The FIR Vault

CURTIS HARRINGTON ON JAMES WHALE

By • Jul 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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Like Castle Frankenstein, Curtis Harrington’s home is perched high above Hollywood Boulevard. The flotsam and jetsam are remote and yet precariously nearby. Once through the threshold, we are in a Hollywood that might have existed in that Golden Age referred to in the memoirs of a silent film star or even Norma Desmond herself.

The home is glamorous and nostalgic at the same time. Harrington’s passion for Art Nouveau is more than well-represented. There are clues that this is the domain of a horror film director – framed lithographs of bats, a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, a library that looks as if it were suited to house the Necronomicon and other magickal works of yore.

It is also the home of Marlene Dietrich’s slippers, a nod to his mentor, Josef Von Sternberg, who Curtis openly admires as an influence. But it is James Whale who truly resides in this ghostly ambience. Something I never realized until I was asked to do an interview regarding Harrington’s friendship with the reclusive James Whale was how similar they were in taste, temperament, and style in addition to being typed in a particular genre.

James Whale and Curtis Harrington were fortunate to have the horror genre to channel their unique self-expression. The finest of James Whale’s work is unquestionably THE OLD DARK HOUSE and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, while Harrington crystallized his talents with his first feature, NIGHT TIDE and then matured with what is arguably his best feature, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?

Like Whale, Harringlon’s feature work has withstood the test of time. When a filmmaker is as intensely personal as a Welles or a Von Sternberg, the dangers of working in Hollywood are obvious. For unlike Whale’s time, the Hollywood of 1996 is littered with bloated budgets, rehashed sequels, and the worship of youthful directors with enormous clout.

Thirty-six years ago, in 1960, Parker Tyler said of Harrington that “his main problem was how to avoid becoming another Orson Welles.” While this may be somewhat exaggerated, Harrington has remained a maverick filmmaker who should have been making features while others watched and learned. Yet, there still is time and hopefully Harrington will continue to make his stylish, personal films. So I would assert that Harrington is not only Hollywood’s true stylist, but the last pupil of the art of James Whale.

Films In Review: When did you meet James Whale?

Curtis Harrington:
I would say it was about 1948, because I had already made one or two of my short films.

FIR: Had he ever seen any of your experimental shorts?

CH: I must have shown them to him at one time, because I remember we were talking about my films, and the making of experimental films, on the occasion that I brought Christopher Isherwood to Whale’s house to meet him.

FIR: How would you describe James Whale?

CH: Well… he was a great cigar smoker. I remember that about him. And he loved to play bridge. In those years, with no more career, he spent a considerable amount of time playing bridge. And he also loved to paint.
At the time I met him he was living with his longtime companion, David Lewis – they were sharing the house. David had been associate producer for CAMILLE and KING’S ROW, had been a producer at MGM and Warner Brothers, and by 1948 had his own company.

FIR: Did Whale resent talking about his horror films?

CH: No, but he was in the tradition of someone who was self-deprecating. His attitude always was, “Oh, you want to talk about that…” He didn’t say it, but he was surprised that I considered them to be of importance.
We see these things so differently now than people did in the 40’s. I wrote and published my index to the films of Joseph Von Stemberg around that time, which started the critical reevaluation of his work. Now he’s a giant in the history-of movies, but in 1947, Von Sternberg was at the bottom of the barrel critically. He was completely disregarded in Hollywood, and everywhere else for that matter. And James Whale had no critical reputation at all.

FIR: Kind of like what happened to D. W. Griffith.

CH: Just read Lewis Jacobs on the subject in his book The Rise of the American Film. I can even quote it, when he speaks of the Dietrich/Sternberg collaboration, “A series of deplorable films, each stupider than the last.” (laughs)

FIR: So at this point Whale was very much into forgetting about Hollywood.

CH: Yes. I never felt that he was anxious to go on making films. He said, “After I made FRANKENSTEIN, it became such a hit. I was suddenly regarded as Universal’s number one director. I was making all this money all of a sudden. And I said to myself, ‘There’s no way this can last. I’d better save it.’ So I immediately got a business manager, my money was invested wisely for me, and I continued to do that during my career.”
His career only lasted about on years, but he came out of it smelling like roses because be was very prudent. And he mentioned, for instance, Elissa Landi, the British actress who starred in THE SIGN OF THE CROSS [1932]. He said, “You know Elissa Landi and her mother, at the height of her career, which was not very long, gave the most lavish parties. Of course, everybody in Hollywood went. And everybody would sit around saying, ‘isn’t she a fool. Spending all this money for this party.” Elissa Landi apparently died penniless.

Curtis Harrington directs Ralph Richardson in WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? 1971. Photo courtesy David Del Valle.

FIR: Well, the Rathbones used to throw great parties and Basil paid for it in the end.

