Frankenstein (1931) remains the most famous creation of James Whale. Like the frightened man-made child who was pieced together from dead bodies, Whale (1889-1957) lived his life as an outcast. He was an openly gay man in 1930s Hollywood, which was virtually unheard of at the time.
Because of his candor regarding his sexuality, which included a 23-year relationship with film producer David Lewis, film historians have theorized that a gay subtext can be found in many of the films Whale directed. Indeed, it's hard to see the flaming characters played by the late Ernest Thesiger in Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as anything other than gay.
Some have also opined that through the Frankenstein Monster, as it was portrayed by Boris Karloff, Whale expressed some of his own frustrations regarding what it was like to be gay in a straight, hostile world. In later films, the Monster was seen as a hulking brute who killed on instinct. But in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster was a heartbroken child, desperately longing for love in a world that could neither accept nor understand him. Whale films like Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man (1933) are filled with what could easily be seen as a gay sensibilityactors play their roles with an over-the-top abandon one usually associates with drag queens.
The late Gloria Stuart (1910-2010), now best known for her portrayal of Old Rose in James Cameron's Titanic, worked with James Whale in The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. In late-in-life interviews, Stuart recalled a "perfect gentleman" who she accompanied to the theater. "We didn't talk about such things then", she said.
For many years, the late Forrest J. Ackerman edited Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, which often celebrated the work of James Whale. During Ackerman's final years, Joe Moe served as caregiver for "Uncle Forry," as Ackerman was called by fans. Moe is now the keeper of the Ackerman legacy.
"To me, James Whale is that rare example of a fine artist thriving in commercial media," Moe told Windy City Times. "So skilled in the craft of storytelling that his own giant personality almost dissolves into the shadow of the monumental work he created. But he's also that artist so consumed with his own personal journey that he can't help but instill his work with intimate subtext that percolates up and through the surface of anything else he touches.
"So, I feel that James Whale celebrated his homosexuality in ways that remain shuttered to those who have no relationship to it, but is a box of gourmet candies to those who recognize it. These elements were inspiring markers for a gay audience who, in Whale's time, had very little representation or voice in the media. And the influence of Whale's personal gay life experience has had a profound impact beyond his time. I believe the influential works of artist Kenneth Anger are heavily influenced by the specific lessons of Whale's art."
There's no denying that James Whale was a serious artist. A painter most of his life, he brought to his films a stylish composition few directors could match. The dark, European landscapes of his horror films, or the brutal, racist American South of the 19th century that Whale recreated in his early version of Showboat (1936) offer visual tapestries that seem otherworldly, even as they draw viewers into the lives and emotions of his characters.
On Friday, Jan. 27, Turner Classic Movies celebrates the unique artistry of Whale with four films back to back.
The line-up is as follows (Central Standard Time):
7 p.m.: The Great Garrick (1937) an historical comedy about the life of David Garrick, an 18th century star of the British stage.
8:45 p.m.: One More River (1934) Rarely screened, never released in any home video format, One More River makes it's TCM debut. The cast includes two long forgotten names who once enjoyed great fame: Diana Wynward and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a stage actress who began working in the 19th Century. Mrs. Pat, as her fans called her, never performed under her own name. One More River also features Colin Clive, who played the Mad Doctor in Whale's Frankenstein.
10:15 p.m.: The Invisible Man (1933) Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart star in this frightening yet darkly comic version of H.G. Wells' classic novel. Character actress Una O'Connor steals the show as Rains' hysterical landladywhen Whale died in 1957, he remembered O'Connor in his will. The film's early special effects stunned 1930s audiences, and are still impressive today. It's an awesome sight to behold when The Man removes his bandages to reveal.......nothing!
11:30 p.m.: Frankenstein (1931) The film that launched Boris Karloff's career as the greatest horror icon in cinema history, Frankenstein also established Whale as a great filmmaker. The Monster's first appearance in a shadowy door frame remains as unnerving as ever. Even as he kills, your sympathies lie with this frightened man-child. Karloff always credited Whale with taking the character in that direction.
Also of interest is Gods and Monsters (1998). Openly gay director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) speculates on Whale's final, lonely days. Sir Ian McKellen was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Whale. Condon took home the coveted statue for his screenplay, which was based on Christopher Bram's novel. Gods and Monsterswhich co-stars Brendan Fraseris available on DVD.