glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Whale, James (1889-1957)  

Director James Whale is best remembered for his four stylish horror films: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Today these are still recognized as outstanding examples of the genre, noted for their semi-expressionistic mood and understated black humor.

In The Celluloid Closet, film historian Vito Russo interprets Whale's dramatizations as compelling allegories of a man grappling with his homosexuality. Perhaps equally important, Whale's career demonstrates that it was possible for an openly gay man to achieve success in 1930s Hollywood, at least behind the camera.

Whale was born into a working class family in Dudley, England, probably on July 22, 1889. Growing up poor deeply affected him, as did the fact that he found little support within his family for his artistic leanings and ambitions. Later in his life he would sometimes give the impression that he was of the British upper class or aristocracy, but he never forgot his humble beginnings.

He first pursued a career as a newspaper cartoonist, but was drafted for service in World War I. During the war Whale earned a commission as second lieutenant and was captured by the Germans. While a prisoner of war, he learned to stage plays.

After the war he pursued a career in the theater, first as an actor, then as a set designer, and, finally, as a director. In 1929, Whale won notice for his direction of the R. C. Sheriff play Journey's End. He was promptly imported to Hollywood in 1930 to direct the screen version. Enthralled by Hollywood and the opportunities it represented, he never left.

In addition to his horror classics, Whale also directed refined and intelligent films in other genres, usually adaptations from literature or the stage. His films are marked by fluid camera movement, leisurely pace, emphasis on detail, and discriminating restraint.

Among his films are the highly regarded Show Boat (1936), perhaps the best version of the musical; a pair of highly sophisticated comedies, Remember Last Night? (1935) and The Great Garrick (1937); and several sharply crafted melodramas, including Waterloo Bridge (1930) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).

Coming on the heels of Show Boat, The Road Back (1937), his film of Erich Remarque's sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, was expected to secure his growing reputation as one of Hollywood's most important directors.

But the Laemmle family, who helmed Universal and had given Whale carte blanche in the past, had lost control of the studio by the time production began. When the Nazi government objected to the film's supposedly anti-German elements, the studio's new owners took Whale off the project, and "comic relief" scenes shot by another director were inserted to tone down the elements the Nazis found objectionable. The result was a critical and commercial disaster.

Whale worked out his Universal contract with second-rate material, eventually walked off the set of his last contracted Universal film, and never directed again.

Wise investments allowed Whale to retire in comfort. Relieved of the necessity to earn a living, he returned to his first love, painting, occasionally directed plays, and often entertained young men at swimming parties.

In 1929, Whale and David Lewis, a young story editor and later a producer, began a relationship that lasted more than two decades. Although their sexual relationship was an open secret, they lived rather circumspect lives among the English colony in Hollywood.

The sexual component of their relationship ended in the early 1950s, but they remained friends until Whale's death. In the early 1950s, Whale began a relationship with Pierre Foegel, a Frenchman working as his chauffeur.

After a series of strokes left Whale physically and spiritually depleted, he committed suicide by throwing himself into his swimming pool on May 29, 1957. Because his suicide note was withheld until after Lewis's death (and first published in James Curtis's biography of the director), Whale's death was shrouded in mystery for many years.

Christopher Bram's excellent novel Father of Frankenstein (1995) offers a fictional account of Whale's final days. The novel was adapted to film by Bill Condon as Gods and Monsters (1998, produced by Clive Barker), in which Ian McKellen gives a stunning performance as Whale.

Peter J. Holliday


Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts
Popular Topics:


Williams, Tennessee
Williams, Tennessee

Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer

The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance

Romantic Friendship: Female
Romantic Friendship: Female

Feminist Literary Theory

American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969
American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Erotica and Pornography
Erotica and Pornography

Mishima, Yukio
Mishima, Yukio

Sadomasochistic Literature

Beat Generation
Beat Generation


   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Film Directors

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual film directors have been a vital creative presence in cinema since the medium's inception over one hundred years ago.

arts >> Overview:  Horror Films

The monsters of horror films may frequently be read as mirrors of societal views of homosexuals as predatory, amoral, perverse, possessed of secret supernatural powers, and threatening to "normal life."

arts >> Overview:  Set and Costume Design

Set and costume design for stage and film are fields that have attracted a large number of talented gay men and lesbians.

arts >> Barker, Clive

Writer, director, and producer Clive Barker is best known for his horror fiction and movies, but is also a prolific painter and illustrator, as well as a developer of comic books and computer games.

literature >> Bram, Christopher

Christopher Bram's novels address homosexual issues in a variety of periods and locales.

arts >> Condon, William "Bill"

Having earned critical acclaim for his work on Gods and Monsters (1998), Chicago (2002), and Kinsey (2004), screenwriter and film director William "Bill" Condon has become a leading American filmmaker.

arts >> Laughton, Charles

Anglo-American stage and screen actor and director Charles Laughton scored many triumphs in a distinguished career, but nevertheless suffered for much of his life from self-loathing and internalized homophobia.

arts >> McKellen, Sir Ian

Arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, Ian McKellen was the first British subject to be knighted after publicly revealing his homosexuality, an event that proved more controversial within the gay community than in the mainstream.


Curtis, James. James Whale. Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow, 1982.

_____. James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Ellis, Reed. A Journey into Darkness. The Art of James Whale's Horror Films. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Gattis, Mark. James Whale, a Biography. Or, The Would-be Gentleman. New York: Cassell, 1995.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Slide, Anthony. "Whale, James." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol. 2. Directors. Nicholas Thomas, ed. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: St. James Press, 1991. 913-914.


    Citation Information
    Author: Holliday, Peter J.  
    Entry Title: Whale, James  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 30, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.