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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 and reshooting much of it with uncredited director Edward Sloman. A devastated Whale disowned it and refused to see it. His version is forever lost. John Mascall’s camerawork, as usual, is superb, particularly in crowd and trench scenes. However, the film is a truncated travesty. Critics responded with scathing reviews and the film died a quick death at the box office. Whale was blamed. Rumors have persisted that Whale’s open homosexuality made him a target for the new studio heads. Although Whale did not hide his lifestyle, nor did he flaunt it, as he was fiercely private. Rather, it was the debacle of The Road Back which sealed his fate. His career  as an “A” director was finished.

The Great Garrick (1937) made by Whale on loan to Warner Brothers, was released around the same time as The Road Back. Unfortunately, it too was a box office failure and largely ignored by critics, despite being one of Whale’s most assured, buoyantly stylized works. In this costume farce Brian Aherne spoofs machismo in his portrayal of the great 18th century actor David Garrick. The young Olivia de Havilland is a beautiful and virginal runaway countess posing as a wannabe actress. The cast includes Edward Everett Horton, Lionel Atwill, and Lana Turner as eccentrics, one and all. The Great Garrick has all the quicksilver sparkle of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” Again, Whale excels in well-coordinated, complex crowd scenes. Ernest Vajda adapted the script from his own play. The crystal clear cinematography is by Ernest Haller.

Sinners In Paradise (1938) was a an attempt, by studio heads, at humiliating punishment. Given a “B” budget and clichéd script, Whale sat in the director’s chair and allowed the film to proceed in cruise control mode. Although it lacks Whale’s signature touches, he did muster enough enthusiasm to keep it from a being a total disaster, albeit barely. It was extensively re-edited before release. At this point, Whale was too disinterested to care.

Wives Under Suspicion (1938) had an even lesser budget, resulting in cheap sets, second rate cinematography, and  “B” level actors. It’s a loose, code-mandated remake of Kiss Before the Mirror. Although all of Whale’s films made a profit, even the ones which did not do well at the box office, he was clearly suffering through the fulfillment of his contractual obligation. Wives competes with Sinners as Whale’s worst film.

Port of Seven Seas (1938) continues the decline. Now on loan to MGM, Whale may have felt like he had been thrown from the frying pan into the fire itself. Preston Sturges adapted Marcel Pagnol’s French play “Fanny.” Port shows little Sturges, and even less Whale. Wallace Beery, Frank Morgan and Maureen O’ Sullivan fail to save what is essentially a “B” programmer.

While Man in the Iron Mask (1939) is not exactly a return to form, it is at least far superior to the lethargic 1998 version with Leonardo DiCaprio. Whale inserts energy into the proceedings, helped by the casting of Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, and Warren William.  debuts in a brief part. The performances are the thing here, and Whale proves a sympathetic actor’s director, even in his decline. The box office success did little to help Whale’s standing, however.

The Green Hell (1940) had camerawork by Karl Freund, editing by Ted Kent, and a cast of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan Bennett, George Sanders, Alan Hale, and . Yet, the film is saddled with a dreadful jungle script, which Whale could not salvage.

George Brent (miscast) and Martha Scott are the leads in the Nazi suspense tale, They Dare Not Love (1941). It was yet another hack script. Whale’s enthusiasm finally gave out and he was unable to complete it. The studio brought in Charles Vidor to finish it. They did Vidor no favors. This is the last official film to credit James Whale as director.

Eight years later Whale made one other film, Hello Out There (1949). It was a short, and never released. Unquestionably one of the great directors, Whale, as he probably preferred, went out in a whisper. Fortunately, he had been a shrewd investor and could afford his retirement until his tragic suicide in 1957.

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