Creating a World Made of Plaster of Paris
That they should pay such fabulous salaries [in Hollywood] is beyond ordinary reasoning! Who’s worth it? But why not take it? And the architecture! And the furnishings! I can have modernistic designs one day and an antiquated home overnight! All the world’s made of plaster of Paris! I get to feel that maybe Buckingham Palace is too!
– James Whale (1)
Historiography, Homophobia and Authorship: The Case of James Whale
James Whale is certainly a known quantity both inside and outside of academic circles and it is readily acknowledged that he was a “great” director. The discourse in reference books and on websites invariably says as much. A small but insightful academic literature exists on his best known works, his four Universal horror classics (Frankenstein , The Old Dark House , The Invisible Man , Bride of Frankenstein ), especially the first and last named titles. And Christopher Bram’s fine 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein and its excellent film adaptation, Gods and Monsters (1998), fictionalising Whale’s last days, brought sympathetic attention to, and respect for, Whale and his work (but only the horror films).
No one seems to deny that he was gifted or distinctive, surely two of the key criteria for someone to be labeled an “auteur”, and yet that labeling has only been discussed in shockingly limited ways, or with begrudging qualifications. Cinema studies in many ways is still following the lead of Andrew Sarris’ famous taxonomy from the 1960s – his “pantheon” directors are still ensconced in the canon, while his “Far Side of Paradise” and “Expressive Esoterica” directors have their defenders, apologists and champions who rebut Sarris to some extent. Some have even taken on his “Strained Seriousness” and “Less Than Meets the Eye” categories. Yet to be categorised with the “Lightly Likable”, as was the case with Whale, was surely more (unintentionally) damning, suggesting that serious study of his oeuvre would be hardly worth the trouble. (2)
Any consideration of Whale as one who merits yet has been ignored in the canons of “great directors”, therefore, requires historiographic consideration of authorship as it has functioned in both cinema studies and more popular discourse. Furthermore, Whale’s work, which merits study partly because it is so self-consciously about performance, visibility, recognition and even authorship itself, demands such reflection. Auteurism was on the rise when Whale’s career and his life were in eclipse. Many directors lionised in the 1960s and ’70s (e.g. Howard Hawks) were still working, while others who were not (Allan Dwan, Dorothy Arzner, Douglas Sirk) were at least still alive. One should not neglect the importance of those key interviews between critics, fans, budding filmmakers and scholars (Sarris, Peter Bogdanovich, the French New Wave, the Movie critics) on the one hand, and aging directors on the other. By committing suicide in 1957 after a series of strokes left him severely debilitated, Whale simply became unavailable as a resource.
Being an auteur was something critics felt themselves to be bestowing on the worthy. A limitation, and perhaps a strength, of auteurism is that it is at its core appreciative in nature. Even filmmakers whose work is deemed “bad” (Ed Wood is the classic example) are found to be distinctive and therefore important because their films are recognisable. Many directors who died young (Jean Vigo, F.W. Murnau), or at least before 1950 (D.W. Griffith), were on early lists of auteurs; romanticised critical models of the great talent tragically snuffed out helped, but so did the passing of time such that critical reflection could take place. By contrast, directors of the ’30s were sometimes ignored. And not many who passed away in the 1950s or early ’60s and had not been directing (Gregory La Cava, Rowland Brown) seemed to merit enough attention. Where was the fun for honors-bestowing critics with a dead director? (At least Michael Curtiz and Frank Borzage, who both died in 1962, worked until the end.)
Auteurism developed when Hollywood was at low ebb. Various writers and filmmakers (e.g. the French New Wave) had justifiable contempt for the politics of the American Dream and the profit-motivated Hollywood factory. Yet they loved so many of the films, and discerned that serious artists managed to work there. How to handle this antinomy? One way was to celebrate filmmakers who had long careers, who “survived” in the Hollywood system, who managed to subvert the money-grubbing and the formulas and create something “personal” within the confines of crass Hollywood. Whale, by contrast, did his best work during a very short period when the president of little Universal, Carl Laemmle, and Whale’s main producer, Carl Laemmle Jr., allowed him considerable freedom as long as his films achieved a reasonable mix of profit and acclaim. When they lost control of the company to bankers in 1936, Whale’s freedom suffered, and so did his work. His The Road Back (1937), based on Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to his All Quiet on the Western Front, had material both cut and added to placate Nazi Germany over its content and the bankers over its appeal. Whale did achieve one of his most delightful films, The Great Garrick (1937), a merry and stylised period farce, on loan-out to Warners. But when he refused to settle his Universal contract, the studio’s highest-paid director was pushed into the likes of Sinners in Paradise (1938), a one-hour, terribly clichéd, stranded-on-an-island “B” film.
