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  • James WhaleThe Monster Man
  • Kristine Somerville

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Portrait of James Whale, courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

[End Page 89]

In 1917, while serving as a second lieutenant in the British Army on the Western Front, twenty-six-year-old James Whale was captured by the Germans at Aisne Farm in France. Led off at bayonet point, he felt lucky; most of his platoon had been killed. He was transported to Holzminden, a prison camp in the heart of enemy territory where six hundred officers were already imprisoned. The brutal camp commander, Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer, claimed that the camp was escape-proof. Prisoners dug a hundred-yard tunnel with knives, forks, and frying pans, and twenty-nine men crawled free. Another seventy might have made it through if not for a New Zealand aviator who got stuck in the hole, blocking their passage.

Indifferent to the escapees’ plans, Whale stayed put. Despite a meager diet of potato rations and occasional horsemeat and the camp’s reputation as the worst in Germany, he made effective use of his time, gambling, painting, and producing amateur theatrical productions. For his plays, he designed and painted the scenery and wrote original material. On Saturday nights after dinner, the tables were pushed together, creating a solid platform for a makeshift stage at the far end of the barracks. For two hours, in the small theater space, inmates performed a James Whale production, forgetting about their harsh circumstances until the final curtain dropped. His plays became popular among both prisoners and camp officials, who would send to Cologne for special costumes and props. After fifteen months, he left Holzminden with his career path set: he would make a life in theater. He said, “I couldn’t follow anything seriously after that.”

When he left Holzminden, IOUs scribbled on paper scraps filled his pockets, winnings from the camp’s many poker and bridge games. The officers, most from wealthy British families, paid their debts, and with the sales of his prison drawings, Whale had several hundred pounds to stake a new life in London. He freelanced cartoons and illustrations for commercial magazines, but the postwar housing shortage made rents prohibitively expensive. He moved to Birmingham, six miles from where he’d grown up, worked for the Birmingham Repertory Company, and enrolled in Ryland Memorial School of Art.

The world of theater offered Whale an escape from a life of hard physical labor and poverty. He was born in 1889 in Dudley, a mining and ironworking town in the West Midlands, to working-class parents in a house crowded with siblings. Unusually thin, with intense blue eyes, red hair, and “faun-like charm,” he carried himself with a regal bearing. [End Page 90] Family and friends thought that he was meant for a life grander than what Dudley could offer.

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Frankenstein, 1931, courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

With a large family to help support, Whale left school in his teens to work for a cobbler, salvaging nails from shoe soles for scrap metal before burning the leather. His talent as a draftsman made him extra money lettering fancy price tags for local merchants, which he saved for tuition at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts. In 1910, he enrolled and took classes at night while working during the day in a sheet-metal factory hammering ornamental designs into buggy fenders. Other than his attendance at the occasional performances at the Dudley Opera House, [End Page 91] there was no indication when he left art school in 1914 that he would seek a life in theater.

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Frankenstein, 1931, courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Whale understood that success and recognition, as well as money, would be hard to come by. He said, “No one should wish to become an actor or have anything to do with the theater for any other reason than an inner compulsion.” Yet he pursued his dream as soon as he was liberated, thin and frail, from Holzminden. After a stint in Stratford-upon-Avon playing small parts in the Shakespearean Festival...


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