Tag Archives: James Whale

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like , Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is, not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”

Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant . Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.

R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Still from The Old Dark House (1932)The Old Dark House opens with travelers seeking refuge from a storm. Sanctuary appears in the form of an old dark Welsh house, but its promise of shelter is a facade. Unknown to Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their hitchhiking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) a tempest is brewing within the house. They are joined by two more “invaders” who belatedly enter the scene: Gladys (Lilian Bond, oozing sex) and Sir William Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

JAMES WHALE’S THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) ON BLU-RAY

“With a few exceptions, The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre,” claimed Andrew Sarris. The late critic had a point. By now, Whale’s blackened horror comedy sequel to Frankenstein (1931) has become so legendary, it is almost too easy to forget how much Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a standalone film, possessing a texture unlike anything before or since. Genre classifications be damned.

Director  had vehemently and repeatedly refused Universal Studio’s pleas for a sequel to his runaway 1931 hit, but when they promised him carte blanche, his enthusiasm was inspired.  Whale set to work on a high camp satire, playing havoc with Western family values.  Our contemporary idea of a Gothic celluloid baseball bat taken to the bourgeoisie might be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values (1993). Compared to Whale’s authentic island of misfits, the creepy, kooky klan are comparatively status quo.

It may be tempting to dismiss the endless essays addressing the film’s homosexual themes as wishful revisionist hindsight, but the head-in-sand  types are as clueless as yesterday’s batch of “Liberace is gay?”naysaying muggles. Yes, James Whale was gay; shockingly, openly gay for the 1930s. The queered eye of Bride‘s hurricane blows in the form of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, extending his role of Horace Femm from Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). Accompanied by his horticultural box of little people, Pretorius endorses necrophilia, snubs his beautifully bitchy nose at homophobic mores, and constructs a deco bride for a simpleton bisexual monster,  gesticulating with all the subtlety of a high-dive belly buster.

Still from Bride of Frankenstein (1935)Although Thesiger practically walks away with thespian honors, Boris Karloff excels in his greatest performance. Karloff initially objected to the monster’s dialogue, which is understandable in light of his mastery of silent pantomime that rivaled both Chaplin and Chaney. However, Continue reading JAMES WHALE’S THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) ON BLU-RAY

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

GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)

This post was originally lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010, but a draft copy has been discovered and recreated. We’re happy to reprint this column while Alfred Eaker continues his sabbatical (he’s been assisting on someone else’s film project, among other activities). The latest news on Alfred is that he broke his wrist in a “scaffolding accident” while working on a mural, which may delay his return to column-writing.

This articles was also posted in a slightly different from at Raging Bull Reviews

Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is one of the most beautiful, elegiac films of the last fifteen years. It is a fictionalized, speculative film about the last days of the great golden-age Hollywood director, James Whale, who is best remembered for directing several Universal horror classics, such as The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  When Gods and Monsters was released it received very good reviews, but several critics, obviously uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of Whale’s open homosexuality, managed to slip in comments regarding the director’s “hedonism.”  One wonders  whether, if the film’s subject had been the hetero charm of a Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn, would those same critics have written a praising pat on the back for the celluloid studs?  Regardless, Gods and Monsters, while simplistic, is brave in its depiction of Whale’s sexual preference; yet the film also strangely holds back from damning Hollywood’s blatant hypocrisy regarding Whale’s fall from grace.

, Brendan Fraser, and especially Lynn Redgrave give superlative performances.  Fraser’s Clay Boone is Whale’s Frankenstein/Adonis of a gardener.  Boone is slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing that his retired celebrity employer (McKellen) is more than just an odd artist.  When Hannah, Whale’s maid (Redgrave), lets the cat out of the bag, Boone’s initial reaction is one of subdued violence.  However, Boone soon finds himself missing Whale’s anecdotes and returns to his employer’s studio, securing a promise from Whale to “go easy on the fag stuff.”

Still from Gods and Monsters (1998)Whale gives a “scout’s honor” but, of course, slips when reminiscing about a male lover in the great war.  Boone utters the lines that every gay man or woman has heard from a homophobe, “You must think the whole world is gay.  I’ve got news for you, it’s not.”  Boone is a failed Marine, and directionless in life.  Whale’s career accomplishments, along with his service as an officer in the war, attract the young man.  The Whale that Boone Continue reading GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)