It was 125 years ago today, on 22 July 1889, that director James Whale was born in Dudley, Worcestershire. Today he may be best known for the classic horror films he directed for Universal Pictures (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein), although he directed many other classic films as well (including the 1936 version of Show Boat). Today he numbers among the best known and most respected directors of the Thirties. Despite this his career as a film director was relatively short. He only worked in motion pictures for eleven years.
James Whale began his adult life as a cobbler and also lettered signs for extra money. With the onset of the Great War he enlisted in the British Army, in which he rose to the rank of second lieutenant in the Worcestershire regiment. It was while serving in Flanders that he was taken prisoner by enemy forces. He was sent to the Holzminden POW camp in Lower Saxony, Germany, where he remained for 17 months. It was while there that he discovered his talent for the theatre, writing, directing, producing, and acting in amateur theatrical shows. It was then after the war, in 1919, that James Whale embarked on a career in the theatre.
It was in 1928 that James Whale achieved a good deal of success directing R. C. Sherriff's play Journey's End on London's West End. The original production starred a young Laurence Olivier and centred on a group of soldiers involved in trench warfare during the Great War. Journey's End proved successful enough that in 1929 a production of the play was staged in New York City, also directed by James Whale. It once more proved to be a success and attracted the attention of Hollywood. He served as a dialogue director at Paramount for The Love Doctor (1929) and directed the dialogue sequences for Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) before directing the film adaptation of Journey's End (1930).
Journey's End was produced by British producer George Pearson for Gainsborough Pictures and Tiffany Pictures, and starred Colin Clive in the lead role of Captain Denis Stanhope. The film proved to be a hit at the box office and also received a good deal of critical acclaim. Like the play upon which it was based, Journey's End also attracted the attention of Hollywood. It was in 1931 that James Whale signed to a five year contract with Universal Pictures.
There can be no doubt that James Whale's time with Universal marked the peak of his career. It was at Universal that he made his best known films, the classic horror movies for which he has been famous ever since. That having been said, not all of the classic films James Whale made at Universal were horror movies and, in fact, the first film he made there was a wartime drama. Mr. Whale's first movie for the studio was the 1930 version of Waterloo Bridge, based on Robert E. Sherwood's play of the same name. Not only did James Whale bring the film in under budget, but the film proved to be a critical success. Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. then gave James Whale his choice of directing any property the studio owned. Mr. Whale chose Frankenstein.
Alongside its sequel Frankenstein (1931) would prove to be the most successful film of James Whale's career. Frankenstein would prove to be a phenomenon at the box office, the Jaws or Star Wars of its day. It would also receive a good deal of critical acclaim. To this day it is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Not only would Frankenstein inspire a number of sequels, but alongside the previously released Dracula it sparked a Golden Age for horror movies that lasted until about 1935. Of course, the success of Frankenstein also meant that it would not be the last horror film James Whale directed at Universal.
In fact, another horror film directed by James Whale would be released by Universal in the following year. That having been said, even for the time The Old Dark House (1932) is a very different sort of horror film. Indeed, The Old Dark House is as much a comedy as a horror movie, taking the clichés of the "dark house" subgenre of horror and turning them on their heads. The film was based on J. B. Priestley's novel Benighted and its screenplay was co-written by Benn Levy, who had also co-written the screenplay for Waterloo Bridge (1930). Sadly, The Old Dark House would not do well at the box office in the United States, although it did well in the United Kingdom. It has since become regarded as a classic.
James Whale's next horror film would be an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man. The project has already been through a few hands before it reached James Whale. Screenwriter Garret Fort and director Robert Florey worked on a screenplay for the adaptation that was ultimately rejected. Playwright and screenwriter John L. Balderston also made multiple attempts at a screenplay, one with director Cyril Gardner. Several different writers, among them John Huston, would contribute rewrites. Eventually the project went to James Whale, who succeeded where several others had failed. The Invisible Man (1933) did very well at the box office and even received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even named one of the Ten Best Films of 1933 by The New York Times.