Born the son of a blast furnace worker in the West Midlands (the “Black Country”) of England, Whale knew about poverty and class striations. Having shed his regional accent and shaped his image into that of an English gentleman, Whale knew that money was central to his security and his adopted persona. He had saved since his earliest days of stage and film success, and so blithely pocketed his $75K for each such efficiently cranked-out “B” film. He made a few films as a freelancer in the late ’30s but could not escape meddling producers; he became known as “difficult” and the offers stopped coming in. In response, Whale simply left Hollywood and dabbled in painting and theatre for the rest of his life. Such a career hardly gave auteurists the fun they had tracing the evolution of tone in John Ford’s Westerns from 1917 to 1964, finding points of contact between Fritz Lang’s German fantasies of the ’20s and his post-WWII noirs, or finding gender play in Hawks’ Fig Leaves and Man’s Favorite Sport?, made 38 years apart. No – seen in these terms, Whale was “lucky” enough to be briefly protected within one niche in the system and then, perceived as a snob anyway, he turned his back on it. Except for a rarely-seen featurette (Hello Out There ), his career spanned only 12 years (1929–1941). He was not the genius who died young, the Orson Welles or the Preston Sturges struggling against the system and their own demons, the Max Ophuls chased from country to country, or the canny Hollywood survivor. Even Sarris’ final assessment – “Whale’s overall career reflects the stylistic ambitions and dramatic disappointments of an expressionist in the studio-controlled Hollywood of the thirties” – sounds a note of defeat. (3)
Several more “practical” reasons contributed to a lack of well-rounded attention to Whale. Many key films starred players who had died (Charles Laughton, 1962) or have been largely forgotten. Colin Clive, perhaps the quintessential Whale actor, died in 1937, Elissa Landi (By Candlelight ) in 1948, Diana Wynyard (One More River ) in 1964, Nancy Carroll (The Kiss Before the Mirror ) in 1965. Even among the gifted players who lived longer, Mae Clarke (Frankenstein, Waterloo Bridge , The Impatient Maiden ), Brian Ahearne (The Great Garrick) and others have never been prominent in our collective nostalgia. (This was surely true as well of Gloria Stuart until Titanic , and one is grateful for her insightful and praiseworthy references to Whale in recent years.) Some of the better-known survivors (Joan Bennett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Vincent Price) only worked with Whale near the end of his career, in lesser films (e.g. Green Hell ). Boris Karloff only worked with Whale on the horror films, no one (to my knowledge) has ever gotten Olivia DeHavilland to recall Garrick, and Irene Dunne said relatively little because she never thought Whale was the right director for Show Boat (1936). Paul Robeson and Whale, by contrast, respected each other immensely and got on famously during the making of Whale’s only musical, but Robeson was never tapped as a resource in later years either.
There has been little impetus to put Whale’s lesser-known films on video, or even air them on TV. (MCA, holder of Universal’s titles, has held up many releases far longer than Turner or Fox.) Even better-known films suffered: his rendition of Show Boat was unavailable for years because of MGM’s inferior 1951 remake, his version of Waterloo Bride unseen for even longer because of MGM’s sentimentalised revamp in 1940. That left only one film besides three of his horror films (The Old Dark House was feared lost until the 1970s) for study, his 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask. And it was hard to fit this film within the typical storyline of Whale’s career since it was supposed to be part of his post-Universal decline.
The visibility of Whale’s horror classics hurt him too; in some ways he was right to fight the Laemmles’ attempts to get him to direct more horror films. One can make a strong case that he was the greatest director of horror in the history of cinema, or at least the most influential, and yet genre study has a way of competing for attention with auterism. What can we read as developing within the then-blossoming horror genre? What was typical of that time in Hollywood and Depression-era culture within the genre? These have been governing questions in a lot of the (admittedly insightful) writing about Whale. Since his other films were obscure, why not grant pride of place to his horror films within studies of that genre? That should suffice, right? Or so the thinking went.
Even Christopher Bram’s worthy, imaginative novel, Father of Frankenstein, and Bill Condon’s sterling film adaptation, Gods and Monsters, so responsible for the revival of interest in Whale and even sensitively informed by contemporary gay studies and other sympathetic discourses, share in this tendency. Juxtaposing Whale’s memories of his Hollywood peak with the aging director’s painful illnesses and a fictionalised story of his desires for a young gardener, they read his life – as a witty Englishman, an offbeat artist, and a gay man who would have been perceived as “unnatural” or “monstrous” by many – only through his horror films. This is a great pity, given that Whale’s output includes major films in many genres, including several unjustly neglected classics of their kind (Waterloo Bridge, By Candlelight, The Great Garrick, Remember Last Night?), several compelling oddities (The Impatient Maiden, The Kiss Before the Mirror) and at least one deeply personal masterpiece (One More River) to rival his brilliant horror films.
The links to literary adaptation hurt him too. Whale’s career took off when, after years of mediocre success as a stage actor and designer, with occasional forays into directing, his helming of R.C. Sherriff’s great WWI play Journey’s End (1928–29) proved a smash success in both London and on Broadway. His 21-film career began with a well-done if fairly straightforward transcription of that play, and he followed up with an adaptation of another major playwright’s work in Robert Sherwood’s Waterloo Bridge. After that came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and within a few years he had adapted novels by Wells, Priestley, Galsworthy and Dumas, the Ferber/Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat, and a condensation of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy (Port of Seven Seas ). Indeed, almost all of Whale’s films are adaptations of plays or novels (many of them adapted into plays first, as with Frankenstein); the percentage is far higher than the typical “pantheon” director, even higher perhaps than Cukor’s. And cinema studies in its formative years was eager to get away from simple comparisons between films and literature. Could he be dismissed as a provider of “tasteful” adaptations?
Probably the most controversial reason for the neglect of Whale, however, is ironically the same reason why he has received so much attention in recent years. James Whale was gay and, what is more, he lived openly from 1930 to 1951 with David Lewis, a producer who worked for MGM and Warners. Although his private life was quiet, Whale was still nastily dubbed “the Queen of Hollywood” in some gossipy corners. Being gay surely did not help auteurs from Hollywood or elsewhere. It took years for Murnau’s homosexuality to be discussed. Edmund Goulding is still read as only a good “house” director of “women’s films” for MGM, Warners and Fox. Mitchell Leisen has attracted some attention, but has long suffered from Billy Wilder’s bitchy evaluations of his work and from homophobic dismissals of him as a decorator turned director. Still, both Goulding and Leisen did marry women during their careers, a move that surely helped “protect” them. George Cukor alone has received sizable attention among classical Hollywood’s gay male directors. A wonderful talent (if a lesser one than Whale, I would contend), Cukor fits the model of the enduring Hollywood director. He lived long enough to be feted in interviews, and his works are easy to see. Although he came out (a bit) late in life, and hosted parties for men in his heyday, Cukor was in many ways more closeted than Whale, never having lived openly with another man. It was, after all, 1991 when rumors of Clark Gable’s homophobia in having Cukor fired from Gone With the Wind came to light, whereas stories about homophobia contributing to Whale’s decline existed long before that. (4)
Classical auteurism, reading for signs of the artist through the art, was simply unable and unwilling to glean a praiseworthy biography of the gay Whale from his work. Imagine a critic in the 1960s reading Hawks or Ford as gay based on the homoerotic male bonding so common in their films! Think of how Dorothy Arzner was ignored for so long; later, ’70s feminist criticism eagerly acknowledged her as a woman auteur but ignored the lesbian discourse in her films. It would take the 1990s work of Alex Doty and especially Judith Mayne to present us with that particular Arzner-text. In Whale’s case his sexuality could be linked to his life and films to denigrate them both. Gregory William Mank, making a facile link with Whale’s horror films, described Whale as “an arch, bitter homosexual, who had created his own public ‘self’ that in time increasingly became a monster.” (5)
In 1979 Clive Denton wrote that “The limitation in Whale’s work is simply that he is more style than substance…He seemed able to identify more with the outlandish than with the everyday…He could create genuine pathos and yearning when dealing with a man-made monster, whereas he was not invariably so successful with characters born of women.” Referring to a camera movement in The Great Garrick, Denton continues, “The result is almost exquisite but also a trifle precious. In such a context, an unabashedly romantic director of the first rank, a Borzage or an Ophuls, would have sprayed away the slight whiff of canvas and greasepaint, by absolute identification with the lovers, which Whale cannot quite attain.” (6) Such phrases as “more style than substance”, “outlandish”, “precious”, “the whiff of greasepaint”, less “successful with characters born of women” and “unable to attain absolute identification with [heterosexual] lovers” not only construct Whale as gay via a series of coded but derogatory labels, but homophobically use heterosexuality itself as the basis for artistic merit. The “unabashedly romantic” Borzage and Ophuls in Denton’s reading are unabashedly heterosexual, whereas Whale fails as heterosexual and thus as an artist. Sarris’ evaluation was not specifically (anti)gay-oriented; it just evokes, unintentionally, a common putdown: his classification of Whale as “Lightly Likable”, though not intended as homophobic (most of the directors in this category were not gay), nonetheless calls to mind one of the most common dismissals of gay male personality and industry: gay male artistry is characterised as pleasant, amusing, stylish, flitting – fun but essentially trivial.
Towards a Theatrical Cinema
And yet so many aspects of Whale’s fascinating life, and so many compelling themes and moods, are to be found in his films: his Englishness; his sensitivity to regional and class differences and to many types of outsiders; his early background in sketch art and cartooning; his service during WWI and his period of capture, during which he savored male companionship and discovered theatre in shows that the prisoners staged; his deep friendships with women, beginning with his theatre days (he was even briefly engaged to costume designer Doris Zinkeisen in the ’20s); and yes, his homosexuality. (7) All of these factors, plus his use of a campy gallows humour, and a resistance to and critique of heterosexuality, are filtered through a style I would call “theatrical”. To their considerable credit, three writers on Whale in the 1970s, William K. Everson, Tom Milne and Paul Jensen, did briefly examine, in short essays or within the context of other projects, as much of the Whale oeuvre as was then available. While none discusses his homosexuality, all provide fine insights, and Everson and Milne helpfully begin to explore the notion of Whale’s theatrical cinema. (8) Although such a trope might seem the stuff of an eternal “gay sensibility”, as was often discussed in early queer theory, I propose to historically delimit rather than dismiss essentialism, arguing that specific forms of theatricality are endemic to the period in which Whale worked.
Gay and otherwise queer representations “came out” in 1920s theatre, and in ’20s and early ’30s cinema as they never had before, and these can be found in Whale’s films. Beyond that, however, the place of theatricality within gay life of the era is well-argued; George Chauncey and Kaier Curtin, for example, have documented the importance of the theatre as a social haven and also an important venue for queer representation. (9) On another level, Richard Dyer has contended that the need for gays to pass as straight in an era of widespread homophobia engendered an implicitly theatrical approach to the social performance of self for gays. (10) This awareness of sexual and gender enactments not only offered protection, but also a critical distance that manifested itself even within otherwise “controlled” social acts (such as bursts of camp). As Harry Benshoff writes:
What this might mean is that sensibility of a man who recognizes his status as a sexual outsider, someone who acknowledges his difference from the heterosexualized hegemony, and uses that distanciation as a way to comment upon it. One of the ways the gay community has traditionally done this is through campy black humor, and Whale’s work is no exception. His films are filled with jibes against Christian morality and heterocentrist pretension. (11)
As a strategy for foregrounding gender and other constructs as performance, theatricality is manifested in Whale in many ways. Although sometimes asked to take on projects, he also chose some of his own juicy, theatrical material. He created and directed with maximum flamboyance a stock company of stage-trained players, many of them from his native Great Britain (Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, E.E. Clive, Elspeth Dudgeon, Boris Karloff, Una O’Connor, Ernest Thesiger). William K. Everson has noted how Whale frequently frames characters using variations on the proscenium arch within his mise en scène, especially during their memorable introductions and exits. (12) Staircases, doorways, wall arches and huge bay windows serve this function; Whale especially enjoys presenting his rich gallery of villains and eccentrics in this manner. Theatrical legend Mrs Patrick Campbell acted in a handful of films late in life, including One More River. (13) Besides delivering outrageous one-liners about English life and heterosexual courtship, her Lady Mont also performs a superb bit as she climbs the stairs of the heroine’s family estate. Followed by Whale’s trademarked fluid camera tracking, framed by pillars, stairs and a bay window, she wonders if a pain is due to “flatulence or the hand of God” before calling to her dog Moonbeam and intoning, from Macbeth, “To bed, to bed, to bed…” The grandness of the movement and the mise en scène, and the use of both humour and quotation in this extraneous moment, combine to stop the narrative, highlight the style, comment on both the realities of life and the mores of the English, and indulge a woman’s delight in performance. Another memorable example is in one of Whale’s greatest achievements, The Old Dark House, when the wonderfully waspish Ernest Thesiger comes down a staircase, walks up to the camera and announces himself, “My name is Femm. Horace Femm.” Horace then proceeds to live up to the surname of his uniquely gender-bending family. (14)
Whale’s interest in the possibilities of cinema combined such qualities of the theatre with Brechtian cinematic techniques such as his breaking of the “30 degree rule” of continuity editing, thus calling attention to the cuts and camera placement at the same repeated angles. (15) The best-remembered example of this is Karloff’s first appearance in Frankenstein. His entrance anticipated by offscreen sound (used very inventively by Whale, as early as 1931), the creature backs in through a doorway, creating suspense as we await our first look at him. Cutting along roughly the same axis to closer and tighter shots, deliberately not changing the angle by the conventional 30 degrees, Whale forces us to notice two cuts. He does likewise with the Invisible Man and with the entrance of the abusive husband (Colin Clive) as he visits the wife who has fled him in One More River. Even one such cut along an unchanging axis in The Road Back gives a first hint that the girlfriend of one of the WWI veterans is not as steadfast as he expects. Of course not every such use of editing is for a monster or a villain; cutting in extremely tightly on Helen Morgan as she delivers her heartbreaking rendition of “Bill” in Show Boat highlights both a woman’s performance and her pain.
