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Sigourney Weaver
H.G. Wells
Adam West
Gary Westfahl
James Whale
Robert Wise
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Frank Wu
Philip Wylie
 
WHALE, JAMES
(1886–1957). British director.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Directed: Frankenstein (1931); The Old Dark House (1932); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (and produced) (1935); Remember Last Night? (1935); Green Hell (and produced) (1940).

Film based on his work: Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon 1998).

 
If, by some magic, James Whale could return to this world today to attend a screening of Gods and Monsters, he would initially be highly displeased. "For heaven's sake," he might grumble, "if Hollywood wanted to do a James Whale biopic, why didn't they show me in the 1930s, when I was the toast of the town, a major director of big-budget films with top stars? Why did they show me in the 1950s as a pathetic old has-been, haplessly lusting after a hunky gardener?" But Whale would think about it for a while (he always thought about everything for a while), and he would realize that the filmmakers had actually made a wise decision. For after all, failure is always more interesting than success. And it's funnier too.

Schooled by generations of feminist critics to regard Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the homoerotic fantasy of a man determined to produce children without recourse to a woman, many might assume that was the reason why the openly gay Whale, upon his arrival in America, promptly chose the recently abandoned Frankenstein project as his first film. However, other than the passing thought that the script would provide a perfect occasion to work with that cute young actor Colin CLIVE, I doubt that Whale's sexual orientation played any role in his choice, and there is little if any evidence of a gay subtext in the completed film. Instead, I think, Whale was attracted to the story because it was about an intelligent and talented man who makes bad decisions and thus dooms himself to a miserable fate. It is a theme that Whale would return to, in films and in life.

While a fanatical completist might regard Remember Last Night? and Green Hell as marginally relevant, Whale's reputation in the fields of science fiction and horror is essentially based upon four key films. Of these, Frankenstein is a respectable, well-done adaptation of its story; The Old Dark House is an atmospheric rendering of the classic tale of stranded travelers on a rainy night forced to stay in a mysterious mansion filled with strange characters; and The Invisible Man is a clever, if simplified, version of H. G. WELLS's novel which integrates its special effects and wisecracks very effectively. But for years I have delayed writing a James Whale entry because I could muster no desire to write at length about any of these films.

Rather, it is The Bride of Frankenstein that towers above all these films and inexorably demands a critic's complete and undivided attention. Despite conventional labeling, it is hard to regard this as a horror film—since it is impossible to imagine anyone being frightened by anything in the movie. Rather, it is a delightuflly acidic comedy about a group of wonderful, charming people who are fatalistically driven to self-destruction. There is poor old Dr. Pretorius, a second-rater only capable of constructing toys who ill-advisedly seeks to recruit a smarter man to help him achieve something genuinely worthwhile; there is Frankenstein himself, trying to forget his dreams and settle into a life of contented mediocrity, but blackmailed into making one more attempt to reach the big time, a challenge he unwisely begins to approach with renewed enthusiasm; there is Elsa LANCHESTER's Bride of Frankenstein, who fails to recognize that by rejecting her intended suitor she is dooming herself to a ten-minute life span; and the wisest one of all, Boris KARLOFF's Frankenstein monster, who alone comes to recognize that his strivings for warmth and companionship, like everyone else's strivings, are silly and futile and hence resolves to kill himself as quickly as possible and end the charade. The Bride of Frankenstein represents one of the richest and most rewarding science fiction films ever made, one which compels and rewards repeated viewings, and one completely understands why Whale believed that he could never top it. Also, knowing Whale, one can also understand why he consequently made the stupid decision to never again attempt a film in this genre. Because, after all, if he was no longer working in the field where he was the strongest, he could significantly increase his chances for eventual failure.

So it is that, after five years of making mainstream films and alienating as many people as possible along the way, Whale in the early 1940s found himself unemployable, and hence at last a proper subject for a film. Which brings us back to Gods and Monsters, and to the final reaction that Whale would have to the film: a desire to improve it. Let's see, he would say, we should replace the game but ineffervescent Lynn Redgrave with a better comedienne—someone like Una O'Connor—and we could make the Whale character a little more pathetic, a little sillier, and perhaps we could work in a charming reunion scene with Boris Karloff, another fine man who in the 1950s was watching his career slowly sink in the west. James Whale always knew exactly how to make a good film. Making a good life for himself was the task he could never fulfill.

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