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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee