The FIR Vault

CURTIS HARRINGTON ON JAMES WHALE

By • Jul 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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'...she would raise the sheet and stand there for all the crew to see her totaly nude.' Elsa Lanchester unveiled in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1936.

FIR: Since we brought it up earlier, how did he handle Christopher Isherwood, who was another openly gay artist.

CH: I arranged the whole thing. I had met Christopher Isherwood (See Ken Geist’s ruminations on TOTAL ECLIPSE in our Film Review section) separately through Iris Tree, the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the mother of the screenwriter Ivan Moffet. Through a mutual friend I had been invited to Ojai, California to visit her, and in those days, since I didn’t have a car, I asked if there was anyone I could ride up with – it was a weekend invitation. She said, “Well Christopher Isherwood is coming up,” and she gave me his number. So I rode up with Christopher and his boyfriend at that time, whose name I can’t remember. I was very young then, and well read for my age-though I hadn’t even read any of his work-and whatever sophistication I had was from reading, not from life experience.
So I got it into my head, here is this great British writer, and I’m friendly with one of our great British filmmakers in Hollywood. I ought to bring them together. I mentioned it to both of them and they said, “Oh, yes. We’d love to meet each other.” So I brought Isherwood to dinner at James Whale’s, and it was a total disaster. For whatever reason, by the time I picked Christopher up he was pretty drunk. I drove him to the house and he continued to drink quite fulsomely at dinner, and took an immediate dislike to Whale which, being drunk, he didn’t bother to conceal. And I was sitting right in the middle of all this, absolutely mortified that I had mixed oil and water into this disastrous encounter. They were talking about me and my short experimental films, and Isherwood said to Whale, “I want to write one and you should be in it. I see a scene where they open a manhole and you creep out of it.” I was just sinking into my chair.
I finally took Isherwood home, apologizing in the vestibule as he was wandering out the door. And Jimmy, being a sophisticated person, took it with great good grace. He said, “Don’t think about it, it’s one of those things.”

FIR: Did you ever see any of Whale’s films in his company?

CH: He had no screening facilities and he never had people to screenings. There was only one time I watched one of his films with him. I was in Europe in late ’51, and James wrote and said he would be in Paris, and then London, and hoped we could see each other. I was very friendly with Gavin Lambert (Editor of Sight and Sound magazine) at that point, who was working with the British Film Institute, and I suggested to Gavin, “Let’s have a tribute to James Whale.” We arranged a screening of a wonderful print of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There were lots of people there so it must have been a British Film Institute mailing list or something. James was terribly flattered, terribly pleased. And of course there was the usual self-deprecation: “Oh well, it’s just a trifle…”

FIR: So you saw none of the ego that one reads about his displaying on the sets of both FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE?

CH: I have a feeling, since I never saw him at work, that there was great passion in his work, and he was probably very exigent on the set. But I only knew him socially.

Taken in Montmartre by a friend when I was living in Paris in the 50's and Whale came to visit for a few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Harrington)

FIR: Do you have any vivid memories of him in Paris or London?

CH: I can give you an insight into his great kindness. In Paris, he stayed at the Hotel Royale on the Left Bank. I was staying in a very cheap Left Bank hotel… I was getting 20 dollar hills in the mail from my mother, and was just barely living, but fortunately 20 dollars went a long way in Paris in those days because the dollar was strong and the franc was still weak.
Jimmy took me out to dinner two or three times, and at one point I remember after dinner we were walking down the street and he said, “Here. I want you to have this.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out 100,000 francs, which was like a $150 or something like that, which represented a fortune to me. And I said, “Oh, no.” And he said, “Yes. I want you to have it. I admire you so much for having the courage to come over here and have this experience in life. And if this will help, I want you to have it. No strings attached.”

FIR: That’s wonderful. He had a great generosity.

CH: Yes, which again doesn’t fit in with this constant talk about bitterness. I think in his heart of hearts, of course, he must have been disappointed that his career came to an end, though we never discussed that. But on a day-to-day basis he was light, witty, charming, and a very sympathetic person.
I remember that he went to some French gay bars when we were in Paris. I was never a boyfriend of James. We always had a strictly platonic relationship. And I never went with him, I don’t even know how he found them. But he said, “1 met this wonderful boy last night. I want you to meet him.” Pierre was a lower-class Frenchman, [and] I don’t think there’s anything worse. I mean, let’s face it, the boy was a hustler out for what he could get.

FIR: And Whale was a wealthy older man.

CH: Whale brought him back to California, and he did stay with him until he died. And then there was this rumor that the boyfriend had pushed him into the pool, which we all know is an absolute lie.
His life changed once he had this live-in lover. I hardly ever saw him after that because Pierre was there and Jimmy didn’t invite me to the dinner parties anymore. David Lewis had left by then. I went to a couple of big parties that he invited me to. I don’t think I saw him at any point very near his death in 1957, which came as a complete shock and surprise to me.

