Born July 22nd 1889 Dudley England
Died May 29th 1957 Hollywood
Whale was born into a large family in Dudley, in the Black Country area of the English West Midlands. He discovered his artistic talent early on and studied art. With the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment in July 1916. He became 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. It was during this internment that he realised he was interested in drama.
Following his release at the end of the war he became an actor, set designer and director. His directing of the 1928 play Journey’s End set him on track for success.. The play was set over a four-day period in March 1918 in the trenches at Saint-Quentin, France and gave glimpses into the experiences of the officers of a British Army infantry company in World War I. The key plot was a conflict 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 a great success and was transferred to the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End. It and its subject matter managed to hit the hearts of the people at just the right time. It was seen as a way that a whole generation of men who were unable to adequately express what they had endured, were finally able to get across to their friends and families what hell was like and more importantly what they had to endure whilst there. The play was considered to be the greatest play about World War I.
This led to his move to the United States where he first directed the play on Broadway.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 talkies, 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 lived in Hollywood for the rest of his life, most of that time with his long time companion, producer David Lewis. Apart from Journey’s End (1930), which was released by Tiffany Films, and Hell’s Angels (1930), released by United Artists, he directed a dozen films for Universal Studios between 1931 and 1937, developing a style characterised by the influence of German Expressionism and a highly mobile camera. He was a particular admirer of the films of Paul Leni, combining as they did elements of gothic horror and comedy. This influence was most evident in Bride of Frankenstein.
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. Whlist 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 finished on 3 October. 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 filmmaker Curtis Harrington in the Universal vaults in 1968 and has now become a cult classic.
Whale’s career moved on at great pace. Next was The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), a critical success but a box-office failure. Falling back on horror once again came The Invisible Man (1933). Shot from a script approved by H. G. Wells, the film blended horror with humour and confounding visual effects. It was critically acclaimed and quite rightly so, as it broke box-office records in cities across America.
At the height of his career as a director, Whale also directed The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Studio interference, possibly spurred by political pressure from Nazi Germany, led to the film’s being altered from Whale’s vision and The Road Back was a critical and commercial failure. Whale’s career went into sharp decline following the release of this film. A run of similar box-office disappointments followed and, while he would make one final short film in 1950, by 1941 his film directing career was over and he retired. Whale only made one additional successful feature film, The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). He continued to direct for the stage and also rediscovered his love for painting and travel. His investments made him wealthy and he lived a comfortable retirement until suffering strokes in 1956 that robbed him of his vigor and left him in pain. He committed suicide on 29 May 1957 by drowning himself in his swimming pool.
1949 Hello Out There (Short)
1942 Personnel Placement in the Army (Documentary short)
1941 They Dare Not Love
1940 Green Hell
1939 The Man in the Iron Mask
1938 Port of Seven Seas
1938 Wives Under Suspicion
1938 Sinners in Paradise
1937 The Great Garrick
1937 The Road Back
1936 Show Boat
1935 Remember Last Night?
1935 The Bride of Frankenstein
1934 One More River
1933 By Candlelight
1933 The Invisible Man
1933 The Kiss Before the Mirror
1932 The Old Dark House
1932 The Impatient Maiden
1931 Waterloo Bridge
1930 Hell’s Angels (uncredited)