"Frankenstein" (1931) remains the most famous creation of film director James Whale.
Like the frightened man-made child who was pieced together from dead bodies, Whale (1889-1957) lived his life as an outcast. He was an openly gay man in 1930s Hollywood. Being out was virtually unheard of at the time. Because of his candor regarding his sexuality, which included a 23-year relationship with film producer David Lewis, film historians have theorized that a gay subtext can be found in many of the films Whale directed. Indeed, it's hard to see the flaming characters played by the late Ernest Thesiger in Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1932) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) as anything other than gay.
Some have also opined that through the Frankenstein Monster, as it was portrayed by Boris Karloff, Whale expressed some of his own frustrations regarding what it was like to be gay in a straight, hostile world. In later films, the Monster was seen as a hulking brute who killed on instinct. But in "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), the Monster was a heartbroken child, desperately longing for love in a world that could neither accept nor understand him. Whale films like "Bride," "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man" (1933) are in fact filled with what could easily be seen as a gay sensibility—actors play their roles with the kind of over-the-top abandon one usually associates with drag queens.
The late Gloria Stuart (1910-2010), now best known for her portrayal of Old Rose in James Cameron's "Titanic," worked with James Whale in "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man." In late-in-life interviews, Stuart recalled Whale as a "perfect gentleman" who she accompanied to the theater. "We didn't talk about such things then," Stuart said.
For many years, the late Forrest J. Ackerman edited Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, which often celebrated the work of James Whale. During Ackerman's final years, Joe Moe served as caregiver for "Uncle Forry," as Ackerman was called by fans. Moe is now the keeper of the Ackerman legacy.
"To me, James Whale is that rare example of a fine artist thriving in commercial media," Moe told SFGN. "So skilled in the craft of storytelling that his own giant personality almost dissolves into the shadow of the monumental work he created. But he's also that artist so consumed with his own personal journey that he can't help but instill his work with intimate subtext that percolates up and through the surface of anything else he touches."
"So, I feel that James Whale celebrated his homosexuality in ways that remain shuttered to those who have no relationship to it, but is a box of gourmet candies to those who recognize it," Moe added. "These elements were inspiring markers for a gay audience who, in Whale's time, had very little representation or voice in the media. And the influence of Whale's personal gay life experience has had a profound impact beyond his time. I believe the influential works of artist Kenneth Anger are heavily influenced by the specific lessons of Whale's art."
There's no denying that James Whale was a serious artist. A painter most of his life, he brought to his films a stylish composition few directors could match. The dark, European landscapes of his horror films, or the brutal, racist American South of the 19th century that Whale recreated in his early version of the classic musical "Showboat" (1936) offer visual tapestries that seem otherworldly, even as they draw viewers into the lives and emotions of his characters.
A partially fictionalized version of James Whale's final, lonely days in Hollywood can be seen in "Gods and Monsters," a 1998 film from director Bill Condon, himself openly gay. In the film Sir Ian McKellen, who is also openly gay, portrays Whale as a broken, somewhat embittered and forgotten by an industry which had abandoned him. But as the film points out, Whale would be fondly remembered long after he was no longer alive to receive the accolades.