Whale was born on 22nd July 1889 in Dudley, England, the sixth of the seven children of William, a blast furnaceman,and Sarah, a nurse. He attended Kates Hill Board School, followed by Bayliss Charity School and finally Dudley Blue Coat School. His attendance stopped in his teenage years because the cost would have been prohibitive and his labour was needed to help support the family.
Thought not physically strong enough to follow his brothers into the local heavy industries, Whale started work as a cobbler, reclaiming the nails he recovered from replaced soles and selling them for scrap for extra money. He discovered he had some artistic ability and earned additional money lettering signs and price tags for his neighbours. Whale used his additional income to pay for evening classes at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts.
World War I broke out in 1914. Although Whale had little interest in the politics behind the war, he realized that conscription was inevitable so he enlisted in the Army. Considered because of his age a good candidate for officer training, Whale joined the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in October 1915 and was stationed in Bristol. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment in July 1916.
He was taken as a prisoner of war on the Western Front in Flanders in August 1917 and was held at Holzminden prisoner-of-war camp, where he remained until December 1918. While imprisoned, he became actively involved, as an actor, writer, producer, and set-designer, in the amateur theatrical productions which took place in the camp, finding them "a source of great pleasure and amusement". He also developed a talent for poker, and after the war he cashed in the chits and I.O.U's from his fellow prisoners to serve as a nest egg. During his imprisonment, Whale conceived an abiding hatred of Germany.
After the armistice he returned to Birmingham and tried to find work as a cartoonist. He sold two cartoons to the Bystander in 1919 but was unable to secure a permanent position. Later in 1919 Whale embarked on a professional stage career. Under the tutelage of actor-manager Nigel Playfair, Whale worked as an actor, set designer and builder, stage director (akin to a stage manager) and director.
In 1922, while with Playfair, Whale met Doris Zinkeisen. The two were considered a couple for some two years, despite Whale's living as an openly gay man. The couple was reportedly engaged in 1924 but by 1925 the engagement was off.
In 1928 Whale was offered the opportunity to direct two private performances of R. C. Sherriff's then-unknown play "Journey's End" for the Incorporated Stage Society, a theatre society that mounted private Sunday performances of plays. Set over a four-day period in March 1918 in the trenches at Saint-Quentin, France, "Journey's End" gives a glimpse into the experiences of the officers of a British Army infantry company in World War I. The key conflict is between 'Captain Stanhope', the company commander, and 'Lieutenant Raleigh', the brother of 'Stanhope's' fiancée.
Whale offered the part of 'Stanhope' to the then-barely known Laurence Olivier. Olivier initially declined the role, but after meeting with the playwright agreed to take it on. Maurice Evans was cast as 'Raleigh'. The play was well received and transferred to the Savoy Theatre in London's West End, opening on 21 January 1929.
A young Colin Clive was now in the lead role, Olivier having accepted an offer to take the lead in a production of 'Beau Geste'. The play was a tremendous success, with critics uniform and effusive in their praise and with audiences sometimes sitting in stunned silence following its conclusion only to burst into thunderous ovations. As Whale biographer James Curtis wrote:
"The play managed to coalesce, at the right time and in the right manner, the impressions of a whole generation of men who were in the war and who had found it impossible, through words or deeds, to adequately express to their friends and families what the trenches had been like".
After three weeks at the Savoy, "Journey's End" transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre, where it ran for the next two years.
With the success of "Journey's End" at home, Broadway producer Gilbert Miller acquired the rights to mount a New York production with an all-British cast headed by Colin Keith-Johnston as 'Stanhope' and Derek Williams as 'Raleigh'. Whale also directed this version, which premiered at Henry Miller's Theatre on 22 March 1929. The play ran for over a year and cemented its reputation as the greatest play about World War I.
The success of the various productions of "Journey's End" brought Whale to the attention of film producers. Coming at a time when motion pictures were making the transition from silent to talking, producers were interested in hiring actors and directors with experience with dialogue. Whale travelled to Hollywood in 1929 and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. He was assigned as 'dialogue director' for a film called "The Love Doctor" (1929). Whale completed work on the film in 15 days and his contract was allowed to expire. It was at around this time that Whale met David Lewis.
