James Whale 1896-1957
English filmmaker and stage director.
Whale is best known as the director of several classic horror films released by Universal in the 1930s. These films, including Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, have been widely praised for their inventive adaptation of classic literary works to the relatively new artistic medium of film. Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein are considered quintessential horror films of the early sound era, breaking ground both technically and thematically.
Whale was born in Dudley, England, to working-class parents. He had taken art classes in his youth and was working as a cartoonist when he joined the British army at the outbreak of World War I. Captured by the Germans, Whale became involved with amateur theatrical productions put on by his fellow prisoners in the POW camp. After the war he joined a number of British repertory companies, serving backstage as a scenery designer and stage manager and onstage as an actor. It was his staging of the play Journey's End by R. C. Sheriff, a hit first in London, then New York, which led to Whale's Hollywood career. Adapting Journey's End to film in 1930, Whale scored a success with his well-received directorial debut and was offered other projects by the studio, most notably Frankenstein. Whale resisted making a sequel to Frankenstein until 1935, when he was assured of complete control over all aspects of the film's production. The resulting Bride of Frankenstein left both audiences and studio executives unimpressed. While he continued to make more films after Bride, including successes like Showboat, Whale never directed another horror feature. With the exception of the long-shelved Hello Out There, made in 1949, Whale walked away from the movie business in 1941 to concentrate on painting and set design. After a decade of directing feature films, he had been able to retire comfortably, having made strong investments in the real estate market. Mystery surrounded Whale's death in 1957, when he was found drowned in his swimming pool. Rumors circulated suggesting that Whale, who was a homosexual, was murdered by one of his companions. However, biographers have pointed out that Whale had been recovering from a minor stroke at the time of his death and may have simply fallen.
Casting a virtually unknown actor named Boris Karloff as the monster, Whale approached the story of Frankenstein with an artist's eye for the visual. Through the use of low camera angles, dramatic lighting, and macabre sets, he achieved an effectively creepy atmosphere. The commercial success of Frankenstein soon established Whale as Universal's top horror director during the early 1930s, despite the filmmaker's reluctance to be pigeon-holed within a single genre. Among his other films from this period are The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, the latter of which amazed audiences with its innovative special effects. In Bride of Frankenstein, which is generally considered superior to the original film, the director indulged his subversive sense of humor by introducing eccentric characters and bizarre subplots.
Critics who first viewed Whale's horror films during the 1930s were divided over the director's talent. Some viewed the acting method he summoned from his performers as too stagy and not fluid enough for sound film. Since his death, Whale's stature as a filmmaker has grown considerably. Film scholars have praised his ability to balance literary themes with cinematic and theatrical techniques. His version of Frankenstein's monster, portrayed with equal measures of gruesomeness and pathos by Boris Karloff, has become an instantly recognizable icon in American popular culture.
Journey's End (film) 1930
Frankenstein (film) 1931
Waterloo Bridge (film) 1931
Impatient Maiden (film) 1932
The Old Dark House (film) 1932
The Invisible Man (film) 1933
The Kiss before the Mirror (film) 1933
By Candle-light (film) 1934
One More River (film) 1934
Bride of Frankenstein (film) 1935
Remember Last Night? (film) 1935
Showboat (film) 1936
The Great Garrick (film) 1937
The Road Back (film) 1937
Port of Seven Seas (film) 1938
Sinners in Paradise (film) 1938
Wives under Suspicion (film) 1938
The Man in the Iron Mask (film) 1939
Green Hell (film) 1940
They Dare Not Love (film) 1941
Hello Out There (film) 1949
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SOURCE: "Films: The Invisible Man'," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXXXVII, No. 3571, Dec. 13, 1933, p. 688.
[In the following essay, Troy praises Whale for his direction of The Invisible Man.]
There are two very good reasons why the version of H. G. Wells's Invisible Man at the old Roxy is so much better than this sort of thing usually turns out to be on the screen. The first is that James Whale, who is responsible for the direction, has taken a great deal of pains with something that is usually either reduced to a minimum or altogether ignored in these attempts to dramatize the more farfetched hypotheses of science—namely, setting. Ordinarily we are precipitated abruptly and without warning into the strange and violent world of the scientific romancer's imagination. We are given no time to make our adjustment to the logic of this new world which is so different from the world to which we are accustomed. The result is of course that we never truly believe in this new world: it is too abstract, too intellectually conceived, to take us in very successfully through our feelings. For this reason one is always tempted to lay down as a first principle for writers and directors dealing with the extraordinary the principle that to respond to the unusual we must first be reminded of the commonplace. And James Whale's success in observing the principle makes one more convinced than ever that it should be...
