Curio Cabinet | February 01, 2018

In 1917, while serving as a second lieutenant in the British Army on the Western Front, twenty-six-year-old James Whale was captured by the Germans at Aisne Farm in France. Led off at bayonet point, he felt lucky; most of his platoon had been killed. He was transported to Holzminden, a prison camp in the heart of enemy territory where six hundred officers were already imprisoned. The brutal camp commander, Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer, claimed that the camp was escape proof. Prisoners dug a hundred-yard tunnel with knives, forks, and frying pans, and twenty-nine men crawled free. Another seventy might have made it through if not for a New Zealand aviator who got himself stuck in the hole, blocking their passage.

Indifferent to the escapees’ plans, Whale stayed put. Despite a meager diet of potato rations and occasional horsemeat and the camp’s reputation as the worst in Germany, he made effective use of his time, gambling, painting, and producing amateur theatrical productions. For his plays, he designed and painted the scenery and wrote original material. On Saturday nights after dinner, the tables were pushed together, creating a solid platform for a makeshift stage at the far end of the barracks. For two hours, in the small theater space, inmates performed a James Whale production, forgetting about their harsh circumstances until the final curtain dropped. His plays became popular among both prisoners and camp officials, who would send to Cologne for special costumes and props. After fifteen months, he left Holzminden with his career path set: he would make a life in theater. He said, “I couldn’t follow anything seriously after that.”

When he left Holzminden, IOUs scribbled on paper scraps filled his pockets, winnings from the camp’s many poker and bridge games. The officers, most from wealthy British families, paid their debts, and with the sales of his prison drawings, Whale had several hundred pounds to stake a new life in London. He freelanced cartoons and illustrations for commercial magazines, but the postwar housing shortage made rents prohibitively expensive. He moved to Birmingham, six miles from where he’d grown up, and worked for the Birmingham Repertory Company and enrolled in Ryland Memorial School of Art.

The world of theater offered Whale an escape from a life of hard physical labor and poverty. He was born in 1889 in Dudley, a mining and ironworking town in the West Midlands, to working-class parents in a house crowded with siblings. Unusually thin, with intense blue eyes, red hair, and “faun-like charm,” he carried himself with a regal bearing. Family and friends thought that he was meant for a life grander than what Dudley could offer.

With a large family to help support, Whale left school in his teens to work for a cobbler, salvaging nails from shoe soles for scrap metal before burning the leather. His talent as a draftsman made him extra money lettering fancy price tags for local merchants, which he saved for tuition at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts. In 1910, he enrolled and took classes at night while working during the day in a sheet-metal factory hammering ornamental designs into buggy fenders. Other than attending the occasional performances at the Dudley Opera House, there was no indication when he left art school in 1914 that he would seek a life in theater.

Whale understood that success and recognition, as well as money, would be hard to come by. He said, “No one should wish to become an actor or have anything to do with the theater for any other reason than an inner compulsion.” Yet he pursued his dream as soon as he was liberated, thin and frail, from Holzminden. After a stint in Stratford-upon-Avon playing small parts in the Shakespearean Festival, Whale became a member of director Nigel Playfair’s company at the Liverpool Repertory Theater and later relocated with them to London. Playfair admired Whale’s versatility; in addition to placing him in minor roles, he used him as a general assistant, set designer, and glorified stage manager, as did other directors, allowing Whale to amass substantial West-End credentials.

After nearly a decade of working in theater, Whale found himself doing more directing than acting. In addition to the fundamentals of staging, he had learned from the directors he worked with “an ambition always to make the actors appear not to be actors but real persons reacting to real situations.” This philosophy would serve him well, particularly when he finally got his first big break in 1928, directing R. C. Sherriff’s war drama Journey’s End. The play, set in the trenches of Saint-Quentin, France, over four days, captures the grim monotony of war as it portrays the disintegration of men in battle.

Aware of Whale’s war experience, producers took a chance on him, hoping he would bring an insider’s knowledge to the project. Whale took his time accepting the job: the play struck him as static and suffering from a weak plot. After a few more revisions to the script, Whale accepted the offer. Starring a twenty-one-year-old Laurence Olivier, Journey’s End opened at the Apollo and, due to its success, was transferred to the West-End Savoy Theater. Papers heralded it as London’s finest play. For the men who had survived trench warfare, it dramatized what they had experienced in detail they could not articulate to friends and family. Journey’s End made Whale a celebrity, and he followed the show to Broadway, where it ran for a year.

