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James Whale: Frankenstein’s Gay Father

by Waylon Jordan

**Editor’s Note: James Whale: Frankenstein’s Gay Father is a continuation of iHorror’s Horror Pride Month celebrating the LGBTQ Community and their contributions to the genre.

Of all the men and women who helped shape the early days of horror on film, few could do what James Whale did when he managed to elicit empathy for a misshapen “monster” in 1931’s Frankenstein.

Perhaps, it is because few so few of those creators knew what it was to be considered monstrous themselves.

Life as an out of the closet gay man in the 1930s was far from easy, even in Hollywood. There was more than stigma. There was outright hatred.

In many ways, not much has changed, and yet there was James Whale, out and as proud as he could be in 1930 when, after a huge success directing a stage play called Journey’s End starring none other than Colin Clive, he was offered a five year contract with Universal Pictures and given the chance to direct any of the properties they owned at the time.

Whale being who he was, chose Frankenstein. Something in it spoke to him, sparked his imagination, and before long he was creating the motion picture that created a gold standard few have met since.

He brought Colin Clive with him to star as the ill-fated Henry Frankenstein, and he also had one more actor in mind for his masterpiece: Boris Karloff.

“His face fascinated me,” Whale explained later. “I made drawings of his head, adding sharp bony ridges where I imagine the skull had joined.”

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Despite Karloff being his own choice, there was reportedly still some bad blood between director and actor as filming began. Film historian, Gregory Mank, suggests that Whale became jealous of the attention that Karloff was receiving during filming and devised his own revenge in response.

As the climax of the film draws near, the Monster carries Henry Frankenstein over his shoulder up a steep hill to a massive mill. Whale made Karloff carry 6’4″ Colin Clive up that hill over and over again in repeated takes which reportedly resulting in the actor having serious back pain for the rest of his life.

Regardless of what issues might have been going on behind the scenes, Frankenstein was a huge success for Whale, Karloff, and Universal Pictures.

Straight audiences were captivated by the masterful storytelling, beautifully filmed scenes, and the harrowing tale of a man who dared to play God.

Gay audiences, then and now, see all of those things and something more. Though the queer subtext would be much less subtle in Bride of Frankenstein, Whale’s first foray into the genre still spoke volumes.

The Monster’s rejection by his “father” struck an immediate chord. Rejection by one’s family when they find out you’re queer still happens far too often and is one of the most damaging chapters in our own stories, and it’s important to note that the Monster only succumbs to destructive behaviors in the face of that rejection, something that also haunts our community.

Also, though he is painted as a Monster, there is a certain sensitivity to Frankenstein’s creation. One can easily view it as a feminine quality, and thus he takes on certain gender fluid characteristics.

And let’s not forget that fateful moment when he is chased by maddened villagers with torches and pitchforks bent on his destruction. Every LGBTQ person in the world knows that fear all too well.

Though the instruments of violence may have changed–some are even called “laws”–that fear and anxiety looms to this day.

It’s no wonder, knowing that Whale created these and other moments in the film, that the Monster has become a bit of a queer icon and this legacy has been written about in journals and scholarly articles repeatedly in the last decades.

Some members of the trans community have even found an ally in Whale’s “monster,” with writers and activists like Susan Stryker pointing out the the similarities between the creature’s creation and her own surgeries to become who she was meant to be.

And let us not forget the ultimate homage to Whale’s adaptation of Shelley’s masterpiece: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

We can only theorize what Whale would think of this legacy, but as we peer into the open way in which he lived his life, I think it’s safe to assume that he would have been proud.

After 1931’s Frankenstein, Whale went on to direct three more genre classics: The Dark Old House, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein. Each of them are revered for their own style and each is filled with the director’s gay sensibilities.

Boris Karloff and James Whale on the set of Bride of Frankenstein

He was reticent to continue genre work by the time Bride came to be fearing that he would be pigeon-holed as a horror director. Sadly, by 1941, his feature filmmaking career had ended, but he had been wise with his finances and was sitting on a considerable sum of money.

At the urging of his longtime partner, David Lewis, the director took up painting and lived a rather lavish lifestyle in his beautiful home.

It was on a tour of Europe that Whale met 25 year old Pierre Foegel and informed Lewis that he intended for the younger man to move in with him when he returned. Lewis was naturally shocked; it was the end of a relationship that had lasted over 20 years. Remarkably, the two remained friends afterward.

By 1956, Whale was suffering from serious bouts of debilitating depression and on top of that he suffered two strokes. On May 29, 1957, he was found dead at his home. He had drowned in the pool.

The death was ruled an accident but years later, shortly before his own death, David Lewis revealed a suicide note that he’d found and kept hidden.

Whale was only 67 years old at the time of his death, and though his end was tragic, his was a life well-lived, and it is only right that we honor him during our celebration of Horror Pride Month.

I’d like to think that it would make him smile.

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