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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Movie World Revisits Horror of Director Whale




LOS ANGELES -- By the time director James Whale took his own life, drowning himself in the shallow end of his pool in 1957, Hollywood had mostly forgotten him.


His death at age 67 warranted only a couple of paragraphs in Variety and his funeral took place in a small Westwood chapel.


But in the 1930s, this stage-trained Englishman had directed a trio of horror pictures that would influence generations of filmmakers and shape popular culture to this day: "Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man" and "The Bride of Frankenstein."


The recognition that long eluded this complex, contradictory man came just months after his suicide, when millions of people saw his work anew in the first television airings of "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man."


Film festivals and movie historians later afforded Whale his place in history as the man who perfected the horror genre, by humanizing the monster and using humor.


His life was rich with tragedy and metaphor, and critics still debate whether his homosexuality influenced his work and his departure from Hollywood.


This year, Whale is receiving the biggest jolt of attention ever. "Frankenstein" made the American Film Institute's much-debated list of greats, at No. 87; a biography was released; and, last week, "Gods and Monsters" arrived in cinemas, offering a fictional account of his final days. Ian McKellen plays Whale in an Academy Award-caliber performance.


Universal Pictures, which produced the Whale classics during its horror heyday, has rediscovered its monster treasure and is mounting a new Frankenstein movie in an expensive computer animated-live action combination.


How Whale would have reacted to all this is, like most things about him, debatable. He was aloof and private, and even his death was a mystery: A man notoriously afraid of water ended up drowning. The death was questionable until a Whale biographer, James Curtis, acquired the suicide note from Whale's lover, David Lewis.


"The future is just old age and illness and pain," Whale wrote. "Good-bye all and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way." It was signed, "Jimmy."


At the time, Whale hadn't worked in Hollywood for 13 years. He was suffering from the effects of strokes and taking medication. By all indications he was battling depression.


After serving in the trenches during World War I, Whale made a career in the theater, working himself up to London productions as a director, actor and set designer. His ticket to Hollywood was his direction of the realistic World War I drama "Journey's End," which went to Broadway after becoming a hit in England.


Paramount Pictures put Whale under contract, and later he went to Universal, where in 1931 he turned a middle-aged actor named Boris Karloff into the original bolt-necked Frankenstein monster.


The film broke with tradition by making the monster sympathetic, which only intensified the horror. He also brought dry humor to the genre, as in "The Invisible Man" (1933) when Claude Rains pulls off his nose and puts it on a table or when the perverse Dr. Pretorius of "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) suggests that to create a woman would be "really interesting."