Category Archives: Director Retrospective

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE

Previously on 366 Weird Movies…

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 1

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 2

And now, today’s feature presentation…

After a two-year hiatus, returned to the big screen with Cry-Baby (1990), a nostalgic follow-up to Hairspray (1988). Although commercially a flop, Cry-Baby was mostly a critical success and did better overseas. Eventually, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby spawned a Broadway musical. Its mix of camp, sweet-toothed cynicism, and 50s nostalgia are ripe for choreographic treatment, and “Cry-Baby, The Musical” has seen two revivals. It seems inevitable that a big screen adaptation is not far off.

1994’s Serial Mom was a 13-million dollar budgeted cousin to 1974’s $25,000 Female Trouble (probably Waters’ best film). Like Cry-Baby, and every post-Hairspray Waters’ film, Serial Mom lost money, barely making back half of its cost. Like , Waters hones in on the white picket fence, not-so-discreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. His recipe calls for equal parts exploitation, celebrity crime spree, and satire on the hypocrisy of American etiquette, all on a Martha Stewart endcap display, dripping with battery acid.

In Serial Mom, Waters shifts the focus of horror away from doublewide trailers and into suburbia. Naturally, that change of palette has been criticized for taking away Waters’ edge, but this is hardly the case. Waters presents Serial Mom in a visually acceptable package, but even mainstream audiences knew it to be a facade, which is why it lost money. It is easy for middle class WASPS to jeer at and mantle an attitude of superiority towards low income Baltimore Catholic trailer trash. Hell, that approach was the appeal that filled aisle seats in all those midnight showings and made Waters a cult icon. However, nothing is more unnerving than a mirror, which Waters brandishes to his audience, and nothing is resisted like the reflection of hypocrisy.

Still from Serial Mom (1994)Star Kathleen Turner is a virtuoso as Betty in this quintessential parody of suburban family values. She should have received an Oscar for her performance as a matriarchal Norman Bates (could Norman have slaughtered Philistines so creatively with a leg of lamb, to the song ‘Tomorrow’? ) Alas, she was not even nominated in a year of woefully lame Academy choices. This ranks as one of her best performances, and the best acting in any Waters film.  A toe-licking dog (choregraphed to a VHS scene from Annie), a son masturbating to , a noisy infant doused in snot, some swooning to Barry Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

Part I of the John Waters retrospective is here.

Pink Flamingos (1972) made a lightning rod name in the Midnight Movie circuit. He followed up with the last of his underground films—Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)—to create a trilogy like no other. Pink Flamingos had a budget of $10,000 and grossed nearly $200,000 in its initial run. This enabled budgets of $25,000 for Female Trouble and $65,000 for Desperate Living. Yet, these movies did something far more than just make money—they paved the eventual path for a (somewhat) legitimized John Waters.

Polyester (1981) had a whopping budget of $300, 000, was the first Waters film to garner an MPAA rating of “R” (his previous work had been unrated or slapped with an “X”), and moved Waters’ basic locations from garages, shanty towns and trailer parks to the suburbs. Working for the first time in 35 MM (and with good sound), Waters’ utilizes his resources to superb effect, acerbically penetrating the American dream’s facade. He did not get there by himself. Like Picasso or , Waters steals well. In Polyester, he further enriches the formidable melodrama tradition of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s influence was first discernible in Desperate Living, although Waters’ films are more forthright (taking nothing at all away from Sirk). Here, with the small town environment at his disposal, Waters models his film’s composition on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). He filters that influence, along with bits stolen from , through his own postmodern sensibilities.

In Polyester Waters invades the suburbs with unwanted minorities, social deviants, anarchists, freaks, and immigrants who threaten WASP property values (one wonders what kind of rise Waters could get out of Donald Trump’s hairpiece). That eclecticism echoes in the casting. This would also be the last film for Dreamland regulars and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with and , they are cast opposite 50s beefcake (Waters’ nod to Sirk’s use of Rock Hudson). Divine’s performances were progressively improving, and Hunter is a professional “B”-actor; the pair are beautifully juxtaposed against personality driven “Z” amateurs. Hunter exudes middle-aged poster boy charisma and delivers his lines with self-conscious precision (in sharp contrast, Waters always struggled with Massey’s inability to remember her dialogue).

