.
Whale’s body was cremated per his request, and his ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale. Because of his habit of periodically revising his date of birth, his niche lists the incorrect date of 1893. When his longtime companion David Lewis died in 1987, his executor and Whale biographer James Curtis had his ashes interred in a niche across from Whale’s.
Influential film critic Andrew Sarris, in his 1968 ranking of directors, lists Whale as “lightly likable”. Noting that Whale’s reputation has been subsumed by the “Karloff cult”, Sarris cites Bride of Frankenstein as the “true gem” of the Frankenstein series and concludes that Whale’s career “reflects the stylistic ambitions and dramatic disappointments of an expressionist in the studio-controlled Hollywood of the thirties”.
Whale’s final months are the subject of the novel Father of Frankenstein (1995) by Christopher Bram. The novel focuses on the relationship between Whale and a fictional gardener named Clayton Boone. Father of Frankenstein served as the basis of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters with Ian McKellen as Whale and Brendan Fraser as Boone. McKellen was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Whale. Bram’s novel has also been adapted as a play which premiered in London at the Southwark Playhouse in February 2015.
Only two of Whale’s films received Oscar nominations: The Man in the Iron Mask (for its musical score), and Bride of Frankenstein (for its sound recording).
A memorial statue was erected for Whale in September 2001 on the grounds of a new multiplex cinema in his home town of Dudley. The statue, by Charles Hadcock, depicts a roll of film with the face of Frankenstein’s monster engraved into the frames, and the names of his most famous films etched into a cast concrete base in the shape of film canisters. Other sculptures related to Whale’s cinema career were planned, referencing his early work in a local sheet metal factory, but none had been installed as of 2019.
Horror in Hollywood: The James Whale Story, a retrospective of Whale’s artwork, opened at the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery in October 2012 and ran through to January 2013.
FILMOGRAPHY AS DIRECTOR
They Dare Not Love (16-May-1941)
Green Hell (26-Jan-1940)
The Man in the Iron Mask (26-Jun-1939)
Port of Seven Seas (1-Jul-1938)
Wives Under Suspicion (3-Jun-1938)
Sinners in Paradise (19-May-1938)
The Great Garrick (24-Oct-1937)
The Road Back (1-Jun-1937)
Show Boat (14-May-1936)
Remember Last Night? (28-Oct-1935)
Bride of Frankenstein (22-Apr-1935)
One More River (6-Aug-1934)
By Candlelight (18-Dec-1933)
The Invisible Man (13-Nov-1933)
The Kiss Before the Mirror (4-May-1933)
The Old Dark House (20-Oct-1932)
The Impatient Maiden (1-Mar-1932)
Waterloo Bridge (1-Sep-1931)
Journey’s End (9-Apr-1930)