Although he had never given much thought to working in the movie business, Hollywood was the next logical step in his career. The English film industry was at least two years behind the United States, so when Paramount offered him a contract, he accepted with the hope of making Journey’s End as a talkie. When he arrived at the studio in 1929, his initial ambition was to make easy money and learn the technique of talking pictures. Whale had a genuine enthusiasm for film, which he called “the greatest medium of all time.”

More than 5,000 miles from England, surrounded by film lots and orange groves, Whale adapted to his new home, writing to his family that the sunshine was making him “quite brown and beautiful.” In fact, he was happy to be out of class-obsessed England, though he remained proud of his British heritage, dressing the part in bow ties and tweeds.

Work was slow, and after several false starts, two months into his contract he worried that it would not be renewed. Finally, during the last fifteen days of his contract, he took over shooting the forgettable farce The Love Doctor. It was too little too late. Paramount let his five-hundred-dollar-a-week contract lapse after three months. Yet he stayed in Hollywood, feeling that a career in film was still full of opportunity.

He was summoned to Chicago to direct Journey’s End at the Adelphi Theater. After rehearsing the company for three months, he remained with them through opening night to make sure the drama was successfully launched before returning to Hollywood at the request of Howard Hughes. The millionaire’s twin passions of aviation and movies had inspired him to produce the silent film Hell’s Angels. By the time the flying spectacle was finished in 1929, two years after filming began, Hollywood had moved on to talkies. Hughes wanted to reshoot 60 percent of the film. Having heard about his talent with war narratives, Hughes hired Whale to stage the dialogue sequences. Whale learned while directing the reshoots how to command a film set. While his work on the film was uncredited, Hughes paid him a $7,000 bonus. Whale splurged on a new Chrysler, telling friends it was a gift from Hughes.

While the young director was finishing Hell’ Angels, he was negotiating to direct the film adaptation of Journey’s End. Talks were thorny: Whale asked for the unheard-of salary of twenty thousand dollars despite being a relative novice in the industry. He rushed to wrap up Hell’s Angels, working fourteen-hour days and rewriting the Journey’s End script at night. While he hoped to film it in England with an all-British cast, studios there were still not equipped for sound, so the film was made at Tiffany Studios in Los Angeles. It premiered in 1930 in a New York City theater a mile away from where the stage version was still being performed. Audiences were stunned by the realism of Whale’s war film. It was a box-office success, and he was named one of the top-ten best directors of 1929-1930.

Signed by Universal Studio to a five-year contract, Whale moved on to his next film, Waterloo Bridge, also set in World War I, about a chorus girl who becomes a prostitute. Despite its modest premiere, it was a commercial and critical success. His growing record of accomplishment should have allowed him authority over his next project, but that was not how Universal worked. Inspired by the financial success of Dracula, studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. assigned him to direct Frankenstein. Whale thought it was a gag, but after thinking about the original novel by Mary Shelley, he became absorbed by the story’s possibilities.

The studio tried to cast Bela Lugosi as the monster, but Whale thought him wrong for the part. He wanted a cadaverous yet hulky face—a death’s-head on a frame. He also wanted an actor who could convey likeability, believing that the monster “could scare people but was also scared.” When he reread the novel, he said, “I was sorry for the Goddamn monster.” He cast Boris Karloff for the part, despite his being a relative unknown.

While designing the look of the Frankenstein monster, Whale’s art-school training served him well. Shelley had not provided many clues as to what the monster looked like. “Yellow skin that scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” was all the physical detail Whale had to go on.

Wanting to create a tableau of death and tragedy, Whale turned to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, using stark lighting, opposing angles, and sharp shadows to create an overwhelming sense of foreboding. He knew that he was either making a great horror flick or a bomb. The film broke box office records at theaters throughout the country and became the top hit of 1931-32, pulling in $5 million. Whale enjoyed Frankenstein’s success; he understood that in Hollywood you were only as good as your last film, but even that did not guarantee choice projects. After Frankenstein, he was assigned three mediocre pictures, which faded into the cinematic netherworld and left his reputation as a commercial director shaky. His sixth picture, based on H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The Invisible Man (1897), temporarily saved him from obscurity.