Polyester scratch n' sniff cardNaturally, Waters had to have fun with such a lavish train set, creating a Castle-like gimmick with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff-cards. Polyester was the first Waters film I saw in a theater (at a midnight showing), and although it certainly holds up in home video formats, it is naturally diminished when it loses the cinema-as-participatory-theater angle. In the original experience, 10 numbers were flashed across the screen throughout the film. After Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

To say that is the most polarizing of American filmmakers, even among his own fan base, is stating the obvious. Not even invites Waters’ level of divisiveness. By and large, the cult filmmaker’s canon is split between those who prefer his pre-Hairspray (1988) work and moviegoers who cannot digest the earlier, low budget underground period, and are forced to begin with that crossover film. With the later Waters’ crowd, the consensus is that the director took the shock ’em til you succeed route, and it worked. After that, Waters made legitimate movies. Waters himself seemed to add fuel to that theory with Cecil B. Demented (2000), which took aim at independent (along with conglomerate) filmmaking, although he did not refrain from self-parody or self-critique.

When composer Igor Stravinsky followed a series of seismic, revolutionary works with a reversion to a neo-Classical style, many of his advocates (avant-garde proselytizer Pierre Boulez among them) and disciples deemed him a traitor, literally picketing his concerts. Waters’ earliest fans were far more forgiving of their idol’s mainstream success. Perhaps that is because their prophet is cut from the same pop cloth as an Elvis Presley, rather than Stravinksy’s heritage of European high art. Although Waters would certainly wax amused (at least publicly) at the notion of his work being classified as art, he is no less provocative or innovative than his counterparts in the academic avant-garde. His flair for provocation is born of his time, place, and culture. Waters’ response to his heritage is honest, rendering him an authentic American success story.

By dubbing himself “the Pope Of Trash” in early write-ups in Baltimore newspapers and speaking engagements, Waters himself allegedly gives credence to the argument from the “early film” faction that once the director lost regulars , , and , and experienced authentic critical and financial successes, he merely took the money and ran. The earlier films represent the real John Waters.

For a filmmaker who has always invited polemics, the controversy may be appropriate, but ultimately it proves a distraction in approaching Waters as a viable filmmaker through a substantial body of work that reveals a developing love for narrative. Waters earliest films would not have indicated this.

Like Carla Bley in jazz and Philip Guston in painting, Waters’ earliest works were primarily abstract (surreal, non-linear). Each eventually realized their work was too thematic and moved beyond abstraction into postmodern tenets. Waters’ first effort was the little seen seventeen-minute 8MM short Hag In A Black Leather Jacket (1964). Shot on a $30.00 budget at the age of eighteen, the film was made from stolen film stock courtesy of Mona Montgomery, who starred and was Waters’ then-girlfriend. The narrative reportedly concerns a white ballerina (Montgomery) who discovers a black man (an uncredited actor) in a trashcan. After a brief courtship (with Montgomery being carried around in the garbage receptacle), the two are married by a Klu Klux Klan priest (uncredited) with a drag queen serving as the bridesmaid in a rooftop wedding (filmed at the home of the director’s parents; Waters’ mother also provided the piano score). performs a dance, and the “costuming” included an American flag and tinfoil. Hag In A Black Leather Jacket is one of the few Waters films not to feature . Waters has maintained that it’s best this remains in the closet. Reportedly, many of the shots are nonsensical, and were influenced by arthouse films that Waters had read about (but not seen).

