James Whale Essay - Critical Essays

Whale, James


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


William Troy (essay date 1933)

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 regarded as a general one. He begins with a carefully documented picture of a small country inn in England: the people,...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges (essay date 1937)

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...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Paul Jensen (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 3796 words.)

Donald F. Glut (excerpt date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 12128 words.)

William K. Everson (excerpt date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 3813 words.)

Radu Florescu (excerpt date 1975)

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,...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)

R. H. W. Dillard (excerpt date 1976)

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...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)

Lester D. Friedman (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 5144 words.)

Janice R. Welsch and Syndy M. Conger (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 5582 words.)

Martin F. Norden (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 3383 words.)

Dennis Fischer (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 12659 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 494 words.)