Film History: James Whale

Photographers Unknown, I Am Rather the Fallen Angel

“Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” 

― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, 1818 

Born in Dudley, a town in the county of Worcestershire, in July of 1889, James Whale was an English actor and film and theater director, best remembered by many for his classic horror films. Known for his use of camera movement, he is credited with being the first director to use a 360-degree panning shot in a feature film.

James Whale was the sixth of seven children born to William Whale, a blast-furnace worker, and his wife Sarah, a nurse. He attended public education until his teenage years. Because the cost of his further education was prohibitive and his labor was needed to support his family, Whale took work as a cobbler. He used his early artistic ability to earn extra money by lettering signs for his neighbors; this additional income paid for classes at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts located in the West Midlands.

In August of 1914, Whale enlisted into the Inns of Court Regiment of the British Army at the outbreak of the first world war; in July of 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment. Taken prisoner of war in August of 1917 at the battle in  Flanders, Whale was held at the Holzminden Officers’ Camp in Germany and later repatriated at the war’s end to England in December of 1918. After an unsuccessful attempt to find work as a cartoonist in Birmingham, he embarked on a professional stage career in 1919. 

James Whale worked as an actor, set designer, stage manager, and director under the tutelage of director and actor Nigel Playfair at the Lyric Theater in Hammersmith. In 1922, he met stage and costume designer Doris Zinkeisen; they were considered a couple for a period of two years despite Whale’s living as an openly gay man. In 1928, Whale was given the opportunity to direct two private performances of writer Robert Cedric Sherriff’s “Journey’s End”, a play that gave a glimpse of British infantry officers’ experiences in the trenches of France during 1918. The two lead roles were given to actors Laurence Olivier and Maurice Evans. 

The initial two performances of “Journey’s End” were well received; and the play opened in January of 1929, with actor Colin Clive now in the lead, at the Savoy Theater in London’s West End. Critically acclaimed, the play after its three-week run was then transferred to the Prince of Wales Theater in Coventry Street, where it ran for the next two years. The rights to a New York production of “Journey’s End” were acquired by Broadway producer Gilbert Miller who chose James Whale, already experienced with the play, for its director. This production of the play premiered at Henry Miller’s Theater at Broadway and West 43rd Street and ran for over a year. 

Brought to the attention of movie producers by the Broadway success of “Journey’s End”, James Whale traveled to Hollywood in 1929 and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to be the dialogue director for the 1929 film “The Love Doctor”. After the completion of the film, Whale met David Lewis, who became his longtime romantic partner; they lived together until 1952. David Lewis would later become a prominent film producer in the 1940s and 1950s, known for producing such films as the 1939 “Dark Victory” with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart and the 1957  “Raintree County” with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.  

In 1931, James Whale began what is probably the best known part of his career as a producer. He signed a five-year contract with Universal Studios and received his first project, the 1931 drama-war romance film “Waterloo Bridge”, which starred actress Mae Clarke, who is remembered by many for playing Jame Cagney’s girl in “The Public Enemy”. Later in 1931, Carl Laemmie, Jr, the twenty-five year old head of Universal Studios, gave Whale his choice of which studio-owned property he wanted for his next shoot; Whale chose the script for “Frankenstein”. He casted Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke as Elizabeth Frankenstein, Henry’s wife, and chose the little known Boris Karloff for the role of the Monster. Shooting ran from August 24th of 1931 to October 3rd. After premieres on October 29th of 1931, “Frankenstein” had a wide release beginning on November 21st and instantly became a hit with critics and the public.

In 1932, Whale directed two films: the drama “The Impatient Maiden” and a thriller film with Karloff and Charles Laughton entitled “The Old Dark House”, which has been credited with reinventing the “old house” genre of horror films. Whale’s 1933 film, “The Kiss Before the Mirror”, a pre-Code mystery film, received little notice and was a box-office failure. With a script approved by author H. G. Wells, Whale returned to the horror genre and produced the 1933 “The Invisible Man” which the New York Times placed in their list of best films for that year. This adaption of Well’s book, whose special effects were done in utmost secrecy, broke box-office records in cities across America.

James Whale’s next major project was the 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein”, a sequel to the original movie which he was initially reluctant to do for fear of being typecast as a horror director. The film, however, was a critical and commercial success; today it is regarded as the finest of all gothic horror movies and considered Whale’s masterpiece. Whale worked next on a comedy-mystery film entitled “Remember Last Night?” which resulted in divided reviews. After its completion, Whale started immediately on the project that had been in his mind for a long time, a film version of the stage production “Show Boat”. 

For the film version of this long-running romantic musical, Whale gathered as many members of the original show as he could; these included Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Sammy White, Irene Dunne, and conductor Victor Baravalle and orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. Great care was taken by Whale to ensure a feeling of complete authenticity in the set and costume design for this film. Faithfully adapted from the original stage production, the 1936 “Show Boat” is considered the definitive film version of the musical by many critics. This film was the last of Whale’s films produced with the Laemmie family.

Jame Whale eventually retired from the film industry in 1941. Encouraged by his partner David Lewis to resume his artwork, he rediscovered his love of painting and built a studio for himself. In 1942, Whale made training films for the United States Army and created, in collaboration with actress Claire DuBrey, the theater group Brentwood Service Players. He returned to Broadway to direct the 1940 thriller “Hand in Glove” and directed his final film, a short subject entitled “Hello Out There”. Whale’s last professional engagement was the comedy play “Pagan in the Parlour”, which was forced to close early due to contract difficulties that happened during its opening tour in Europe.

While in Europe, Whale met and became infatuated with the twenty-five year old bartender Pierre Foegel. He made the decision to bring Foegel back to the United States as his chauffeur. In November of 1952 when David Lewis heard this, he ended their twenty-three year relationship, separated but still maintained a friendship. Foegel moved in with Whale in early 1953, returned for several months to France, and then in 1954  moved back permanently with Whale. In the spring of 1956, Whale suffered a small stroke, and was hospitalized several months later after suffering a second and more severe stroke. As his mental faculties were diminishing, he began to suffer from mood swings and depression. 

James Whale committed suicide, at the age of sixty-seven, by drowning himself in his Pacific Palisades swimming pool on the 29th of May in 1957. He left a suicide note to David Lewis, who withheld it from the public until his own death. Whale was cremated per his request and his ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. When David Lewis died in 1987, James Curtis, as his executor, had Lewis’s  ashes interred in a niche across from Whale’s internment site. James Curtis would later write the definitive biography of Whale, “James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters”, published in 2003.

Note: James Whale lived as an openly gay man throughout his career in the British theater and in Hollywood, which was virtually unheard of in that era. While he did not go out of his way to publicize his homosexuality, he made no effort to conceal it either.

Insert Images:
A— Photographer Unknown, “James Whale” (Profile), circa 1930, Cream-Toned Vintage Print, 23.7 x 18 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC
B—”Frankenstein”, Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, 1931, Universal Pictures
C—”The Invisible Man”, Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart, 1933, Universal Pictures
D—Photographer Unknown, “James Whale”, Date Unknown
E—”Show Boat”, Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, and Helen Morgan, 1936, Universal Pictures
F—Photographer Unknown, “James Whale”, circa 1930, Cream-Toned Vintage Print, 23.7 x 18 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

One thought on “Film History: James Whale

  1. I am glad to read all this because i had only information surmised from a movie called “Gods and Monsters” and book by Christopher Bram also called just Gods and Monsters. I have some folks to share this with. Thanks!

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