July 22, 2008

The Director: James Whale

James Whale was born on this day, July 22, 1889, in Dudley, Worcestershire, England. In a short but spectacular career in Hollywood he, of course, would direct Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Whale first worked in theater as an actor, garnering good reviews in supporting roles. Of particular interest, in 1928, he appeared in a rare British attempt at capturing the lurid thrills of the French Grand Guignol tradition. The play was called After Death, and the man who would go on to make Frankenstein was cast as a dead man returned to life by electricity!

Here’s another interesting story: Whale, as a young man, had a talent for mimicry and he would entertain friends with pitch perfect imitations. Now zoom forward to 1952. Whale, on a European holiday, stops in London. Upon hearing that the then mostly forgotten director was in town — with only ten days to go before he sailed back to America — a young film writer, Gavin Lambert of Sight and Sound magazine, hurriedly arranged for a tribute at the British Film Institute. Whale was surprised and flattered, and attended an evening showing of his two Frankenstein pictures. It is the only such homage ever given James Whale while he lived.

On that most unique evening, Whale was invited to speak and he made a short presentation about making Frankenstein that, according to Lambert, “included a brilliant impression of Boris Karloff. The audience applauded appreciatively and the film began with an appropriate mix of laughter and horror.

The speech was not recorded on film or sound. Whale’s few but precious words and his fleeting take on Karloff are lost to us, but what a moment it must have been.

In 2002, the city of Dudley erected a memorial to James Whale. The monument, by sculptor Charles Haddock, features a concrete stack of film cans embossed with the titles of Whale’s films. On top of this is a looping filmstrip of cast iron, with film scenes etched into its frames.

James Whale’s tragic last days were fictionalized by Christopher Bram in his excellent novel Father of Frankenstein. A superb and highly decorated film adaptation, Gods and Monsters, earned its writer-director, Bill Condon, an Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and actor Ian McKellen won several international awards and an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

Related: Other posts concerning James Whale. 

James Whale biographies: James Whale, A New World of Gods and Monsters, by James Curtis (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), and James Whale: A Biography or The Would-Be Gentleman, by Mark Gatiss (Cassell Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1997).

James Whale website: The James Whale Nexus.


Anonymous said...

Too bad that so many of Whale's films are unavailable as authorized
DVD releases, particularly JOURNEY'S END with Colin Clive and David Manners.

rob! said...

another guy--like Lugosi--who died too young to enjoy seeing the massive amount of people that would eventually revere him and his work.

Max the drunken severed head said...

You always mange to dig up the most interesting anecdotes and photos!

Thank you for your tribute to a man whose name is respected, but whose best works are not screened enough. (One reason may be that some of them are period pieces; costume pictures are often avoided, people wrongly assuming they are slow and dull.)

Danél Griffin said...

Happy birthday, old boy. Frankenstein and it's great sequel are the reason I love movies. When kids my age were falling for E.T., my love and sympathy were for old Boltneck. Whale interpreted him in a way that both broke your heart and made you terrified.