Another stylistic trait, common in the early 1930s but never used as often or as well as by other directors, is Whale’s staging of lengthy tracking shots past breakaway walls. The heroine of The Impatient Maiden constantly walks back and forth between different rooms of her railroad-car apartment as she enters different zones of her life, cynically seeking (for most of the film’s running time) to avoid men and the blandishments of heterosexual romance. Whale hangs onto this gesture emphasising the (literal and figurative) boundaries of his theatrical sets longer than most directors of the era. A piercing scream in his near-surreal murder mystery spoof Remember Last Night? (1935) seems primarily a motivation for the camera to dash through the breakaway walls of several rooms and up some stairs, only to lead to more of the murders, turnabouts and joking anti-climaxes Whale stages at the expense of villains, heroes and action set-pieces alike. (No wonder then that, with its shifts of tone, mobile camera and attention-getting technique, this film had a following among the French New Wave in their Cahiers days.) He often refuses, simply, to play these things “straight”. In all of these cases such camerawork highlights the staged nature of cinematic space and narrative within what are seen to be film sets, all part of Whale’s self-consciously anti-naturalistic charades.
Also important in this gallery of reflexive, theatrical tropes is Whale’s obsessive use of mirrors or mirroring devices to establish through doubling a distance between representation and “reality” or between a person’s surface appearance and dark insides. Frankenstein’s monster, one of Whale’s many shunned outsiders, dislikes intensely what he sees when he watches his reflection in the water in Bride of Frankenstein, and mirrors both conceal and reveal differences between master and servant in Whale’s delightfully successful venture into Lubitschean frippery, By Candlelight. Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), heroine of The Old Dark House, feels trapped and menaced by the increasingly distorted reflections of the inhospitable and somewhat mannish religious fanatic Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore). The very nature of the Invisible Man, driven to bursts of theatrical bravado and camp (“Here we go gathering nuts in May”) by his experiments, finding a “partner in crime” with the bullied Dr Kemp, emphasises the connections Whale makes among visibility, the gaze and social performance. Pairings and doublings, achieved through mirror shots, special effects or narrative devices, can yield subtle queer readings in Whale’s work. The Man in the Iron Mask tells of two men who are socially presented as one, with one cruelly closeted. In this film and in The Old Dark House, families keep their undesirable members locked up so no one can see them. (16)
The Kiss Before the Mirror is Whale’s most extensive meditation through the use of mirrors on the sham of social performance through the appearance of heterosexual normalcy. A dark story based upon doubling, it tells of lawyer Paul Held (Frank Morgan), asked to defend a friend who has murdered his faithless wife. The killer claims that he first suspected his wife’s infidelity when he saw her revulsion when he kissed her as she sat at her dressing table mirror. As Paul prepares his case, he sees uncanny parallels with his own marriage, particularly in the reaction of his own wife Maria (Nancy Carroll) when he offers his own kiss before the mirror. Over the course of the story almost all of the major characters confront themselves or each other before mirrors, used to suggest the construction of feminine allure, the sexual double standards of patriarchy, and the often-illusory nature of heterosexist norms of contentment. One of the film’s most memorable characters is a lesbian-coded lawyer, always “mannishly” garbed (to use the terminology of the period) and once referred to as “a new kind of woman.” Wisecracking on the benefits of never getting married, she argues, “At least no one will ever murder me.” Even Paul and Maria’s final embrace of reconciliation is seen only in the reflection of a shattered mirror.
