James Whale

Ian McKellen as James Whale directing Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in Gods and Monsters (1998)

Ian McKellen as James Whale directing Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in Gods and Monsters (1998)

  • Born: 1889
  • Died: 1957
  • Rank: 91
  • Score: 495.50
  • Feature Films: 20
  • Best: Bride of Frankenstein
  • Worst: The Man in the Iron Mask

Top 5 Films:

  1. Bride of Frankenstein – 1935
  2. Frankenstein – 1931
  3. The Invisible Man – 1932
  4. Waterloo Bridge – 1931
  5. Show Boat – 1936

Top 10 Director finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1930-31 – 7th – Waterloo Bridge
  • 1931-32 – 3rd – Frankenstein
  • 1931-32 – 9th – The Old Dark House
  • 1932-33 – 2nd – The Invisible Man
  • 1935 – 2nd – Bride of Frankenstein

Like, I think, many people of my generation who love film, I liked Whale’s films before 1998, but afterwards I came to truly love some of his films, especially his three brilliant horror films: Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. And if you’re reading this you’re probably interested in film and already know that Gods and Monsters was released in 1998.

That film pretty much gives the Whale biography: born to poor parents in England, had his life altered by the first world war (became an officer, then captured, then starting directing theatrical productions as a P.O.W.). He scored a triumph on stage with Journey’s End, then was brought to Hollywood to direct the film version. He made Frankenstein, which was such a runaway success and so important and influential that he was given pretty much complete control of his films until ownership changes at Universal and German sympathies lead to the gutting of his projected opus, The Road Back. After that he made a few more films to fill out his contract then retired. He committed suicide by drowning in his pool in 1957 after suffering a series of strokes.

While the Brendan Fraser character in Gods is fictional, the description of Whale’s life is extremely accurate and is the best place to look, because it’s brilliant.

The Invisible Man – #3 film of 1932-33

I would write about Bride, which is Whale’s best film but so much of that film is incorporated into Gods and they do it so much better, that I thought I would focus instead on Invisible Man, which is also brilliant, but often gets lost in the shuffle.

Watching the film again the other day, I was astounded at how much a technical marvel it is for the times. Many of the effects (wires, the use of black velvet as a predecessor to green screen) are still employed today. We have computers and technicians to do what Whale could do 75 years ago.

The camera work is also astounding. When Griffin (so perfectly played by Claude Rains in his first screen role in a performance entirely dependent on voice) first enters the inn, we get three successive shorts, each a little closer. When he is unwrapping his bandages in front of the mirror, we don’t realize how difficult a shot that is given the special effects, and how it had to be shot and matched four times.

There is also the trademark humor, first really seen in Old Dark House, but brought on magnificently here, especially with the classic shot of the empty pair of pants skipping down a country lane causing a woman to shriek in utter fright.

While Whale was never happy to be thought of as a horror director, we can be thankful for those horror classics he made, because so many of his other films are unavailable today and those few films are what his reputation is based on.