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James Whale Edit Profile

Film director , Theater director

James Whale was an English film director, theatre director and actor. He is best remembered for his four classic horror films: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale also directed films in other genres, including what is considered the definitive film version of the musical Show Boat (1936).

Background

Whale was born in Dudley, England, the sixth of the seven children of William, a blast furnaceman, and Sarah, a nurse.

Education

He attended Kates Hill Board School, followed by Bayliss Charity School and finally Dudley Blue Coat School. His attendance stopped in his teenage years because the cost would have been prohibitive and his labor was needed to help support the family. Thought not physically strong enough to follow his brothers into the local heavy industries, Whale started work as a cobbler, reclaiming the nails he recovered from replaced soles and selling them for scrap for extra money. He discovered he had some artistic ability and earned additional money lettering signs and price tags for his neighbors. Whale used his additional income to pay for evening classes at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts.

Career

Whale was eager to join the army when World War I broke out. Captured by the Germans, he began acting and directing while in a prisoner-of-war camp. After he was released, Whale continued acting onstage, eventually becoming a set designer and, later, a director. His direction of R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed play about the war, Journey’s End (1928), first in London and then in New York, was his calling card to Hollywood, where he was invited in 1930 to direct the film version.

Howard Hughes then asked Whale to assist on a big-budget drama about pilots in World War I, Hell’s Angels (1930). Whale was next hired by Universal to direct Waterloo Bridge (1931), an adaptation of a Robert E. Sherwood melodrama about a London streetwalker (played by Mae Clarke) who nobly gives up her soldier lover (Douglass Montgomery) so that he will not be disgraced.

Frankenstein (1931) was scheduled to be directed by Robert Florey, but when Bela Lugosi decided that he did not want to be typecast after starring in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Whale was assigned to the picture; it was he who cast little-known British actor Boris Karloff to play the monster. An enormous popular success, Frankenstein launched Whale as the preeminent director of the horror film.

Whale’s next picture was The Impatient Maiden (1932), a formulaic romance in which a surgeon (Lew Ayres) wins the love of a secretary (Clarke). He was then assigned to The Old Dark House (1932), an enjoyable chiller about travelers escaping a storm in the spooky title mansion; it starred Karloff, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and Ernest Thesiger. The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) was an unusual courtroom drama about a lawyer (Frank Morgan) defending a client (Paul Lukas) who murdered his wife (Stuart) for infidelity but who then suspects his own wife (Nancy Carroll) of being unfaithful in turn.

The Invisible Man (1933), an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science-fiction novel, returned Whale to the realm of the macabre. Since the main character, the mad scientist Griffin, would be either invisible or under bandages for most of the film, Whale chose then-unknown English stage actor Claude Rains for his charismatic voice. The innovative special effects and Rains’s compelling vocal performance have made The Invisible Man a classic horror film.

By Candlelight (1933) was a romantic comedy of mistaken identity set in Monte Carlo, with Lukas and Elissa Landi. One More River (1934) was based on a John Galsworthy novel chronicling the dissolution of a marriage and starred Diana Wynyard, Colin Clive, and Lionel Atwill.

The inventive sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in which Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) builds a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for his monster, is considered Whale’s masterpiece. A stylishly decadent effort, it demonstrated how far his artistry had progressed in just four years. Stars Karloff, Thesiger, Lanchester, and Clive were all superb, as was Franz Waxman’s soaring score.

Remember Last Night? (1935) was a minor comedic mystery. Show Boat had been made in 1929 and would be again in 1951, but Whale’s version (1936) of the Oscar Hammerstein II—Jerome Kern musical (via the Edna Ferber novel) is often considered the best; Irene Dunne delivered a strong lead performance, and she had peerless support from Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan. Show Boat was a big hit at the box office. The Road Back (1937) was a sequel to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), with the surviving German soldiers finding their homecoming rather rockier going than expected; Universal trivialized Erich Maria Remarque’s original story by removing much of its anti-Nazi elements.

Whale next made the comedy The Great Garrick (1937) while on loan to Warner Brothers; the theatrical background of the story about English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) was well suited to his talents. Sinners in Paradise (1938) was a tepid melodrama about a group of plane-crash survivors—each of them carrying a dark secret—stuck on a mysterious island.

Universal was deep into an austerity program, so remaking The Kiss Before the Mirror as Wives Under Suspicion (1938) was an obvious cost-cutting move, but the remake was inferior to the original. Port of Seven Seas (1938), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s attempt to film French author Maurice Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy of plays with Wallace Beery and Maureen O’Sullivan, failed in spite of Preston Sturges’s script. Whale finally was given a first-rate property to work on at United Artists, where he made The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas père known in English by the same title. It starred Louis Hayward (in a dual role as the French king Louis XIV and Philippe, the king’s unknown twin) and Joan Bennett.

Green Hell (1940) starred George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as treasure hunters in the jungles of South America, and They Dare Not Love (1941), set in war-torn Europe, starred George Brent as a noble Austrian prince who sacrifices himself to the Nazis. Dissatisfied with the material he was being offered, Whale made an army training film, Personnel Placement in the Army (1942), went into retirement, and spent the next 15 years painting. After two strokes in 1956, his health declined, and he drowned himself in his swimming pool in 1957. In what was unusual for his time, he openly acknowledged his homosexuality, a matter addressed in Bill Condon’s affecting film Gods and Monsters (1998), in which Sir Ian McKellen portrayed Whale in the final months of his life.

Works

Views

Whale was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. He was a particular admirer of the films of Paul Leni, combining as they did elements of gothic horror and comedy. This influence was most evident in Bride of Frankenstein. Expressionist influence is also in evidence in Frankenstein, drawn in part from the work of Paul Wegener and his films The Golem (1915) and The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from Robert Wiene, which Whale reportedly screened repeatedly while preparing to shoot Frankenstein. Frankenstein roughly alternates between distorted expressionistic shots and more conventional styles, with the character of Dr. Waldman serving as "a bridge between everyday and expressionist spaces". Expressionist influence is also evident in the acting, costuming and the design of the Monster. Whale and makeup artist Jack Pierce may also have been influenced by the Bauhaus school of design. The expressionist influence lasted throughout Whale's career, with Whale's final film, Hello Out There, praised by Sight & Sound as "a virtuoso pattern of light and shade, a piece of fully blown expressionist filmmaking plonked down unceremoniously in the midst of neo-realism's heyday".

Whale was known for his use of camera movement. He is credited with being the first director to use a 360-degree panning shot in a feature film, included in Frankenstein. Whale used a similar technique during the Ol' Man River sequence in Show Boat, in which the camera tracked around Paul Robeson as he sang the song. (The sequence also uses expressionist montages illustrating some of the lyrics.) Often singled out for praise in Frankenstein is the series of shots used to introduce the Monster: "Nothing can ever quite efface the thrill of watching the successive views Whale's mobile camera allows us of the lumbering figure". These shots, starting with a medium shot and culminating in two close-ups of the Monster's face, were repeated by Whale to introduce Griffin in The Invisible Man and the abusive husband in One More River. Modified to a single cut rather than two, Whale uses the same technique in The Road Back to signal the instability of a returning World War I veteran.

Personality

James Whale lived as an openly gay 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".

Connections

partner:
David Lewis

partner:
Pierre Foegel