Whale was hired by independent film producer and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who planned to turn the previously silent Hughes production "Hell's Angels" (1930) into a talkie. Whale directed the dialogue sequences. When his work for Hughes was completed, Whale headed to Chicago to direct another production of "Journey's End".
Having purchased the film rights to "Journey's End", British producers Michael Balcon and Thomas Welsh agreed that Whale's experience directing the London and Broadway productions of the play made him the best choice to direct the film. The two partnered with a small American studio, Tiffany-Stahl, to shoot the film in New York. Colin Clive reprised his role as 'Stanhope', and David Manners was cast as 'Raleigh'. Filming got underway on 6 December 1929 and wrapped on 22 January 1930. "Journey's End" was released in Great Britain on 14 April and in the United States on 15 April. On both sides of the Atlantic the film was a tremendous critical and commercial success.
Universal Studios signed Whale to a five-year contract in 1931 and his first project was "Waterloo Bridge". Based on the Broadway play by Robert E. Sherwood, the film stars Mae Clarke as 'Myra', a chorus girl in World War I London who becomes a prostitute. It too was a critical and popular success. At around this time, Whale and Lewis began living together.
In 1931, Universal chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. offered Whale his choice of any property the studio owned. Whale chose "Frankenstein", mostly because none of Universal's other properties particularly interested him and he wanted to make something other than a war picture. While the novel itself was in the public domain, Universal owned the filming rights to a stage adaptation by Peggy Webling. Whale cast Colin Clive as 'Henry Frankenstein' and Mae Clarke as his fiancée 'Elizabeth'.
For the Monster, he turned to an unknown actor named Boris Karloff. Shooting began on 24 August 1931 and wrapped on 3 October. Previews were held 29 October, with wide release on 21 November. "Frankenstein" was an instant hit with critics and the public. The film received glowing reviews and shattered box office records across the United States, earning Universal $12 million on first release.
Next from Whale were "Impatient Maiden" and "The Old Dark House" (both 1932). "Impatient Maiden" made little impression but "The Old Dark House" is credited with reinventing the "dark house" subgenre of horror films. Thought lost for some years, a print was found by film-maker Curtis Harrington in the Universal vaults in 1968 and restored by George Eastman House.
Whale's next film was "The Kiss Before The Mirror" (1933), a critical success but a box-office failure. Whale returned to horror with "The Invisible Man" (1933). Shot from a script approved by H. G. Wells, the film was a blended horror with humour and confounding visual effects. It was critically acclaimed, with The New York Times listing it as one of the ten best films of the year, and broke box-office records in cities across America. So highly regarded was the film that France, which restricted the number of theatres in which un-dubbed American films could play, granted it a special waiver because of its "extraordinary artistic merit".
Also in 1933 Whale directed the romantic comedy "By Candlelight" which gained good reviews and was a modest box office hit. In 1934 he directed "One More River", an adaptation of the novel of the same name by John Galsworthy. The film tells the story of a woman desperate to escape her abusive marriage to a member of the British aristocracy. This was the first of Whale's films for which Production Code Administration approval was required and Universal had a difficult time securing that approval because of the elements of sexual sadism implicit in the husband's abusive behaviour.
"Bride Of Frankenstein" (1935) was Whale's next project. Whale had resisted making a sequel to "Frankenstein" as he feared being pigeon-holed as a horror director. Bride hearkened back to an episode from Mary Shelley's original novel in which 'The Monster' promises to leave 'Frankenstein' and humanity alone if 'Frankenstein' makes him a mate. He does, but then destroys the female without bringing it to life. The film was a critical and box office success, having earned some $2 million for Universal by 1943. Lauded as "the finest of all gothic horror movies", Bride is frequently hailed as Whale's masterpiece.
