The FIR Vault

CURTIS HARRINGTON ON JAMES WHALE

By • Jul 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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...and with a Karloff look-alike.

FIR: The creation of the bride, a major set piece in the film, according to an article in the recent Sex and Horror issue of Bright Lights Magazine, “…serves as Whale’s emphatic reminder to the audience, his Hollywood bosses, peers, and the society beyond, of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator.”

CH: My opinion is that’s just pure bullshit. That’s a critical interpretation that has nothing to do with the original inspiration. It has nothing to do with the film. That’s the way he interprets it, and that’s his privilege, but I don’t think it has the slightest relationship to any of Whale’s concepts.
It’s sort of like the surrealist game, Le Cadavre Exquise – the exquisite corpse – where you have a piece of paper folded three ways: one person draws a head and you fold it over and give the next person a blank and he draws a body, then fold it again and give another person a blank and he draws legs and feet. You can draw a clock for the head, for instance. For the body you could have a coffin, and so on with the feet. Anything you want. And when you open it up it’s this monster, a surrealist monster, and it’s supposed to suggest the unconscious mind. And sometimes you can find curious relationships between the three parts.

FIR: So if one wanted to, one could put this layer of homosexuality over his horror films, even THE INVISIBLE MAN, because the invisible man and the Frankenstein monster are both outsiders.

CH: But I think Whale would have been absolutely astonished by such talk. Artists don’t think in terms of psychoanalytic interpretation. And I think the closest you can come to a homosexual metaphor in his films is to identify that certain sort of camp humor.

FIR: Any final memories of your friend?

CH: Just what I’ve already said. I have an entirely positive view of him, as a kind, generous, and charming man who always saw the amusing side of things.
I remember his attitude toward Boris Karloff. He felt that Karloff was a minor actor who became a big star because of FRANKENSTEIN. He said, “What happened was that Karloff began to take himself seriously. When we made FRANKENSTEIN it was a million laughs on the set every day, even when he was in makeup. By the time he made THE MUMMY, he had become very serious indeed.” Karloff sent him a note one day that he was to come to Jack Pierce’s makeup department. He was ushered in with great ceremony, and everyone was whispering, and there was Karloff being unveiled. As Jimmy described it, “it just looked to me like he had a lot of garbage on his face. I never saw so much junk on a man’s face.” He said, “Boris, I think this will be the most mervelous thing ever seen on the silver sheet!” That was when they were just billing him as ‘Karloff.’

FIR: And to your knowledge, Whale’s demise was a final good-bye to age and pain.

CH: Yes. There was a note. It’s in Jim Curtis’ book. I believe James says in that note that he felt he would be happier where he was going than where he was. I didn’t see him in those very last years. I don’t know if he’d had a falling out with Pierre, whether his health was failing, or whether he suffered terrible world-weariness in his old age. But it wasn’t a case of foul play.
There were rumors about some sort of scandal that hastened the end of his career, but I’ve never heard chapter and verse on that, and if you examine his career and consider what he told me, his retirement seems calculated on his part. Carl Laemmle had been his great admirer and protector. When he first started, producers were merely called supervisors, and his first films were produced and directed entirely by him-there was no middleman. They were his creations completely. And then the credits began gradually to be “Produced by,” and Whale felt his power to do whatever he wanted was greatly eroded. He didn’t want to work for the producer, and that’s apparently what happened.
He began his career directing JOURNEY’S END, which was a World War I story, and he was the number one director at Universal Studios from about 1931 to 1937. Then it began to erode. After SHOWBOAT, he was supposed to do a big production, again with a World War I theme, called THE ROAD BACK, and something went wrong, though I don’t know what. His work was being compromised and he didn’t feel it was worth coping with that.

FIR: So it would have been full circle, and the irony of that title is that there was no road back for his career. Did he have a favorite among his films?

CH: Yes-one of the films we haven’t mentioned at all – REMEMBER LAST NIGHT.

FIR: That’s a great comedy.

CH: It’s an outrageous comedy, very similar in tone (about drinking) to the current hit TV series from Britain, ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. At one point Edward Arnold says, “You’re all a bunch of drunks, but I love ya anyway” There’s no such thing as a lovable drunk in America now, nor was there in that period in the thirties, I suppose.
It’s interesting to me, if you’ve seen REMEMBER LAST NIGHT or HELLO OUT THERE, in addition to the horror films, how unique the sets of his films were in his heyday. The set design for HELLO OUT THERE is heavily impressionistic, and the sets for REMEMBER LAST NIGHT are enormous. He must have had a very strong influence on the set designers and decorators of the time.

FIR: Do you think Whale had an influence on your work?

CH: Oh yes, I do. I can’t point to chapter and verse on that, but my own quirky sense of humor and my love of eccentric characters certainly contain echoes of Whale. I’ve used Estelle Winwood and people like that whenever I could in my films. When I made a television film called THE CAT CREATURE (1974), I brought back Gale Sondergaard after her long exile from Hollywood.

JOURNEY'S END, 1930. Colin Clive and David Manners. (Photo courtesy Jerry 
Vermilye).

David Del Valle, veteran correspondent for U.K.’s Films and Filming, is a contributing writer for Video Watchdog, Psychotronic, and The Dark Side, writes liner notes for laserdiscs such as the Corman/Poe double bills, and has produced video interviews with genre personalities including Curtis Harrington, Russ Meyer, Cameron Mitchell, and Vincent Price.

Further reading: James Whale: A Biography or The Would-Be Gentleman, by Mark Gatiss, published by Cossell.

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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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