James Whale, Horror Guy
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.
James Whale, Not the Horror Guy
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.
James Whale, Horror, and Homosexuality
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?