One of the most stylized and talented filmmakers of the 1930s, director James Whale was also one of the most successful; a fact that stood in direct contrast to his long-underappreciated stature in the history of cinema. Arriving in Hollywood at the dawn of the sound era, he made a name for himself around town with the war dramas "Journey's End" (1930) and "Waterloo Bridge" (1931). It was, however, the Universal horror classic "Frankenstein" (1931) that established Whale as an A-list director, influential enough to choose his own projects and cast them as he saw fit. Despite his best efforts to diversify, hugely popular films like "The Invisible Man" (1933) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) pigeon-holed him as a horror director, even as critics who were dismissive of the genre failed to recognize his formidable visual and aesthetic brilliance. Although the critically hailed musical drama "Show Boat" (1936) gave unassailable proof as to his versatility, a regime change at Universal and his general disillusionment with the industry eventually led to Whale's retirement from film after a decade's worth of work. Having fallen out of fashion with the French and American auteur critics of the 1960s and 1970s, more in-depth assessments by biographers and film historians in the years that followed allowed for a much deserved reappointment of Whale to the pantheon of influential 20th century filmmakers.
James Whale was born on July 22, 1889 in Dudley, Worcestershire, U.K. to parents Sarah, a nurse, and William Whale, a blast furnace operator. The sixth of seven children, Whale grew up poor and was forced to abandon his education at the Dudley Blue Coat School in order to go to work and help support his large family. Working as a cobbler, the teenager also utilized his natural artistic ability by earning money lettering signs and price tags for local shopkeepers. Using what little extra income he could afford, Whale further honed his craft with evening classes at the Dudley School of Arts. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he underwent officer training and was later commissioned into the Worcestershire Regiment two years later. Taken prisoner during the Flanders Campaign in the summer of 1917, Whale was held as a prisoner of war for two years, during which time he made the best of a bad situation by producing theatrical shows for the camp's guards and its prisoner population. Upon his return to England, he embarked on a stage career, initially as an actor, although he eventually found more success as a set designer and stage director. Although an openly gay man, Whale maintained a relationship - possibly even engagement - with costume designer Doris Zinkeisen for a number of years before parting ways with her in 1925.
In 1928, Whale enjoyed unexpected success when he was given the opportunity to direct a production of R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End," a moving war drama, which originally starred a young Laurence Olivier. When the play moved on to larger venues in London, Olivier was replaced by Colin Clive, an actor who would figure prominently in Whale's future endeavors. Lauded by critics and audiences alike, "Journey's End" was eventually taken to New York, where it continued its acclaimed run on Broadway in the spring of 1929. At this point, Whale became the epitome of a man in the right place at the right time. Hollywood, struggling to make the conversion to sound cinema, raided the talent pools of the theater world for directors experienced with dialogue, and the eloquent English stage director fit that description. The new position of "dialogue director" was created to help established silent film directors cope with the unfamiliar element, and as such, Whale, who had just performed similar duties over at Paramount, was hired to assist Howard Hughes in the landmark aerial drama "Hell's Angel's" (1930). Although officially uncredited, it was later acknowledged that Whale not only helmed several interior dialogue scenes, but was also instrumental in pulling an acceptable performance out of the insecure ingénue Jean Harlow, who was tackling her first starring role.
That same year, Whale earned his first feature director's credit with the adaptation of "Journey's End" (1930), which retained Clive in the leading role. With its realistic dialogue and action confined largely to a foxhole, the film was perfectly suited to the technical limitations of early sound cinema, and Whale's assured directorial hand made for an admirable first effort. Following the success of "Journey's End" in both the U.S. and U.K., he was signed by Carl Laemmle, Jr. at Universal Studios and given the wartime drama "Waterloo Bridge" (1931) as his sophomore effort. Considered by many to be the finest adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's play of the same name, "Waterloo Bridge" came in on time and under budget, winning Whale his choice of which Universal property he would direct next. Whale chose wisely, indeed, when he requested "Frankenstein" (1931), based on the novella by Mary Shelly. Bringing on Clive for the role of the titular mad doctor and relatively unknown actor Boris Karloff as "The Monster," the director brought to the screen an atmospheric, briskly-paced and terrifying cautionary tale of the dangers of man playing god. Even more than its companion piece, Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" marked the full-fledged emergence of horror as a commercially viable genre in American cinema. A smash box office hit, it catapulted Karloff to major stardom and elevated Whale to the vaunted status of Universal's premier director.
Not surprisingly, in light of the unprecedented success of "Frankenstein," the studio was eager to have Whale helm another horror feature. Not inclined to repeat himself, the director demurred and chose the lightweight romantic drama "The Impatient Maiden" (1931) as his next project. As disappointing as that film was, convincing Whale to move forward with "The Old Dark House" (1932) was a relatively simple task. "The Old Dark House" (1932) was at once a reinvigoration of the malevolent mansion subgenre, a brilliant exercise in expressionist set design and directorial style, and an affectionately black parody of English family life. By now, Whale had established a group of frequent collaborators that, in addition to Clive, included writers R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy, editor Ted Kent and set designer Charles D. Hall. Obsessed with camera movement and intricately staged scenes, he ingeniously used reflections to illustrate differences between outward appearance and reality in his grim portrait of marriage and murder, "The Kiss Before the Mirror" (1933). Although the latter film failed to garner much attention, Whale's next feature, the special effects spectacular "The Invisible Man" (1933), proved to be one of the most successful, critically-hailed films of the year. A story of megalomania, madness and revenge, audiences thrilled to the sound of Claude Rains' maniacal voice and marveled at the ground-breaking invisibility effects.