Notions of theatricality extend in many directions in Whale’s work. We can find extremes (or extreme shifts) of mood or lighting that emphasise the decorative and performative. Whale’s fondness for dressing his sets with huge bouquets of flowers can be read as a muted mark of gay authorship, given how central flowers were at the time as signifiers of gay male identity. (17) At the opposite extreme, there seems to be a stylised Gothic moment in most of Whale’s films, be it the sudden horror film-style appearance of Paul Lukas as a character who is shockingly embarrassed (rather than horrified or horrifying) in By Candlelight, or the murders and extended Expressionistic hypnosis scenes that stand out in Remember Last Night?. Consider too the genuinely strange sequence, almost completely extraneous to the narrative, in The Impatient Maiden in which Una Merkel is mistaken for a denizen of a mental asylum and is locked in a room and trapped in a straitjacket. (Of course the sequence also allows Whale a chance to linger on a gallery of queerly-coded eccentrics, as he so often did.) At times such as these Whale seems to adopt a camp tone, allowing for readings in which he is seen as guying his material. As Denton complained, Whale sometimes did this during the perfunctory heterosexual romantic scenes deemed necessary in Hollywood cinema. Rather than criticising his work for this lack of involvement or switching of tone, then, a queer reading would posit an inscription of gay authorship by means of this disinterest in, or parody of, heterosexual representation. (18)
At other times, though, shifts of tone and self-conscious style serve his films with compelling sobriety in moments that clearly did “interest” him. 360-degree pans within courtrooms in both Kiss and One More River highlight the imbalances within patriarchal institutions where women are concerned. Gay-coded characters making wisecracks alternate with dramatic denunciations and with characters highlighted in profile or trapped by the camera. In one film a faithless wife realises that her lawyer husband, successfully pleading the case of a jealous killer, could get away with murdering her, while in the other an abusive husband’s reputation is upheld while his innocent wife is essentially condemned of adultery. Whale’s superb handling of the grim montage sequence that illustrates Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Old Man River” in Show Boat, following a 270-degree track around the singer, evokes the expressionistic style of his more obviously Gothic films (especially in the “Ya gets a little drunk/And ya lands in jail” section of the lyrics). By means of theatrical illustration, a hyperbolic and stylised pointing-out, Whale shows that he can take very seriously the status of outsiders, and the pressures and social hatred, such as racism, that make people outsiders.
Given the predominance with which Hollywood achieves narrative and ideological closure via heterosexual coupling, the institutional critiques and failed consummations (or attempts at failure!) in Whale’s work are appropriable as queer. These include the death of the Invisible Man and the tragic prostitute heroine of Waterloo Bridge, and Whale’s attempts to kill off his male lead in Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein, only to have rewrites or reshootings insure a happy hetero-finale. (In the case of Bride, one can still see Henry in the lab as it crashes around the principals during the explosion, even though afterward we see him safely outside with Elizabeth.) Since so many films end with a kiss, Whale decided to open Remember Last Night? with one, but the camera, with a teasing mind of its own, keeps wandering from one side of the room to the other. By Candlelight, meanwhile, with its arch and constantly playing mock-romantic score, satirises the class-driven nature of heterosexual courtship; musical motifs and entire scenes are played by both master and servant in the same seduction ritual. (19) Whale’s Show Boat is more courageous than the 1951 remake in handling the miscegenation story, set on a theatre stage on the boat, as a forbidden if non-gay love which nevertheless dares not speak its name. (The later version omits Steve’s scornful line from Whale’s film, “That’s how white I am” after he – as a sympathetic “monster” – licks some of Julie’s blood in order to become “black” and make their marriage legal.) In the case of One More River, made just as the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established and Joseph Breen came to power, industry content regulators had to contend with Whale’s portrait of a “sexually perverse” heterosexual (to use the PCA’s phrasing), a husband who takes sadistic pleasure in beating and raping his own wife.
Sometimes it is Whale’s representation of theatricality that is specifically poised as an obstacle to the union of the heterosexual couple. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in The Great Garrick. A period farce dressed up as a quasi-biopic of the famous actor, the film portrays David Garrick (Brian Aherne) as so immersed in his own performances that we see a sly parody of puffed-up masculine prowess. The film suggests that such hypermasculinity can actually be a form of narcissism, here used not to stigmatise homosexuality but rather to block heterosexuality. Garrick has told his following that he is going to France to teach the members of the Comedie Française how to act. Enraged, the French troupe plans an elaborate deception at an inn where Garrick will stay in order to prove their superior talent. Garrick is tipped off, however, but becomes so absorbed in his smug amusement in playing along with the charade that he is unable to recognise “real” heterosexual ardour when he sees it. By the same token, the smitten heroine (Olivia de Havilland) who comes to the inn, not part of the deception, is so captivated by his heterosexual performance that she cannot recognise his declarations as mere show. In these competing respects, namely that Garrick is at once overdoing masculinity and yet enacting it as pure performance, he is both queer and non-queer simultaneously, suggesting an implicit critique of such a binary utilised in the service of heterocentrism.
Garrick is surrounded by overly actorly fops; other characters who could have been read as gay or lesbian by 1930s audiences in Whale’s films include minor and major characters who escaped Code censors (such as the twit Whale tosses into One More River for a tidbit of class parody). They also include characters whose ripely entertaining madness coincides with their effeminacy or same-sex desire. Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein is introduced as a “queer-looking old gentleman”, while The Old Dark House pits five storm-stranded visitors against Whale’s sly satire of the British family, all of whose members are readable as queer. These range from the effeminate Horace Femm to the bedridden 102 year-old patriarch (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon but billed as “John Dudgeon”). Also notable are the violent pyromaniac Saul and the mute but dangerous butler Morgan, who near the end of the film displays surprisingly intense same-sex affection when Saul is killed in the climactic struggle with the film’s hero. (20) At moments like these Whale sets up, however briefly, the possibility of strong same-sex feelings.
The best-known example, of course, is in Bride of Frankenstein. The pitiable monster’s one time of refuge comes in his stay with the blind hermit when, during a brief idyll, the two men movingly form an alternative family in which both accept each other’s differences and limitations, and their status as outsiders. Their status can be read as queer given that they are two adult men who, in scenes of both laughter and tears, find some form of loving companionship as they try to set up a home together. But they are also outsiders because they share a lowly class status and obvious physical disabilities. Framings pair the two men, who are also linked in softly focused shot/reverse shot set-ups as the hermit refers to them as he thanks God, “You’ve brought two of your lonely children together…I shall look after you, and you will comfort me.” The sequence (a fascinating companion scene to the monster’s initially happy but ultimately tragic encounter with a little girl in Frankenstein), by turns poignant, campy, tender, ironic and elusive, is quintessential Whale.