CH: Poor Basil; whom I worked with when he was happy to get five thousand dollars to appear in a movie.
But James lived a sumptuous life style. He had a beautiful house in Pacific Palisades when I met him. And he had two servants: Anna and Johanna. One of them was the cook, and one was the general maid around the house, which was a large two-story house, with gleaming furniture and beautiful upholstery and antiques, and many paintings by a British artist named Doris Zinkeisen, whose claim to fame was chiefly in Britain. Her sister, who was also a painter, had done the mural for the Queen Mary. Jimmy had been very close to Doris, and I think they had even contemplated getting married at one point.

FIR: Elsa Lanchester, in an interview, said, “James Whale was a very strange personality. He was tall and thin, and had a face rather like a nice-looking monkey. He was a bitter man. Very billet I think it was because he had been in love with a lady painter called Zinkeisen, who he brought with him to the cave of harmony. They didn’t marry, and I think he believed that was to blame for not having a normal life.”

CH:
That’s her bias, her prejudice. The way she felt about her husband.

FIR: Well she was married to an openly homosexual actor – Charles Laughton. Was Whale openly homosexual?

CH: Not in the sense of screaming it from the rooftops or coming out. But yes, he was openly homosexual. Any sophisticated person who knew him knew he was gay. And nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive.

FIR: This was at a time when Gore Vidal published his groundbreaking The City and the Pillar, which forever ruined his chances of becoming a politician. What could the climate have been like for Whale then – in the late 40’s and early 50’s – with McCarthyism and all. Was it better to keep quiet about that sort of thing?

CH:
I think it was like what Mr. Clinton put through in the army: Don’t ask, don’t tell. You didn’t sit there saying “Are you gay, Mr. Whale?” No journalist would ask that question in that period. They might now. And there was no such thing as this deplorable practice by some militant gays called “outing.”
It seemed to me that he was perfectly at ease socially. He had many women friends, and usually at parties there would be some of his women friends – not dykes – just ladies that he knew and played bridge with. I never felt any great bitterness from him. It may have been there, but it never was anything that informed his presence or personality in all the time I knew him.
The outstanding thing about him – which is why I can’t reconcile this talk about bitterness – was his wonderful sense of humor. He had this big sense of joie de vivre. He gave elegant little dinner parties, with wonderful food, and a beautifully appointed dining room. In his films, you see these gorgeous flower arrangements on the sets, and the shining silver, and that’s the way his house was. If you knew him, you would then know where the inspiration for his sets came from.

FIR: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is regarded as probably one of the greatest films ever made, not to mention one of the top ten horror films. His sense of humor is what makes it so timeless.

CH:
I admired all Whale’s films, particularly THE BRIDE and THE OLD DARK HOUSE. I think it was the combination of very stylish filmmaking with the wonderful eccentricity of the characters, and the very personal James Whale humor. The whole combination is absolutely delicious to me, and I find them wonderfully entertaining and rewarding. I would quiz him about the making of these films, and he told me several very amusing anecdotes.
One concerned FRANKENSFEIN’s first sneak preview up in Santa Barbara. In those days, if they went to Santa Barbara for a sneak preview, they stayed the night at the Biltmore Hotel. They didn’t just drive back. So about 3:00 a.m. the phone in his room rang, and a man’s voice said “Is this Whale, the guy who made that movie they showed tonight?” And he said, “Yes.” And the man said, “Well, I can’t sleep, and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to let you sleep!”
Another was an outrageous story he was fond of telling about Elsa Lanchester. I was very curious about what it was like working with her. I had not met her at that point in my life. She was just the bride of Frankenstein. He said, “Well, you know, she wore absolutely nothing underneath that rubber sheet as the Bride. To get attention she would raise the sheet and stand there for all the crew to see her totally nude.”

FIR: Well, having met her, I found her to be very eccentric and with her own special humor, so I can believe that story.

CH: I suppose.

'If you knew him, you would then know where the inspiration for his sets came from.' A tableau from FRANKENSTEIN, 1931. (Photo courtesy Robert A. Harris)

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3 Responses »

  1. A well written piece that I have enjoyed again and again on Mr. Harrington’s insight on James Whale. Especially on the saving of THE OLD DARK HOUSE from limbo!!

  2. Wonderful article David – I wonder if Curtis still has the pressbook cover from Bride of Frankenstein that I gave him as a birthday present?? I always wondered about his relationship with Whale . . . and now I know – Thank you

  3. Thanks for this splendid article. This year 2010 , is the 75th Anniversary of The Bride of Frankenstein , I do so hope that Universal will see fit to release a Special Edition DVD/Blu Ray of this genre tanscending motion picture. It is a real classic movie on many levels I particularly enjoy the Franz Waxman score!

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