Mae Clarke Remembers James Whale

Whale on the set of BRIDE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN. 1935 Whale on the set of BRIDE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN. 1935

On May 29, 1957, the body of James Whale was found floating in his pool, next to the Graeco/Roman art studio behind his Pacific Palisades villa. At the time, Hollywood cruelly considered the mysterious death of the English director a piquantly baroque climax to his long exile from the studios. Little was said of his genius, and Whale appeared doomed to haunt cinema history as a forlorn, enigmatic ghost.

However, in the nearly thirty years that have passed since his tragic suicide, James Whale has won glory as a respected Hollywood stylist. His celebrated quartet of Universal horror classics – FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN – have become almost as beloved as Grimms Fairy Tales. His beautiful 1936 SHOW BOAT survives as the most revered version of that oft-filmed Americana, while JOURNEY’S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE (though virtually impossible to see) rank among the most highly-respected films of the 1930s. Whale was the master of a pioneering, filmic style which he spiked with sardonic wit, pictorial beauty, and theatrical bravura. Most memorably, this wry, bitter artist presented in his work a parade of striking, heartrending misfits – the most famous being Karloff’s bewildered Frankenstein Monster.

Hollywood remembers “Jimmy” Whale in various ways. The prevailing persona has always been that of a foxy, English aristocrat, with cheroot, swagger, and a chillingly aloof reserve. Others knew him differently. At the Motion Picture Country House, a lady who was Queen of Universal City over 50 years ago remembers Whale vividly, and emotionally. More than half a century ago, she was Whale’s favorite leading lady, and starred for him in three films: WATERLOO BRIDGE, FRANKENSTEIN, and IMPATIENT MAIDEN.

The lady, of course, is Mae Clarke. “He is a giant to me,” she says of James Whale, “and my words are inadequate.” Nevertheless, on a lovely spring day in 1983, Miss Clarke eloquently found her words as she sat in her cottage at the Country House, and remembered.

In the spring of 1931, James Whale, fresh from his triumph of Tiffany’s 1930 JOURNEY’S END, signed a 5-year Universal contract. Overnight, he reigned as the “Ace” of Universal, which proudly heralded him as “The Genius who made JOURNEY’S END.” Everyone took notice of the tall, boney “Jimmy,” his red hair salted with white, a cheroot usually in hand, peacocking across the lot like a Byronic hero. The new director happily explored the pastoral back lot like a child in a toy shop, marveling at the gargantuan old sets: the Notre Dame Cathedral, where Lon Chaney’s HUNCHBACK had swung from a gargoyle; the Monte Carlo Casino, where Erich von Stroheim had sported his monocle in FOOLISH WIVES; the Tyrolean village, where the joyous German Army had marched in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. High up on the mountain above Universal, the ex-cartoonist, painter and actor could overlook the panorama below-the zoo, the lake, the edifices of all countries – waiting to serve his dramatic imagination.

The first project that “Junior” Laemmle gave Whale was WATERLOO BRIDGE. Robert Emmet Sherwood had based his play on an American streetwalker he had met at a riotous victory party in Trafalgar Square after World War I. The girl told Sherwood that she had come to London as a chorine in THE PINK LADY, had been stranded, and had reluctantly turned to prostitution for survival. Though he met her only once, Sherwood was haunted by the pathetic streetwalker, and had created “Myra” of WATERLOO BRIDGE as a catharsis to handle her memory.

1932 poster 1932 poster

Whale realized that the actress who would play Myra must possess the same haunting quality which had driven Sherwood to write the play. Tests began for the plum role, and from Columbia Studios came a blonde, 21-year old actress named Mae Clarke. She was enjoying a great year in Hollywood. In United Artists’ THE FRONT PAGE, she had played Mollie Malloy, the valiant hooker whose jump from a pressroom window became one of the screen’s most dramatic suicides; in Warners’ THE PUBLIC ENEMY, she had received the infamous grapefruit-in-the-face (”How did it feel? Wet!”) from her beloved friend James Cagney.

Today, a reproduction of the WATERLOO BRIDGE poster decorates the wall of Mae Clarke’s cottage at the lovely Motion Picture Country House. The memory of that film-and its director-is precious to her:

“I knew James Whale was imported as one of England’s very best, and was aware of the great success of his play and film JOURNEY’S END. I went to meet Mr. Whale the way I would have entered college to begin learning.”

