James Whale was famous for scaring people. No, he wasn't a psychopath. No, he didn't like to dress in full clown makeup (ugh, clowns). And no: he wasn't the kind of total weirdo that would stare malevolently at people from across the room.
He was a nice dude…but he was a nice dude with a talent for terror.
His best known films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House (1932), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Invisible Man (1933) were all horror pictures for Universal Studios. People didn't say run for the hills when they saw James Whale. But they did say, atmospheric horror with soul, often starring Boris Karloff. That was his claim to fame.
Unfortunately, James Whale didn't want to be the horror guy. He kept trying to direct pictures that weren't horror. Universal Studios kept saying*, Hey, James, why not direct Dracula's Daughter? And James would say, Don't pigeonhole me, Universal, I want to direct movies about war and riverboats. And Universal said, But…James. You're the horror guy. And they'd go back and forth. It was frustrating.
*These conversations, as such, never took place. We just wish they had.
The problem was that Whale wasn't just some hack horror dude. He was steeped in culture…he just was really, really good at making people shiver.
Whale was born in England in 1889 to a working-class family; he began working himself when he was fourteen. But he was determined to study art, and took classes in the evenings.
He fought in World War I, and was captured by the Germans. While in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, he participated in amateur theatrical productions as an actor, director, producer and set-designer. The theater bug bit him, and he never got unbit. So when he got out of the camp he started working in theater, and eventually moved to America, where he got into film. He wanted to do serious, important work—and he did Journey's End, a much-lauded 1930 World War I film.
But after that, his best-known movies were all horror…and when he stopped doing the horror, his career went pfft.
To bigoted people back in the day, probably the scariest thing about James Whale was that he was openly gay. To be openly gay was super-unusual, and considered scandalous back in the 1920's and 1930's. Whale spent most of his life with producer David Lewis, who he met in the 1920's. In the early 1950's, he became involved with Pierre Fogel, a young bartender, and the relationship with Lewis ended…though they stayed friends.
David Lewis rejected the idea that Whale's homosexuality influenced his films. But that hasn't stopped critics from pointing out that there's a lot of sympathy for outsiders in Whale's movies. And you better believe that Frankenstein's decision to postpone his marriage to go live with a male companion has started a lot of film critic's tongues wagging. Frankenstein's problem in the film is that he refuses to fulfill his romantic role—and that refusal results in charges of insanity, ostracism, and eventually in mob violence.
Whale grew ill in the mid-1950's; although he was only in his 60's, he suffered a series of strokes, and increasing depression. Sadly, he drowned himself in his swimming pool in 1957.
The 1998 film Gods and Monsters presented a fictionalized version of his last years, with Whale played by Ian McKellan. So now, lots of people remember him as that guy who was played by Ian McKellan, rather than as that horror guy. You have to think Whale would be okay with that—who wouldn't want to be played by Gandalf?
It takes a lot of people to bring a dead corpse to life. In Frankenstein, you've got Frankenstein himself, and then his assistant Fritz…but you've also got whoever donated that nasty brain, and all the people who used to be using the dead arms and legs and other bits. Frankenstein's monster isn't just Frankenstein's; lots of other people (and corpses) pitched in.
Writing Frankenstein took almost as many hands—many of them dead hands, as it happens. The script for the film was inspired by Mary Shelley's 1823 novel, about a scientist who brings a monster to life.
But Shelley's monster reads Milto and argues philosophy and is generally not much like the grunting dude you see in the movie.
The 1931 film was based more directly on a 1927 play by Peggy Webling—Webling threw in a servant for Frankenstein (the mean and cranky Fritz), and also dumbed the creature down. No Milton for you, monster. (Source)
John L. Balderston, who had done rewrites on Webling's play Dracula for the Universal pictures version, was called in to tinker with and restitch Frankenstein for the film. He was joined by veteran screenwriters Francis Edward Farragoh and Garrett Fort. Together, they experimented and eventually came up with a script more sympathetic to the monster than Webling's play. (For instance, in the play, Fritz accidentally scares the monster with fire; in the play Fritz deliberately torments the creature.)
In the play, and in the initial version of the film, Frankenstein dies with the monster in the windmill…and then Victor ends up with Frankenstein's fiancée Elizabeth. Little cut up bits of this plotline survive—but test audiences hated that. It wasn't happy enough for Hollywood.