Believing in the horror-film market, Junior, as Laemmle was called, had refused to give up on The Invisible Man, despite going through four directors, nine writers, and ten separate screenplays before handing it over to Whale. With thoughtful camera work that heightened the movie’s suspense, along with inventive special effects, the film rivaled the success of Frankenstein and earned Whale the moniker, “The Monster Man.” Proclaimed a “bright little oddity” by the New Yorker, The Invisible Man was one of the top films of 1933 and made Universal a profitable studio despite the worsening Depression.

Whale’s agent, Myron Selznick, producer David O. Selznick’s older brother, negotiated a three-year deal, ultimately earning the director $2,750 a week by the third year. Also, in the future, for every horror picture Whale filmed, he could select a mainstream picture of his choice. Yet the pressure to make a sequel to Frankenstein overshadowed this agreement. Whale resisted, saying he never wanted to work on the material again. But Junior thought Whale was the only director for Bride of Frankenstein and promised him whatever he wanted in terms of script, cast, and production.

As Whale had done with the monster, he designed the Bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, according to his own vision. After several sketches, using Queen Nefertiti as a reference, he designed the tall bird’s-nest hair with lightning streaks of gray and a face of strangely elegant stitching. He wrapped her in yards of surgical gauze and a pink, rubberized gown. With hard light, deep, rich shadows, and brilliant highlights, Whale extended his vison of a demented world that mixed comedy and horror. The reviews were the best of his career.

After four years and nine pictures for Universal, Whale was rewarded with a million-dollar budget to adapt for film the Broadway musical Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel of life on the Mississippi. His growing reputation as a director of horror made him an odd choice, but he argued that educated Englishmen had always been deeply interested in American history. To make sure the film’s elegant look was not at the expense of historical accuracy, he enlisted a team of experts to advise him on dialogue and staging. The film outsold its competition, The Great Ziegfeld, and critics agreed that he directed it as if he had been born and bred in showboat country. When he watched the film at its premiere, he had not been so thrilled by his work since watching Journey’s End at the Savoy.

Whale’s Universal contract ended with Show Boat, which marked the pinnacle of his career. He had never felt secure in Hollywood, believing that money and career were ephemeral, and he was right to mistrust the industry. As a freelancer he would never again have the autonomy and respect granted him at Universal. His last satisfying work was The Great Garrick, about the eighteenth-century British actor, which he made for Warner Brothers in 1937. His sixty-thousand-dollar salary made him one of Hollywood’s highest-paid directors, but then the costume picture flopped.

The failure of The Great Garrick precipitated a creative and artistic decline from which Whale never recovered. He made six more films—cheap, starless, B pictures with diminishing budgets. He was no longer a top director, just a freelancer with a spotty record of commercial achievement. By 1941, he had had enough. “They wanted a Michelangelo every time so I gave it up just to be free,” he said about ending his ten-year career as a movie director. He was fifty.

At his home in Santa Monica Canyon, Whale immersed himself in painting and settled into a life of lavish dinner parties for his colleagues in the industry. During World War II, he contributed generously to British relief charities and sent money and food to his family in Dudley. He also channeled his energy into a little theater group, the Brentwood Service Players. The box-office proceeds from the hundred-seat theater were donated to the war effort. But mostly he was restless and bored. He had a stroke in 1956 and another a year later that left him depressed, irritable, and overly dependent on caregivers. In 1957, he put his affairs in order, wrote a letter to friends and family assuring them that he had had a wonderful life, and then drowned himself in his backyard pool.

At the end of his career, Whale was convinced that he was totally forgotten. He did not live to see the revival of his work in the 1970s and had no sense of his place in film history. All he knew was that he had contributed to cinema a few Hollywood monsters that were not mere plot devices but fully dimensional characters invested with complex human emotions—anger, gentleness, remorse, and a longing to understand their situations. He elevated the horror-film genre to an entirely new level with the authenticity and sophistication of his craftsmanship. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man remain vital, challenging works. He had also left his indelible stylistic mark on film, a stylishness that came from years of art-school training and a decade of work on the British stage.

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