After the record-setting success of "The Invisible Man," Whale shifted gears once again with the stylized romantic comedy "By Candlelight" (1933). He followed that bit of satisfying fluff with an unsung minor masterpiece, "One More River" (1934). A literate and very adult portrait of an abusive marriage, this beautiful adaptation of John Galsworthy's last novel was tragically overlooked in its day. More famous and flamboyant by far was the film often heralded as Whale's greatest, the long-awaited sequel he at last agreed to make - "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935). Depicting the doomed pairing of the Monster (Karloff) with a specially created mate (Elsa Lanchester), the film was brimming with fantastic moments, technical virtuosity, and the director's masterful control of tone, mood and atmosphere. Within five years, Whale had become one of a handful of directors in the studio system to attain almost total control over his projects, and as long as the box office responded favorably, Carl Laemmle Sr. and Jr. were content to let Whale play and experiment to his heart's content. A perfect example could be seen in his next feature, a genre convention-skewering mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery, "Remember Last Night?" (1935), about a group of socialites who awake after an all-night binge to discover one of their own murdered. Complications ensue, due to the fact that they were all too intoxicated to recall any of the previous night's events.
Whale next directed what many consider the greatest version of the landmark stage musical drama "Show Boat" (1936). Handsomely shot, lovingly detailed, and featuring memorable performances from Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan and Allan Jones, Whale went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the Kern and Hammerstein stage experience in his filmed adaptation. Despite the continued success on screen, troubled waters lay ahead at Universal Studios. The Laemmles, in a bid to move Universal from second-string status to the big leagues, had overextended themselves financially by 1936, resulting in their ouster after a corporate takeover. With more fiscally-minded overseers now in charge, the sympathetic atmosphere Whale had long enjoyed at Universal quickly evaporated. After protests and a threatened German boycott by the then-ruling Nazi Party prompted fearful studio execs to make drastic cuts to Whale's WWI drama "The Road Back" (1937), the once pampered director found himself relegated to little more than a high-priced hired hand. Hoping to get out of their contract with Whale, the new studio regime assigned him a string of B-movie projects. A disgusted Whale went on to freelance for studios such as Warner Bros. and MGM on lesser projects like "The Great Garrick" (1937), prior to helming his penultimate Universal movie, "Wives Under Suspicion" (1938), a tepid remake of his own "The Kiss Before the Mirror."
Although increasingly disillusioned with the film business and on the outs with the establishment, Whale still had a cinematic trick up his sleeve. Exceptional in its own right was his thrilling version of Dumas' swashbuckling classic "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939), starring Louis Hayward as twins of royal lineage, and Warren William as the Musketeer, d'Artagnan. It would be Whale's last successful film. Sadly, the laughably bad "Green Hell" (1940) would go down in history as his final effort with Universal, and the World War II drama "They Dare Not Love" (1941) ultimately marked his swan song as a feature film director. Having said goodbye to Hollywood, Whale, always careful with his finances, was in the enviable position to what he pleased with his newfound free time. At the suggestion of his longtime partner and lover, David Lewis - another openly gay man in the film industry who Whale had met at the beginning of his career - the retired director took up painting, and soon built an impressive studio in his home. Whale still accepted bits of directorial work here and there, including volunteer work on an Army training film, and a brief return to Broadway directing the thriller "Hand in Glove" in 1944. His final film effort of any kind was "Hello Out There" (1949), a never-released 40-minute short, intended as part of an anthology film project.
During a tour through Europe in the early 1950s, Whale met and began a relationship with a 25-year-old bartender named Pierre Foegel. After returning to California in 1952, he informed a stunned Lewis that he intended to bring Foegel to live with him. It was the end of Whale and Lewis' 20-plus-year relationship, although the two remained lifelong friends. Foegel moved in with Whale the following year, and with the exception of a brief separation, remained with him at his home until Whale's death. In 1956, Whale was hospitalized after suffering a pair of strokes, and during his time there he underwent shock treatments to combat his increasing depression. He was eventually released and cared for at home by a nurse, although his failing health and diminished mental faculties soon made life unbearable for the talented filmmaker and artist. On May 29, 1957, Whale was found drowned in his pool at the age of 67. Although the circumstances aroused suspicion, the death was listed as accidental until the release of Whale's suicide note by Lewis shortly before his own death, decades later. Following an extensively researched biography by James Curtis in 1982, Whale's final months were the inspiration for the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. The basis for the film "Gods and Monsters" (1998), it focused on the unlikely relationship between Whale (Sir Ian McKellen) and a fictional gardener (Brendan Fraser). The film version earned McKellen an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and generated a resurgence of interest and newfound respect for the underappreciated film director.