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JAMES WHALE by James Curtis

JAMES WHALE

A New World of Gods and Monsters

By James Curtis

Pub Date: May 29th, 1998
ISBN: 0-571-19938-0
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A well-crafted, detailed biography of the director of such classics as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and the 1936 version of Showboat. Though he is usually identified as a “horror film” director, Whale, in the best tradition of the old-time Hollywood directors, took on all genres, from war films to musicals. His directing career was relatively brief and late in life but, as Preston Sturges biographer Curtis (Between Flops, 1982, etc.) convincingly demonstrates, Whale, like Dr. Frankenstein, has been unfairly overshadowed by his creations. He had a real style, a precise directorial vision that inflected everything from shot selection to costumes and scenery. Whale came to film by accident. A POW during WW I, he participated in a number of prison theatricals and realized he—d finally found his mÇtier. At the end of the war, he used his substantial gambling winnings from rich officer prisoners, to stake an acting career. He enjoyed some minor success, but eventually turned to directing, again with little success, until the WW I drama Journey’s End became a surprise hit. He would direct the film version as well and its worldwide boffo box office made him the new golden boy in Hollywood. A little more than ten years later, a string of flops spelled the end of his career. In a notoriously closeted town, Whale made no secret of his homosexuality and the fact that he lived with another man. Current critical theory demands that an artist’s homosexuality be reflected in his/her work, and others, including Vito Russo, have argued, for example, that Frankenstein is about the tragedy of being in the closet. Curtis tends to dismiss this line of thought, arguing that the most significant celluloid aspect of Whale’s homosexuality was his inability to direct passionate heterosexual love scenes. While this is not an in-depth, psychologically rich biography, and Curtis’s writing tends to be wooden, as an account of Whale’s work, it is first-rate. (60 b&w photos)