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SOURCE: "The Road Back," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, p. 233.
[An Argentine short story writer, poet, and essayist, Borges was one of the leading figures in modern literature. His writing is often used by critics to illustrate the contemporary view of literature as a highly sophisticated game. Justifying this interpretation of Borges's works are his admitted respect for stories that are artificial inventions of art rather than realistic representations of life, his use of philosophical conceptions as a means of achieving literary effects, and his frequent variations on the writings of other authors. In the following essay, which was first published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1937, Borges examines The Road Back.]
In the winter of 1872, among the jacaranda furniture of a hotel whose balconies faced the treeless Victoria Plaza, don Jose Hernandez—enemy of Sarmiento and of Mitre—wanted to expose the degradation that the disastrous military regime had produced in the natives of Buenos Aires and wrote the anti-war poem The Gaucho Martin Fierro. The hero—who is not aware of it?—was a deserter from the army; his companion a deserter from the police. We are familiar with the consequences. Around 1894, Unamuno discovered that Hernandez' book 'was the song of the Spanish fighter who, after having planted the cross in Granada, went to America to serve the progress of...
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SOURCE: "James Whale," in Film Comment, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 52-7
[In the following essay, Jensen discusses Whale as an early example of an auteur film director.]
It certainly is becoming harder and harder to keep track of the auteurs, especially now that more and more lost films are reaching present-day screens. Directors who once existed solely as names without identity now must be evaluated on the basis of a body of work long unknown. James Whale is one such filmmaker. Even though a few of his films—Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein—show up fairly often on television, these works are only a fraction of his output; and the fact that they are all horror films causes him to be typed as an effective but limited genre specialist. Some of his films are still out of reach and others are rarely screened (this writer is particularly indebted to William K. Everson for privileges in this area), but many are now available and enough is known about the others to warrant educated guesses.
Actually, Whale's decade-long career encompassed an impressive variety of styles and subjects. He has viewed war from the trenches (Journey's End) and from London during an air raid (Waterloo Bridge), and he has followed some youthful German soldiers home when the war ended (The Road Back, Erich Maria Remarque's sequel to All Quiet on the Western...
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SOURCE: "Karloff Sets the Standard," in The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1973, pp. 90-150.
[In the following excerpt, Glut describes the making of Whale's two Frankenstein films, including the director's casting of Karloff and Lanchester as the monsters.]
Universal Pictures in 1931 announced that it was planning to film Frankenstein. The first talkie version of Mary Shelley's novel would be based on the stage play by Peggy Webling, adapted to the screen by John L. Balderston. Dracula, the first sound version of Bram Stoker's immortal vampire novel, had been made by the studio earlier that same year. The film was so successful that Universal immediately recognized the beginning of a trend toward horror films and again turned to the classics for a follow-up. Frankenstein had been filmed three times during the silent era of movies, three times more than Dracula. There was obviously an audience appeal for the story of the manmade man. Thus Frankenstein seemed to be the logical selection for a horror film intended to be greater than Dracula.
The executives at Universal Pictures, wasting no time, began selecting the tentative cast and list of technicians that would hopefully bring Fhnkenstein to theatres before the end of the year. Directing was to be assigned to Robert Florey,...
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SOURCE: "Frankenstein—and Successors" and "The Old Dark House," in Classics of the Horror Film, The Citadel Press, 1974, pp. 36-61 and 80-3.
[In the following excerpt, Everson studies the style and structure of three Whale films, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House.]
