James Whale lived openly and, at least for awhile, successfully as a gay man in Hollywood during the 1930s — a period not reputed to be terribly accommodating to homosexuals who “flaunted” their sexual identity. As William J. Mann noted in Bhind the Screen gay men and lesbians played a wink-wink game with the press and the public, even going so far as to enter into sham marriages to deflect suspicion. And as Mann showed in his biography of William Haines, an overwhelmingly successful silent star, the careers of those who didn’t play the game were dashed.
Whale, however, flourished — at least so long as he remained with Universal where his talent was appreciated by the senior and junior Carl Laemmles. And his subjects were not the “women’s pictures” so often assigned to gay directors such as George Cukor. He started with Hell’s Angels (1930 — for which he was not properly credited) and Journey’s End (1930)) — films about the first World War — before moving on to the grimmest of 30s horror films, the original Frankenstein (1931), a film that may no longer terrify but still unsettles by virtue of its spare design and unremittingly bleak tone. That film, following on the heels of the original Dracula (1931), established horror as a genre and typed Whale for quite some time though his later projects — The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)– were increasingly marked by a subversive and quirky black humor which some have labeled “camp”. Others have — more accurately — described it as the mordant satire of one of society’s outsiders casting a jaundiced eye on the status quo.
Mann would be the ideal author to explore Whale’s life (indeed Behind the Screen contains an excellent section on the director and another on his lover, producer David Lewis). For the time being, we have James Curtis whose 1998 book has been reprinted yet again (and is further a revision of an earlier book); in fact it appears to use the same plates — the misspelling in a photo caption of Constantin Bakaleinikoff’s name is repeated and on exactly the same page. Curtis, it would appear, is considered to own Whale by the publishing industry, which prefers to reprint his tome rather than allow a new author to explore the territory.
To give Curtis his due, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters (a phrase offered by the creepy queen, Dr. Praetorius in Bride) is scrupulously researched, particularly in regards to the director’s early life. But an accumulation of facts and figures — particularly in regards to a creative artist — does not a biography make. For all his data, Curtis lacks a viewpoint that places his statistics into context. We are offered a great many details on the making of Whale’s films but little critical analysis. The same can be said of the director’s life; in fact Curtis seems to find that aspect of his subject somewhat distasteful. Certainly his waxing nostalgic for a time when “gay” had another meaning suggests an author not entirely in sympathy with his subject matter (and ignorant of the abundant evidence that the word has been code for homosexuality since the aptly named Gay Nineties). And his refusal to see any gay content or sensibility in Whale’s films, beyond the director’s penchant for large floral arrangements on his sets, is baffling. Curtis is possibly the only writer unable to determine the hidden jokes in The Old Dark House or The Invisible Man or the flagrant subtext of Bride of Frankenstein. (On the last consult Mann, David J. Skal in The Monster Show, Ken Hanke in his article on the film in Scarlet Street magazine or Scott McQueen’s audio commentary to the DVD of the film.)
Curtis’ main weakness may be the direct result of his book’s greatest strength. Curtis formed a close friendship with Lewis that resulted in extensive access to the director’s papers and the man who knew him best (even after Lewis moved out of the house they shared for nearly two decades, the two remained close). But judging from Lewis’ own quotes he was not a man comfortable with his own sexuality; he even claims to have been on the verge of marrying Norma Shearer at one point but that ten years of living with Whale left their lives too intertwined to untangle. Surely anyone who can consider entering into heterosexual marriage after a decade of exclusive homosexuality is in need of a reality check. (Shearer must have been a fag hag supreme given the number of Hollywood homosexuals who claimed they almost married her.)
Curtis’ first version of the book was heavily influenced by Lewis and withheld a great deal; Lewis himself confiscated and suppressed Whale’s suicide note for years — leading to rumors that Whale had been murdered by a hustler he’d picked up, much as Ramon Novarro had been. By attempting to avoid the stigma of suicide Lewis created an atmosphere for wild speculation. After Lewis died Curtis extensively revised his manuscript and retitled it but the unwillingness to confront his subject’s sexuality head-on remains. Lewis would likely be appalled at the number of his own films (such as Camille — 1936) that are considered to display “gay sensibility” and Curtis is likewise unwilling or unable to grasp the idea that an artist’s life is one of his/her tools. All decisions are shaped by experience; the artist’s sexuality is part of that experience and can hardly avoid being influential in any number of subtle and overt ways.
We are not likely to see a better-researched book on James Whale’s life but a valid critical assessment of his films has yet to be written.