With the success of "Bride" Laemmle was eager to put Whale to work on "Dracula's Daughter" (1936), the sequel to Universal's first big horror hit of the sound era. Whale, wary of doing two horror films in a row and concerned that directing "Dracula's Daughter" could interfere with his plans for the first all-sound version of "Show Boat", (previously filmed as a part-talkie by Harry A. Pollard), instead convinced Laemmle to buy the rights to a novel called "The Hangover Murders". The novel is a comedy-mystery in the style of "The Thin Man", about a group of friends who were so drunk the night one of them was murdered that none can remember anything. "Retitled Remember Last Night?", the film was one of Whale's personal favourites, but met with sharply divided reviews and commercial disinterest.
With the completion of "Remember Last Night?" Whale immediately went to work on "Show Boat" (1936). Whale gathered as many of those as he could who had been involved in one production or another of the musical, including Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, Charles Winninger, Sammy White, conductor Victor Baravalle, orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and, as Magnolia, Irene Dunne, who believed that Whale was the wrong director for the piece. The 1936 version of "Show Boat", faithfully adapted from the original stage production, is believed to be the definitive film version of the musical by many critics. but became unavailable following the 1951 remake.
This was the last of Whale's films to be produced under the Laemmle family. The studio was now bankrupt, and the Laemmles lost control to J. Cheever Cowdin, head of the Standard Capital Corporation, and Charles R. Rogers, who was installed in Junior Laemmle's old job. Whale's career went into sharp decline following the release of his next film, "The Road Back" (1937).
The sequel to Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet On The Western Front", which Universal had filmed in 1930, the novel and film follow the lives of several young German men who have returned from the trenches of World War I and their struggles to re-integrate into society. The Los Angeles consul for Nazi Germany, George Gyssling, learned that the film was in production. He protested to PCA enforcer Joseph Breen, arguing that the film gave an "untrue and distorted picture of the German people". Gyssling eventually met with Whale but nothing came of it.
Following the debacle with "The Road Back", Charles Rogers tried to get out of his contract with Whale; Whale refused. Rogers then assigned him to a string of B movies to run out his contractual obligation. Whale only made one additional successful feature film, "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939), before retiring from the film industry in 1941.
With his film career behind him, Whale found himself at loose ends. He was offered the occasional job, including the opportunity to direct "Since You Went Away" for David O. Selznick, but turned them down. Lewis, meanwhile, was busier than ever with his production duties and often worked late hours, leaving Whale lonely and bored. Lewis bought him a supply of paint and canvasses and Whale re-discovered his love of painting. Eventually he built a large studio for himself.
With the outbreak of World War II, Whale volunteered his services to make a training film for the United States Army. Whale shot the film, called "Personnel Placement In The Army", in February 1942. Later that year, in association with actress Claire DuBrey, Whale created the 'Brentwood Service Players'. The Players took over a 100–seat theatre. Sixty seats were provided free of charge to service personnel; the remaining were sold to the public, with the box office proceeds donated to wartime charities. The group expanded to the Playtime Theatre during the summer, where a series of shows ran through October.
Whale returned to Broadway in 1944 to direct the psychological thriller "Hand In Glove". It was his first return to Broadway since his failed "One, Two, Three!" in 1930. "Hand In Glove" would fare no better than his earlier play, running the same number of performances, 40.
Whale directed his final film in 1950, a short subject based on the William Saroyan one-act play "Hello Out There". The film, financed by supermarket heir Huntington Hartford, was the story of a man in a Texas jail falsely accused of rape and the woman who cleans the jail. Hartford intended for the short to be part of an anthology film along the lines of Quartet. However, attempts to find appropriate short fiction companion pieces to adapt were unsuccessful and "Hello Out There" was never commercially released.
Whale's last professional engagement was directing "Pagan In The Parlour", a farce about two New England spinster sisters who are visited by a Polynesian whom their father, when shipwrecked years earlier, had married. The production was mounted in Pasadena for two weeks in 1951. Plans were made to take it to New York, but Whale suggested taking the play to London first. Before opening the play in England, Whale decided to tour the art museums of Europe.
