June 22, 1889– James Whale is a great film director, a true artist, & the subject of one of my favorite films, Bill Condon’s Gods & Monsters (1998) featuring Sir Ian McKellen’s masterful performance as Whale. Thinking of Whale this morning on his birthday, I landed on the moment in the film when McKellen’s Whale murmurs about the hunky Brendan Fraser’s “architectural skull.” This, from the man who would design the impressive & imposing head of the Frankenstein monster?
In Gods & Monsters, a geeky young film fan tells the aging Whale: “It’s the horror movies you’ll be remembered for” & despite his gentlemanly English manners, you can see the irritation in McKellen’s eyes. The young fan is correct of course. Whale’s other films, even his definitive version of the great American musical Show Boat (1936), are mostly forgotten in the 21st century, but people still watch Frankenstein (1931) & The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). The look of the monster: square head, seams, scars & neck bolts, remains one of the greatest visual icons of the 20th century.
Whale was a painter before he was a stage & film director. His keen eye for design is part of what makes his films so memorable. Besides the look of Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, perfectly played by the great Boris Karloff, he also created the hairstyle & elegantly stitched scars of the monster’s Bride played by Elsa Lanchester. Whale had studied the great German expressionist silent horror films that were never widely released in the USA, & from them he took the stark dramatic lighting & impressionistic sets. Along with his art director Charles Hall, Whale created the style now called Universal Studio Gothic: huge dark interiors with enormous doors, imposing staircases & long shadows.
Gods & Monsters considers that a major influence on Whale’s work was his time as a young soldier in the trenches in WW1. The film uses flashbacks of a handsome young man in a foxhole to provide Whale with awful memories of a boyish lover’s death. But experiences in WWI really did the same for the real life Whale. He was in the thick of some of the most intense battles, before ending up in a POW camp, where he began his directing career by producing amateur theatricals.
There is beauty, perversity & humor in Whale’s horror films. His dark, horrid, witty works portends the movies of directors like Brian De Palma, David Lynch, George A. Romero & Tim Burton.
Whale was an openly gay man in Hollywood in the 1930s, not an easy life. While Gods & Monsters is fiction, his actual last lover was his former chauffeur working a gas station operator who had to share Whale with a male nurse. They were a couple for the last 5 years of Whale’s life.
I have read that the Frankenstein films were a way for Whale to give a coded clue to his sexuality & his feelings of being a misunderstood outsider. Gods & Monsters shows this with an understated intelligence & elegance. Whale’s longtime partner David Lewis stated:
“Jimmy was first & foremost an artist, his films represent the work of an artist, not a gay artist, but an artist.”
Whale probably identified with the monster not just because of his gayness, but also because of his standing as a member of a lower-class in Britain.
Whale directed the play Journey’s End (1928) on London’s West End & then on Broadway. He went to Hollywood to direct the film version & stayed there for the rest of his life, most of that time with Lewis, a successful producer of films including Dark Victory (1939) & Raintree County (1957). They were a couple for 23 years, ending their relationship when Whale invited his young chauffer to live with them. Lewis bought his own cottage nearby & remained close to the director, helping care for him to the end.
Of course, Whale will always most noted for the horror films, along with the Frankenstein flicks there is The Old Dark House (1932) & The Invisible Man (1933), but he became increasingly disenchanted with his association with horror & never returned to the genre.
Having experienced WW1 close-up, Whale seemed an inspired choice to direct The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet On The Western, but the film was a critical & commercial failure.
A string of failures followed & by 1941 his film directing career was over. Whale continued to direct for the stage & also returned to his love for painting. He had invested wisely & he lived a comfortable life in Hollywood until he suffered a series of strokes in 1956 that left him frail & in misery.
Despondent, lonely, in intense physical pain, Whale drowned himself in his backyard swimming pool in May 1957. Ironically, Whale never swam in the pool, building it after Lewis had a pool installed at his own home. Whale maintained it as a spot for hosting swimming parties for young guys.
Lewis, close to his own passing in 1987, revealed the details of Whale’s suicide note:
“To All I Love,
Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot & for the last year I have been in agony day & night, except when I sleep with sleeping pills, & any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.
I have had a wonderful life but it is over & my nerves get worse & I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love & may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony & it is best for everyone this way.
The future is just old age & illness & pain. Goodbye & thank you for all your love. I must have peace & this is the only way.
My friend Christopher Bram, the author of the original novel Gods & Monsters, has a terrific chapter about writing book & the making of the film version in his terrific memoir Mapping The Territory (2009). I recommend this highly entertaining, emotionally involving book to anyone that is interested in the process of writing.