Some of Whale’s “third sex” characters also function as a nodal point in a triangle, interrupting heterosexuality. Elizabeth Young has keenly analysed Bride in terms of its many triangulated relationships, beginning with the framing story, as Mary Shelley continues her tale of the monster for the amusement of her willowy husband and their foppish friend Lord Byron. She argues that the evacuation of a woman enables two men to come together queerly. (21) Throughout the film, a queer male character, typically Dr Pretorius, comes between a man and a woman. He spirits Henry away from his marriage bed so that the two men can create life together, and later, while showing off the tiny people he has already made, keeps separating the amorous king from the unwilling queen. Still later, after the bride has been created (in Whale’s most flamboyant marriage of sharp camera angles, flashy cuts and stark lighting effects), and shows an interest only in Henry, the queer monster forcibly interrupts them. Ultimately, the monster’s relationship with his bride as a possible “friend” (the same term he used to describe the key men in his life) is less successful than those he enjoyed with Pretorius and the blind hermit. The mock-operetta music and the brief but disastrous courtship scene campily mock Hollywood’s heterocentric finales while once again evoking poignant sympathy for the outsider monster’s plight. The “woman as monster” who has been created to become the monster’s mate rejects the heterosexual role planned for her. Having the same actress (Elsa Lanchester) play both Mary Shelley in the prologue and the would-be bride brings around full circle the queer triangles and the self-conscious note of female authorship at film’s opening.
If Whale was briefly typed as a horror director, we can read this as queerly as we do the typing of the gay Goulding, Leisen, Cukor and Irving Rapper as directors of “women’s melodrama.” (Truth to tell, Whale made more melodramas than horror films.) In Whale’s case he was linked not to the melodrama genre, culturally coded as “feminine” or seen as “suited” to his homosexual “nature” (also coded as “feminine”), but rather to a genre dealing with societal revulsion at deviation from a norm. The closest Whale got to more conventionally “male” genres came with two war films. These films are interesting, though, in that they feature almost no battle sequences and instead focus on the relationships that male groups form amid the surrounding danger or in war’s aftermath. Goulding and Whale had both served in WWI, and Goulding had his one such outing in this “male” genre with The Dawn Patrol (1938). So too with Whale, who aptly conveyed the tenderness, tension and claustrophobia of men in the trenches when he committed Journey’s End to film in 1930. Given that Universal had enjoyed an uncommon prestige success with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Whale had a unique opportunity to return to a study of male bonding with The Road Back, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel dealing with the problems of returning veterans. Although Whale’s and Goulding’s war experiences doubtless helped them land these assignments, the fact that two of Hollywood’s gay male directors could really only venture into such “male” territory in these films seems to belie a tacit understanding of the homosocial romances so necessary for men to survive in combat, and how these are often cruelly broken amid postwar chaos.
Whale himself made one Hitchcock-style cameo in his films as, his back mostly to the camera, he fetes the winner of a local election in One More River. A prestige project pushed forth by Whale, this film remarkably evokes contemporary England, with its sense of history, its regional and class differences. For all of his posing, once his career began to take off, as a cultured Englishman, Whale does not lose his insight or sympathy for his regional or working-class characters. His concern for the plight of chorine turned prostitute Myra (Mae Clarke, utterly superb) in his Waterloo Bridge is far more honest than that shown the heroine (Vivien Leigh) in Mervyn LeRoy’s poignant but overly plush remake. Films ranging from The Impatient Maiden to Port of Seven Seas have moments of the same brand of gritty, unpatronising regard. For all of the stylisation and spoofing found in The Great Garrick, the integrity of even the small-part players in the Comedie Française remains intact. The pub customers in The Invisible Man, from the women under the stairs nervously nursing their beers as the mysterious stranger ascends to his room, to the clusters near the bar as Griffin makes his entrance, are given just enough time and detail to seem true to life. One of the best examples of this insight, and more important because it serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, is the marvelous vignette of the elderly country man in One More River who has refused to vote ever since the days when Gladstone was Prime Minister. (As Everson hints, he makes a nice parallel to Rebecca Femm, refusing electricity in her room, in The Old Dark House.)
Whale understood these types from his upbringing; for all of the dishy and aristocratically bitchy hints of wit that have been so often noted in his work, he finds these working-class and regional types endearing and valid, and he does not condescend to them. Neither do the characters that are our points of contact with these people: Lady Clare knows she can coax her man into voting by promising to pick him up in her car, but she is both gracious and sincere in promising to take tea with his mother in the near future. Whale, his theatricality muted at times like these, shows that he knew when to play things “straight”.
Conclusion: Authorship and/as Performance During the Great Depression
James Whale’s milieu was the stage, the courtroom, the operating room, the laboratory. (“Quite a good scene,” Henry Frankenstein tells his witnesses before “directing” the creation scene in Frankenstein. “One man crazy, three very sane spectators.”) One recalls the scripting of the reunion at the end of Garrick, with the prompter directing Garrick onstage to his forgiving lover in the audience. So too with the reflexive performance of storytelling within the prologue in Bride, the courtroom re-enactments in Kiss and One More River, Saul’s interpretation of the love of David and Saul in the Bible in Old Dark House, the “Make Believe” number and Cap’n Andy’s one-man retelling of the interrupted stage melodrama in Show Boat. His work is constantly outsmarting one’s expectations, from the suspense followed by sadness and then more camp in Old Dark House to the closing of One More River, one of many great moments in Whale that seem both feminist and gay in understanding. One would suspect that a woman freed by divorce from an abusive husband, able to romance the man who loves her, would perform a happy, kiss-filled finale, but the film ends on a remarkably subdued, even somber note. Clare, socially stigmatised, uncertain of romance and sex, must learn to love. She almost botches her relationship with Tony, the innocent man charged as Clare’s co-respondent, just when she is free to pursue it, shocking him by offering to “pay her debts” (by sexual means, one presumes) for his gentlemanly support in the courtroom. With a versatility in style, genre and tone, Whale effaces his presence even as he asserts it.
