Digital Polyphony

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A Tribute To: James Whale

Posted on October 12, 2011 at 1:30 AM

A Tribute to James Whale

There's this great scene in The Bride of Frankenstein where the Frankenstein monster, played legendarily by Boris Karloff, meets his "mate" for the first time. The mate was created specifically for the monster, it's the focus of the story for the most part and has this immense buildup to this one moment. He enters to meet her and she's so appalled and disgusted by him she lets out a massive scream. He's hideous. Ugly. Deformed. It was assumed that these two back-from-dead beings were naturally come to love one another, but instead she, though barely alive and mentally aware herself, is frightened by the sight of him. Whatever basic instincts she may still kicking around her skull, one is to know what frightens her.

In the early years of moviedom, things weren't written just yet. You know: how certain troupes will play out in horror films. They had little to go on other than loosely basing things off of literature and maybe some stage productions then somehow had to transition all that to screen. So when the horror genre was beginning to join the world of "talkies," it had to add something new to the mix. Enter James Whale, one of the most important figures in horror movie history. His films weren't just about scares, chills and thrills but had something "bigger" to say. Most likely that had to do with who James Whale was as a person and wanting to "say" something about society as a whole.

Two rare behind-the-scenes photos. Left: Whale offering a light to Boris Karloff in between shots on Frankenstein. Right: Whale directing the legendary Claude Raines in The Invisible Man.

Whale was openly gay from the very beginnings of his career, which people still debate on whether or not it was a cause for him struggling in his career after World War II. By all account it didn't. Whale simply seemed to become tired of filmmaking and after a few disappointing pictures, it pretty much solidified his decision to retire early from the craft. He far from struggled financially or socially, however. Whale made more than enough to retire on, traveled the world, owned businesses and threw pool parties (he having dug a pool though he never swam for the sole purpose of entertaining), all men of course, at his home in California where he retired to in 1952.

His health quickly began to falter, however, suffering from a stroke and depression. This led to him being hospitalized as his mind slowly began to deteriorate over the next few years. By 1957, Whale couldn't handle his condition anymore and, ironically, drowned himself in his swimming pool. His note was brief, noting his agonizing pain and inability to sleep anymore, and that he hopes all understood his reason for relieving his pain. It was self-imposed euthanasia, if anything else.

Whale directed some of the most iconic films of Hollywood history, yet many do not know his name. His short career, especially in the years of success, and secluded life probably compounded that. For those who love film, especially horror films, he's always been an interesting figure. In 1998 the fantastic film, Gods and Monsters, depicts the final days of Whale (though somewhat, and understandably, fictionalizing certain portions as a storytelling method).

The word "iconic" describes much of Whale's horror career, giving us legendary set pieces and moments, such as the finale to Frankenstein (on the left), and even more legendary performances, such as Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Petorious in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale with Thesiger on the right)

But man, what great films he was able to give us. His horror movies showed a man with immense talent and understanding of what the genre is capable of. He's able to not just make "monster" movies but also give us insight into the human condition, such as the aforementioned Bride of Frankenstein. I've especially noticed the theme of "lust" and "obsession" driving through his works and how those eventually bring down our heroes in some form.

For example, The Invisible Man and the Frankenstein films are readily apparent in their "self-destructive" protagonists. Dr. Griffin in The Invisible Man and Dr. Frankenstein both showcase regrets for tampering with things that shouldn't have been tampered with. I believe in Frankenstein case he feels it was God's life and death and in Griffin's it was science and nature, though Frankenstein is relevant there as well.

In Whale's criminally underrated The Old Dark House, it wasn't just focused onto one person, but of many as travelers board themselves up during a storm and their own personal demons and obsessions begin to emerge. Obsessions over a woman, God, drink, money, at one point obsession over fire to the point of's a classic character piece and shows the many obsessions that can bring a person to their end, or those around them. Another film, though more suspense than horror, deals with drink as well: Remember Last Night?, where a group of young people go out, drink heavily, then all wake up the next morning to find one of them as been murdered. It's like The Hangover, only far more intelligent and dark.

Whale's films also knew how to set a mood. They were all very, very dark in how they were shot. There's no "day for night" here. They're full of harsh whites and dark blacks: a contrast that stems from German Expressionist films. Like those, he played with shadows and artistic, almost surreal sets and backgrounds. There's a hint of artistry in all of his films, well above the level of other horror movies of their day. You sense the craft and the passion, the fact that he and his crew toiled to get the effects and shots just right, the costumes and sets perfectly lit and the actors on the top of their game.


A couple of shots of the Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at top and a couple of pulls from Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein sets at the bottom.

Oh, and I randomly found these I thought were kind of neat:


The Fritz Lang masterpiece Metropolis on the left, looking over his creation, and Bride of Frankenstein on the right...looking over his creation.

And Whale even plays with the idea of Expressionist shadows in The Old Dark House:


Look a bird......suddenly old crazy lady emerging. One of my favorite shots of any classic horror movie.

The 1930s is considered the Golden Age of horror. It's really where all the troupes first came from, many still being used to this day. Whale's work, though, is just a notch above the rest for me. Yes, I love Dracula and The Wolf Man, the sequels to Frankenstein and The Wolf Man for that matter. Werewolf of London is an under-seen classic as is The Black Cat. The Island of Lost Souls is a personal favorite, Freaks is still one of the best of all time alongside Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Mummy still one of the best-shot horror movies of its time. Hell, King Kong's ambitiousness I more than gave a nod to.

I seem to just appreciate Whale's efforts. They're a strange blend of simple execution and concept but complex themes about the elements of us as a people - from all those obsession motifs I described earlier to the fears we have of things we don't understand...yet are strangely drawn to.

For me, it's bittersweet appreciation. He's really only got four major horror films under his belt and a few other non-horror as well, but he pretty much laid it all on the table and said adieu to pursue other interests. That and a lot of political bullshit that was undeserved where studio execs at Universal, the studio itself under a bit of financial turmoil at the time, took his 1937 film The Road Back, as too sympathetic to Germany (it was a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front), cut it up, let the bad press roll in and put Whale on a backseat as a director. TCM's very robust biography of Whale calls him, at this point in his career, a "high-priced hired-hand." He was knocked down to B-movie status and the massive success he had in the early to mid 30s, horror or otherwise (such as the widely successful Show Boat in 1936) would never return.

He managed a decent career on stage, though, and the one remaining great film he was able to get out, The Man in the Iron Mask in 1939, is still one of the best adaptations of that story. His legacy, though, is boiled down to four exceptional horror classics. Of this time, I don't know if there are any equals. There were great horror directors during this "golden age" (1930s to early 40s)  such as Tod Browning (Lon Chaney films, Freaks, Dracula) or George Waggner (The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera) but Whale's brief but incredibly influential four films still hold up incredibly well today.


It's surprisingly easy to find a lot of behind-the-scenes shots of Whale (Frankenstein again here and The Old Dark House) moreso than many other directors of the time. Considering his career was so short, it's all the more impressive. It makes me wonder if the man just liked having photographers around all the time.

If you're a horror fan, chances are you've already seen all of Whale's classics already (and I hope I did the man justice as a fellow horror fan). If you're not, and maybe looking to jump into the Golden Age of horror and looking for those Universal classics to start with, there's no better way than to screen all of Whale's films. Each one is near flawless, some would say absolutely flawless, and a shining example of a time when horror movies and horror directors kind of knew what they were doing and simultaneously writing the books of how horror and those chills and thrills should be done.

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Reply Britton
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