Whenever the name of James Whale is mentioned in film literature the word "enigmatic" usually accompanies it. Whale remains something of a mystery man to this day and many of his films have become extremely rare (some seem to have disappeared completely). Today he is best remembered for his horror films--a less than adequate description of them--which is something that would probably amuse him if he were alive today, though his amusement would surely be tinged with a certain amount of regret.
Most records put his date of birth as July 21, 1896, but he was actually born in 1889. His birthplace was the town of Dudley in Worcestershire, England. He trained as an art student and was working as a cartoonist when the First World War began. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Worcester Infantry Regiment and served in France, where he was captured by the Germans. It was during his incarceration in German prisoner-of-war camps that he became interested in the theatre, after appearing in some of the shows organized by the prisoners. Back in England he worked in various theatre repertory companies but without much success.
R. C. Sherriff had just written Journey's End, a play about the First World War which is set entirely in a dug-out. But Sherriff found it impossible to interest established stage producers in the play, revolutionary for its time. Whale was someone who had nothing to lose and so agreed to direct the production in London's West End. The play was a huge success, of course, first in London, then in New York. Whale accompanied the play to New York and was then asked by the Tiffany-Stahl Studio to direct the film version.
While negotiating with Tiffany in Hollywood Whale worked as a dialogue director at Paramount on a film called The Love Doctor (1930) and was then hired by Howard Hughes to work in a similar capacity on Hell's Angels (1930). He apparently learned the rudiments of screen directing quite swiftly as the film of Journey's End (1930) is a competent cinematic interpretation of the play, though not outstanding. The play was opened out for certain sequences but most of the action still took place within the single dug-out set. After this success he was put under contract by Universal, always on the look-out for new foreign talent. They quickly searched for an British subject for him to direct and came up with Waterloo Bridge (1931). Despite the British setting it was filmed entirely at Universal. Among the properties they next offered him was Frankenstein.
Whale's Frankenstein (1931) remains an impressive film even today. The years have been much kinder to it than to Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), on account of Whale's superior direction, which was visually stylish as well as fast-moving. With his atmospheric lighting, smooth tracking shots and numerous low-angle shots that were never obtrusive but made effective use of the high-ceiling sets--in particular Frankenstein's laboratory--Whale succeeded in making a horror film that possessed a real sense of grandeur.
The success of Frankenstein meant that Universal's executives immediately decided that horror films were Whale's forte--a typical example of Hollywood's strange sense of logic. Whale was not pleased by this unexpected categorization, but he decided to make the best of the situation by hiring a number of his old friends from the British stage. In his next film The Old Dark House (1932) Whale cast Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey, as well as Boris Karloff, and to write the dialogue he brought over R. C. Sherriff. Based on a J. B. Priestley play and novel called Benighted, The Old Dark House was a very British picture and gave Whale plenty of opportunity to indulge his quirky sense of humour.
Sherriff also wrote the script for Whale's The Invisible Man (1933), another very British film full of Whale's idiosyncratic humor. It was based on H. G. Wells' novel about a scientist who discovers the secret of invisibility but whose mind is affected as a result. Claude Rains gave a fine performance as the scientist, and his success in the part led to a long Hollywood career.
Whale's most eccentric film was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), an artful combination of the bizarre and the humorous, though not many people thought so at the time of its release. Even Karloff thought that Whale went too far, especially in the sequence where the Monster meets an old blind hermit and shares a meal with him. Yet that sequence is one of the most memorable in a film full of memorable moments (and was parodied most effectively in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein in 1974). Karloff wasn't the only one who disapproved--the studio executives also were unhappy and The Bride of Frankenstein was to be the last horror film that Whale directed (precisely his intention when he set out to make Bride as off-beat as possible). Nonetheless, Whale ended up with a film to which the word "classic" can be applied, for a change, with complete justification.
By 1935 Whale had become one of Universal's top directors. Apart from the horror films he had also made several others on more conventional subjects--films such as By Candlelight (1933), A Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), One More River (1934), and Remember Last Night (1935), most of which contained strong elements of humor. In 1936 he directed Universal's big picture of the year, a film version of the musical Showboat. But that year Universal City was sold, and from then on Whale's career began to suffer.
At first he and Carl Laemmle Jr. planned to set up an independent producing organization but the project fell through. His next big film was The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, which was a failure. He never again had a major success but a couple of his other films did moderately well, in particular the 1939 production of The Man in the Iron Mask (which included a young Peter Cushing in its cast). But Whale, no longer enjoying the same sort of artistic freedom that he had had at Universal and became soured with Hollywood. During the making of They Dare Not Love in 1941, which was about war refugees, he walked off the set after an argument and never returned. Whale never directed another feature film.
After directing a few plays in both America and England, Whale spent most of his retirement painting and set designing. He was financially well-off, having wisely invested his fabulous salaries in real estate. He was worth over $600,000 when he died in 1957. Since he was a known homosexual, Whale's rather unusual death--he was found drowned in his swimming pool on the night of May 29, 1957--provoked several rumours of a sinister nature. But a series of strokes had left Whale in a seriously weakened condition and he actually committed suicide. Because his suicide note was withheld (and first published in James Curtis's biography of the director), the exact circumstances of his death remained a mystery for many years.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of James Whale films.
Find James Whale on eBay.com
A selection of James Whale in books.
A History of Horror
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