Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Born Today July 22: James Whale


If you are not, as I am, a horror hound, or even a super fan of older Universal studio releases, you may be unfamiliar with James Whale. Even if you are a fan of the Frankenstein director, you may not know that he was the director of dialogue on one lone film in 1929.  The Love Doctor was a 1929 talkie produced by Paramount (there was a silent version for release outside major urban areas); the film was directed by Melville W. Brown and starred Richard Dix and June Collyer in the leading roles.  Whale had very recently signed with the studio and his very first assignment was serving as dialogue director of the film; Whale, along with several others, went uncredited for his trouble. James Whale, despite that he invented a fictional narrative of his origins, was born in Dudley, England--right in the middle of working class Black Country--to a nurse mother and blast furnaceman father; he had six siblings, of which he was next to the youngest. Amongst the schools that he attended was a charity school, but as the semi-fictional film Gods and Monsters, in which Whale is played by Ian McKellen, recounts truthfully, Whale was pulled out of school and put to work as a teenager.  He was, though, artistically inclined and generated extra income by painting lettering and numbering signs of various sorts--the income he put to good use by paying his way through evening classes in a local arts and crafts school. Though the film Gods and Monsters gets his service in France during World War I correct, what it does not depict is his being taken as a prisoner of war. He remained so until the end of the war, and it was during this time that he took up acting (he also picked up the art of playing poker, which he would go on to use as a skill to generate income).  Knocking around Birmingham after the war, he drifted into theater work (after an attempt to become a cartoonist). He eventually, in 1928, had the opportunity to direct a play--which was so successful that it was produced on Broadway the following year--this is the catalyst by which Whale came to the United States and stayed. The play was was such a success that it was not long before movie producers were almost literally knocking down his door.  After just the one film with Paramount, his contract expired and he returned to theatrical work--this time in Chicago.  Impressed with his work, he was next hired by Howard Hughes for another round at dialogue direction on his Hell's Angels; and this brings me to Whale's only other connection to silent cinema (aside from his personal love of the partial silent Show Boat from 1929 that he would remake).  The entire production of Angels was a late fully silent film--almost at the last minute, Hughes decided to bring sound to it--which is the time during the production that he hired Whale. Whale worked as the "dialogue stager"--but also got some hands-on experience with film direction at the same time--it was not long before he had the needed to call on that knowledge.  His most important moment in 1929, by far, came when the men who had purchased the film rights to Journey's End, the play that Whale had directed and made such a sensation and set during the Great War, asked Whale to direct the film version. Filming started in early December 1929; by the end of January of the following year, filming wrapped.  Heavily billed as "All Talking," the film debuted on the 9th of April, 1930.  Whale was now a full fledged film director.  Film studios took serious notice and Whale was signed to a fateful five year contract with Universal in 1931.  He is most famous for the direction of Frankenstein in 1931 (a project that he chose from a list of projects presented to him), he was first handed another war picture by the studio: Waterloo Bridge (1931).  He was already at work directing the screwball comedy The Impatient Maiden--released in March of 1932--when it was clear that he was being hailed as the best new thing to happen to the horror genre (still in it's infancy in film at the time).  It is no surprise then that he is best remembered for his horror films. So, in 1932, he directed The Old Dark House, a first rate horror comedy that also featured "the Monster" himself Boris Karloff (the film was thought lost forever until 1968, when--thankfully!--a print was discovered).  He next tried his hand at the mystery genre in A Kiss Before Dying (1933), probably his least remembered effort; the film was a failure at the box he returned to horror. He next directed The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains and introduced the world to the wild, zany antics of one Una O'Connor; the film was a huge box office hit for Universal. Whale, by this time, had a half formed rule that he would not direct two horror films in a row, so there were actually two films between Invisible Man and the film that many consider his masterpiece:   The Bride of Frankenstein. The film was released in May of 1935 and out-did The Invisible Man to such an extreme degree, that Universal boss of bosses Carl Laemmle tried to force Whale to helm Dracula's Daughter; this, of course, broke Whale's "horror film rule," and so concerned him that he was being "typecast" as a horror director, that he never directed another horror film (the project eventually went to Lambert Hillyer).  Whale's burning desire was to remake Show Boat as a full sound film, which he was able to convince the studio execs to allow him to do so; the film was released on the 17th of May of 1936 (this, and One More River 1934, were reportedly among Whale's personal favorites of his own films).  After this, Whale's career began to wilt. He made a number of genre flicks, from crime to comedy, but settled on the adventure film for his last few films. The one that stands out (at least for me) is Green Hell, released in 1940, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and features quite the cast that included Joan Bennett, Alan Hale Jr. (aka The Skipper) and a young up and coming actor named Vincent Price (Price hated the film and by all accounts, he ranked it by far the worst acting experience that he had on a set).  His last feature length film was The Dare Not Love in 1941, made for Columbia.  Terribly bored with his dimininshing film career, he retired; eventually taking up painting at the urging of his long time partner producer David Lewis.  Whale returned to directing only twice in his life, and both of those films were non-studio efforts. The first was for the the United States military: Personnel Placement in the Army in 1942; and his final film--Hello Out There--in 1949, which was never commercially released. Whale did return to directing the theater; on Broadway in the 1940's and in Europe in the early 1950's (his last directed play was closed early due to it's star, Hermione Baddeley's heavy drinking).  In 1956, Whale suffered two strokes, the second of which was much more serious than the first. It left him impaired and depressed with failing mental faculties. He wrote a suicide note and drown himself in his swimming pool (a pool that he had never himself used) on the 29th of May in 1957. A concerned David Lewis, who was by this time estranged from Whale as a partner and living next door, found Whale and his note.  Lewis kept the note until his death in 1987, when it was published--finally clearing up what many had long suspected, that Whale had ended his own life some 30 years earlier (Whale's death had officially been ruled accidental). He was 67 years old. Whale was cremated and interred at the Columbarium of Memory in the mausoleum of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale (his plaque lists the wrong year of his birth as 1893).  

[Source: AJ (Find A Grave)]

[Source: Denis Svoboda and Anneabe (Find A Grave)]



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