Behind the Lens: The story of James Whale

In commemoration of this year’s LGBTQ+ history month and it’s theme “behind the lens”, we looked to Dudley’s most famous filmmaker James Whale, an icon of the golden age of Hollywood who brought such characters as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man to life on the silver screen.

Hear our Collections Assistant, Tim, discuss James Whale’s life here.

James Whale
Fig.1 James Whale

Video Transcript

Fig. 2 Film Poster - 'Show Boat'.
Fig. 2 Film Poster – ‘Show Boat’.

James Whale was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors in the 1930s’, directing pictures including Frankenstein, Show Boat and The Invisible Man. What you may not know is that Whale was born here in the Black Country, and was openly gay at a time when this was publicly condemned.

Born in Dudley, Whale remained in the Black Country until the onset of the first world war, during which time he discovered he was a talented painter and sketch artist.

After volunteering in the war, Whale joined Birmingham Repertory Theatre company, before moving to London as a set-designer, actor and producer. Here, he was approached to direct the war play Journey’s End starring a new young actor, Laurence Olivier. The play’s unexpected success meant that Whale was invited to Hollywood in 1929, and he directed the movie version of Journey’s End in 1930, to further acclaim.

Fig. 3 Film poster - 'The Invisible Man'
Fig. 3 Film poster – ‘The Invisible Man’

From here on out, James Whale became a household name, particularly with horror movies such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and the Invisible Man. Whale met the producer David Lewis and the two lived together as an openly gay couple for 23 years, a prospect which was almost unheard of in this era.

James Whale was a homosexual director, who frequently worked with gay actors, at a time when Hollywood had become extremely conservative. The liberal attitudes of 1920s cinema had received backlash from religious and right-wing groups, which lead to the creation of the Hays Code, banning the depiction of all kinds of characters and behaviours deemed offensive in films. This included anything alluding to homosexual behaviour.

Fig. 4 James Whale
Fig. 4 James Whale

The Hays Code broke down in the late 1950s and was replaced with age certificates in the 1960s, around this time, Whale tragically died by suicide. Since then, LGBTQ+ lives and themes have been more frequently depicted in the film industry, including the film “Gods and Monsters” a biography of the years leading up to Whale’s death, where he is portrayed by Ian McKellen.