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Dudley’s James Whale: A life in pictures

By dan shaw  |  Posted: October 18, 2012

Studio portrait of young James Whale

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Visitors to the cinema at Dudley’s Castle Gate will be familiar with the large sculpture honouring the Dudley-born film director James Whale (1889-1957). This man of humble origins was transformed by his experiences during the First World War to become a critically acclaimed Hollywood director remembered for some of the most iconic movies in film history.

Whale was a man of great artistic talents and as well as his theatre and film work he was a skilled painter and cartoonist.

A new exhibition at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, running until January 2013, explores this aspect of his work, with around 50 paintings and drawings on display, many rarely seen in public before.

James Whale was born 22nd July, 1889, the fifth of sixth children born to William and Sarah Whale. His father was a furnaceman, his mother a nurse, and the family home was at 4 Parkhill Street, near Buffery Park, Dudley.

James was an intelligent boy and was taught at Kates Hill Board School, then Baylies’ Charity School, and finally Dudley Blue Coat School, but his schooling did not extend beyond the age of 14 because young James was needed to work and earn money for his family. His brothers had jobs in the local foundries but James was too slight of frame for heavy industrial work and so he became a cobbler. He supplemented his income by writing labels and signs for his neighbours and by selling for scrap the old nails he removed from the shoes he repaired. With this money he financed evening classes at Dudley School of Art, in the very building where the current exhibition is displayed.

The First World War transformed James Whale’s life. By becoming an army officer he was able to transcend his class and he was introduced to the theatre, which in turn, after the war was over, took him to America and then on to Hollywood.

Whale enlisted in the army where his abilities were recognised and he was selected for officer training.

He joined the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in October 1915 and was stationed at Bristol. In July 1916 he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment.

He was taken prisoner by the Germans in Flanders in August 1917 and spent the rest of the war at Holzminden POW camp in Lower Saxony.

As a prisoner Whale was able to practice his art and the exhibition at Dudley Museum features several of the cartoons he drew of life at Holzminden.

It was while at the camp that Whale had his first taste of theatre. The prisoners staged plays and Whale became involved in acting, writing, set-designing and directing, and he discovered he had a real flare for the work.

When he was released from Holzminden in December 1918 he went to Birmingham and tried to establish himself as a cartoonist. Meeting with little success he embarked on a career in the theatre, working for actor-manager Nigel Playfair as an actor, set designer and stage manager.

In 1922 Whale met the painter and theatrical costume and stage designer Doris Zinkeisen. The pair were a couple for the next two years and briefly became engaged in 1924, despite Whale being openly homosexual.

In 1928 Whale directed two private performances of R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, one of the most acclaimed plays of the 20th century, with Laurence Olivier and Maurice Evans in the lead roles. In January 1929 the production transferred to the West End with Colin Clive replacing Olivier. The production was a great success, running for two years, and in March 1929 Whale directed the play in New York.

This success brought Whale to the attention of the Hollywood film producers, at an important moment in film history, when the talkies were beginning to take off.

Whale’s first Hollywood job was in 1929 as “dialogue director” on Paramount Pictures’ The Love Doctor. He then directed the dialogue sequences in Howard Hughes’ 1930 picture Hell’s Angels.

The first movie that Whale directed in his own right was the screen adaptation of Journey’s End. Whale then signed a five-year contract with Universal Studios and in 1931 he directed arguably his most famous film, Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and Mae Clarke.

Whale followed this massive hit with the drama Impatient Maiden and another horror classic, The Old Dark House.

Whale attempted to move away from the horror genre with his next picture, the suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror but it was not commercially successful. His next film was The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains, and acclaimed for its visual effects. It was a critical success and a box office hit but Whale did not want to become known as a maker of horror pictures so his next endeavours were the romantic comedy By Candlelight and an adaptation of John Galsworthy’s One More River.

Whale was persuaded to make a sequel to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprising their roles, and British stars Valerie Hobson as the deranged doctor’s fiancée and Elsa Lanchester as the eponymous bride. The film was another commercial and critical success, feted as one of the greatest gothic horrors of all time and arguably Whale’s best work.

Whale’s next picture was the blackly comic murder mystery Remember Last Night? and this was followed by the musical Show Boat, starring Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne and Allan Jones.

The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, was Whale’s next film but Universal Studios, under pressure from the German government, made cuts to the film against Whale’s wishes before it went on general release. Following this falling out Whale’s career declined.

Whale held Universal to their contract but the studio only gave him second string pictures to direct, with the exception of The Man in the Iron Mask, starring Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett and Wolverhampton-born Miles Mander, and Whale effectively retired from Hollywood in 1941. His last pictures were the wartime training film, Personnel Placement in the Army, and the short film Hello Out There, which was never commercially released.

Whale returned to the theatre, producing plays that were free to wartime service personnel and raising money for military charities. He returned to Broadway in 1944 but without great success.

But despite his failing fortunes in film and theatre he was far from destitute. He had made shrewd investments in property and businesses and so was a wealthy man, and lived in comfort in California where he returned to painting as a hobby.

Throughout his career in theatre and film Whale was openly homosexual, in that while not publicising his sexuality he did nothing to conceal it. He had a long-term relationship with the Hollywood producer David Lewis, which ended in 1952, although they afterwards remained close. Whale then took up with a French bartender, Pierre Foegel, whom he brought to America to live with him.

In the spring of 1956 Whale suffered a small stroke, followed by a larger one a few months later which left him hospitalised. His failing health led to depression, for which he received electrotherapy, and an increasing dependence on others as his physical and mental facilities diminished.

On 29th May, 1957, James Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in the swimming pool at his home.

He was cremated and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.

Horror in Hollywood: The James Whale Story runs at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, St James’s Road, Dudley, until 13th January, 2013. The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm and admission is free. For more details call 01384 815575.

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