Roman Candles posterWaters was sent to NYU, but dropped out. His next film was the experimental 40-minute Roman Candles (1966), which featured Waters’ regular crew, the Dreamlanders, including longtime friend Glenn Milstead (whom Waters gifted with the stage name Divine), Lochary, Stole, Pearce, Maelcum Soul, and Montgomery (who again supplied the stolen film stock). It was the first film produced under Waters’ Dreamland Studios banner.  Highly influenced by ‘s phenomenally successful underground film Chelsea Girls Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI – A BRIEF INTRO

04ZULAWSKI1_SPAN-articleLargeIf you’re a regular reader of 366 Weird Movies, you know the name and you know the movie… the name is , and the movie is 1981’s Possession (controversially reviewed here earlier as a List Candidate). If you’re a dedicated cineaste, you might’ve found some of Zulawski’s other work, which wasn’t easy to find in the U.S. a decade or so ago.  Even with a recent retrospective of his films in L.A., N.Y.C. and several other North American cities, Zulawski remains largely a cult figure in the USA: neither of his novels, his book-length interview, nor any full-length analysis of his work are available in English at the current time.

Interest in Zulawski has increased steadily in the Oughts, however, mainly due to DVD. The home video company Mondo Vision has dedicated itself to quality releases of Zulawski’s movies for the North American market, and the dedicated film fan with an all-region player can look overseas to fill in the gaps. Even searching on YouTube can produce some useful results. And with post-production currently going on with Cosmos, Zulawski’s first feature in 15 years (since 2000’s Fidelity), we’ll likely see more interest in late 2015/early 2016, when the movie starts making festival rounds and/or general release.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to Zulawski than just Possession.

Zulawski  grew up in Prague, Warsaw and Paris, and attended film school in France in the late 1950’s. He credits  for recommending him to director Andrzej Wajda as an assistant director on Wajda’s Samson (1961). He continued in that position throughout Wajda’s next few projects: the “Warsaw” segment of the 1962 anthology film L’ amour a Vingt Ans (Love at Twenty) (credited as 2nd Unit Director) and 1965’s Popiolu (The Ashes), and served in the same role for Anatole Litvak on The Night of the Generals (1966). His first directing efforts were two adaptations of short stories for Polish television, “Pavoncello” (1967) and “Piesn triumfujacej milosci” (“The Story of Triumphant Love,” 1969).

Andrzej Zulawski

LINKS:

andrzej-zulawski.com – a fan-site that’s in dire need of some updating; 2007 is the most recent year represented…

Facebook – probably the best place to find updated information on Zulawski; photos from the production of Cosmos have been posted

Mondo Vision – North American company producing R1 Zulawski home media

Instytut Ksiazki (Polish Book Institute) – excerpts in English from book length Zulawski interview by Piotr Kletowski & Piotr Marecki

Andrzej Korzynski – Composer for several Zulawski films; YouTube page featuring tracks.

The Unbelievable Genius of Andrzej Zulawski – the Cinefamily’s hosting of the first North American retrospective of Zulawski in 2013

Interview – with Zulawski and Daniel Bird at Fantasia 2013

TAKING AIM AT AMERICAN SNIPER (2015) AND CLINT EASTWOOD

recently took aim at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) referring to it as two-dimensional hero-worshiping of a psychopath. True to form, Maher immediately drew the indignation of monosyllabic patriots like Sarah “let’s kill wolves from a copter, ‘cause it’s fun” Palin.

The National Glorification of Snipers Association was equally up in arms, proving Maher wrong with their “This film has made 200 gazillion dollars. The people have spoken!” [insert gavel sound] Of course, we may look at this as another illustration of Maher’s ongoing insistence that, by and large, Americans really are a stupid lot. After all, we love to throw our dyed green paper at anything that is merchandised to us, without scrutiny. We transformed the Scooby Doo Movie (2002) and Mel’s homophobe capitalist Messiah (Passion Of The Christ) into sacred, dumbed-down box office gold.

Clint Eastwood in Kelly's HeroesPerhaps the most nauseating example of a perpetually bored, illiterate American audience is its ongoing love affair with Clint Eastwood. It is tempting to write that I have lived long enough to see the actor turn into a 200-year-old blithering idiot. However, the fallacy in such a statement is that Eastwood has always been a blithering idiot who preaches to his choir of extremist right-wing Neanderthals and empty chairs (which are actually one and the same).

