Although he directed all sorts of movies, including the musical Show Boat, the name James Whale will always be linked with horror. During an age characterized by great horror films, Whale directed four of the greatest—Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride Of Frankenstein. If he didn't invent the genre, Whale redefined it so thoroughly that it's difficult, even now, to make a horror film without dipping into his bag of tricks.
Born in Worcestershire, England, in 1889, the son of a factory worker and a nurse, Whale discovered an interest in the theater while putting on productions for his fellow prisoners of war in a German POW camp during World War I. After the war, he worked as an actor and director in London, with his big break coming in 1928 when he directed Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's anti-war play about life in the trenches. Starring Colin Clive, later the star of Frankenstein, the play ran on London's West End for two years and brought Whale to the attention of Hollywood. There, he directed a film version of Journey's End as well as an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Waterloo Bridge, the latter starring Mae Clarke.
Seeking to cash in on the box office phenomenon of Dracula, the classic thriller about a vampire turned loose on Victorian England starring Bela Lugosi, Whale directed one of the most famous and influential movies ever made, a screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's horror novel Frankenstein. The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation, Frankenstein contains more iconic images than any other movie of the period and it made an international star of Boris Karloff, who was both menacing and sympathetic as the monster.
Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the opportunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.
Frankenstein was 1931's box office champ, grossing $5 million (with an additional $7 million overseas) on a budget of $291,000.
Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., wanted a sequel to Frankenstein, but Whale resisted. Ironically, despite helping to define the genre, he didn't much care for horror, and would have preferred to direct more movies like Waterloo Bridge—dramas and romances with literary antecedents. Business, though, was business, and after directing The Impatient Maiden, a little-seen drama starring Mae Clark and Lew Ayres, Whale turned back to the horror genre with an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, Benighted, retitled The Old Dark House for the U.S. market.
The plot is a staple of the horror genre—strangers forced to spend the night in a scary house—although the threat, in this case, is not supernatural but based in the psychotic behaviors of the people who live there. Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart play a quarrelsome couple stranded by a storm in the mountains of Wales with Melvyn Douglas, their good-natured traveling companion. The three seek shelter in a nearby farmhouse belonging to Horace and Rebecca Femm, an elderly brother-sister couple played by Ernest Thesinger (later Dr. Pretorius in Bride Of Frankenstein) and a particularly belligerent Eva Moore.
"What are they doing here? What do they want? No beds! No beds!"
Upstairs is their crazy father and an even crazier brother.
Playing the Femm's mute butler is Boris Karloff, so heavily made up the producers added a note at the beginning of the movie to say that, yes, he was the same Karloff who had portrayed the monster in Frankenstein. Soon added to the mix are two more stranded travelers, Charles Laughton in his American film debut, and his mistress, played by Lilian Bond.
The fun lies in trying to decide who's merely eccentric and who's a homicidal maniac. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) do a wonderful job of creating a sense of foreboding with shadows and Expressionistic camera angles. Whale was also one of the first directors to grasp the possibilities of the sound medium, and rain, wind, creaking boards, screams and howls, contribute to the mood.
TV Guide also praised Whale's ability to "emphasize an actor's entrances and exits, or to delay them as needed (as in the case of Saul). His striking flair for composition and editing works an audience over thoroughly, and he adds to the film's impact by deliberately playing with the buildup of suspense."
And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice noted that Whale—who was born in a working class slum and invented for himself a cool, aristocratic bearing—was particularly sensitive to class distinctions, an awareness that shows in Laughton's character, "a knighted bigmouth industrialist, still smarting from slights before his social rise."
Despite a generally warm critical reception, The Old Dark House was a box office failure in the United States (it set records in Whale's native England). The film was thought lost for decades until it's rediscovery in the 1970s and its reputation has grown over the last few years until it is now regarded as one of Whale's best.
For the subject of Universal's next "monster" movie, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., settled on the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, and following the released of a mystery starring Paul Lucas called The Kiss Before The Mirror, Whale began production in June 1933.
The Invisible Man is the story of Dr. Jack Griffin who discovers a process that will render a man invisible, a secret he initially plans to sell to the highest bidder until he realizes to his horror that there's no way to reverse the process. Its screenplay proved to be a tough nut to crack—no less a writer than Preston Sturges tried and failed, as did Garrett Fort and John Balderson, who had successfully adapted Dracula. Ultimately it was playwright R.C. Sherriff, whose Journey's End had provided Whale's break, who figured it out. He focused on the practical problems of invisibility—for example, Griffin must hide for an hour after he eats while his meal digests. In addition, Sherriff and Whale agreed that since the film's audience would believe that "only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," the story would emphasize Griffin's descent into madness.
"We'll begin with a reign of terror," Griffin says as his megalomania takes hold, "a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction."
To play the invisible man, Whale had initially planned on Boris Karloff, who had been such a sensation in Frankenstein, but when he proved to be unavailable, Whale opted for Claude Rains, a veteran of the stage and an instructor at the Royal Academy where he counted both Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud among his students. Although he was reluctant to begin his movie career with a horror film, Rains proved to be an inspired choice. Since the audience can't see him until the final scene, Griffin's entire character must be conveyed through his voice—and Rains had one of the richest, most melodious voices in movie history.
The other key to the success of The Invisible Man was, of course, its special effects, and those concocted by John P. Fulton and Arthur Edeson are among the best of its era. To create the illusion of invisibility, Fulton clothed Rains from head to toe in black velvet and filmed him before a black background. The footage was then optically printed over the scenes filmed on the set. In addition, to cover imperfections, Edeson retouched over four thousand frames of film by hand.
The result is startlingly effective, especially when Rains unwinds the bandages that conceal his face to reveal first empty eye sockets, then holes where his mouth and nose should be, and finally, nothing at all.
But as convincing as the special effects were, the movie would have collapsed had Whale not known how to move the story along, pull memorable performances from his actors—Una O'Connor as a terrified bar maid is unforgettable—and ratchet up the tension as the film races toward its conclusion.
The film was the critical and commercial hit Laemmle had hoped for. The New York Times named it one of the year's ten best and Whale himself won the special recognition at the Venice Film Festival for his direction. Even more important to Universal, the box office appeal of Whale's films helped keep the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.
In 2008, the Library of Congress added The Invisible Man to the National Film Registry.
Despite reaching such heights, though, glory proved to be fleeting for Whale. After 1935's Bride of Frankenstein—the sequel he had resisted making for as long as he could—he never again directed a horror picture, and although credited with directing Show Boat, he was actually fired before production ended, having uncharacteristically gone over budget. Afterwards, he directed a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures and was pretty much out of movies by 1941.
In 1957, after a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool. One of the few openly-gay directors working in Hollywood, Whale's life was the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen.