James Whale Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.