Criticizing such a fossilized institution as good old boy Clint might be tantamount to questioning the Old Pie in the Sky himself, or Dale “he died for our Budweiser sins” Earnhardt. Take your pick.

However, Clint and his generation of camouflaged hayseed worshipers should receive credit where credit is due, and one of those initial credits came from The Duke himself. , of all people, once criticized Eastwood’s brand of hyper-realistic violence. Wayne argued that while the Westerns he had made with John Ford were violent, they used stylized violence. Wayne clearly found Eastwood’s variety of fetishistic fascism to be a disturbing glorification of carnage. That is, until Wayne (or his agent) noticed all the ticket-booth silver being dolled out by the yokels to see their stoic, cinematic sociopath in action. Wayne, hypocrite that he was, then spent the rest of what little career remained appearing in pale Eastwood imitations, such as The Cowboys (1972) and McQ (1974).

Eastwood can and should also be give credit for having sucked all the mythological poetry out of the western; a poetry so carefully nurtured as “the Great American Art Form” by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, , , and, above all—Aaron Copland.

In place of a sweeping, stirring, panoramic landscape, Eastwood and company gave us nihilistic sadism served up in a red, white, and blue Continue reading TAKING AIM AT AMERICAN SNIPER (2015) AND CLINT EASTWOOD

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JOHN CARPENTER

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

  is heralded by many genre enthusiasts as a “horror icon,” but his body of work extends into other genres. Though perhaps best known for his work on Halloween and his “Apocalypse Trilogy”—The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994)—Carpenter has been writing, directing and producing genre films since the early 1970’s.

Halloween, released in 1978, ushered in a new era of “slasher” films, although originally Carpenter set out only to “make a film [he] would love to have seen as a kid.” His self-described “crass exploitation” film earned over $65 million at the box office. Not bad, considering that the film was made for a budget of approximately $325,000 and with mostly unknown actors (with the notable exception of Bond villain ). Although Carpenter admitted it wasn’t his favorite film, The Fog (1980) became a successful cult movie all the same, although critical reception was initially lukewarm. Rounding out Carpenter’s horror masterpieces is The Thing. Although The Thing proved to be a box-office disappointment, these three movies cemented Carpenter’s reputation as a master of the horror genre.

However, Carpenter has tried his hand at science-fiction as well. In fact, his first significant outing as director was the ultra-low budget feature Dark Star (1974), which he worked on with USC classmate Dan O’Bannon (whom you may recognize as the screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s Alien). The film was a parody of classic science-fiction films such as ’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Several of Carpenter’s other successful films integrate elements of science-fiction, such as Starman (1984), about an unlikely coupling between an alien and a widow fleeing from government agents, and Escape from New York (1981), about a dystopian future where a crime ridden United States has been forced to turn Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum-security prison.

John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)
John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)

Every career has it high and low points, and Carpenter’s is no exception. After the dismal box-office performance of The Thing, Carpenter lost the opportunity to direct Firestarter, based on the book by Stephen King. In the 1990’s, he produced several flops including Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995), and Escape From L.A. (1996). Perhaps due to this decline in Carpenter’s popularity, his films Prince of Darkness (1987, about the Anti-Christ), They Live (1988, about aliens secretly controlling the human population) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994, about a Lovecraftian author whose fiendish imaginings become manifest) did not garner the attention they deserved.

After being semi retired in the 2000’s, Carpenter saw a resurgence of his work after remakes of his Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and The Fog. In 2005, Carpenter returned to film, contributing to the Masters of Horror series for Showtime, a compilation of 13 different notable horror filmmakers. Reviews for his episode “Cigarette Burns” were positive, prompting Carpenter to follow up with the feature The Ward (2011). That film, whose plot follows an institutionalized woman named Kristen who is haunted by a mysterious and deadly zombie-like ghost, brought lukewarm reviews. One critic described the film as “just as good as most of the films in mainstream horror today.” Shallow praise for the “master of horror.”