Whale saw a vulnerability in Miss Clarke’s test that intrigued him, and selected her for the part. Douglass Montgomery (then employing the screen moniker of “Kent Douglass”) won the part of Roy, the soldier who loves Myra. With a 26-day shooting schedule and a $252,045 budget, WATERLOO BRIDGE began shooting Saturday, May 23, 1931.

As Mae Clarke arrived on the set for the first day’s work, the cool, aloof Whale was formality itself.

“I assume you’ve learned your lines?” asked the director.

“Yes, Mr. Whale,” smiled Miss Clarke. “And how you’d like them performed, I’d like to hear.”

They soon became friends. Whale appreciated the young actress’s eagerness to learn; he’d stimulate her imagination with his own insights, to enhance her interpretation:

“Our relationship was the adoration between a teacher (who was expert) and a pupil (who was most willing). And our objectives became: What did the author want? What did he not say, and assumed we would? We could forget ourselves.”

Robert Sherwood was in Hollywood at this time, working as a “Dialoguer” for United Artists, and visited the Waterloo Bridge set. He never made a single suggestion; rather, he marveled at the sensitivity with which Whale handled his players, and his fastidious attention to atmosphere and detail.

The climax of Waterloo Bridge was the stuff that actresses’ (and directors’) dreams are made of. Myra, not allowing her guilty self to accept Roy’s love, returns to the streets. One night, during an air raid, the heartbroken girl walks across Waterloo Bridge, and dramatically lights a match, signalling the bombers and bringing on her suicide. It was an intensely powerful scene, and Miss Clarke relates:

“I remember it-a night scene, on the back lot of Universal… The feeling of that scene was so overpowering! Everyone felt a reality over pretense.

“By that time, we had all learned to take advantage of every second Mr. Whale could give us – because his finger and his mind were in every single facet of the production. You’d ask, ‘Where’s Mr. Whale?’ ‘Oh, he’s up on the boom crane tower, creating the bomber effect.’ (He wanted to see Myra from the bomber’s point of view.) You’d ask, ‘Where’s Mr. Whale now?’ ‘Oh, he’s in checking the sound.’ He knew just where he wanted the shadows … everything. It was his picture: a James Whale production!”

On Friday, June 26, Whale completed WATERLOO BRIDGE, ahead of schedule; ever though the company reassembled July and July 6 for a theatre sequence, Whale still completed the film for $27,000 under budget. Unfortunately, the preview in late July spotlighted a problem nobody had noted: the repercussions of Myra’s suicide, Miss Clarke says:

“We didn’t realize in any stage of the development until the preview that the whole audience would hate Myra’s disregard for others who’d suffer from her action. There were too many people also on the bridge and certainly, it wasn’t patriotic for her to signal a target for the bombers.”

Back at Universal, Whale found himself forced to re-edit the climax he had so painstakingly crafted. Inevitably, the editing made the finale too jarring; yet it still managed to imply Myra’s motive, showing her walking into the path of the falling bombs, and to preserve the tragic impact.

On Friday, September 4, 1931, WATERLOO BRIDGE premiered at New York’s RKO Mayfair Theatre. The NY Times hailed Whale’s work as “praiseworthy” and “excellent,” noted his clever touches (e.g., the offscreen sound of farm animals as Myra and Roy go into the country) and reported, “Mae Clarke’s acting of Myra is capital.” Miss Clarke remembers the Hollywood premiere:

“We didn’t make Grauman’s Chinese, but we had a ‘mini-premiere’ in downtown L.A… There were klieg lights. Already there was talk of an Oscar for me as Myra, so I hostessed a dinner at the Brown Derby on the premiere night. I invited Colin Clive (it was after a day’s work on FRANKENSTEIN) and Helen Hayes and her husband, Charles MacArthur (whom I had known since I filmed THE FRONT PAGE, which he had coauthored with Ben Hecht), and the young man to whom I was informally engaged. And who won the Oscar that year? Helen Hayes, my friend, for THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET!”.