So the writers huddled and came up with a different ending, where Henry Frankenstein survives. Given how much of an unstable dope Frankenstein is, this maybe isn't actually such a happy ending for Elizabeth…but Hollywood is Hollywood. (Source)
So good job Mary Shelley, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, and Garrett Fort—it took a lot of you, but altogether you turned a mad scientist into a happy romantic lead.
It's aliiiiive! It's getting maaaaarried!
"The children of the night, what music they make!" Dracula could be talking there about bats, or owls, or evil sneaky vampires coming up behind you…
…but he could also be talking about Universal Studios, the production company staffed by children of the night, which churned out horror picture after horror picture in the 1920's through the 1950's. Universal monsters were known for stylish direction, and great creature makeup by make up artist Jack Pierce.
And Universal monsters were also often sympathetic, and the films sometimes included semi-buried sexual themes—including lesbian overtones in Dracula's Daughter (1936) and the beauty and the beast tragic romance of Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).
Universal's children of the night began with the 1923 hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring the great Lon Chaney. The movie was their most successful silent film ever, pulling in $3 million—or a whopping $43 million in 2015 dollars. That pushed Universal head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr., to keep the monsters coming…and in 1931 they had an even bigger hit, with Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Legosi.
Later that year, James Whale's Frankenstein came out to even bigger, bigger success…and the Universal monster dynasty was off crawling, skittering, and slithering.
Mwa, ha ha.
Each monster is twisted and nasty and terrifying in its own special way. But nonetheless, Universal found ways to standardize its monster production, stitching together new films from bits and pieces of the old ones, and bringing them to life with the same formula.
In the first place, the studio used the same actors over and over to play its monsters. Lon Chaney of The Hunchback of Notre Dame also did his sinister thing in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Wolf Man (1940). Bela Legosi was originally slated to appear in Frankenstein as the monster; that didn't work but he was still slotted into other horror films like Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Raven (1935). That last also starred Karloff…as did The Mummy. Actor Claude Rains was The Invisible Man (1933) and also showed up in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) and a 1935 Phantom of the Opera remake.
And it wasn't just actors who got recycled. Each big hit for Universal spawned a series of unholy sequel children, all gibbering and chittering and generating more income. Dracula was followed by Dracula's Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943).
Frankenstein was followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939) and (because death doesn't stop him) The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). There were sequels to The Mummy, sequels to the Invisible Man, sequels to The Wolf Man…and then there were crossovers. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1942) had (like the title says) both Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man. House of Frankenstein (1944), with Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, and the Hunchback. There was even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), a crossover featuring the comedy duo Abbott and Costello.
Universal Horror shambled into the 50's with films like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), but the oozy, monstrous charm was diminishing. In the late 1950s, Universal went more upscale, abandoning its low-budget horror for more prestigious movies.
Monsters are hard to kill, though, and the Universal children of the night have survived in popular culture —see the "Fandoms" section for more.
Today you can build your monster on a computer and give it giant tentacles for arms and a bicycle for a head. The Bicycle Tentacle Creature From the Black Lagoon! you could call it. No one could stop you.
But back in that dim dark time before computers roamed the earth, it was a lot harder to put tentacles and bicycles together to make a hideous creature (whether from the black lagoon or elsewhere).
If you wanted a monster back then, you needed makeup. Lots of makeup.
And that was the (awesome) job of (awesome) make-up artist Jack Pierce, who became famous for his work on Universal monster pictures. For Frankenstein, he created a square skull, and painted Boris Karloff's face blue-green—in black and white it showed up as an unhealthy-looking grey.
It was Pierce's idea to put the electrodes on the sides of Karloff's neck, too. The flat-topped look with the bolts in the neck became the iconic Frankenstein monster look. It's what just about everyone thinks of when they think "Frankenstein's monster"—even though none of those details was in Mary Shelley's original novel.
The make-up may have looked good, but it was miserable to wear. Karloff remembered:
" I spent three-and-a-half hours in the make-up chair getting ready for the day's work. The make-up itself was quite painful, particularly the putty on my eyes. There were days when I thought I would never be able to hold out until the end of the day." (Source)
Karloff also was given a suit several sizes too small, so he looked like he had oversized arms and legs. His boots were too big as well, and weighed a whopping thirteen pounds each, giving the monster its characteristic clumsy walk.