Although blazing a trail for horror films, and indeed made before the descriptive phrase "horror film" came into usage, Frankenstein was carefully thought out as a morality play, designed to provide food for thought as well as enjoyable shudders. The hard to read, but even more bizarre original novel merely provided a point of departure for the film. Moreover, the filmed concept was itself changed by James Whale from a reputedly equally original treatment, conceived by another notable director, Robert Florey. Never dreaming that it would spawn a whole genre of much stronger chillers, reviewers were generally impressed by its artistry and the way it almost ripped a kind of raw poetry out of a charnel house of horrors, but wondered whether viewers were ready for such nightmarish stuff, and indeed, whether the screen had a moral responsibility to avoid such frightening material.
Its leisurely developed story of Dr. Frankenstein's creation of a Monster from the bodies and tissues of the dead—quite literally, and with no pun intended—now...
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SOURCE: "The Frankenstein Films," in In Search of Frankenstein, Warner Books, 1975, pp. 257-62.
[In the following excerpt, Florescu compares Whale's Frankenstein to his sequel Bride of Frankenstein.]
In 1931 Universal had scored a spectacular film triumph with Bela Lugosi in Dracula. Anxious to capitalize on their new-found star, the studio sought an equally impressive story to use as a follow-up. Director Robert Florey suggested Frankenstein and the studio assigned him to fashion a screenplay loosely based on Shelley's novel (but with a creature more horrible than she had described). In the finished script that Florey and Garrett Fort wrote, Lugosi was visualized as portraying "Henry" (rather than "Victor") Frankenstein. The only link to the novel was the premise of a man creating life from parts of dead bodies. Universal, however, felt that the public associated their new star with pure horror and wanted him to play the creation rather than the creator. Carl Laemmle, then head of Universal, persisted and Florey and Lugosi capitulated. Florey shot a two-reel test of the creation sequence on one of the still-standing Dracula sets. Jack P. Pierce, the head of Universal's make-up department, monster-wise, created a grotesque hairy make-up that Lugosi loathed putting on. In the meantime, director James Whale, new to the Universal fold, had read the script of...
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SOURCE: "Frankenstein: 'What Changes Darkness Into Light?'," in Horror Films, Monarch Press, 1976, pp. 11-32.
[In the following excerpt, Dillard explores the symbolism of light and fire in Whale's Frankenstein.]
Frankenstein is, according to the horror-film historian Carlos Clarens, "the most famous horror movie of all time," and, as John Baxter says in Hollywood in the Thirties, "deservedly so." Frances Marion in her autobiographical Off With Their Heads! recalls the "curious fact" that even in Hollywood "scarcely anyone old or young in the audience viewed the picture without some nerve-tingling reaction" when it was first shown in 1931. And the film still retains most of its impact, despite the familiarity of the monster's features even to those who are seeing it for the first time. Ivan Butler reports that the "first sight of Karloff … still manages to shock," and it has been my experience with recent showings of the film that it can still hold its own with an initially uninterested or even hostile audience—which cannot be said for Tod Browning's Dracula, Karl Freund's The Mummy or Victor Halperin's White Zombie.
The source of Frnkenstein's continuing popular strength does not really lie in its shock value, for audiences don't scream at it the way they used to do, or the way they still do at Night of the Living Dead or...
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SOURCE: "The Blasted Tree," in The English Novel and the Movies, edited by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, pp. 52-66.
[In the following essay, Friedman compares Whale's adaptation of Frankenstein to the original novel by Mary Shelley.]
In the "wet, ungenial summer" of 1816, a season filled with incessant rain that often confined her for days on end to her house in Geneva, Mary Shelley found herself in almost constant contact with one uncommon and two extraordinary men. However bad the weather may have been that year, it was nonetheless a period of unusual creative productivity for these four people. During the days in Switzerland Byron worked on "Canto Three" of Childe Harold, wrote Prometheus, and began Manfred. His friend Percy Shelley completed "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc" and undoubtedly began thinking about what would eventually become his masterful epic poem, Prometheus Unbound. Even the least accomplished of the quartet, the young physician John Polidari, wrote a tale entitled The Vampyre, which was eventually published (though wrongly attributed to Lord Byron).
Yet it was also a time of harrowing personal tragedy for the Shelleys. Mary still lamented the loss of her premature, two-week-old baby in February of the previous year, and the suicide of her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, in October...
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SOURCE: "The Comic and the Grotesque in James Whale's Frankenstein Films," in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, The Scarecrow Press, 1984, pp. 290-306.
