Monster maker

Dec 16, 1998 at 12:00 am

Early in his film, Gods and Monsters, writer-director Bill Condon has a scene that seamlessly weaves together the complex thematic threads of this Hollywood fable. Director James Whale, dressed to the nines and seated next to his intoxicatingly blue swimming pool, graciously greets a starstruck interviewer. It's 1957 and the long-retired Whale is somewhat surprised that anyone remembers him, even though he made more than 20 films as diverse as Show Boat (1936), Waterloo Bridge (1931), The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).

But it's not long before he discovers that the interviewer's agenda consists of one subject: monsters. Whale was the director and creative force behind two indelible films -- Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- whose imagery continues to haunt the pop culture landscape.

It's then that Whale, openly gay and known for his wicked sense of humor, starts playing with the eager acolyte. For every question the interviewer asks, Whale (Ian McKellan) requests that he remove an article of clothing, and then gleefully skirts each answer with tales of Hollywood decadence. The tremulous young man is left bereft and clad in nothing but his white briefs.

Bill Condon, sitting in the Atheneum Hotel in Detroit, laughs when he recalls the scene. He, too, was awestruck when he saw The Bride of Frankenstein, but it was only the beginning of his fascination with James Whale.

"On the one hand, he's the man who created the image of Frankenstein that we know so well," says Condon. "In addition, he created a whole body of movies that were so distinctive and original, and then was an interesting figure because his career ended so abruptly."

But when it came to doing a film about James Whale, Condon chose to adapt the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram instead of attempting a conventional biography.

"I'm not fond of biopics, because I think people's lives usually don't have a dramatic form," he explains. "Often they go from one great moment to another, with a lot of dull stuff in between. It seems to me that Chris' conceit, the invention of a gardener (played by Brendan Fraser), who might give Whale one last chance at creating something (and) as the sort of centerpiece of the speculation of what led Whale to commit suicide, was really rich dramatically."

The 67-year-old director was found on the bottom of his swimming pool. Whale, who had suffered a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, left a suicide note, which was suppressed by his longtime lover, producer David Lewis. Rumors began to swirl, and Whale's case was featured in one of Kenneth Anger's notorious Hollywood Babylon books, which finally prompted Lewis to release the note and squelch the speculation.

It was a fitting coda for a man whose most interesting creation was himself. Born in 1889, with the kind of aspirations that didn't mesh with his working-class background, James Whale spent a Dickensian childhood in the north England town of Dudley. He briefly attended an arts-and-crafts school, but was sent by his father to work in a factory while in his teens. What changed everything for Whale, and countless other men, was World War I.

"It's a cliché when they say an entire generation of men was wiped out," Condon says, "but it was true. In Britain, it was the beginning of the end of that rigid class system, because suddenly there was room for people like Whale. He was well into his 20s when the war started, and he was sort of resigned to the fact that Dudley was going to be his life. But the war happened and he survived, and suddenly in London there was space for him in the theater community."

His successes there led Whale to Los Angeles, and the ultimate tabula rasa industry: the movies. The deprived working-class boy, "with his nose pressed against the window for so long," reinvented himself as an English gentleman.

"Whale's elegance and artistry were quite real," writes Paul Jensen in The Men Who Made the Monsters, his study of early horror film directors, "but they also derived from a calculated performance in which he played the real-life role of 'James Whale.'"

As for the wartime experiences themselves, Whale funneled them directly into striking films like Journey's End (1930) and The Road Back (1937), and obliquely into his horror films, particularly the Frankenstein duo.

"David Skal, a writer about horror films, has really made that connection to World War I," says Condon, referring to Skal's excellent cultural study, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. Skal links the enduring Frankenstein story to the cultural anxieties of a century defined by rapid technological change and exponentially deadly warfare.

"Medical advances were such," continues Condon, "that men could survive, maimed, mutilated and, suddenly, you were surrounded by them in the postwar period. Movements as varied as cubism -- that version of the body -- expressionism, horror movies, Skal suspects all come out of that."

The recent surge of interest in James Whale stems in part from his status as a successful, openly gay director in Hollywood. He thrived in this insular and tolerant world, and only retired after one too many artistic battles with his studio, Universal.

Subsequently, his films are being examined with a different cultural filter, such as David Skal's assessment that: "The bride (of Frankenstein), brilliantly conceived by Whale himself as an art deco Nefertiti, anticipates the highly stylized women ... who would so often become cultural icons for gay men."

It's also one of the reasons that noted horror writer Clive Barker became a producer of Gods and Monsters. Prior to this film -- which was just named best film of 1998 by the National Board of Review -- the 42-year-old Bill Condon worked as a writer and director for hire on projects like Barker's Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh.

In some ways, Barker is Whale's aesthetic heir, and Condon checks off the common bonds between them: "born in north of England, openly gay, lives in Hollywood, makes horror films, is a painter."

One of the most striking aspects of James Whale's films is a strong identification and compassion for the ostracized, in particular, the misbegotten monster of Dr. Frankenstein.

"To me, the proof of it is the way he treats society in those movies," says Bill Condon. "He always just makes incredible, nasty fun of them. There's always somebody who stands in for the herd, and they're always the most ridiculous character. Whereas the interesting ones are the ones on the outside, on the edges."