December 4-10 at Film Forum
A special case needs to be made for James Whale. Though not exactly forgotten—a pair of genre-defining horror masterpieces (Frankenstein and The Invisible Man) and two satires (The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein) have kept him in circulation—he is certainly misremembered. Instead of the easily definable horror-auteur that history would prefer, Whale was an artist of many mediums (theater, cinema, painting, drawing), genres and sensibilities, but the unavailability of the majority of his body of work, either in theatrical revivals or on home video, has prevented audiences from fully understanding him. Encompassing the full range of Whale’s style, from gothic to modern and screwball to macabre, Film Forum’s 16-film retrospective will do much to restore the director’s lopsided legacy.
Born in the mining town of Dudley, England in 1889, James Whale got his start in the theater in the most unlikely of places: a German POW camp during World War I. While his fellow prisoners planned escapes, Whale honed his skills as a set designer and writer. (James Curtis’ James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters reveals a microcosmic society behind prison walls.) A touring production of Journey’s End brought Whale to Broadway where Hollywood, still recovering from the transition to sound, took notice of him. Whale was invited Westward first to assist with dialogue, and later made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Journey’s End in 1930. Film Forum’s series begins in the wake of that critical success with an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play Waterloo Bridge (1931). Deliciously and despondently Pre-Code, the film stars Mae Clarke as a down-and-out chorus girl moonlighting as a streetwalker who picks up a naïve soldier during an air raid. Whale and ace cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front) give the story a visual dynamism that belies its theatrical origins. In all, they would make five films together, including the expertly expressionistic Frankenstein (1931) and the pinnacle of “old dark house” horror spoofs, fittingly titled The Old Dark House (1932). The Impatient Maiden (1932), a Lew Ayres/Mae Clarke romantic drama hand-me-down abandoned by William Wyler, is redeemed by Whale and Edeson’s elegant tracking shots. The special effects of their final collaboration, The Invisible Man (1933), are still impressive today, and the film exemplifies Whale’s defiantly ambiguous morality, in which marginalized figures turn to violence in the face of a hegemonic (and often moronic) public.
In The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), which paired Whale with the celebrated Expressionistic cinematographer Karl Freund, lawyer Frank Morgan is defending client Paul Lukas, who shot his unfaithful wife, in order to create a legal precedent for his own murder plans. The film epitomizes the meticulous grandeur of Whale’s direction, from seductive, secretive tracking shots of Gloria Stuart backlit against the night sky, to long shots of high-ceilinged sets that emphasize densely detailed décor and atmospheric lighting. Later that year, Lukas appeared in Whale’s lesser-known but utterly charming By Candlelight (1933), a screwball escapade of false identities and romantic runarounds concerning a crisscrossed group of amorous royalty and their equally flirtatious butlers and maids. Films such as these two show off Whale’s rarely tapped capacity for sophisticated social and sexual satires.
Whale’s films from 1934 onward were victims of the stringent Production Code. One More River (1934), with its story of a wife (Diana Wynyard) fleeing an abusive husband (Colin Clive), would have benefited from being made even one year earlier. Still, Clive (who got his start with Whale in the theatrical production of Journey’s End and screamed the iconic “It’s Alive!” in Frankenstein) manages to exude subtle sadism in his every gesture. Whale was, however, somehow able to sneak Remember Last Night? (1935) past the censors. Who would have expected Will Hays to approve a boozy, screwball murder mystery in which the characters are too drunk to notice a murder and too hungover to really care? I’ll raise a glass to this forgotten 30s gem any day.
Despite of the popular success of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Show Boat (1936), Whale’s career began to suffer under studio pressure at Universal. The Road Back (1937) may have been an artistic triumph, an elegiac and solemn sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front laden with Whale’s own personal memories of the trenches, but it didn’t perform well at the box office. A brief stint at MGM didn’t fare any better, which landed Whale back at Universal with the castaway clunker Sinners in Paradise (1938) as punishment. Whale was clearly enjoying the elaborate sets and grisly dungeons of The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), an independent production that proved to be his last hit. Back at Universal, Green Hell (1940) wasn’t exactly the prestige that Whale deserved, but its hyper-masculine, colonialist fantasy is certainly entertaining today. At the time audiences didn’t buy it, and Whale was getting fed up with commercial filmmaking. All it took was one more film for him to call it quits from the movie business.
Whale spent 1941 to 1957 (when he committed suicide) still in Hollywood but outside of the industry, focusing instead on theatrical productions and painting. His last days were dramatized in Bill Condon'”s excellent Gods and Monsters (1998), with Ian McKellan playing Whale and Brendan Fraser as his boy-toy lawn-boy. The film valorizes Bride of Frankenstein and Show Boat as his best pictures, and certainly they do represent his most fully realized projects. However, an artist is more than just his masterpieces, and in the case of James Whale, the most idiosyncratic work may have the most to tell about the singularity of his vision.