Curtis Harrington on James Whale

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.
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.”

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?

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.

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)
'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)

'...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.
'...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)
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).
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).
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...
James Whale on the set with Boris Karloff...

...and with a Karloff look-alike.
...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.


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.