[In the following essay, Welsch and Conger discuss Whale's use of the comic and grotesque in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.]
Both the grotesque and the comic are much discussed terms, and for much the same reason: their discovery in art or life is largely a subjective matter; both depend for their intensity, and even for their existence, on the perceiver. If we find something comical, it is largely because we temporarily become disinterested, spectators whose hearts are momentarily "anesthetized." We distance it by concentrating our attention on the presence of incongruity, eccentricity, infirmity, or illogicality. Similarly, if we find something grotesque, it is because we temporarily become alienated, spectators who feel threatened: we distance it by perceiving it, labeling it an unnatural, even satanic, fusion, distortion, or fragmentation. "The grotesque," as Wolfgang Kayser suggests, "is the estranged world," and one we find quite appalling: it is "an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world." Students of the grotesque as well as the comic point out the close alliance between the two: both surprise us and both underline life's absurdity. The comic inspires surprise by...
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SOURCE: "Sexual References in James Whale's 'Bride of Frankenstein'," in Eros in the Mind's Eye: Sexuality and the Fantastic in Art and Film, edited by Donald Palumbo, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 141-50.
[In the following essay, Norden discusses sexual themes and motifs in Bride of Frankenstein.]
The few critical evaluations of the cult favorite Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale, have largely been limited to explorations of the film's horrific and humorous qualities. Critics have commonly observed that Bride, an early example of the American horror film, is a worthy successor to the original Frankenstein (1931), also directed by Whale. New York Times film critic Frank Nugent, one of the earliest to recognize the importance of the film to the genre, termed it "a first-rate horror film" in a 1935 review. Bride's reputation as a masterpiece of horror remains undiminished, as is indicated by Michael G. Fitzgerald's late-1970s classification of it as "one of the best films of the genre." The alternative perspective is to examine the film as a parody that satirized the horror genre. As James Curtis notes of Bride in his biography of Whale, "Those looking for an exciting, well-paced monster movie are not disappointed. But adults and the more sophisticated can enjoy Bride as not so much a horror show as a whimsical fantasy and an exciting...
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SOURCE: "James Whale (1889-1957)," in Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1991, pp. 710-35.
[In the following essay, Fischer provides a survey of Whale's career, focusing on his horror films.]
Although James Whale is best known for his four famous horror features—films which practically defined the genre for several decades—he was a talented and versatile director who worked with many genres. In fact, before embarking on his horror period, he had been typed as a director of war films due to his work on Hell's Angels, Journey's End and Waterloo Bridge. While they do not fall within the scope of this work, these films are noteworthy along with One More River, an adaptation of John Galsworthy's last novel about an overbearing husband (Colin Clive in his fourth great performance for Whale) who accuses his wife (Diana Wynyard) of having an affair; the 1936 (and best) version of Show Boat, the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical with a magnificent performance by the great Paul Robeson; the overlooked gem The Great Garrick in which a French acting troupe, having heard that the famous English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) has boasted of the superiority of English actors to French, decides to pull a hoax on the egotistical thespian by impersonating the inhabitants of an inn along Garrick's way; and the highly entertaining...
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Brosnan, John. "The Men Behind the Early Monsters: Karl Freund, Tod Browning and James Whale." In his The Horror People, pp 59-72. New York: St Martins Press, 1976.
A sketch of Whale's enigmatic life and career.
Clarens, Carlos. "Children of the Night: Hollywood, 1928-1947. In his An Illustrated History of the Horror Films." New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1967, pp. 59-104.
Anecdotal account of the making of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man.
Curtis, James. James Whale. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1982, 245 p.
First full-length study of Whale's life and work.
Karloff, Boris. "Memoirs of a Monster." The Saturday Evening Post 235, No. 39 (3 November 1962): 77-80.
Reminiscence of Karloff's experience acting in Frankenstein.
Thomaier, William, and Fink, Robert. "James Whale." Films in Review XIII, No. 5 (May 1962): 277-90.
A descriptive survey of Whale's career.
Whittemore, Don, and Cecchettini, Philip Alan. "James Whale." In Passport to Hollywood: Film Immigrants Anthology, pp. 271-324. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.
Biographical sketch highlighting Whale's early stage career in England and the circumstances under...
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