FIR: James Curtis, who is the only person to have written a full-scale biography of James Whale, is currently doing a revised version with new information, which may help set some of these rumors to rest arid to paint a more accurate picture of him.
You are responsible for the resurfacing of THE OLD DARK HOUSE.

CH: Well, I always admired that film tremendously. I saw it when I was a child, during a re-release at the old Paramount theater downtown. I was fascinated by it, but didn’t have much of a memory of it until I saw it again in London that year in the fifties. When I was put under contract at Universal in 1967, I made a personal effort to find the materials on it. I was aware of the fact that there had been a remake at Columbia by William Castle.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE, 1932 (saved through Harrington's intervention). Raymond Massey, Lillian Bond, Gloria Stewart, Melvyn Douglas, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Eva Moore. (Photo courtesy Jerry Vermilye).

FIR: A comedy, and not a very good one.

CH: Which meant that Universal no longer had the rights to the story. The rights to the original novel, BENIGHTED, had reverted to the J. B. Priestly estate and were resold to Columbia. All Universal had was a film they couldn’t re-release or do anything with on television. So they couldn’t have cared less about it. They would just as soon have let it molder in the vaults.
I became friendly, while I was working there, with the head of the editorial department. I asked if he could make an inquiry where all the old Universal material was kept. I begged the hell out of him, and finally one day he called me and said, “Well, I’ve had word back from New York. They found the original nitrate negative. The first reel has deteriorated so badly it doesn’t seem like it can be printed. However, they have the lavender protection print.”
I immediately sent wires to Eastman House in Rochester, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Library of Congress, and the American Film Institute in Washington DC. I got an instant telephone call from James Card, who was the head of Eastman House. He was thrilled that the material was found; Eastman House would put up all the money for the restoration and new prints. I went to work getting clearances from Columbia’s legal department. It took a long time, and as a result, the material could be legally copied, though not for commercial use.
Eventually, they made four or five beautiful 35mm copies: one for Eastman House, one for the Museum of Modem Art, one for the American Film Institute in Washington, and one for Universal Studios. Those are the only extant copies that I know of. The first reel is somewhat out of synch, the title particularly. The sound of the airplane going around the world comes in late. But once the actual film starts, it’s back in synch. And the first reel doesn’t have the incredible crispness of the others because it’s a dupe. Still the prints are impeccable, and it might have all deteriorated if I hadn’t stepped in at that moment. I’m very proud of myself for having done it.
And I was able to tell Boris Karloff that the film had been preserved. He was shooting one of those episodes of IN THE NAME OF THE GAME. I got on the set and he was in his wheelchair. I was introduced to him, and after chatting with him for a while, I told him, and all he said, pleasantly, was “Oh, that’s nice.” None of these people had the right perspective about these things. I remember I was mad for Erich von Stroheim’s GREED, which is one of the great classics of the silent cinema. One of the first people I met in my role as a teenage fan was Zasu Pills back in 1947. I got on the set and I said, “Miss Pills, I want to talk to you about GREED.” “GREED? What do you want to talk to me about that for?” No concept. I said, “Do you realize Paul Wilson called your performance one of the greatest in the history of the cinema.” She said, “Really?” I said, “1 want to talk to you about Mr. von Stroheim.” She said, “Well, what is it you want to know about the old coot?”

Dennis Hopper in Curtis Harrington's eerie first feature, the experimental NIGHT TIDE, 1963. (Photo courtsey David Del Valle).

FIR: Getting back to Whale, I wanted to ask you, as an expert on his films, as well as a personal friend, what you think of the reading of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN as a metaphor for homosexual behavior? You have the character of Ernest Thesiger, a wildly effeminate kind of cartoon, and the overly hyper, eccentric Cohn Clive, also a known homosexual, creating life in the laboratory, bypassing God, bypassing the traditional male-female intercourse that usually begets children. Do you think Whale had this kind of hidden agenda when he was putting the film together?

CH: No. Not even remotely. I think all of that is a younger critic’s evaluation. All artists do work that comes out of the unconscious mind and later on you can analyze it and say the symbolism may mean something, but artists don’t think that way and I would bet my life that James Whale would never have had such concepts in mind. He was making a wonderfully amusing entertainment.

FIR: We’re mainly talking about his sense of humor here, and one could say that he was informed with a sense of camp, which today is regarded as a homosexual creation, but in 1934 and ’35…

CH: This was not the case. And it would be interesting to know how much Whale had to do with the script. Did he say to John Balderston and William Hurlbut, “I want you to create the Dr. Praetorius character like this,” or did they write it, after which Whale then said, “Ah. My old friend Thesiger will give it that very special quality.” I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg.

James Whale on the set with Boris Karloff...

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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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