Partner David Lewis, buried together
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James Whale (22 July 1889 – 29 May 1957) was an English film director, theater director and actor. He is best remembered for his four classic horror films: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale also directed films in other genres, including what is considered the definitive film version of the musical Show Boat (1936). He became increasingly disenchanted with his association with horror, but many of his non-horror films have fallen into obscurity.
Whale was born into a large family in Dudley, in the Black Country area of the English West Midlands. He discovered his artistic talent early on and studied art. With the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the British Army and became an officer. He was captured by the Germans and during his time as a prisoner of war he realized he was interested in drama. Following his release at the end of the war he became an actor, set designer and director. His success directing the 1928 play Journey's End led to his move to the US, first to direct the play on Broadway and then to Hollywood, California, to direct films. He lived in Hollywood for the rest of his life, most of that time with his longtime companion, producer David Lewis. Apart from Journey's End (1930), which was released by Tiffany Films, and Hell's Angels (1930), released by United Artists, he directed a dozen films for Universal Pictures between 1931 and 1937, developing a style characterized by the influence of German Expressionism and a highly mobile camera.
At the height of his career as a director Whale directed The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Studio interference, possibly spurred by political pressure from Nazi Germany, led to the film's being altered from Whale's vision and it was a critical and commercial failure. A run of similar box-office disappointments followed and, while he would make one final short film in 1950, by 1941 his film directing career was basically over. He continued to direct for the stage and also rediscovered his love for painting and travel. His investments made him wealthy and he lived a comfortable retirement until suffering strokes in 1956 that robbed him of his vigor and left him in pain. He committed suicide on 29 May 1957 by drowning himself in his swimming pool.
Whale was openly gay throughout his career, something that was very unusual in the 1920s and 1930s. As knowledge of his sexual orientation has become more common, some of his films, Bride of Frankenstein in particular, have been interpreted as having a gay subtext and it has been claimed that his refusal to remain in the closet led to the end of his career.
James Whale lived as an openly gay man throughout his career in the British theatre and in Hollywood, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1920s and 1930s. He and David Lewis lived together as a couple from around 1930 to 1952. While he did not go out of his way to publicize his homosexuality, he did not do anything to conceal it either. As filmmaker Curtis Harrington, a friend and confidant of Whale's, put it, "Not in the sense of screaming it from the rooftops or coming out. But yes, he was openly homosexual. Any sophisticated person who knew him knew he was gay." While there have been suggestions that Whale's career was terminated because of homophobia, and Whale was supposedly dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood", Harrington states that "nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive".
With knowledge of his sexuality becoming more common beginning in the 1970s, some film historians and gay studies scholars have detected homosexual themes in Whale's work, particularly in Bride of Frankenstein in which a number of the creative people associated with the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were alleged to be gay or bisexual. Scholars have identified a gay sensibility suffused through the film, especially a camp sensibility, particularly embodied in the character of Pretorius (Thesiger) and his relationship with Henry Frankenstein (Clive).
Gay film historian Vito Russo, in considering Pretorius, stops short of identifying the character as gay, instead referring to him as "sissified" ("sissy" itself being Hollywood code for "homosexual"). Pretorius serves as a "gay Mephistopheles", a figure of seduction and temptation, going so far as to pull Frankenstein away from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of non-procreative life. A novelisation of the film published in England made the implication clear, having Pretorius say to Frankenstein "'Be fruitful and multiply.' Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way." Russo goes so far as to suggest that Whale's homosexuality is expressed in both Frankenstein and Bride as "a vision both films had of the monster as an antisocial figure in the same way that gay people were 'things' that should not have happened".
The Monster, whose affections for the male hermit and the female Bride he discusses with identical language ("friend"), has been read as sexually "unsettled" and bisexual. Writes gender studies author Elizabeth Young: "He has no innate understanding that the male-female bond he is to forge with the bride is assumed to be the primary one or that it carries a different sexual valence from his relationships with [Pretorius and the hermit]: all affective relationships are as easily 'friendships' as 'marriages'." Indeed, his relationship with the hermit has been interpreted as a same-sex marriage that heterosexual society will not tolerate: "No mistake—this is a marriage, and a viable one", writes cultural critic Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal. "But Whale reminds us quickly that society does not approve. The monster—the outsider—is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it." The creation of the Bride scene has been called "Whale's reminder to the audience—his Hollywood bosses, peers, and everyone watching—of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator".
However, Harrington dismisses this as "a younger critic's evaluation. All artists do work that comes out of the unconscious mind and later on you can analyze it and say the symbolism may mean something, but artists don't think that way and I would bet my life that James Whale would never have had such concepts in mind." Specifically in response to the "majesty and power" reading, Harrington states "My opinion is that's just pure bullshit. That's a critical interpretation that has nothing to do with the original inspiration." He concludes, "I think the closest you can come to a homosexual metaphor in his films is to identify that certain sort of camp humor."
Whale's companion David Lewis stated flatly that Whale's sexual orientation was "not germane" to his filmmaking. "Jimmy was first and foremost an artist, and his films represent the work of an artist—not a gay artist, but an artist." Whale's biographer Curtis rejects the notion that Whale would have identified with the Monster from a homosexual perspective, stating that if the highly class-conscious Whale felt himself to be an antisocial figure, it would have been based not in his sexuality but in his origin in the lower classes.
Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his Pacific Palisades swimming pool on 29 May 1957 at the age of 67. He left a suicide note, which Lewis withheld until shortly before his own death decades later. Because the note was suppressed, the death was initially ruled accidental. The note read in part:
To ALL I LOVE,
Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way. The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.— Jimmy.
Whale was cremated per his request and his ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale. Because of his habit of periodically revising his date of birth, his niche lists the incorrect date of 1893. When his longtime companion David Lewis died in 1987, his executor and Whale biographer James Curtis had his ashes interred in a niche across from Whale's.
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