Critics resent that Whale sometimes seemed to guy his material, while almost simultaneously “finding unexpected depths in hokum.” Tom Milne, one of the few to study Whale’s non-horror output, puts it well: “Throughout his work Whale is clearly delighted by eccentricity, by the essentially theatrical gesture, and his films abound with enchanting grotesques who are encouraged to take the plot by the scruff of the neck and make free of it to create a self-contained little farce of their own.” (22) In this respect, he thematises and indeed interrogates the very notion of authorship as a kind of performance, and performance as authorship.
Lastly, I want to further historicise both Whale’s career and his cinema within the contexts of US culture and history. His career, abruptly halting after he worked briefly (but still received screen credit) on the intriguingly named if disappointing They Dare Not Love (1941), almost exactly parallels the Great Depression. (The exception is his one-shot return to cinema, the unreleased 40-minute featurette from 1949, Hello Out There, a heavily expressionistic tale of an imprisoned man, about to be lynched, and his abortive, last-second romance, a film that seems pure Whale.) Stories of how much career difficulty his image as a somewhat aristocratic dandy or his living openly with David Lewis (né Levy) caused vary, but we can see the impact of such other forces as the Production Code. Consider the Code influence on Wives Under Suspicion (1938), his own remake of the pre-PCA Kiss Before the Mirror, but now done such that the defense attorney becomes a prosecutor. This change assures that both the murder and the infidelity in the film are appropriately punished; and the suspected infidelity in the lawyer’s own marriage proves to be false. More injurious to Whale’s career, of course, was the shakeup at Universal and the butchering of his anti-fascist film The Road Back in order to placate Nazi Germany. (One might also note that short scenes of sweetened heterosexual romance were added after Whale had finished his work on the film.) Facing discourses which through the 1930s became increasingly xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist and isolationist in the midst of rising world fascism, Whale’s career can ultimately be read within the context of a New Deal USA attempting to restore a “manly” ideal to its endangered culture. And yet, as Whale noted, since Hollywood was built of plaster of Paris, he was able to feel that maybe Buckingham Palace was too. The discursive agent and product that was and is James Whale, his persona and his films, created just such a world, a light, elaborate, deliberately hollow, indeed deceptive world which did more than amuse its auteur. Rather, that world showed that Buckingham Palace and many other institutions were indeed made of plaster, ready to be shattered, or at least cracked, by the power of parody, critique and style.
This article has been refereed.
Journey’s End (1930)
Waterloo Bridge (1931)
The Impatient Maiden (1932)
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)
The Invisible Man (1933)
By Candlelight (1933)
One More River (1934)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Remember Last Night? (1935)
Show Boat (1936)
The Road Back (1937)
The Great Garrick (1937)
Sinners in Paradise (1938)
Wives Under Suspicion (1938)
Port of Seven Seas (1938)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)
Green Hell (1940)
They Dare Not Love (1941)
Hello Out There (1949)
Harry Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997.
Christopher Bram, Father of Frankenstein, Dutton, New York, 1995.
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940, Basic Books, New York, 1994.
Kaier Curtin, “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage, Alyson, Boston, 1987.
James Curtis, James Whale, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ, 1982.
James Curtis, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, Faber & Faber, Boston and London, 1998. [Reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press, 2003.]
Reed Ellis, A Journey Into Darkness: The Art of James Whale’s Horror Films, PhD dissertation, University of Florida, 1979; published Arno Press, 1980.
William K. Everson, Classics of the Horror Film, Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ, 1974.
William K. Everson, “Rediscovery: One More River”, Films in Review, June–July 1975, pp. 362–366.
Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Columbia University Press, New York, 1991.
Mark, Gatiss, James Whale: A Biography, or The Would-Be Gentleman, Cassell, London, 1995.
Paul Jensen, “James Whale”, Film Comment, vol. 7, no. 1, spring 1971, pp. 52–57.
Paul Jensen, The Men Who Made the Monsters, Twayne, New York, 1996.
David Lugowski, “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code”, Cinema Journal, vol. 38, no. 2, winter 1999, pp. 3–35.
Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993.
Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991.
Tom Milne, “One Man Crazy: James Whale,” Sight and Sound, vol. 42, no. 3, summer 1973, pp. 166–170.
Morris, Gary, “Sexual Subversion: Bride of Frankenstein,” Bright Lights, no. 19, July 1997 (originally printed in issue no. 11, 1993, under the pseudonym “Monika Morgan”).
Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996; originally published 1968.
Elizabeth Young, “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of Frankenstein”, Feminist Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, fall 1991, pp. 403–437.
The James Whale Nexus
Website devoted to the director; includes a mailing list. Appears to be inactive since 2002.
The Films of James Whale
Michael Grost writes on The Old Dark House and The Great Garrick.
The Knitting Circle: James Whale
Includes an overview, bio-filmography, work, bibliography and press cuttings.
James Whale’s Frankenstein: A Face for the Monster
Part of the website devoted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Sexual Subversion: The Bride of Frankenstein
Article by Gary Morris for Bright Lights Journal.
Gods and Monsters
Official website of this film based on the last days of Whale’s life.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles on Whale can be found here.
