Semi-Happy

Michael Wood

  • James Whale: A Biography by Mark Gatiss
    Cassell, 182 pp, £12.99, July 1995, ISBN 0 304 32861 8

Movies tend not to age gracefully. If they’re not still fresh, they look decrepit, or just dead. It’s hard to distinguish between the damage done to the old Frankenstein by Young Frankenstein, to say nothing of The Munsters, and the damage done by time and change on their own. Certainly when Dwight Frye, as Frankenstein’s crippled assistant Fritz, scuttles off down a hill, doubled over his very short walking-stick, it’s hard not to think of Marty Feldman and Gene Hackman and to murmur ‘Walk this way.’ The acting-style of the straight – that is, human – characters in Frankenstein as in other Thirties films seems to belong to some cobwebbed theatrical museum, all twitches and signals and period exclamations. The same goes for large chunks of movie humour in those days: if you were English, and just huffed and puffed like Bertie Wooster’s uncle, as Frederick Kerr does as Baron Frankenstein, you brought the house down, or at least the studio thought you did.

There are minor touches in this movie, as in its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, both of them directed by James Whale, which are just mysterious. Why is Frankenstein, called Victor in most versions of this story, including Mary Shelley’s, here called Henry? Why is his friend called Victor? The bereaved father of the little girl drowned by the monster because he thought she would float like a flower – something seems to have happened to the abnormal criminal brain he is supposed to possess – is Ludwig in Frankenstein but appears in the next film as Hans. Is it that when you’ve seen one European peasant father crazed with grief you’ve seen them all?

Good movies, however, are not wrecked by time or pointlessness or inconsistency; only fractured. What stands out among the ruins in Frankenstein is the brilliantly realised ritual of the tale, its weird mixture of pathos and violence. It’s not just that Whale learned a lot from the manner of the films he studied closely before making his movie: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Golem, Metropolis. He seems intuitively to have understood, as Hitchcock did, how to alternate extravagance with delicacy. The great, manic scene where Frankenstein’s creature is brought to life – operating table hoisted on pulleys through the open roof of the tower to face the night sky, wild storm raging outside, whizzing electrical effects inside, all kinds of mad inventor’s equipment everywhere looking as if it would suit a power station in Toytown – is as operatic as can be imagined, but we see nothing more than the weather and the machinery and the human characters’ excitement and fear. The next shot, when the table is lowered back into the tower, shows us just the hand of the creature, long fingers very still, then faintly moving. ‘The Monster begins to move,’ Whale said in an interview. ‘Frankenstein merely has to believe what he sees, which is all we ask the audience to do.’

The subtle corollary is that the audience has to see what it is asked to believe, and Whale says this, too (I take these and other quotations from Mark Gatiss’s engaging and sympathetic book): ‘I consider the creation of the Monster to be the high spot of the film, because if the audience did not believe the thing has been really made, they would not be bothered with what it was supposed to do afterward.’ Whale cuts from his high spot to a foolish scene involving Frankenstein’s father, which is terrible storytelling, and makes the film seem incoherent, but does what Whale wants: delays our sight of anything more than the creature’s moving hand, and reminds us that the merely human story is irrelevant here.

The stuff about the abnormal brain is a hangover from an earlier version of the script, and even Frankenstein’s body-snatching has very little to do with where the movie is going – although Whale does like his Expressionist grave-yard and gallows, which take up an inordinate amount of time in this fairly short work. Frankenstein insists that he is not resurrecting the dead but making life. ‘And you really believe that you can bring life to the dead?’ Frankenstein’s former mentor asks just before the creation scene. Frankenstein says: ‘That body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own hands from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows, anywhere.’ What is spooky about the creature when we finally see it whole, as it backs into the room and turns towards the light, with its stiff legs, short-armed suit, heavy boots, bolt in its neck, is its unearthliness. It doesn’t look as if it has come from the grave, it looks as if it has come from nowhere. It should be said in passing that none of the thousands of imitations of the look of this creature has ever really managed to resemble Boris Karloff in this role. In spite of all the make-up – it took several hours to put on – the lower portion of the face is what counts, where all the expression is. Whale is interesting on this subject, too: ‘Boris Karloff’s face has always fascinated me and I made drawings of his head, added sharp bony ridges where I imagined the skull might have been joined. His physique was weaker than I could wish, but that queer, penetrating personality of his, I felt, was more important than his shape, which could easily be altered.’

