Universal, 1931

James Whale

John L. Balderston, from the novel by Mary Shelley

Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye

Unrated, 71 minutes

The Old Dark House
Kino Video, 1932

James Whale

Benn W. Levy

Starring:Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart

Unrated, 72 minutes

The Bride Of Frankenstein
Universal, 1935

James Whale

John L.William Hurlbut

Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, Una O'Connor

Unrated, 75 minutes

Of Gays And Ghouls
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, January, 1999


Sir Ian McKellen recently starred on the big screen at the Amherst Theatre (in a tour de force performance) as gay film director James Whale in Gods and Monsters. This month, for a change of pace, Outcome takes a new look at several of Whale's classic films from the 1930s.

James Whale (1889-1957) will always be remembered as the director of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. Born in England, he won acclaim in 1929 for the London production of an anti-war play called Journey's End, which he was invited to re-stage in New York City. A year later he made his directorial debut in Hollywood with its film version, and then went on to create what many consider to the greatest American horror films. His oeuvre also includes a terrific exercise in Grand Guignol called The Old Dark House, as well as several melodramas and comedies. Whale helmed the second (many critics say the best) film version of Showboat with a cast that included Paul Robeson.

He left Universal Studios following the butchering of his opus, The Road Back, the sequel to All Quiet On The Western Front (due to Nazi interference of all things). He made his last film in 1949 and then retired from the film business. Though Whale did not advertise that he was gay, neither did he hide it. He lived for over twenty years with his lover, producer David Lewis. At the age of 67, following a debilitating stroke, Whale committed suicide by diving into the shallow end of his swimming pool.

Frankenstein (1931), a loose adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel, established Whale's reputation in Hollywood. The script dispensed with most of Shelley's psychological drama in favor of more action and thrills. Colin Clive stars as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a young scientist whose obsession clouds his reason when he attempts to endow the spark of life on a creature assembled from various dead bodies. According to Gods and Monsters, it was Whale who first sketched the creature's look, creating such an effective icon that even today it is still universally recognized as Frankenstein's monster. Boris Karloff's first appearance as the monster is accompanied by a startling jump-cut to his face in tight close-up which terrified the less sophisticated audiences of its day.

But it is during the "non-horror" scenes involving the monster where Whale's film really shines. Karloff brought a remarkable sensitivity to his role. In the most striking scene, the monster meets a small girl by a lake. The girl, unafraid, gives him some flowers. Like a child, filled with blissful innocence, he marvels at the flowers as they both toss them into the lake to watch them float. When they run out of flowers, he reaches for the child, smiling. At this point, the film originally cut away to Dr. Frankenstein's wedding celebration in the village. But today's video release restores the end of that scene, which was cut by the censors in 1931. The monster picks up the girl and tosses her into the water, expecting her to float in the same way. Instead she sinks and drowns, and the monster, confused and terrified, flees the scene.

The mood of Frankenstein is heavily influenced by the German Expressionist horror films of the 1920s. Large shadows loom on the walls, tall sets with impossibly high ceilings dwarf the characters onscreen. While it might seem a tad stiff in spots, and perhaps even a bit corny, to modern audiences, there is no denying that it generates far more style and mood than most of today's gorier scare flicks.

Whale loosened up a lot with The Old Dark House (1932), a bizarre little film with an all-star cast that, along with Frankenstein, would someday provide the inspiration for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A car breaks down during a rainstorm, forcing actors Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, (yes, the same Gloria Stuart from the framing story in Cameron's Titanic), and Melvyn Douglas to take refuge in a foreboding old mansion. They are later joined by two other stranded motorists played by Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond.

They are welcomed at the door by a monstrous, mute butler named Morgan (Boris Karloff). The masters of the house are the elderly Horace and Rebecca Femm. Like Rocky Horror's Riff Raff and Magenta, they are siblings... and there are subtle suggestions of incest. Horace invites his wet guests to sit by the fire while his sister Rebecca repeatedly shrieks that there are no beds.

