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Dudley born, prisoner of war turned film director.

  • 1901 black and white image of Baylies' Charity school, Dudley.

Early years

James Whale was born on 22 July 1889. He was the sixth of seven children brought up on Park Hill Street, Buffery Park. His father, William, was a blast furnaceman and his mother, Sarah, was a nurse. 

He was a pupil at Kates Hill Board school, followed by Bayliss Charity School and finally Dudley Blue Coat School. 

He stopped going to school when he was a teenager. Not as physically strong as his brothers, he started work as a cobbler. He discovered he had some artistic ability and earned additional money lettering signs and price tags for local shopkeepers. He used the additional income to pay for evening classes at Dudley School of Arts and Crafts. 

World War I

Whale volunteered to enlist in the army after the outbreak of The Great War. He underwent officer training and was later commissioned as second lieutenant into the Worcestershire Regiment in July 1916. 

Just over a year later he was captured by Germans on the Western Front at Flanders becoming a prisoner of war at Holzminden Officer's Camp. He was held prisoner of war for two years. It was during his time in captivity that his love of telling stories and staging a show began to grow. 

After the war, he returned to Dudley and joined Birmingham Repertory Theatre as an actor. He then became a set designer and an Assistant Director. 

Hollywood - right place, right time

In 1928, Whale was given the opportunity to direct a production of R.C.Sheriff's  "Journey's End" which originally starred a young Lawrence Olivier. Lauded by critics and audiences alike, the play was eventually taken to New York, where it continued its acclaimed run on Broadway in the spring of 1929. 

It was at this point, Whale became the epitome of a man in the right place at the right time. Hollywood was struggling to make the conversion to sound cinema, so raided the talent pools of the theatre.

The new position of 'Dialogue Director' was created to help established silent film directors. Whale was hired to assist Howard Hughes in the drama 'Hell's Angels' (1930). The same year Whale earned his first feature director credit with the adaptation of Journey's End (1930) with Colin Clive in the leading role. He was then signed by Universal Studios to direct wartime drama 'Waterloo Bridge', the film came in on time and under budget enabling Whale a future choice - he chose Frankenstein. 

Frankenstein marked the full-fledged emergence of horror as a commercially viable Hollywood genre, Whale was elevated to the status of Universal's Premier Director. 

Within five years Whale became one of a handful of directors in the studio system to attain almost total control over his projects, as long as the box office responded favourably. 

Universal Studios management changed, and in 1937 after protests and  threats of a German boycott by the then ruling Nazi Party, drastic cuts were made to his WWI drama 'The Road Back' (1937). 

A disgusted Whale left and became freelance. 

His last successful film was 'The Man in the Iron Mask' (1939) starring Louise Hayward as twins of royal lineage and Warren William as the Muskateer, Da Artagnan. 

 

 

Life after Hollywood

Whale was always careful with his finances and was in the enviable position of being to chose what to do with his newfound free time. At the suggestion of his longtime partner, David Lewis, the retired director took up painting and soon built an impressive studio in his home. 

In 1956, Whale was hospitalised after suffering a pair of strokes, during his time there he underwent shock treatment to combat his increasing depression. He was eventually released and cared for at home by a nurse. His failing health and diminished mental health made life unbearable. 

On 29 May 1957, at the age of 67,  Whale was found drowned in his pool. The circumstances aroused suspicion but his death was recorded as accidental. A suicide note was released decades later by his former partner, lover and lifelong friend David Lewis.