James Whale lived as an openly homosexual man throughout his career in the British theatre and in Hollywood, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1920s and 1930s. He and David Lewis lived together as a couple from around 1930 to 1952. While he did not go out of his way to publicize his homosexuality, he did not do anything to conceal it either. As filmmaker Curtis Harrington, a friend and confidant of Whale's, put it, "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." While there have been suggestions that Whale's career was terminated because of homophobia, and Whale was supposedly dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood", Harrington states that "nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive".
With knowledge of his sexuality becoming more common beginning in the 1970s, some film historians and gay studies scholars have detected homosexual themes in Whale's work, particularly in Bride of Frankenstein in which a number of the creative people associated with the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were alleged to be gay or bisexual. Scholars have identified a gay sensibility suffused through the film, especially a camp sensibility, particularly embodied in the character of Pretorius (Thesiger) and his relationship with Henry Frankenstein (Clive).
Gay film historian Vito Russo, in considering Pretorius, stops short of identifying the character as gay, instead referring to him as "sissified" ("sissy" itself being Hollywood code for "homosexual"). Pretorius serves as a "gay Mephistopheles", a figure of seduction and temptation, going so far as to pull Frankenstein away from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of non-procreative life. A novelisation of the film published in England made the implication clear, having Pretorius say to Frankenstein "'Be fruitful and multiply.' Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way." Russo goes so far as to suggest that Whale's homosexuality is expressed in both Frankenstein and Bride as "a vision both films had of the monster as an antisocial figure in the same way that gay people were 'things' that should not have happened".
The Monster, whose affections for the male hermit and the female Bride he discusses with identical language ("friend"), has been read as sexually "unsettled" and bisexual. Writes gender studies author Elizabeth Young: "He has no innate understanding that the male-female bond he is to forge with the bride is assumed to be the primary one or that it carries a different sexual valence from his relationships with : all affective relationships are as easily 'friendships' as 'marriages'." Indeed, his relationship with the hermit has been interpreted as a same-sex marriage that heterosexual society will not tolerate: "No mistake—this is a marriage, and a viable one", writes cultural critic Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal. "But Whale reminds us quickly that society does not approve. The monster—the outsider—is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it." The creation of the Bride scene has been called "Whale's reminder to the audience—his Hollywood bosses, peers, and everyone watching—of the majesty and power of the homosexual creator".
However, Harrington dismisses this as "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." Specifically in response to the "majesty and power" reading, Harrington states "My opinion is that’s just pure bullshit. That’s a critical interpretation that has nothing to do with the original inspiration." He concludes, "I think the closest you can come to a homosexual metaphor in his films is to identify that certain sort of camp humor."
Whale's companion David Lewis stated flatly that Whale's sexual orientation was "not germane" to his filmmaking. "Jimmy was first and foremost an artist, and his films represent the work of an artist—not a gay artist, but an artist." Whale's biographer Curtis rejects the notion that Whale would have identified with the Monster from a homosexual perspective, stating that if the highly class-conscious Whale felt himself to be an antisocial figure, it would have been based not in his sexuality but in his origin in the lower classes.
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