Pride Month: The queer horror history of James Whale

Kino. Frankenstein, USA, 1931, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Boris Karloff. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Kino. Frankenstein, USA, 1931, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Boris Karloff. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images) /

Happy Pride Month! The LGBTQIA+ community, its allies, and horror stans alike should all take this time to remember one of the first openly queer filmmakers in Hollywood – horror creator James Whale.

Queer filmmaker James Whale is responsible for giving life to some of the most iconic horror monsters.

Whale is best known as the director of Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Not only do these classic Universal monster movies hold a special place in our hearts, they are also held by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.

Movie poster ‘The Invisible Man’ by James Whale, 1933. Private Collection. Artist Schwalm, Gene (active 1930s). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images) /

James Whale was born on July 22, 1889 to a poor family in Worcestershire, England. As a young man, he enlisted in WWI and served as a second lieutenant until being captured in 1917. He was held as a prisoner of war in the Holzminden Officers’ Camp for over a year, where he passed time by participating in amateur theater productions. After being released, he worked as a theatrical director in London until he moved to Hollywood in 1929.

In Hollywood, Whale met producer David Lewis and the two quickly fell in love. Despite the viciousness of the time, Whale and Lewis lived together as a couple and were open about their relationship.

The queer lovers stayed together for over 20 years.

Although not explicitly stated at the time, many people recognize queer themes in James Whale’s work, particularly in The Bride of Frankenstein. This is not only attributed to the director’s homosexuality, but also because of the characteristics of Doctor Pretorius, the story’s motifs of repression, and the Bride’s drag-like appearance.

Kino. Bride of Frankenstein, USA, 1935, aka: Frankensteins Braut, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images) /

Whale decided to move on from horror, and all went well until the 1937 film The Road Back. Made as a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), it followed German soldiers as they returned to civilian life after WWI. Once Whale wrapped filming, the picture was mutilated under the orders of Universal Studios, who wished to appease Nazi Germany by taking out the anti-Nazi sentiments of the original story. Yikes.

Whale’s career died down after that. He soon split with Lewis, although they remained very close friends until the end of his life.

James Whale was found dead in his swimming pool on May 29, 1957. He had suffered two strokes the year prior, causing him to be plagued by pain and depression. The means of his death were a mystery until David Lewis, growing close to his own death, released Whale’s suicide note. In the note, Whale asked for forgiveness and clarified that he had lived a wonderful life, but that the pain had become too much to bear.

There is a fantastic film made about James Whale in his final days – Gods and Monsters (1998). Whale is portrayed by queer icon Ian McKellen and the film is written and directed by queer filmmaker Bill Condon. Give it a watch to grow closer with this brave man of Hollywood horror.

So let’s all be proud of James Whale, the queer pioneer of horror who blessed us with The Bride of Frankenstein.

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