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James Whale, the Man With a Monster Career

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 1998


  Director, actor in 'Gods and Monsters' From left, Curtis Harrington, a friend of James Whale, Bill Condon, writer-director, and Ian McKellen as Whale.
(Lion Gate Films)
Coming on to the hunk played by Brendan Fraser in the movie "Gods and Monsters," Ian McKellen's James Whale murmurs about the young man's "architectural skull." A wily and subtle old seducer, Whale seems here to have accidentally slipped into naked admiration -- and why not? Who better to appreciate a skull than the man who designed the magnificent, terrible head of the Frankenstein monster?

"It's the horror movies you'll be remembered for," a geeky fan interviewer tells the aging Whale in the film, and you can see, behind the gracious manners, the irritated boredom in McKellen's eyes. Yet the geek is right. Whale's other movies, even his successful version of "Show Boat," are mostly forgotten, but people still watch "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein" with pleasure, and the look of the monster -- the squared-off head, the neck bolts -- is part of the visual iconography of the century.

Whale was a painter before he was a stage and film director, and his eye for design is part of what makes his films so memorable. Aside from the male monster (famously played by Boris Karloff) he also created the electric-Nefertiti hairstyle and elegantly stitched scars of the Bride (Elsa Lanchester). He gave us the first hunchbacked servant (Dwight Frye, who had already played a servant of evil, though without hunch, in "Dracula"). Whale had seen the great German silent horror movies that were never widely released in this country, and from them -- particularly "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Metropolis" -- he took the starkly dramatic lighting and impressionistic use of sets and, with art director Charles Hall, created the style of Universal Studios Gothic: huge shadowed interiors with massive doors and immense staircases, hollow, cold-seeming places in which the actors seemed somehow fragile and out of place, at fate's mercy.

The mix of beauty, perversity, wit and fear in Whale's monster pictures is the goal that every horror director worth his salt has aspired to since. His dark, horrid, funny work paved the way for Alfred Hitchcock's American career. Whale is there in the sensual rhythms of Brian De Palma's "Carrie" and the raw, black-and-white heartlessness of "Night of the Living Dead" and the silvery, black-and-white pathos of "The Elephant Man." His theatrical use of light, with its deep shadows and intense contrasts, foreshadows the way Orson Welles used shadow and space in "Citizen Kane," as well as Gordon Willis's moodily lit interiors in the "Godfather" films. For good or ill, he is the source of the gallery of identical smiling monsters on the rows of Frankenberry cereal boxes in the grocery store.

While not flamboyant (it wasn't his style; he was a working-class English boy pretending to be middle-class), Whale was an uncloseted gay man in the Hollywood of the '30s. (The romance in "Gods and Monsters" is a fiction: His last live-in lover was a gas station operator who for a while had to share Whale with a male nurse.) Critics and gay activists have often interpreted the Frankenstein films as a coded account of Whale's sexuality -- his feeling that he was a misunderstood outsider, a lonely monster.

"Gods and Monsters" implicitly takes this view, but though it makes sense, the films themselves don't quite support it. It's true that they're unusual among horror movies in centering on male characters (both the human and the inhuman brides are bit players), and certainly Whale claimed that "Bride" was a romance between high-strung Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the spidery, predatory Dr. Pretorius (the exquisitely camp Ernest Thesiger).

But Whale's "Frankenstein" films aren't very sexy. They're cerebral, ironic, detached, cold. Even after 67 years, "Frankenstein" has a chilly force, particularly the monster's entrance, where Whale's camera jump-cuts us steadily closer to something we don't want to see. He's the amused, controlling puppet master who pulls the strings of our fears. His blithe playing around with corpses, which impresses us today as run-of-the-mill, was ground- and taboo-breaking. Critics and audiences thrilled and cringed with genuine disgust at this unprecedented, unhallowed attitude toward the dead.

Other than humor, Whale contributed little to the modern slasher film. His wasn't a jump-at-ya scare style, and though his movies are chockablock with mutilation, their look is dry rather than fluidly splashy. This is somewhat surprising considering that a major influence on Whale's work was clearly his time in the trenches in the First World War. "Gods and Monsters" proposes a fictional foxhole lover to provide its Whale with awful memories of his death. But the war in itself -- its mud and blood and dreadful wounds -- did the same for the actual man. He saw some very ugly action, including Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme, before ending up in a POW camp, where he began his stage career by producing amateur theatricals.

Film historian David J. Skal has pointed out that, owing to advances in medicine, World War I was the first altercation in which men didn't automatically die of their wounds but often survived, in whatever shape, to return home. For the first time, severely disfigured men were seen on peacetime streets. In this context, Whale's "Frankenstein" fable about a scientist who proves his genius by stitching together body parts and, disastrously, making them live again has a special, bitter irony.

From the time Poe made his hero liquefy into decomposition in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," the spectacle of our eventual rotting ruin has been a surefire shudder device. Slasher pictures and their ilk (including the "Alien" movies) are about the rupturable fragility of flesh. Stuff that should be inside comes agonizingly out, all wet, glistening and sticky.

Yet Whale, who had seen real bodies come inside out on the battlefield, played on our imaginations rather than our physical fears. There are no details of cutting or sewing or sawing in his "Frankenstein" films, though obviously these things have taken place. Pretorius eats a little light lunch on a coffin table as a skull -- presumably that of the future Bride -- watches, but the skull is a light touch, an offhand joke. The Monster and his Bride are presented as frightening but magnificent objects.

A slasher movie at least takes the body seriously by acknowledging how awful its mutilation is. That awfulness is the source of the horror. But by aestheticizing deformity, Whale actually hits the audience harder than any gross, realistic portrayal would. Because on some level we feel that deformity should not be aestheticized, that taking human suffering and misshapenness and making them near-beautiful is an act of desecration. And this desecration is the true horror, more revolting than any amount of spilled guts. In his own way, in a condescended-to genre, Whale made genuine, angry art out of the war that, if it didn't actually kill his lover, bloodily destroyed much of his generation.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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