Halloween Countdown – The Great Directors – James Whale
James Whale had always intended on being an actor and it was while chasing this dream in the English theater that he found himself drawn more towards stage design which eventually led him to directing. He had experienced terrible times as a soldier in the first world war and so he seemed the perfect choice to helm the stage production of Journey’s End, a play by R C Sheriff which looked at the futile loss of young life in the trenches. The production was such a success that Whale was invited over to Hollywood where he became a dialog director on the Howard Hughes movie, Hells Angels (1930). And that same year Whale got to direct a movie himself with a version of Howard’s End. In 1931 he made Waterloo Bridge but the film that made the director a superstar was Frankenstein which was the first of four horror pictures Whale made for Universal.
The success of the picture meant that Whale was given a free hand with his next project, and the director turned in the classic The Old Dark House which again starred Boris Karloff, the actor who of course played the monster in Frankenstein. The movie was another huge success and Whale’s next picture was, The Invisible Man. Claude Rains starred in the movie and does a great job even if he does spend most of the picture wrapped in bandages.For the time the movie featured state of the art special effects.
Whale’s next movie was his masterpiece and is one of those rare occasions when a sequel turns out better than the original movie – 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein did everything this original did but did it bigger and better. Although much of the gallows humour of the original has been toned down, which in places leads to subtle slapstick. Still it’s a fine movie and an undisputed classic of the genre.
Whale was openly homosexual which was extremely rare at the time, and many feel that his flamboyant lifestyle prevented him from becoming as big a director as he should have been. Whale’s next movie, following Bride of Frankenstein was The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front but by now his career was already in decline and he would never again reach the heights of his early work for Universal.
Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool on 29 May 1957 at the age of 67.He left a suicide note, which Lewis withheld until shortly before his own death decades later. Because the note was suppressed, the death was initially ruled accidental.
The note read in part:
“To ALL I LOVE,
“Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.
“I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way.
“The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.