James Whale (22 July 1889 – 29 May 1957) was an English film director, theatre director and actor. He is best remembered for his work in the horror genre, having directed the Universal Pictures classic movies ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), ‘The Old Dark House’ (1932), ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935).
Born into a large family in Dudley, England, Whale early on discovered his artistic talent and studied art. With the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the British Army and rose to the officers rank. He was captured by the Germans and during his time as a prisoner of war he realized he was interested in drama. Following his release at the end of the war he became an actor, set designer and director. His success directing the 1928 play Journey’s End led to his move to the United States, first to direct the play on Broadway and then to Hollywood to direct motion pictures.
Whale directed a dozen films for Universal Studios between 1930 and 1936 (his uncredited work on the war epic ‘Hells Angels’ having been done for independent film producer and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes at United Artists), developing a style characterized by the influence of German Expressionism and a highly mobile camera.
Having purchased the film rights to Journey’s End, British producers Michael Balcon and Thomas Welsh agreed that Whale’s experience directing the London and Broadway productions of the play made him the best choice to direct the film. Journey’s End was a tremendous critical and commercial success and placed Whale at the top of the British film industry. Universal Studios signed Whale to a five-year contract in 1931 and his first project was ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (1931), based on the Broadway play. The film stars Mae Clarke as Myra, a chorus girl in World War I London who becomes a prostitute. It too was a critical and popular success.
In 1931, Universal chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. offered Whale his choice of any property the studio owned. Whale chose Frankenstein, mostly because none of Universal’s other properties particularly interested him and he wanted to make something other than a war picture. Casting the familiar Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke as his fiancée Elizabeth, Whale turned to an unknown actor named Boris Karloff to play the Monster. Released on 21 November, Frankenstein was an instant hit with critics and the public. The film received glowing reviews and shattered box office records across the country, earning Universal $12 million on first release. It is one of only a few of Whale’s films that has remained in the public eye and is regarded as a classic of the horror genre.
Next from Whale were ‘Impatient Maiden’ and ‘The Old Dark House’ , both in 1932. The Old Dark House is credited with reinventing the “dark house” subgenre of horror films. He made ‘The Kiss Before the Mirror’ (1933), a critical success but a box office failure before turning his attention to ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933). Shot from a script approved by H.G. Wells, the film was a blend of horror, humor and confounding visual effects. The film was critically acclaimed and broke box office records in cities across the country. So highly regarded was the film that France, which restricted the number of theatres in which undubbed American films could play, granted it a special waiver because of its “extraordinary artistic merit”.
He followed The Invisible Man with ‘By Candlelight’ (1933) and ‘One More River’ (1934) before being tempted back to Mary Shelley again for his masterpiece, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). Whale had long resisted doing a sequel to Frankenstein as he feared being pigeonholed as a horror director. Bride hearkened back to an episode from Mary Shelley’s original novel in which the Monster promises to leave Frankenstein and humanity alone if Frankenstein makes him a mate. He does, but then destroys the female without bringing it to life. The film was a critical success and a box office sensation, having earned some $2 million for Universal by 1943. Lauded as “the finest of all gothic horror movies”. It is my all-time favourite from the 30’s golden era of horror.
Whale made ‘Show Boat’ (1936), considered by many to be the definitive version of the musical. He followed this with ‘The Road Back’ (1937) which caused such a stir in nazi Germany that the film was banned in numerous territories. His career never really recovered and he only made B-movies of minor success thereafter.
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.
Whale’s final months are the subject of the 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. The novel focuses on the relationship between Whale and a fictional gardener named Clayton Boone. Father of Frankenstein served as the basis of the 1998 film ‘Gods & Monsters’ with Ian McKellan as Whale and Brendan Fraser as Boone. McKellen was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Whale.