Despite the fact that he never again realized his mass-market potential since the decline of his career began in the late 1980’s, John Carpenter has no doubt created a lasting legacy for himself, in horror, science fiction, and filmmaking in general. As was reflected in his recent interview with filmmaker  on the latter’s El Rey Network (available on DirectTV), Carpenter has had an enormous influence on many popular genre filmmakers currently working. His name will be forever associated with the rises and falls—the successes and failures—that are the mark of a lifetime spent in the entertainment business.

RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT – POSTSCRIPT – DIAMONDS AND ANNA KARAMAZOFF

Four years has passed since we published “Rustam Khamdamov: Impossible to Be Great…” What has happened to  since then? A new short film has appeared, Brilianty (Diamonds) [AKA Diamonds. Theft], the first film in a proposed “Jewelry” trilogy. It was presented at the 67th Venice International Film Festival in September 2010. The festival program describes the movie:

“This is a poetic film set in the times of Lenin’s NEP. A ballet dancer steals a brooch and gives it as a present to another dancer. This is a crime of passion. A mysterious black ball is after the heroine. She runs away from it and manages to give the brooch in an exquisite pirouette movement, as shiny as diamond facets. What gives a stone its dazzling luster are its polished facets. But the real gem is love, and it’s much harder to get than any diamond in the world.”[1]

The Russian premiere of Diamonds was held on 15 July 2011 at the International Film Festival in St. Petersburg.

Still from Diamonds. Theft.  (2010)The film is inspired by the ballet La Bayadère by Marius Petipa. This picture is intended as part of a series of three shorts with the common title “The Jewels,” which the director wants to shoot with Anna Mikhalkov (“Emeralds. Murder”) and Tatiana Doronina (“Rubies. No Price”)[2].

In one of his interviews, Khamdamov said that the third movie will be dedicated to Russian piano genius Maria Yudina: “There was a woman named Yudina, a completely crazy woman, a great pianist who did not have either a piano or an apartment. She lived with cats and dogs on the street. She was homeless, a clochard.” Tatiana Doronina is to play the  role. The action takes place in Tashkent, the director’s native city.

Here are Diamonds’ art director Dmitri Alekseev thoughts on the movie: “In general, the film consists of the personal experiences of Rustam about all that he has ever seen in his life. In the episode with Renata Litvinova, which opens the film, the decoration consists entirely of angles: a rectangular table covered with a white cloth, and on it the radio set, resembling the Empire State Building. Renata makes a nose out of a paper cup, it pierces the radio set, and ‘La Bayadere’ plays. Litvinova is immersed in the music, and the story with [actress Diana] Vishnevaya, the ballet dancer, begins. Renata brings together the entire movie, but she will have her own story. Hers we will also shoot in St. Petersburg, but it’s unclear when.”

Ballet critic Julia Yakovleva points out numerous ballet references[3]: for example, the name “Diamonds” is also the name of George Balanchine’s homage to Tchaikovsky, the third part of his triptych “Jewels,” and Vishnevaya’s character is reminiscent of Olga Spesivtseva – “a hungry diva of Petrograd, dilapidated, dangerous city of the 1920s, from which Balanchine fled to Europe.”

Lidia Maslova (from the journal “Kommersant”) described the film as “very mannered and drenched with symbolism,” in which “all members of the Continue reading RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT – POSTSCRIPT – DIAMONDS AND ANNA KARAMAZOFF

  1. http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/archive/67th-festival/lineup/off-sel/orizzonti/brilianty.html []
  2. http://renatalitvinova.ru/%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%BB%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%B0%D0%BD%D1%82%D1%8B-2011/ [in Russian] []
  3. http://seance.ru/blog/dance/ [in Russian] []

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JEAN COCTEAU

The late critic Leslie Halliwell wrote of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1949): “It is the closest cinema has gotten to pure poetry.” The same might be said of Cocteau himself. Poet, painter, filmmaker, librettist, historian, stage designer, and playwright, Cocteau refused to be confined to the parameters of a single artistic medium. His circle of friends and collaborators included Pablo Picasso, , Serge de Diaghilev, Les Six, Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Proust, and Erik Satie. He was a dominating figure in virtually every “ism”, including Dadaism and Surrealism. Cocteau only made six movies, and insisted that he was merely an amateur who “dabbled” in the medium. Despite his self-proclaimed amateur status, four of those films are frequently hailed as masterpieces of cinema. These four have been collectively given the Criterion treatment.