Karloff and Whale had an argument during the shooting about the way the creature was to kill the little girl he was innocently playing with. Karloff wanted to ‘pick her up gently and put her into the water exactly as he had done to the flowers’, but Whale wanted the girl to be thrown into the water, in what Karloff called ‘a brutal and deliberate act’. Whale insisted, and trying to explain to Karloff and the rest of the cast, now committed to a view of the monster as an ugly, lovable innocent, said: ‘You see, it’s all part of the ritual.’ The ritual, I take it, involved the violence of the creature’s innocence, and horror in this sense would be closer to tragedy than we like to think, or would be tragedy as grand guignol, provoking pity and fear in unmeasured proportions. The original version of the film ended with Frankenstein’s death, as he is flung from an old mill by the creature; caught by a turning sail, then dropped to the ground. This is morally proper, since the embodiment of his ambition has killed Fritz and Frankenstein’s mentor as well as the little girl, and the haggard actor Colin Clive liked the script, which culminates, he said, ‘when I, in the title role, am killed by the Monster that I have created’. Whale thought some more about this ending, and then added an epilogue which makes clear that Frankenstein has survived his fall, is now married, and has a son – all we actually see is fussy old Frankenstein senior outside the natal bedroom, drinking a toast with the maids. ‘This semi-happy ending,’ Whale said, ‘was added to remind audiences that after all it is only a tale that is told, and could easily be twisted any way by the director.’ Whale’s pleasure in the director’s power is clear, but the statement seems also to be full of unsaid things. Why ‘semi-happy’, and why would a story line have to be ‘twisted’ to be changed? Was Whale mocking the very world of hetero-normality he appeared to be restoring? Was he perhaps not so much giving the audience even a semi-happy ending as taking from them the moral satisfaction of seeing that creation doesn’t pay? The creature is dangerous and bewildered: we can’t really give him our sympathy or refuse it to him – well, we can sentimentalise him, but only if we refuse to pay attention to the ritual. The important thing, in the movie, is that we can’t regret his creation, and not only because there would be no movie without him. We can’t feel it was wrong to create him, and the whole question of the creator’s caring or not caring for his creature, so important in Mary Shelley, is entirely absent here. Frankenstein has made not an animated doll or puppet but an ungainly travesty of a man, a would-be person who suffers, beseeches, smiles, rages and murders. The creature can’t die, even when he is killed off, because we don’t know what to do with this life so curiously pitched between the human and the non-human, because he represents not only our fear of the unmanageable but also our addiction to it. The making of the creature is not a blasphemy or a desecration, as the story is supposed to say; it is what happens when you want the rough beast to slouch towards Bethlehem to be born.

James Whale was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, in 1889, the sixth of seven children in a working-class family. He served in the Great War, and was imprisoned by the Germans. He acted, designed, stage-managed and directed in the theatre in London in the Twenties, but it was all fairly desultory until he took on R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, which was an immense hit at the Savoy, and sent him to Broadway for the American production, and to Hollywood for the movie version. Whale settled in Hollywood, directed Frankenstein in 1931, The Invisible Man in 1933 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. He was also the director of a creepy classic called The Old Dark House (1932) and, less probably, of Showboat (1936). After that he made a number of forgotten movies, and gave up directing in 1941. He died in 1957.

The bare bones of this story make clear how short the spell of Whale’s success was. In 1935 he was one of the highest-paid directors in the movies, according to Gregory William Mank’s It’s Alive! The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein (1981) – and within six years he was no one, although he had saved money, and he continued to live well. There is a mystery here. Mank speaks of ‘the strange nature’ of Whale’s later life, and also more plainly of ‘egomania, homosexuality and drinking’, as well as of his ‘sordid death’. So is the mystery all about homophobia? The director Robert Aldrich thought so. ‘Jimmy Whale was the first guy who was blackballed because he refused to stay in the closet.’ Mark Gatiss has an interesting interpretation of what this means: not the flaunting of gayness but a settled homosexual relationship, the ‘openness’ of Whale’s relationship to the man with whom he lived. ‘This, more than any arch attitude, public display or private scandal, appears to have rankled the homophobic film industry.’ It’s a nice idea, but it’s probably also true that the director who said to Jean Harlow that he could tell her how to be an actress but not how to be a woman probably made a few enemies of other sorts along the way.

Gatiss’s project is to tell the story of Whale’s life plainly, which he admirably does, and to undo all the sensationalism that at one time surrounded it. This is noble work, but not much of a plot line: we learn that Whale was ‘sensitive and brilliant’ rather than ‘outrageous’ and ‘flamboyant’. When Gatiss says Whale’s friends testify ‘again and again’ to his ‘lack of flamboyance’, it sounds like a race for dullness, compounded by descriptions of Whale’s voice as being like a schoolmaster’s or a bank manager’s. The book is not dull, though, largely because Gatiss is so edgy about this question of flamboyance, but partly because some of the mystery of Whale’s life just can’t be made to go back into greyness.

How did he die? Well, he was found in a swimming-pool, like the character in Sunset Boulevard except that the pool was his own and he couldn’t swim. The book he was reading at the time, and had left by his bedside table, was called Don’t Go Near the Water. Rumour had it that he was killed by his French lover, or by a ‘beautiful boy’ he had been painting. Gatiss tells us that Whale committed suicide, and prints the suicide note, adding that ‘in those days, the stigma of suicide was very real and a decision was taken to keep the note secret.’ He doesn’t say whether there was an inquest. Whale is said to have thrown himself into the shallow end of the pool ‘and struck his head against the bottom’. It seems an incredibly unreliable mode of dying for a man who was staging his death so elaborately, but the note is unequivocal, and very eloquent, attentive to ritual and to what ritual cannot encompass. Whale had had a stroke followed by some kind of breakdown about a year earlier. ‘Do not grieve for me,’ he said:

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 pain ...