Tuesday book: The master of the monster

JAMES WHALE: A NEW WORLD OF GODS AND MONSTERS BY JAMES CURTIS, FABER & FABER, pounds 14.99

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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all