Blood of a Poet (1930) was Cocteau’s first film. It is often compared to ‘s Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (Blood was, in  fact, financed by the same patron as L’ Age d’or). Yet, Blood of a Poet is its own film, having a texture unlike any before or since. It is, possibly, the weakest of the four on the Criterion set. Despite it’s stage bound milieu, it remains bewitching, startling, and memorable even after the passage of 80 years. It features absurdist mythology and is semi-autobiographical, told in four life episodes. The artist, searching for his muse, is martyr to his art. Cocteau narrates, surrealist Lee Miller plays a statue and Les Six member Georges Auric composed the music. Mirrors are passageways into an inner world, a theme Cocteau would perfect in Orpheus (1950). Budgetary limitations led to improvisation, which worked to the film’s advantage. Upon release, the film was attacked from different corners. Andre Breton and his Surrealist circle were aggressively hostile, obviously fearing a coup d’etat[1]. Coming on the heels of L’ Age d’or, the Catholic Church read an iconoclastic message into Blood, threatening the producer with excommunication, which resulted in a delayed release. In hindsight, this is surprising since the main thrust of the film, which comes through the multifariously interpreted imagery, mostly conveys the artist in the spiritual realm.

Cocteau was nearly sixty in 1946 when he made his first feature-length film, Beauty and the Beast (based on the children’s story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont). Inspired by Gustave Dore’s engravings and the naturalistic paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Beauty and the Beast is sensual, frighting and enchanting in the way only a childhood fantasy can be. It is more aesthetically assured than Blood of a Poet, greatly assisted by Henri Alekan’s exquisite black and white cinematography, Georges Auric’s enduring score, and Christian Berard’s production design, costume and makeup work. Disembodied hands light the way to the Beast’s elegant castle with candelabras. Animated statues convey amusement and dread. Mirrors, doors and jewelry are constant elements of Cocteau’s world. Cocteau and company play with the gifts of the medium, but it is more than a mere display of cinematic trickery. Everything serves the mythical narrative. Stark and magical compositions are the result of a highly collaborative work with unified purpose. According to Cocteau’s diaries, the collaboration was not as seamless as the film appears. Apparently there was much tension between the director and Alekan. Cocteau, knowing nothing about the camera, preferred flat, artistic compositions. Alekan resisted such an approach and pushed Cocteau to think in more classical cinematic language.

Jean Marais’ Beast acts almost entirely with his eyes (peering from behind lycanthrope-like makeup). He conveys pathos, wretchedness, latent savagery and erotic yearning in a tour-de-force performance. His Beast is threatening, and more compelling than the civilized Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JEAN COCTEAU

  1. Cocteau, who never claimed to be a Surrealist, was mostly amused by Breton’s histrionic objections. By this time, Breton was running the movement like an autocracy. Predictably, Cocteau outlived the movement that Breton himself managed to assist in killing. []

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART TWO

This article is the second installment of our two-part retrospective; Part 1 is here.

The dazzling cast of Robert Young, Constance Constance Cummings, Edward Arnold, Robert Armstrong, George Meeker, Edward Brophy, Gregory Ratoff, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, and Gustav von Seyffertitz make up James Whale’s hyperkinetic whodunit comedy in the style of The Thin Man, the appropriately titled Remember Last Night (1935). Someone’s been murdered at a Long Island socialite party, but everyone was too drunk to be of much help to investigating detective Arnold. Written by Evelyn Waugh, the script and Whale’s wit keep the despairs of murder and depression at bay through many cigarettes and champagne glasses. Charles Hall (The Black Cat) designed the spectacular art deco sets. Unfortunately, the film did poorly with audiences and critics. It remains yet another unjustly neglected Whale classic.