First there was a famous monster in a book. Then there was a famous monster on the screen. But in the middle there was a (less famous) monster on the stage.
Frankenstein's based on a stage play, and you can see that in the way it's directed. Plays, obviously, don't have camera movements; the view of a stage is fixed. Stages sit there.
And that stage stillness is reflected in James Whale's direction. Rewatch the famous "It's aliiiiive!" scene, for example.
At the start of the scene, when Frankenstein encourages Waldman to look at the body, you're looking at the two of them in the middle distance, the camera positioned behind the body. Waldman walks up to the body, while Victor and Elizabeth stay back.
It's a very striking scene, in part because there's little camera movement. Instead, the camera stays still, and you watch the folks in the distance, who look small and scared. The lack of a soundtrack also gives a sense that everything is static and still…and that you're just sitting helplessly, watching it happen.
That's not to say there's no camera movement. The scene has numerous cuts. And note the slow pan as the monster rises up to the roof and the camera follows almost reluctantly. The stillness of the film in general gives even this little motion great drama and weight.
In comparison take a look at all the quick cuts and motion in the creation scene in the 1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Rather than a slow move towards the roof in silence, with the lightning and thunder providing the only sound, the 1994 film gives you cuts back and forth from the rising monster to the hunky Victor racing about, all punctuated by an insistent dramatic soundtrack.
There's lots more frenetic action—but a lot less tension and drama.
Whale knew how to take advantage of stillness and silence. Frankenstein's awfully slow and quiet compared to contemporary films. But sometimes the slow monster is the one that gets you.
Frankenstein created a monster, but he had less success creating music.
Compared to films today, Frankenstein has very little in the way of a score. You'd think that there'd be a big dramatic orchestral oomph during the scene where the peasants chase the monster down in the windmill, for example, but there isn't. When the peasants are gathering to start their search, there's music—but it's just the dissonant church bells, calling them together.
Bernard Kaun was a regular composer for Universal horror pictures, and he did provide some music, including the intro composition for the creepy title sequence, with it's floating eyes that have nothing in particular to do with the film. His score is suspenseful, minor key, ominous orchestra backing. It's nice enough, but there's nothing particularly special about it.
In fact, the notable thing about the music in Frankenstein is really that there isn't any. The quiet gives an added eerie kick to James Whale's stark, carefully composed visuals. The monster will come on you in silence—there's no dramatic soundtrack to cue you to watch out.
We're going to go ahead and say that everyone is a fan of Frankenstein, even if you don't have a vintage Frankenstein poster hanging in your room. (Um, why not? It's awesome.)
Because Frankenstein's monster's bellow echoes down through popular culture, and still make fans tremble…and/or giggle. Whale's film hasn't just been imprinted on the cultural consciousness: it's burned images into each of our brains.
Close your eyes and picture Frankenstein's monster. You're probably thinking of a squarish head, gross neck bolts, and a stiff stride. And that image is 100% Whale—Mary Shelley had a very different idea of what ol' Monstro looked like:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (Source)
Lustrous, flowing black hair? That's a far cry from the flat-top that make-up artist Jack Pierce styled for the 1931 Universal film.
In fact, all of the Universal Pictures monsters remain touchstones and have been recycled and repackaged in innumerable hideous forms. There are still Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's monster costumes—we're willing to bet that some guy at your last Halloween party was too lazy to do anything but wear a white tee and don a greenish mask with neck bolts.
In the early 1980s there was a cartoon series called "Drak Pak" which featured Universal monsters as superheroes (no, really.) In the 50's and 60's, two sitcoms, "The Munsters" and "The Addams Family" were inspired by the Universal films. There have even been breakfast cereals based on Universal Monsters—Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Fruit Brute (inspired by the Wolf Man).
Old Universal films still get (loosely) remade, too. The Mummy from 1999 and Victor Frankenstein (2015) hark back to the old Universal pictures. Frankenstein's monster keeps getting revived and re-revived, a corpse that never rests. You can even see him, perhaps, as a kind of dead daddy to all those popular zombies—if Henry Frankenstein were to watch The Walking Dead, he'd probably shout, "It's alive!"