Today director James Whale is mostly remembered for his horror output for Universal, classic films such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Though largely forgotten alongside auteurs of the same era, Whale deserves to be remembered for his indelible imprint on early American cinema — his impressive style, use of German expressionism, and incredibly mobile camera work (he is credited as being the first director to use a 360 degree panning shot, for example). Though Whale remains known for his horror films, he also directed across a wide range of genres in the ‘30s: war films, melodramas, comedies, and musicals, many of which are sadly neglected. He also left a mark as being one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood.
As a young man Whale studied art until he was enlisted in the British Army during WWI, where he became an officer. He was captured by the Germans and spent two years as a prisoner of war. It was here, during the camp productions, that he discovered his love of theater, which continued after the war when he began a career as a set designer, actor, and director. His first big success was the war-themed play Journey’s End in 1928, which starred then unknown Laurence Olivier and later Colin Clive, who would go on to become one of Whale’s regular actors. Whale directed several very successful adaptations of Journeys End, first in England and later on Broadway. It effectively caught the attention of Hollywood, where he was to live for the remainder of his life.
His first film was actually an adaptation of Journey’s End (1930). At the time Hollywood sought new directors with extensive theatrical experience, due to the transition from silent cinema to sound productions. Whale was also given some dialogue scenes to direct in Howard Hughes’ war epic, Hell’s Angels (1930), before moving on to the war-time drama about a London prostitute, Waterloo Bridge (1931) with Mae Clarke and an early role for Bette Davis. Its star, the under appreciated Clarke, would go on to work with Whale again in his career-making next film, Frankenstein (1931).
Frankenstein united Whale with Colin Clive and gave the then unknown character actor Boris Karloff a huge break. The film’s success allowed Whale a significant amount of creative freedom at Universal, and though he did not consider himself a horror director, it was difficult for him to get away from the genre. His next film, a drama again featuring Mae Clarke, The Impatient Maiden (1932), was a critical and commercial disappointment and he returned to horror with The Old Dark House (1932). This is essentially a remake or a revitalization of the “old dark house” subgenre brought to film by one of Whale’s biggest influences, German expressionist director Paul Leni and his silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927). Though The Old Dark House came much later than the “old dark house” forerunners of the ‘20s, it is remembered as a classic of the genre. It also features Karloff in a supporting role and stars Charles Laughton. Whale would soon work with his wife, Elsa Lanchester and make her into one of the world’s biggest horror icons.
Whale’s suspense film the Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) was well-received critically, but failed to make an impression at the box office and he again returned to horror. The Invisible Man (1933), a special effects heavy sci-fi horror film, was another of Universal’s major horror hits and starred one of the most popular actors of the time, Claude Rains. As with Frankenstein, it spawned a whole series of sequels. He directed two more non-horror films before returning to Universal’s horror pantheon: By Candlelight (1933), a failed comedy, and One More River (1934), a romantic drama that reunited Whale with Colin Clive.
His next film, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), is arguably his masterpiece. Much of Frankenstein’s cast and crew reunited for this film, which Whale was initially not slated to direct, but he signed on after Carl Laemmle, Jr. agreed to give him creative freedom. In many ways, Bride of Frankenstein is the culmination of Whale’s themes and is the perfect blend of horror and black humor, German expressionism, and a style that enitrely Whale’s own. Bride was his final horror film and one of his last successful productions.
He followed it up with the comic murder mystery Remember Last Night? (1935), in lieu of directing another horror sequel, Dracula’s Daughter. Whale convinced Carl Laemmle, Jr. to buy the rights to the novel, The Hangover Murders, though the title and part of the script had to be changed due to the strict production code. The night after a wild party, a very hung over group of friends tries desperately to remember what happened when one of them turns up dead. Though murder mystery fans will find the film a lot of fun — it’s similar to The Thin Man series — it received mixed critical reception and did not do well in the box office.
Fortunately for Whale, his next film, Show Boat (1936), was a major success and remains the finest adaptation of the musical of the same name. His next major project, The Road Back (1937), was a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but was essentially ruined by the Nazi government’s vehement protests. Though they initially resisted, Universal ultimately made numerous cuts and changes, effectively ruining Whale’s war epic, which was also not shown or outright banned in many countries. (Remember the time when lots of countries sucked up to the Nazis? The U.S. government was one of them.) This was Whale’s last major production.
In the late ‘30s he churned out half a dozen films, but not many of these were successful. Two exceptions are the historical comedy The Great Garrick (1937), about a pompous actor, and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), a stylish adaptation of Dumas’ novel that coincidentally featured the first screen performance of British horror actor Peter Cushing. Whale also directed the forgotten adventure-drama Sinners in Paradise (1938), the poorly received Wives Under Suspicion (1938), actually a remake of his own Kiss Before the Mirror, and the maritime romance Port of Seven Seas (1938) with cinematography from the great Karl Freund (cinematographer on Dracula and director of The Mummy). Whale only made two films in the early ‘40s, the jungle adventure film Green Hell (1940), which was his last for Universal and features a young Vincent Price in a side role, and They Dare Not Love (1941), a WWII-era war romance with another small part for Peter Cushing. They Dare Not Love was Whale’s final feature film, though he occasionally picked up work throughout the next decade, including a short film and an instructional video for the army.
Though largely forgotten for all but his horror films, Whale deserves to be remembered for his impressive style and talent. His use of German expressionist light and shadow helped popularize this kind of stark visuals in early American cinema and brought about the noir genre. His use of suspense, horror, and black comedy was a likely influence on the later films of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work exhibits a similarly bleak sense of humor.
Regardless of genre, Whale’s work repeatedly exhibits a sense of dark humor and subversive, often campy theatricality. Though modern critics have tried to imprint a gay reading on many of his films (particularly Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), it cannot be denied that many of his main characters are loners and outsiders. Subverting normative morality and heterosexual couplings was a regular feature of his films, and these are apparent even though happy endings were often imposed on him by Hollywood.
It is not easy to say why Whale’s career failed in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, though there were likely a lot of contributing factors. After the fall of the Laemmle family and their ejection from Universal, Whale’s creative license as a director was severely limited. The rise of the Production Code also clashed with a lot of his sexual and moral themes, as well as his use of satire and black humor, resulting in films that were cut or outright changed by the studio. Though he had lived as an openly homosexual man since the ‘20s, it is believed that this hurt his career in later years. Whale was one of the first openly gay directors in Hollywood and nearly half his life with parter David Lewis. After he retired from Hollywood, Whale continued to take odd directing jobs in both film and theater, though he spent most of his time traveling and painting, going so far as to build a home studio for himself. Some of his paintings are currently on display in his hometown in England in the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.
After suffering a number of debilitating strokes, Whale committed suicide in 1957 by drowning himself in his home swimming pool. For years, the death was ruled accidental, until his partner David Lewis revealed the suicide note only months before his own death in the late ‘80s. If you want to learn more about Whale, check out James Curtis’ impressively researched and extensive biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters (1998), currently best book about this wonderful director and enigmatic man. I would also recommend this somewhat academic article on Senses of Cinema that examines whether or not Whale was an auteur and what effect his sexuality may have had on his work. Watch some of his films on MUBI and I also recommend the fictional biography Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen as Whale in the later years of his life.