Hints are dropped about the existence of a mad relative in the attic. It soon becomes apparent that everyone in the house is a bit touched. Especially Rebecca, who rants about "wickedness" in their family's past. In the film's weirdest moment, Gloria Stuart changes her wet clothes while the old woman speaks of her blasphemous father. "You're wicked too," she says suddenly, admonishing the young woman. "You think of nothing but your long straight legs and your white body and how to please your man." She fingers the edge of Staurt's dress and says "This is fine stuff, but it will rot," and then touches Stuart's bosom and says "That's finer stuff still, but it will rot too in time." Stuart screams and flees the room. Like the antagonists of the later Rocky Horror, the inhabitants of The Old Dark House seem to be Hollywood monsters primarily because of seemingly perverse sexuality.

Stylishly filmed, The Old Dark House is a one-of-a-kind film peppered by fine performances from a stellar cast. Using the framework of a horror story, Whale let his talents loose and created a camp masterpiece. While not a traditional thriller, The Old Dark House is nevertheless creepy and moody.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is filled with wondrous scenes, rivaled perhaps only by The Wizard of Oz as the most magical movie of the 1930s. Much less a horror film than its predecessor, The Bride is filled with touches of camp humor which make it the most fun of all of Whale's movies. The Bride begins as Mary Shelley (Elsa Lancaster) tells the continuation of her story to her husband and Lord Byron during a thunderstorm. The actors playing the two men are suitably poofy and Byron pontificates that "I should like to think that an irate Jehovah was pointing these arrows of lightning at the unbowed head of Lord Bryon, England's greatest sinner." The scene then dissolves to a burning windmill where the monster supposedly was killed in the original film. Minnie, an old woman who is dressed in a goofy Austrian maid's outfit (the inspiration for Frau Blucher in Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein) encounters the monster (Boris Karloff) leaving the ruined windmill and runs shrieking back to town.

Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive again) lies in a swoon following his ordeal, lamenting that "perhaps death is sacred and I profaned it." He is visited during the night by Dr. Pretorius (The Old Dark House's Ernest Thesiger). Minnie, the housekeeper, describes him as a "queer old looking gentleman." It is worth noting that Pretorius interrupts Dr. Frankenstein and his bride on their wedding night. Pretorius has "grown" life in jars and wishes to join forces with the doctor. "To Gods and monsters," he announces as the two men drink a toast. The scene were he displays a series of jars containing tiny living kings, queens, bishops and ballerinas is one of the most magical in the history of film (and a marvel of special effects considering its day.) "Science," he tells Dr. Frankenstein, "like love, has her little surprises as you shall see."

Meanwhile, the monster hears the sound of a violin playing "Ave Maria" and comes upon a cottage in the forest. Inside lives an old blind man who invites the monster into his home. He holds out his hands to the monster, who is overwhelmed by his charity, and gives him food and shelter. During his stay, the monster learns how to speak - and how to smoke cigars. The old man tells him that it is "bad to be alone" and the monster smiles at him and says "Friend. Good." These scenes are unforgettable, especially when the old blind man holds the crying monster's hands and thanks God for bringing him a friend.

Of course, their idyllic friendship doesn't last. Society intervenes and drives the monster from the old man's cottage. The monster flees to a graveyard where he topples several religious statues. Pretorius later finds the monster hiding in a crypt and promises him that he and Dr. Frankenstein will make him a mate. His mate, (Elsa Lancaster), is an even more striking creation with jutting black hair, streaked by lightning. Using the framework of a conventional heterosexual courtship, Whale indulges in parody as the monster shyly takes the hand of his mate. In a scene of great pathos, the monster is rejected by his bride. With tears in his eyes, he states that they belong dead. He allows Dr. Frankenstein and his bride to leave the castle (but not Dr. Pretorius) and then blows up the laboratory. The Bride of Frankenstein is a rare film that mixes horror with gallows humor, deep humanity and large doses of camp. It is truly an American classic.

There was no "gay scandal" that drove Whale from Hollywood. Whale ended his own career himself when he left Universal Studios two years later following the ruin of The Road Back. A fictional look at his last days can be seen in the current Gods and Monsters. At this writing, the film's run has already ended at the Amherst Theatre and is highly recommended when it is released on video. While not in the same league as Hitchcock or John Ford, Whale did manage to achieve many of his visions on the silver screen and that is no small achievement. In its own quaint way, Frankenstein's monster is as much a gay icon as Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Whale's films, especially The Bride, are worth a second look through rose colored glasses.


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