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James Whale was a British film and stage director whose most memorable contributions to film history was the Frankenstein franchise. In 1931, James Whale brought Mary Shelley's seminal classic to the big screen in the Universal Pictures production of Frankenstein. Universal's executive producer, Carl Laemmle, Jr., offered Whale his pick of over thirty different film adaptations that he could direct. Seeking to get away from doing war films like 1931's Waterloo Bridge, Whale finally selected Frankenstein.[1] Carl Laemmle wanted to cast Leslie Howard in the role of the film's title character Henry Frankenstein, but Whale insisted on French-born British stage actor Colin Clive.[2] Clive had worked for Whale on his first film, 1930's Journey's End. Also during production of Frankenstein, Whale had to bribe child actress Marilyn Harris with her favorite snack food in order to complete one final take where her character, Maria, drowns in a pond. Harris' favorite snacks were hard boiled eggs, of which Whale provided her with more than two dozen.[3]

Following the success of Frankenstein, Whale went on to direct the 1932 horror film The Old Dark House. Though not as memorable to modern audiences as Frankenstein, The Old Dark House has earned itself a respectable place in horror film history. This film was the first American movie project for British actor Charles Laughton, whose wife, Elsa Lanchester, became a pivotal figure in the sequel to Whale's Frankenstein.[4]

In 1933, Whale directed another Victorian classic, H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains. Although Frankenstein star Boris Karloff was Universal's first choice as the title character, Whale preferred someone with a more distinctive, intellectual voice and personally recommended Claude Rains after hearing his voice in a screen test for another film.[5] The Invisible Man also starred the comedic Una O'Connor, whom Whale would use again in his next genre film The Bride of Frankenstein.

Though reluctant at first, Whale was called back to direct The Bride of Frankenstein and the film has been argued by many to be Whale's finest work. Universal pursued Whale to work on the project for four years following the success of Frankenstein, and were nearly ready to hand the project to someone else when Whale finally relented. Production of the film began in mid 1934.[6] Although Whale went on to direct eleven more films, The Bride of Frankenstein was James Whale's final film in the horror genre.

On May 29, 1957, James Whale drowned in his swimming pool at his home in Hollywood, California under which some viewed to be "mysterious circumstances".[7] Whale's death was later confirmed to be a suicide and his longtime companion, David Lewis, held onto Whale's suicide note and suppressed it from the public for the remainder of his life.[8] He was sixty-seven years old.

Body of work[]

Film Year Role
Frankenstein 1931 Director
The Old Dark House 1932 Director
The Invisible Man 1933 Director
The Bride of Frankenstein 1935 Director; Producer

Notes & Trivia[]

  • Whale was openly gay throughout his career, something that was very unusual in the 1920s and 1930s. As knowledge of his sexual orientation has become more common, some of his films, Bride of Frankenstein in particular, have been interpreted as having a gay subtext and it has been claimed that Whale's refusal to remain in the closet led to the end of his career.[9]
  • James Whale was the subject of a 1998 biopic film titled Gods and Monsters. Actor Ian McKellan played the role of James Whale. Like Whale, McKellan is also openly gay.

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