There would be no Academy nominations for WATERLOO BRIDGE, but Miss Clarke received a prize which meant more to her than an Oscar. It was a note from Robert Emmet Sherwood, which read, “…I was moved and thrilled and overcome by your marvelous performance in WATERLOO BRIDGE, for which I wish I could thank you adequately.” Miss Clarke still has the note: “It remains my permanent treasure.”

Since the sumptuous MGM remake of WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940), with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, Whale’s version has been sadly consigned to the Metro vaults due to legal imbroglios. There was a too brief reprieve when the 1931 WATERLOO BRIDGE played at the Museum of Modern Art on September 5 and 8, 1977, as part of “MOMA’s” mammoth Universal retrospective. The film revealed Whale’s early, harmonious blending of the freedom of cinema with the drama, flourish, and excitement of the theatre. However, for those fortunate enough to have seen the film, the most memorable feature was Mae Clarke’s Myra. She is truly one of Whale’s noble misfits, one of his most real and heartbreaking outcasts. In JOURNEY’S END, Whale had presented Colin Clive’s Stanhope, a tormented, alcoholic hero, believing his soul irreparably destroyed by the horrors of war; in WATERLOO BRIDGE, the director showcased Myra, another victim, believing herself forever damned and hopelessly unworthy due to her life of prostitution. Whale’s own sensitivity and great bitterness reflect in Mae Clarke’s eyes throughout this performance, and a number of his most memorable characters – Karloff’s forsaken Monster, Claude Rains’ poisoned INVISIBLE MAN, Helen Morgan’s hapless mulatto Julie – are all relatives to Myra’s sadness and profound loneliness.

There followed FRANKENSTEIN.

Mae Clarke in WATERLOO BRIDGE, 1931 Mae Clarke in WATERLOO BRIDGE, 1931

“FRANKENSTEIN was a sensational story,” said Whale of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 classic, “and had a chance to become a sensational picture.” After Robert Florey had fumbled a 2-reel test with Bela Lugosi ludicrous as a Golem-’sque Monster, Whale took the property. He sent to England for Colin Clive, his cadaverous, nearly insane Stanhope, to play Frankenstein, and chose gaunt, doe-eyed Boris Karloff-found sipping tea in the Universal commissary – for the Monster, and Whale wanted his leading lady, Mae Clarke, for the heroine, Elizabeth:

“When we had our first rehearsal meeting, I said, ‘Really? British Lady Elizbeth?’ Mr. Whale said, ‘I think so. We won’t have to go in for the broad ‘A’ – just word here and there for flavoring.’ I warned about the English accent, but finally Mr. Whale said, ‘When you speak-remember to cross your ‘f’s.”

On Monday, August 24, 1931, FRANKENSTEIN began shooting, with a $262,007 budget and a 30-day schedule. The adventure of making this most famous of all horror films was unforgettable for Mae Clarke. She is still in awe of her leading man:

“Colin Clive was the dearest, kindest (in he real meaning of ‘kind’) man, who gave you importance. He was so wonderful, so clever. When he started acting in a scene, wanted to stop and just watch and think, ‘Here I am, playing scenes with this marvelous actor!’ Mr. Whale would say, ‘Colin’s voice is like a pipe organ… I just pull out the stops, and he produces his music.’”

“Colin was electric. I was mesmerized by him – so much so that I hoped it didn’t show! When he looked at me, I’d blush. He had a wife, back in England, and I had my young man (of the WATERLOO BRIDGE premiere). In fact, I was glad my fiancé was at the premiere that night – to be my good anchor against my stormy waves of fancy for Colin.”

Clive had a tragic life; a terribly sensitive artist, he died alone in Hollywood in 1937, victim of consumption and alcoholism. He was only 37 years old. As Miss Clarke remembers:

“He was the handsomest man I ever saw – and also the saddest. Cohn’s sadness was elusive; the sadness you see if you contemplate many of the master painters’ and sculptors’ conceptions of the face of Christ-the ultimate source, in my view of all sadness.”

