James Whale

By: Greg Rowland
July 22, 2009


JAMES WHALE (1889-1957) was born in England’s industrial Black Country. Here’s a typical gag from those parts:

An old left-wing activist is on his death bed. He announces that he’s joined the Conservative Party. His comrades are shocked: “Why’s yow doon eet? Yow beyn a Labour man aw yer loyfe!” He responds, “Ar, bood bedder one of thoyse booggers go thayne woon of oos.”

Whale, who was openly gay, brought the Black Country’s morbid brand of camp to 1930s Hollywood, where he is best remembered for directing Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, horror movies that provide simple allegories of gleeful or guilty men committing “crimes against nature” in the secret of the night. But camp humor is originally an English discourse — TBOF’s posh’n’poofy Doctor Pretorius, the Fearsome Giant, and the “Whoopsie-Daisy” Old Crone are familiar Pantomime characters. So instead of allowing a Queer Studies reading of Whale’s movies to overwhelm us, we should instead regard him as one of the engineers of a new, globalized mode of camp in which gender, death, morality, class, and sexual orientation became matters of playful distance. But even as the victorious Pretorius giggles, drinks, and smokes in a crypt lit by skull-candles, we get a sobering sense of what it is to pursue desire to its logical ends — and it always ends up with your laboratory exploding.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Florence Barnes |

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).


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