The Dudley cobbler whose Hollywood film was so scary one scene was cut for 49 years

When it came to frightening people, James Whale had few peers.

James Whale on set with Boris Karloff
James Whale on set with Boris Karloff

His 1931 film Frankenstein was so scary that the authorities in Kansas asked for no fewer than 32 cuts to be made. The scene where Frankenstein's monster drowns a small girl in the lake was considered so distressing that it could not be shown in US cinemas until 1980.

Whale was unquestionably one of Hollywood's all-time greatest film directors, and in 1998 his life became the subject of an Oscar-winning movie starring Sir Ian McKellen.

But while Americans saw Whale, with his chiselled looks, military bearing and cut-glass accent, as the quintessential English gentleman, he was actually the son of a foundry worker from the Black Country.

The cobbler from Dudley rose to become the darling of Hollywood, before tragically taking his own life in his swimming pool.

Whale was born in Flood Street in July 1889, the sixth of seven children. His father William, was a blast furnaceman, his mother Sarah a nurse.

He attended Kates Hill Board School, followed by Baylies Charity School and finally Blue Coat School, although he never finished his education. His family needed money, and young Jimmy was sent out to earn his keep at the earliest possible opportunity.

While his brothers followed their father into heavy industry, slightly built Jimmy was never really cut out for hard labour. He might not have anticipated a career in Hollywood, but he sure enough knew he didn't want to work in a foundry.

James Whale

Instead, he took a job a in a cobbler's shop, earning a little extra money by keeping the nails he removed from worn-out shoes and selling them for scrap.

After discovering his artistic talent, he started working as a signwriter in his spare time to fund evening classes at Dudley School of Arts and Crafts. Whale spent almost four years at the terracotta-fronted college in St James's Road, more recently used as an art gallery. It is there that he learned to paint to a high standard, a love he retained right up until his death in 1957.

Indeed, had circumstances been different, he may well have become a painter, but the outbreak of the First World War sent his career in a very different direction.

While Whale had no great desire to fight, he knew call-up was inevitable, and decided it best to volunteer on his own terms. He signed up for the Army Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in October 1915, and was stationed initially at Bristol. The following July he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Worcestershire Regiment, and was sent to fight on the Western Front.

After several battles in France, Whale was finally captured by the Germans at Flanders in August, 1917. He was taken to Holzminden Camp in Saxony, where he remained until the end of the conflict. During his time in the camp he took part in amateur-theatre productions, variously trying his hand as an actor, writer, producer and set-designer, saying he found them "a source of great pleasure and amusement", adding that he found the appreciation of the audience intoxicating.

A cartoon by James Whale

He was also a shrewd poker player, winning enough money from his inmates to set him up with a comfortable living after the war. Having entered the conflict as an impoverished metal worker from the Black Country, he returned with the bearing of the classic English gent, a nest-egg to prepare him for life on civvy street, and a newly found talent for drama. And he was determined to put all three to good use.

On his return to the West Midlands, he sought work as a cartoonist, but found it difficult to gain secure employment. Two of his cartoons were used in the popular weekly magazine the Bystander in 1919, but he was not offered regular work. Whale decided to focus on a stage career instead, joining the Birmingham Repertory Company.

It was during this time, in a show at Manchester's Gaiety Theatre, that he met the actor Ernest Thesiger, who he would later cast as Dr Septimus Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. The aristocratic Thesiger would be a major influence on Whale, who emulated his regal presence and royalist attitudes. He learned that Thesiger had trained his voice to disguise his regional accent, and Whale did the same.

The actor Nigel Playfair took Whale under his wing, and the young man worked as an actor, set designer and builder, and a director. In 1922 Playfair introduced him to the theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen. While Whale was openly homosexual, he and Zinkeisen lived as a couple for two years, becoming engaged in 1924 before ending the arrangement in 1925.

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein

In 1928 Whale was invited to direct two private performances of R C Sherriff's then-unknown play Journey's End for the Incorporated Stage Society. Depicting the experiences of British officers in the trenches during the First World War, it was an subject close to Whale's heart. He offered the lead role of Capt Stanhope to a little-known actor called Laurence Olivier, who initially turned the part down, but changed his mind after meeting the playwright.

The play went down well, and was given a run at the Savoy in London's West End, minus Olivier, who was replaced by a young Colin Clive.

Journey's End proved to be a runaway success, on occasions leaving the audience in a state of stunned silence before bursting into thunderous ovations. When its three-week run at the Savoy came to an end, it moved to the nearby Prince of Wales Theatre where it ran for another two years. At one stage, it was reported that every bus and train in the London area was carrying an advert saying "All roads lead to Journey's End."

Whale's friend and biographer James Curtis wrote: "It managed to coalesce, at the right time and in the right manner, the impressions of a whole generation of men who were in the war and who had found it impossible, through words or deeds, to adequately express to their friends and families what the trenches had been like."

Its success did not go unnoticed across the Atlantic, and producer Gilbert Miller bought the rights to stage the show on Broadway, with an all-British cast.

Sir Ian McKellan as James Whale

Whale was then invited to direct a movie version of the play, starring Colin Clive, David Manners and Ian Maclaren, which was released in 1930. Whale was paid $20,000 ­– about £250,000 at today's prices – for 15 weeks' work. For a former cobbler from the Black Country, this seemed hard to comprehend.

