James was born in Dudley, Worcestershire and discovered his theatrical talents while held as a prisoner of war in 1917. After the armistice he returned to Birmingham and embarked on a professional stage career. In 1928 he directed two fringe performances of R. C. Sherriff's then barely known play 'Journey's End,' starring the young Laurence Olivier. The play was very successful and transferred to the West End, and later to Broadway. It was filmed in 1930 with Colin Clive in the leading role as Captain Stanhope.
Whale's two Frankenstein movies made Universal Pictures very successful in the 1930s partly because of their huge box-office receipts. Further, these pictures together with The Invisible Man established the screen careers of Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff and Claude Rains some of whom Whale had known previously in England. He had personally selected them for their roles in his films.
Whale's later life was the subject of a biopic Gods and Monsters starring Sir Ian McKellen as James Whale. The title comes from a line in Bride of Frankenstein spoken by Dr Pretorius.
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