In France he renewed his acquaintanceship with Curtis Harrington, whom Whale had met in 1947. While visiting Harrington in Paris, Whale went to some gay bars. At one he met a 25-year-old bartender named Pierre Foegel, who Harrington believed was nothing but "a hustler out for what he could get". The 62-year-old Whale was smitten with the younger man and hired him as his chauffeur.
A provincial tour of "Pagan In The Parlour" began in September 1952 and it appeared that the play would be a hit. However, Hermione Baddeley, starring in the play as the cannibal "Noo-ga", was drinking heavily and began engaging in bizarre antics and disrupting performances. Because she had a run of the play contract she could not be replaced and so producers were forced to close the show. Whale returned to California in November 1952 and advised David Lewis that he planned to bring Foegel over early the following year. Appalled, Lewis moved out of their home. While this ended their 23-year romantic relationship, the two men remained friends.
Lewis bought a small house and dug a swimming pool, prompting Whale to have his own pool dug, although he did not himself swim in it. Whale began throwing all-male swim parties and would watch the young men cavort in and around the pool. Foegel moved in with Whale in early 1953 and remained there for several months before returning to France. He returned in 1954 permanently, and Whale installed him as manager of a gas station that he owned. Whale and Foegel settled into a quiet routine until the spring of 1956, when Whale suffered a small stroke. A few months later he suffered a larger stroke and was hospitalized. While in the hospital he was treated for depression with shock treatments. Upon his release, Whale hired one of the male nurses from the hospital to be his personal live-in nurse. A jealous Foegel manoeuvred the nurse out of the house and hired a female nurse as a non live-in replacement. Whale suffered from mood swings and grew increasingly and frustratingly more dependent on others as his mental faculties were diminishing.
Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool on 29 May 1957 at the age of 67. He left a suicide note, which Lewis withheld until shortly before his own death decades later. Because the note was suppressed, the death was initially ruled accidental. The note read in part:
"To ALL I LOVE,
Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills. I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way."
"The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way."
Whale was cremated per his request and his ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale. Because of Whale's habit of periodically revising his date of birth, his niche lists the incorrect date of 1893. When his long-time companion David Lewis died in 1987, his executor and Whale biographer James Curtis had his ashes interred in a niche across from Whale's.
James Whale lived as an openly homosexual man throughout his career in the British theatre and in Hollywood, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1920's and 1930's. He and David Lewis lived together as a couple from around 1930 to 1952. While he did not go out of his way to publicize his homosexuality, he did not do anything to conceal it either. As film-maker Curtis Harrington, a friend and confidant of Whale's, put it, "Not in the sense of screaming it from the rooftops or coming out. But yes, he was openly homosexual. Any sophisticated person who knew him knew he was gay." While there have been suggestions that Whale's career was terminated because of homophobia, and Whale was supposedly dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood", Harrington states that "nobody made a thing out of it as far as I could perceive"
With knowledge of his sexuality becoming more common beginning in the 1970's, some film historians and gay studies scholars have detected homosexual themes in Whale's work, particularly in "Bride Of Frankenstein" in which a number of the creative people associated with the cast, including Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive, were alleged to be gay or bisexual. Scholars have identified a gay sensibility suffused through the film, especially a camp sensibility, particularly embodied in the character of 'Pretorius' (Thesiger) and his relationship with 'Henry Frankenstein' (Clive).
Whale's final months are the subject of the novel "Father Of Frankenstein" by Christopher Bram. The novel focuses on the relationship between Whale and a fictional gardener named Clayton Boone. "Father Of Frankenstein" served as the basis of the 1998 film "Gods And Monsters" with Ian McKellen as Whale and Brendan Fraser as Boone. McKellen was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Whale.
A memorial statue was erected for Whale in 2002 on the grounds of a new multiplex cinema in his home town of Dudley. The statue, by Charles Hadcock, depicts a roll of film with the face of Frankenstein's monster engraved into the frames, and the names of his most famous films etched into a cast concrete base in the shape of film canisters.
"A director must be pretty bad if he can't get a thrill out of war, murder, robbery." - James Whale