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IT’S ALIVE! The legacy of Frankenstein’s Dudley-born creator

By Heather Large | Dudley | Features | Published:

He was one of the brightest shining stars during the golden days of Hollywood and created the definitive movie monster that still sends a shiver down spines today.

The Bride of Frankenstein

James Whale shot to fame in the 1930s for directing horror classics Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein.

But his early days growing up in a working class family in Dudley were a world away from the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Now the cinematic pioneer's formative years are being put under the spotlight in a new film due to be produced by Kidderminster-based Community Broadcast Company.

"He was the founding father of the horror movie genre and although he's no longer here today, his films are still very much alive.

"They are still being watched and enjoyed by audiences today and his Frankenstein is known around the world," says Daniel Titley who is directing the film.

Dudley-born director James Whale

One of seven children, Whale was born to parents William and Sarah in Brewery Street, Kates Hill in 1896.

He attended Kate’s Hill Board School, Baylie's Charity School and Dudley Blue Coat School before enrolling in evening art classes at Dudley School of Art.

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"His dad was a blast furnace man and his mother was a nurse. James was the odd one out as he didn't want the same type of job as his dad so he worked as a cobbler and saved up money for night classes to study art," explains Daniel, aged 27.

After volunteering enlisting in the army after he outbreak of the First World War, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Worcestershire Regiment in July 1916.

Just over a year later, he was captured by the Germans on the Western Front at Flanders becoming a prisoner of war at Holzminden Officers' Camp.

And it was during his time in captivity that his love of telling stories and staging a show first began to grow.

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Daniel Titley is making a film about Dudley-born director James Whale who was behind films such as Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein

"He would put on little productions for the other prisoners and that's when he first started experimenting with costumes and theatrics.

"After the war, he returned to Dudley and joined Birmingham Birmingham Repertory Theatre as an actor. He then became a set designer and an assistant director," explains Daniel, who lives in Sedgley.

From Birmingham he went on to direct productions in London's West End including the hugely-successful war play Journey's End which led him to Hollywood to direct the film version in 1929.

In 1931, he signed a five-year contract with Universal Pictures and his first film was Waterloo Bridge, which tells the story of a desperate American chorus girl stranded in London during the First World War.

But it was release of Frankeinstein in 1931 which saw him a make a name for himself and it's still considered by many film buffs to be the definitive monster movie.

They say that the ground-breaking use of atmospheric lighting and sound, the set design and the use of the make up set the standard for generations to come.

Boris Karloff appears in a scene from the 1931 classic film Frankenstein

“It gave me a chance to dabble in the macabre,” Whale told the New York Times in 1931. “I thought it would be amusing to try and make what everybody knows is a physical impossibility seem believable," he said at the time.

Based on Mary Shelley's Gothic novel, it stars Boris Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as Dr Frankenstein.

It was followed by Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, in which Elsa Lanchester plays the Monster's bride.

Daniel, who has done extensive research into the director's past, says he believes Whale's background influenced his films which also include The Old Dark House, The Kiss Before the Mirror, The Invisible Man and By Candlelight.

"Frankenstein is a character that everybody recognises because of James Whale's films - he's probably the most recognisable horror monster ever.

"I love how he would create the gothic setting and how the film shows his influences, personalities and views on the modern attitudes at the time. He was openly gay at a time when that was really rare and the humour in his films has been said to be considered camp humour.

Astons Auctioneers, Dudley, which was previously Baileys's Charity School, which Whale attended

"He grew up in the shadow of Dudley Castle at a time when the air would have been full of soot and the houses were black and I think that definitely inspired his creative style.

"James and his siblings used to visit a relative who lived in an old, creaky house and I think the The Old Dark House could have stemmed from this," he explains.

Whale's career took a turn for the worse following the release of The Road Back in 1937 which proved a flop. He made one more successful film - The Man in the Iron Mask in 1939 - before retiring from the industry two years later.

Beset by personal, health and professional problems, he took his own life at his California home on May 29, 1957 at the age of 67.

A memorial to James Whale now stands in his home town not far from Showcase Cinemas and a plaque has been placed outside one of his former schools in Tower Street.

But Daniel says not many people in the area know about the famous director's Black Country roots which is why he keen to shed light on this part of his life in the new film titled Still Alive.

"My dad had told me about the memorial but I didn't really know much about him. There is not much information around unless you go digging for it. I was able to find out some details but there were still some holes.

Dudley-born James Whale

"I managed to track down James' great-great niece Cath Lloyd and she has told me everything she knows and shown me photos and letters," he explains.

Filming for Still Alive is due to get under way in Dudley at locations around the town and also in Brighton.

"The film has a contemporary setting and the main female character finds this archive on James Whale and sets out to find out who he was in a town that has forgotten about him," says Daniel, who studied film and television at Halesowen College.

"I hope it will appeal to fans of the films and younger audiences and help people understand more about the man behind the monster that's become a household name," he adds.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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