illustrated-portrait

JAMES WHALE 1889–1957

Influential English director, best known for his pioneering horror films such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. He was born to a working class family in the Black Country area of England, though he would later deny his upbringing to adopt the persona of a gentleman. He discovered a love of theater in the unlikely location of a World War I prisoner-of-war camp, and after the war he began working in London. His success directing the play Journey’s End led him to Hollywood in 1929, and there he met the producer David Lewis. The two would remain partners for the next 23 years. Whale was always honest, if not outspoken, about his homosexuality, and the fact that he and Lewis openly lived together as a couple didn’t seem to hurt his burgeoning reputation or career. In 1931, that reputation was cemented when Whale made horror film history for Universal Studios with Frankenstein, starring the unknown actor Boris Karloff. It thrilled audiences with its gothic atmosphere and terrifying but sympathetic villain, and shocked with a scene of a little girl being drowned, which was later heavily censored. But Whale enjoyed taking risks, and always insisted on complete creative control. He worked in a number of genres, but today is mostly remembered for his somewhat campy horror, such as the archetypal The Old Dark House, a visually cunning The Invisible Man, and the acclaimed Frankenstein sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, considered better than the original and perhaps Whale’s finest work. His short career came to an abrupt halt in 1937 after the failure of his war film The Road Back, a film which was heavily edited—against his wishes—to appease Nazi Germany. Whale had a difficult time finding work after that, possibly owing to homophobia though it’s difficult to tell the extent, and languished while his partner’s career flourished. When Whale brought home a 25-year-old man he had met in Paris, Lewis moved out, and Whale spent much of his later life painting and hosting pool parties for young men, though he himself didn’t swim. At 66, he suffered two strokes that left him depressed and in pain, and a year later, he committed suicide by drowning himself in his pool. The death was initially ruled accidental, and Lewis, separated but still a close friend, kept Whale’s suicide note a secret for the next 30 years. Though his career was brief, today Whale is starting to be recognized as not just an important genre director, but as a auteur.

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