Still from Showboat (1936)Showboat (1936) was Whale’s only musical. It is unfortunate that he did not get to direct more musicals, because this is the definitive Showboat, far better than the tepid 1951 MGM remake. Based on the Broadway production by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, it stars Irene Dunne, the inimitable Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, and Hattie McDaniel. Showboat tackles racial segregation head on, which was rare for its time. There’s a haunting, staged blackface vignette. In the audience, sitting well behind the white patrons, are several rows of African-Americans observing the number. Whale shoots them from behind. We are not visually privy to their reaction but we sense it, and Whale’s own feelings. For his booming “Ol’ Man River” Robeson is filmed primarily in aching close-ups. Helen Morgan delivers a tragic performance as an entertainer whose career is ruined when it is revealed she is of mixed race. John Mescall’s camerawork is lush. Mescall and Whale express much purely through visual storytelling. Fluid tracking shots of whites entering the theater on one side, blacks on the other, bespeak Whale’s identification with social outsiders. Whale considered this film as his greatest achievement. I am inclined to agree.

Tragically, The Road Back (1937) was Whale’s most personal failure. It has a heinous behind-the-scenes story. Whale desperately wanted to make an anti-Fascist masterpiece based on Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Universal was under new management and there was already tension between the studio and Whale. The Road Back was previewed in Europe. The Nazis, through the German Embassy, objected to it and threatened a ban. The Jewish executives at Universal appeased the Nazis, butchering the film, excising anti-Fascist sentiments Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART TWO

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE

Journey’s End (1930) marked several firsts. It was the first film directed by , and it was the screen debut for actors Colin Clive and David Manners (actually Manners did have one previous credit, albeit uncredited). Journey’s End is a World War I film based on a popular play by R.C. Sherriff. Whale had previously directed the stage play, also starring Clive. The film version for Universal  is a typical example of early sound film that’s overly stage-bound. However, the literate adaptation, bleak ending, Clive’s canny, ulcerous performance, Benjamin Kline’s cinematography, and Whale’s own wartime experiences (as an officer in the trenches) gave a feeling of authenticity to studio heads and 1930 audiences. Luckily for all concerned, it was a tremendous success.

Whale followed with a second, superior war drama, Waterloo Bridge (1931). Starring Mae Clark (possibly in the best role of her career) the film was based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play. Clark’s portrayal of a prostitute in war torn London offended the Catholic Legion of Decency (who voiced no objections to the depiction of war and mass killing). This resulted in the film being unavailable for years. Legion of Decency condemnation or no, Whale’s film was a critical and box office hit upon its release, far superior to both the play itself and the watered down 1940 MGM remake. In the little space of a year, Whale’s style improved dramatically. Gone are all the stagey vestiges of his theater origins. Whale injects a feeling of authenticity and empathy with an outcast character, which led to his securing the prestigious assignment to adapt Frankenstein (1931).

Still from Frankenstein (1931)It is Frankenstein, not Dracula (1931) which is considered the grandfather of the American horror film, even if ‘s take on Bram Stoker’s vampire is somewhat undervalued today in critical reassessment (which erroneously prefers George Melford’s Spanish version). Regardless, Frankenstein is undeniably a superior film to both versions of Dracula, primarily because of Whale’s first-class sense of cinematic lucidity. Another reason is , who gives a pantomime performance worthy of Chaplin or Chaney. ‘s fictionalized Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), is condescending and unfair in regards to the relationship between Whale and Karloff. By all accounts the two worked very well together, resulting in a collaboration which reaped artistic riches. Colin Clive’s lugubrious portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein is as iconic as Karloff’s monster. Mae Clark, Edward van Sloan and  round off Whale’s Gothic misfit family. Jack Pierce’s makeup and Kenneth Strickfaden’s sets became much imitated. Whale’s handling of crowd scenes is remarkable, as if he personally directed every individual. Most likely this was due to Whale’s military training. Later Universal films helmed by lesser directors show sharp contrast with their mechanical, assembly-line mobs of villagers.

Whale followed his mega-hit with an odd choice: The Impatient Maiden (1932). It was originally titled “The Impatient Virgin,” but predictably that was Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE