“He doesn't expect anything, if you know what I mean . . . He likes people to think he's ever so gay.” Thus, in James Whale's 1932 classic The Old Dark House, does a cheeky young flapper sum up her tubby sugar daddy (Charles Laughton) for the benefit of a suave potential beau (Melvyn Douglas). Made between Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, the films that cemented Whale's reputation as a master of horror and set the standard for all future monster movies, The Old Dark House is a scream in more ways than its gripping tale of five troubled souls stranded for the night with the domestic prototype for the Addamses. Adapted from a novel by J.B. Priestley, the movie is a wickedly free interpretation: The family's name is Femm, and it's presided over by a hilariously queeny Ernest Thesiger and his wild-eyed sidekick (played by an ape-hairy Boris Karloff), while an ancient bedridden patriarch is played by veteran actress Elspeth Dudgeon, who appears in the credits as John Dudgeon.
In his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo argued that all the characters in the movie could be read as gay. That's gilding the lily, but there's enough camping around in Whale's oeuvre to make La Cage aux Folles look macho. How he got away with it in '30s Hollywood, where sexual ambiguity, never mind difference, was feared and detested as a perversion of the hypermasculinity peddled in movies, is anybody's guess: Possibly Carl Laemmle Jr., who nurtured Whale at Universal throughout the 1930s, simply didn't get it. In any event, it's no wonder that queer cinema has taken Whale unto itself.
Nice try, but the director would have chafed under the harness — though not out of shame or embarrassment. Whale was the least closeted of his generation of gay filmmakers, serenely candid about his sexual proclivities and, as illustrated by Ian McKellen's portrayal of him in a pricelessly arch encounter with George Cukor in Bill Condon's lovely Gods and Monsters, mischievously tweaky toward those who weren't.
A cultivated man, Whale resented being pigeonholed in any form, most of all as a horrormeister (he was elbowed into making the Frankenstein movies by Laemmle). Left to himself, this endlessly versatile filmmaker would have played happily forever in the genre sandbox, had not a string of box-office failures — and, without a doubt, his refusal to stay in the closet — finished off his career by the mid-'40s. Whale retired to paint, live graciously and party with muscled young men until, in 1957, after a series of strokes had begun to lay siege to his mind, he drowned himself in the pool at his Pacific Palisades home.
With “Beyond Frankenstein: James Whale in Hollywood,” the UCLA Film and Television Archive sets out to honor Whale's body of work through the 1930s, and his yearning to go down in film history as a Renaissance man. From Waterloo Bridge (a melodrama about American lovers in World War I London in which Bette Davis landed one of her first roles, as the hero's sister) through The Kiss Before the Mirror (a technically intricate murder psychodrama) through the giddy, Thin Manstyle urban comedy Remember Last Night? and the sumptuous musical Show Boat, the retrospective charts the growth of a stylist whose racy, tough-minded and soaringly humane sensibility permeates every form to which he turned his elegant hand.
In one way or another all these films are enchanting, in particular the full-heartedly sentimental Show Boat, memorable not only for Paul Robeson's sublime rendering of “Ol' Man River” but for the sight of leading man Allen Jones warbling sweet nothings to a silk stocking on a washing line. But the truth is that Whale's true genius flowered in the horror movies, all of which are featured in the retrospective, and not just because he knew how to tell a ripping yarn. However trapped Whale may have felt in the genre, he worked the terrain as a playground for a formal and emotional inquiry into his own demons and those of a Western culture suspended between two devastating wars. And it was through the monster movie that Whale pursued his fascination with the symbiotic passions that bind outcasts to the societies that create them.
Whale's homosexuality must in part have fed his sympathy for marginalized figures. But it was hardly the whole story, for the director was a man of complex affiliations. Despite the lifelong hatred he conceived for Germany while serving there as a prisoner of war during World War I (and where he put on the play that launched his London stage career), Whale was profoundly influenced both by German Expressionism and by the urbane wit of Ernst Lubitsch. Ravenous for absolute control, the unhinged scientists in The Invisible Man and the Frankenstein movies eerily prefigure and mock the Nazi dream of omniscience, omnipotence and eternal youth.
No one could shift a mood from beauty to laughter to terror as smoothly, or as ominously, as Whale. In The Old Dark House, a gorgeous young Gloria Stuart (who got her Academy nomination spanning the century in last year's Titanic) diverts herself before dinner making lovely shadow puppets on a wall — until an old crone comes along to add some less appealing designs of her own. In The Invisible Man, a pair of trousers skips down a country lane singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” with an insouciance at once irreverent and desperately alienated. Unlike the jokey, one-note techno-monsters in today's horror movies, a Whale monster is a distillation of the human capacity for good and evil, enlisting your pity and sympathy even as he scares you senseless. Tottering along stiff-kneed in the 1935 masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff's haggard freak (the equally cadaverous Jeremy Irons, his logical heir, would scarcely need the makeup) achieves his finest and most tragic hour when a blind violinist introduces him to the simple pleasures of music and human friendship. Back at the castle, burlesque rules as Baron Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his evil mentor, Dr. Praetorius (Thesiger again, in a fine preview of Quentin Crisp on a roll), get busy cooking up a different kind of friend — the stunning, wall-eyed Elsa Lanchester — to aid in the procreation of a new race of Übermenschen. When it came to demonstrating the folly of hubris, Whale was a master of the strategically placed unintended consequence: One look at her suitor and the maiden screams in revulsion. Mayhem follows, and — as in all Whale's movies — the revelation that the monster is us.
In the movie Gods and Monsters, Condon suggests that Whale's dark side was fed less by sexual secrecy than by a furtive compulsion to conceal his class background as a poor boy growing up with a brutishly insensitive father in England's industrial north. Like many British imports to America, Whale hauled himself several rungs up the social ladder to tailor his self-image. Condon gives him the gift of an imaginary gardener, a lonely working-class lad as he himself had been, to whom he can at last come clean about his origins. Yet aside from the racially enlightened Show Boat, proletarians fare poorly in Whales' movies, appearing as vengeful mobs or clueless policemen (“'Ow can I 'andcuff a bloomin' shirt?” asks one frustrated copper in The Invisible Man) bent on running the lonely outsider to ground. Toward women Whale displayed a robust misogyny, unless they were young and beautiful: Lynn Redgrave's riotously over-the-top turn as Whale's dour housekeeper in Condon's film is a witty précis of the crabby maidservants, domineering mothers and draggy butlers who people his movies. Only the monsters, refugees from the terrified fury of both elites and underclasses, were his heroes. Whale came down hardest of all on their creators, the technicians who would play God. Imagine the fun he would have had with Bill Gates.
For all his liberal impulses, his sense of fun, and the happy Hollywood endings tacked onto his movies, Whale was no optimist. In The Invisible Man, only in death is Claude Rains' bitter, tortured scientist restored to body and soul. “The future is just old age and illness and pain,” Whale wrote in a suicide note to his longtime lover, the actor David Lewis. “I must have peace and this is the only way.” How sad that Whale didn't live to stand alongside Gloria Stuart at UCLA on the January 23 opening night of Archive's wonderful and long overdue tribute to a man for all film seasons. He would have glowed like a firefly.
BEYOND FRANKENSTEIN: James Whale in Hollywood January 23 through February 6 At UCLA Film and Television Archive James Bridges Theater