Tuesday book: The master of the monster


EARLY ONE afternoon in the secluded gardens of his home in Los Angeles, 67-year-old James Whale waded into his bright blue swimming pool (where of late his "boy parties" had caused whispers of sad, menopausal behaviour). He angrily smashed his epicene head against a stone corner and - relatively senseless - allowed himself to drown. The year was 1957. He was already a forgotten man.

After his initial successes as a film director in the 1930s, a string of failures had made him unemployable. As James Curtis points out in this first comprehensive life of the director of Frankenstein and its camp classic sequel Bride of Frankenstein, there is a particular poignancy in the fact that television was to discover his oeuvre not many months after his death. Perhaps he would have had a late-flowering career, basking in the adulation of younger admirers. He was like Ed Wood - but with talent.

Whale was a highly conventional Edwardian Englishman in many aspects: he was a crashing snob and an ardent monarchist. He reinvented himself after a grim working-class childhood in Dudley, working for a while as a lowly cobbler's apprentice. As was so often the case, the First World War was his ticket elsewhere, despite spending time as a POW.

Collecting hundreds of pounds in gambling with well-heeled officers at the Holzminden camp, Whale was able to sponsor an acting career on his return home. A successful spell in the London theatre followed - then a meteoric rise in the early talkies, when Hollywood was little more than a few parking lots and a few citrus groves.

As a virtual American, he was a dandified gay Republican four decades before Andrew Sullivan invented the type in one dungeon-rattling electrical pulse. Whale was absolutely and unarguably gay all his life. Yet Curtis informs us that Whale's long-time partner David Lewis - who died in 1987 - deplored the 1980s discovery of the director by the elite forces of Gay Studies, bound to "reclaim" gay works of art.

Curtis himself, heavily influenced by his 12-year friendship with Lewis, confuses revisionism with reductionism. He is similarly scathing of the critic Vito Russo's analogy between Boris Karloff's alienated monster and the condition of homosexuality, reminding us that Whale never bothered to conceal his homosexuality, and therefore could not have been alienated. Oh yes? He also notes, a trifle tartly, that the original Frankenstein was written by "a heterosexual woman". In other words - back off, queens.

Curtis is the executor to David Lewis's estate and he finishes the biography with a proud flourish about his organisation of the Lewis funeral. Lewis's co-heir and rival Pierre Foegel - Whale's young partner for the last five years of his life - is conspicuously sidelined. Curtis provides no photograph of this man, and no information as to whether he is even still alive. As a result, the book is transparently partisan to the Lewis view of Whale's life, which clearly took a different turn soon after he broke up with Lewis in 1952.

There is no particular reason why heterosexuals should not write biographies of gay people. But one can at least expect them not to think it "lamentable" that the word gay is now no longer used in the sense of happy, as Curtis - unbelievably - does. These pesky archaisms can be revealing. Having brushed aside the Frankenstein/gay analogy, with breathtaking unselfconsciousness Curtis describes "the queer disguise" that Boris Karloff wore on location for the original movie.

I believe this is the third book Curtis has written on Whale. Odd, then, that the Englishman's gayness and snobbery are beyond him even on the third go. He doesn't understand Whale's sexuality, and struggles to understand Whale's desire to remodel his accent and seek out aristocratic ancestry.

"Whale was quietly obsessed with social position," Curtis tells his readers in classic American mode, "which in England depended on matters of birth, accent, and bearing." An American talking about the British class system is pretty much like a Brit talking about American race relations. They always get it slightly wrong.

One might be prepared to forgive Curtis his reliance on David Lewis, his inept understanding of Whale's social makeup, were he able to produce a readable book. But I yearned for a decent analysis of the Gothic link between horror and camp, which is still being explored in Hollywood by the likes of Wes Craven and John Waters, and by Paul Rudnick's scripts for The Addams Family movies. I looked for something of James Whale's deeply hidden heart and soul. It was not to be.

I found none of the close-ups that made Whale's features so intimate and bewitching - just a chilly pan over a dead body in a swimming pool.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'