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.