Click here to search for James Whale DVDs, videos and books at
- Quoted in James Curtis, James Whale, Scarecrow, Metuchen, 1982, p. 140.
- Sarris’ famous taxonomies structure his best-known work, The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929–1968, 1968; reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York, 1996. Even Sarris himself has had a hard time shifting the tide of his own influence. He has reconsidered, for instance, his consignment of Billy Wilder, Carol Reed and David Lean to “Less Than Meets the Eye”, even teaching courses about them at Columbia, but their status is still not what it might have been.
- Sarris, p. 187.
- Patrick McGilligan tells of Gable’s outburst, and Cukor’s subsequent dismissal, in his biography of “the gentleman director” George Cukor: A Double Life, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991.
- Gregory William Mank, Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 1990, p. 12.
- Clive Denton, James Whale: Ace Director, Ontario Film Institute, 1979, quoted in John Wakeman (ed.), World Film Directors, Vol. 1, 1890–1945, H.W. Wilson, New York, 1987, p. 1202 (italics Denton’s).
- The most thorough biography of Whale is James Curtis’ scrupulously researched James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, Faber & Faber, Boston and London, 1998. The book features invaluable work on Whale’s life, interviews with colleagues, and considerable detail on production histories.
- William K. Everson, arguably the first important film historian to call attention to Whale, and still one of the most insightful analysts of his work, finds a unique merging of the sensibilities of the theatre and the possibilities of cinema in Whale’s work. In many ways, then, the idea of Whale’s theatrical cinema is his; he raised this point in his 1960s teaching and in many written works, notably Classics of the Horror Film, Citadel, Secaucus NJ, 1974. Credit is also due to Milne in one key article, “One Man Crazy: James Whale”, Sight and Sound, vol. 42, no. 3, summer 1973. Although I disagree with certain assertions, see also Jensen’s good “James Whale”, Film Comment, vol. 7, no. 1, spring 1971.
- George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940, Basic Books, New York, 1994, and Kaier Curtin “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage, Alyson, Boston, 1987.
- Richard Dyer raises this highly productive idea early in his work, e.g. the introduction to Dyer (ed.), Gays and Film, Zoetrope, New York, 1984, p. 2.
- Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester U. Press, Manchester, 1997, p. 41.
- Everson, Classics, pp. 37, 42, 81.
- How interesting that another was the richly entertaining Norma Shearer vehicle Riptide (1934), directed by the also-gay Goulding. Gay directors clearly valued “Mrs Pat’s” theatricality.
- Horace Femm, and Thesiger’s other memorable queer performance for Whale, as Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, have another vestigial and coded connection with gay and lesbian culture of the time. Both characters note that they have an inordinate fondness for gin (“it’s my only weakness”). Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, p. 107, has noted a marked fondness for gin detailed in a publication of the era: “lisping boys and deep-voiced girls…talk loudly, scream, jibe at each other and order gin continually. Always gin.”
- Tom Milne is one of the few to make the connection with Brecht: “Whale’s theatricality…is almost Brechtian in its subtle distantiating effects. Sitting back with cool detachment to enjoy his actors and their outrageous coups de théâtre, he can still maintain the purity of emotion or meaning of a scene and indeed enhances it by his intervention.” See Milne, pp. 166–167.
- Thanks to Kevin Brettauer for this insight.
- Among the observers who noted this penchant of Whale’s was his friend, and later an interesting director himself, Curtis Harrington. Ken Hanke, “Curtis Harrington Remembers James Whale”, Scarlet Street, no. 30, 1998, p. 73. Harrington was one of the subjects that Curtis interviewed extensively for his two books on Whale, so perhaps this is why Whale’s fondness for huge arrangements of cut flowers is one recurring detail that Curtis is willing to read as a sign of Whale’s gayness. New World of Gods and Monsters, p. 186. Elsewhere, Curtis tends to fall prey to the intentionist fallacy, e.g. “Most likely, Whale would have been appalled by the inference of a gay agenda in his films” (pp. 185–86). Curtis also grew very close to David Lewis late in Lewis’ life (he was eventually executor of Lewis’ estate and saw to it that he was buried near Whale), and Lewis insisted to him that Whale’s homosexuality was “not germane” to his work, that “Jimmy was first and foremost an artist…not a gay artist, but an artist.” Curtis, p. 144. This presupposes that a director’s conscious intentions are the only part of the artist that might find its way into his work, or that noting someone’s gayness diminishes their art. Furthermore, I am not always arguing that there is a “gay agenda” but rather inscriptions of gayness and queerness that were part of the time in which Whale worked. These inscriptions mean different things to different readers; they can speak to us today, and can be part of a meaningful thematic, aesthetic, cultural and ideological analysis of the films Whale directed.
- David Thomson carps, “His films fluctuate wildly, and it is all too clear that some sequences engrossed him, while on others he didn’t give a damn.” A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, Secker & Warburg, London, 1975, rev. 1980, p. 807.
- On both the use of music and the comical Gothic lighting in By Candlelight, see William K. Everson, screening notes, The New School, June 10, 1992.
- Whale does not, however, simply oppose the queer Femms to a group of non-queer visitors. The hero Penderell is a “forgotten man” of the WWI years, “slightly soiled” (sexually as well as in other ways?) and “with a twisted smile”. At one point Saul Femm even declares his love for Penderell. Another unintended guest, Sir William, is a tortured heterosexual widower played by gay actor Charles Laughton. For further discussion, see Benshoff, pp. 44–45.
- Elizabeth Young, “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of Frankenstein”, Feminist Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, fall 1991, pp. 403–437. For the scenes with both hermit and bride, see also Gary Morris, “Sexual Subversion: Bride of Frankenstein Bright Lights, issue no. 19, July 1997, originally published in issue no. 11, 1993, in paper form.
- Milne, p. 166.