Whale remarked: "That they should pay such fabulous salaries is beyond ordinary reasoning. Who's worth it? But why not take it?"

Universal Studios signed Whale to a five-year contract in 1931 and his first project was film called Waterloo Bridge, based on a Broadway play by Robert E Sherwood. The film starred Mae Clarke as a chorus girl in London who became a prostitute during the First World War. Around this time, he started living with the American film producer David Lewis, who he would spend the next 20 years with.

Whale claimed he was "forced more or less against my will" to direct Frankenstein in 1931, but it would prove a good career move.

"At first I thought it was a gag," he said. He cast Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke as his fiancée Elizabeth, but found the role of the Monster more difficult to cast.

Dracula star Bela Lugosi was initially chosen for the role, but Whale thought his face too fleshy and round. Somebody suggested the little-known supporting actor Boris Karloff for the part, to which Whale reportedly replied "Boris who?"

Giving the role to Karloff proved to be a brilliant piece of casting, turning the unknown actor into a Hollywood legend. Frankenstein was an instant hit with critics and the public, shattering box office records across the US and earning Universal $12 million on first release.

A cartoon by James Whale

Despite Frankenstein's stunning success, Whale was reluctant to become typecast as a horror-film director, and it would be another four years before Whale directed the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

His next films were The Impatient Maiden and The Old Dark House, both released in 1932. While The Impatient Maiden made little impression, The Old Dark House, starring Karloff and Charles Laughton, was another stunning success, at least as far as the critics were concerned. The tale, about a couple and their friend who spend an eventful night sheltering from a storm at the house of a sinister and dysfunctional family and their terrifying mute butler, cemented Whale's reputation as the "King of Monsters", a moniker he detested.

Yet, for all his protests, Whale proved time and again that horror was what he did best. His next film, The Kiss Before the Mirror, was popular with the critics but flopped at the box-office.

On the other hand, The Invisible Man, a more light-hearted take on the horror genre that was released in 1933, would become another blockbuster. Much praised for its ground-breaking visual effects, the New York Times placed it in its top 10 films of the year, and once more, box-office records were broken. Even the French, who had imposed restrictions on the transmission of English-speaking films to protect their indigenous movie culture, agreed to waive the rules on the grounds of "extraordinary artistic merit".

With his next film, Whale tried to diversify away from horror once more. By Candlelight, a romantic comedy that was also released in 1933, received positive reviews and did quite well at the box office.

But One More River, the story of a woman desperate to escape an abusive marriage to a member of the British aristocracy, would fall foul of the new Motion Picture Production Code. The code was introduced to impose standards of propriety and censorship on the growing US film industry, and One More River's scenes of abusive behaviour and implied sexual deviancy, attracted particularly close scrutiny.

A cartoon by James Whale

In 1935 Whale teamed up with Karloff once more, as well as his old mentor Ernest Thesiger, for Bride of Frankenstein. But if One More River had been a headache for the US film censors, this would be something else. Even after the film was finally approved by the Production Code Office on April 10, 1935, it still faced challenges by state censors in Ohio. The scene where the Monster gazes longingly at the corpse Frankenstein intends to revive for the Monster's bride fell foul of censors in both the UK and China, amid concerns that it resembled necrophilia. The film was voluntarily withdrawn from Sweden, and was banned in Trinidad, Hungary and Palestine.

Despite, or maybe because, of this controversy, Bride of Frankenstein was a hit with both the public and the critics, grossing $2 million at the box office. But it would be the last horror film Whale would make.

His next movie, a film-version of the musical Show Boat, was well received on its release in 1936, but when Whale turned his back on horror, his career would go into a state of slow decline.

His 1937 film The Road Back, which told the stories of German First World War veterans and their struggles to reintegrate into civilian life, led to a diplomatic row with Nazi Germany, which led to Whale being relegated to directing B-movies. His final successful feature film was The Man in the Iron Mask, released in 1939, and he retired two years later, although he made a brief attempt at a comeback in 1950.

Whale reportedly returned to Dudley for a while in 1951, and continued to work as a director in theatre productions for some years. But he spent most of his later years living off his considerable wealth, indulging in his passion for travel and rekindling his love of painting.

James Whale

In 1956, Whale suffered a minor stroke, followed by a more serious one a few months later. While in hospital he was also treated for depression with shock treatments. On May 29, 1957, Whale was found drowned in his swimming pool at the age of 67, and it was assumed his death was an accident.

However, shortly before his own death in 1987, Whale's long-time companion David Lewis released a suicide note that Whale had left. The pair had split sometime around 1952, but remained good friends.

The note read:

To all I love,

Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.

I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it is best for everyone this way. The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.

— Jimmy.

Whale's ashes were interred in the Columbarium of Memory at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. And because of Whale's habit of changing his date of birth, his memorial incorrectly records it as 1893. Lewis's ashes are interred in a niche opposite Whale's.

His life became the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Sir Ian McKellen as Whale. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and McKellen was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Lynn Redgrave was nominated for best supporting actress.

A sculpture commemorating Whale was installed outside Dudley's Showcase cinema in September 2001.

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