James Whale's next and final horror film is considered by many to be the best film he ever made. Strangely enough, it was a film that he initially refused to do. Almost immediately with the success of Frankenstein Universal had wanted to produce a sequel. Mr. Whale was not as enthusiastic about the idea, feeling that he had already done everything he could do with the idea and later worrying that he was becoming typecast as a horror director. Fortunately James Whale eventually agreed to direct the sequel to Frankenstein. The resultant film, Bride of Frankenstein, would become regarded as Mr. Whale's masterpiece. Indeed, Mr. Whale deftly blended dark comedy with moments of true horror to create what many consider the finest Gothic horror movie ever made. Bride of Frankenstein proved to be a hit at the box office upon its initial release, and also received a good deal of critical acclaim.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, James Whale directed more than just horror films at Universal. He directed a 1934 adaptation of John Galsworthy's One More River (published as Over the River in the United Kingdom) that was critically acclaimed, but that failed at the box office. Following Bride of Frankenstein he directed what may be his best known film besides his horror movies, his 1936 adaptation of the Kern and Hammerstein musical Show Boat, which was in turn based on Edna Ferber's novel. Universal had previously adapted the novel as a part-talkie in 1929. James Whale's version of Show Boat would prove to be possibly the most faithful version of the musical ever filmed. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and proved to be a success at the box office. Unfortunately, Show Boat (1936) would be withdrawn from circulation after MGM bought the rights to the musical and would remain so for years after MGM released their own version in 1951. Fortunately it would re-enter circulation in the Eighties and has since once again become regarded as a classic.
Unfortunately James Whale's career would soon go into decline. His project following Show Boat was an adaptation of the novel The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque. The novel was banned in Nazi Germany, which would create problems for Mr. Whale's film adaptation. The consul for Nazi Germany in Los Angeles, George Gyssling, protested the making of the film. Initially nothing came of this, with Universal resisting any changes to the picture. Unfortunately, at some point before the film's wide release Charles R. Rogers, the new head of Universal Pictures, gave into Nazi Germany and made cuts to the film. This angered James Whale, who then left the studio.
Sadly Mr. Whale would see little success after he departed Universal. Both The Great Garrick (1937) for Warner Bros. and Port of Seven Seas (1938) for MGM would bomb at the box office. He returned to Universal where he found himself directing the B-movies Sinners in Paradise (1938) and Wives Under Suspicion (1938). His last major feature film, a loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel The Man in the Iron Mask, was released in 1939. Made for United Artists, Whale's version of The Man in the Iron Mask would prove successful at the box office. It would also prove influential in its own way. Nearly every adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask made since Whale's 1939 version has remained more loyal to the plot of that film and than the plot of the actual novel.
While The Man in the Iron Mask could well have helped James Whale's career, his next film probably hastened its end. Green Hell (1940) was a jungle adventure starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Bennett. The film failed miserably at the box office. The last film on which James Whale worked would be the World War II drama They Dare Not Love (1941) for Columbia. Unfortunately, James Whale would not get to complete the film. Columbia head Harry Cohn fired James Whale and the film was finished by Charles Vidor. James Whale's film career was effectively over.
After They Dare Not Love James Whale would only direct two more films. For the United States Army he directed the short training film "Personnel Placement in the Army" (1942). His very last work on film was the 1949 short "Hello Out There," based on William Saroyan's one act play of the same name. A&P supermarket heir and millionaire Huntington Hartford hired James Whale to direct a short film adaptation of "Hello Out There" that would showcase his then wife, actress Marjorie Steele. The male lead was Harry Morgan, who had also appeared in the play on stage. "Hello Out There" was meant to part of an anthology film along the lines of Quartet (1948), but for whatever reason it was never released. "Hello Out There" (1949) would be James Whale's last film work.
In later years James Whale would increasingly suffer depression and in 1956 he suffered a minor stroke. It was later in the year that he suffered an even more severe stroke. In declining health and his depression growing worse, on n 29 May 1957 James Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his pool. He was 67 years old.
Particularly when compared to such directors as Sir Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, James Whale did not have a particularly long film career. It only lasted eleven years, from 1930 to 1941. Despite this James Whale has probably had more influence on film than many directors with much longer careers. It has often been pointed out that James Whale was heavily influenced by German Expressionism (particularly the works of Paul Wegener and Paul Leni). This is especially seen in his horror films, in which James Whales proved he was a master of light and shadow. More so than any other director of his period, James Whale would shape the look of Gothic horror films for literally decades. Indeed, his influence is still seen today.
While James Whale's expressionistic style would have a lasting impact on the horror film, his mobile camera work would have a lasting impact on film in general. At a time when much camera work tended to be static, James Whale is to be noted for actually moving the camera. He pioneered the use of 360-degree panning shots, most notably in the trial sequence of The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) and the "Ol' Man River" sequence of Show Boat. He also used tracking shots, one of his most notable being in This Old House.
Beyond his expressionistic style and his use of camera movement, however, James Whale's greatest legacy may have been his skill at transcending genres. While today many think of James Whale as a horror director, it must be pointed out that most of his horror films are actually a blend of horror and comedy. Indeed, his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein combines horror with black humour, pathos, and philosophy. And while James Whale is best known today as a horror director, he was quite skilled in other genres. Many believe his version of the romantic drama Waterloo Bridge to be the best, just as many believe his version of the musical Show Boat to be the quintessential one. James Whale was a truly pioneering filmmaker, one of the first directors to truly use camera movement to its fullest extent and one who conquered several different genres.