“…One man crazy-three very sane spectators!” cackled Clive in the great creation sequence, as Frankenstein and his hunchbacked dwarf assistant (Dwight Frye) sent Karloff’s Monster up to the tower roof to receive the life-giving lightning. John Boles, Edward Van Sloan and Miss Clarke were the “very sane” trio who were the in-scene audience. Whale staged the spectacle magnificently, and Miss Clarke says:

“We had nothing to do or say, but just watch, and I believe we actors experienced exactly what future audiences would feel as the film rolled on the screens. We stopped short of fainting, which many ticket buyers did do, but I, for one, felt all of the awe, terror, and disbelief that our theatre audiences did. As we became inured to its drama, since we did it several times from different angles and many close-ups, we were able to enjoy the pyrotechnics and mechanicals as if it were one great and special 4th of July Fireworks Display-just for us! My, but it was noisy!”

Miss Clarke’s eyes glow as she remembers Boris Karloff’s Monster:

“I thought Karloff was magnificent. That scene with the skylight! When he looked up and up and up, and waved his hands at the light, it was a spiritual lesson: Looking at God! It was like when we die, the Beatific Vision, which makes people understand the words: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ears heard, the glories that God has prepared for those who love Him.’

The 4-hour make-up (by the great Jack P. Pierce) and 48-lb. costume were a torture in the summer heat. For Karloff, the only pleasantries were the daily tea break, and hiking up into the Universal hills, like a lost shepherd, enjoying a cigarette and seeking a merciful breeze. Yet the actor never complained. Miss Clarke remembers:

“Observing Boris taking director instructions: towering over the tall Mr. Whale, listening meekly as an obedient, child, both so softly spoken I couldn’t hear a word, then he’d nod his head and Whale would give him an affectionate push at his enormous hanging arms and call out, ‘Ready for camera.’ Boris was unbelievable patience and endurance and, as the world now sees, ha gave an incredible performance. He made that Monster understandable and painfully pitiable.”

Whale completed FRANKENSTEIN Saturday, October 3, 1931, 5 days over schedule. After some notorious previews, FRANKENSTEIN premiered at New York’s Mayfair Theatre Friday, December 4, 1931. The result was a sensation and one of the Screen’s enduring classics. Whale’s genius made a tragic hero not only of Clive’s dynamic “Modern Prometheus,” but also of Karloff’s pathetic Monster. In FRANKENSTEIN, Male, an “outsider,” who had created his own public “self” from an early background of poverty, took a Monster created from graves and charnel houses and made him hauntingly pitiful, strikingly sympathetic, and far more human than the torch-bearing villagers who pursue him. This twist has served as the special charm of Frankenstein, which seems to grow in its charm and beauty each decade.

There would be one more film collaboration for James Whale and Mae Clarke: the anticlimactic IMPATIENT MAIDEN (from he quite racy Donald Henderson Clarke novel Impatient Virgin). It began shooting Wednesday, December 2, 1931, just before the premiere of FRANKENSTEIN. Whale had accepted the project, with its $225,000 budget and 24-day schedule, just to keep busy; he resented the tepid script and the casting of Universal’s Lew Ayres, who had scored so memorably in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. As Mr. Ayres wrote to me:

“Mr. Whale had a reputation as an outstanding director, but I feel he was more or less accustomed to actors with considerably more polish than I possessed at the time. Yet I was the young lad under contract to the studio, and he had me thrust upon him … I tried to do my job, and he said little if anything to me one way or other. Frankly, I don’t think he thought I was correctly cast for the part.”

Whale amused himself on IMPATIENT MAIDEN with clever camera techniques (e.g., “dolly” shots through walls) while completing the film Tuesday, December 29, 1931 – 1 day under schedule and more than $13,000 under budget. The little drama opened March 3, 1932, and the NY Times reported, ” . . . there seems nothing James Whale, the talented director of FRANKENSTEIN and JOURNEY’S END, could have done about this one.” Recently revived (Jan. 7, ‘84) in a UCLA series, IMPATIENT MAIDEN held its audience primarily by the bright snappy scenes between Mae Clarke and Una Merkel.

Mae Clarke never worked with James Whale again. She joined MGM, while Whale stayed at Universal to create some of his finest films: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), the romantic farce BY CANDLELIGHT (1933), the elegant ONE MORE RIVER (1934), his gloriously misanthropic BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), SHOW BOAT (1936). As Miss Clarke’s career wound down in the late ’30’s (though she kept working into the 1970’s), so did Whale’s. The sale of Universal by the Laemmle’s to a new and ignorant management, unhappy misadventures at other studios, and tales of scandal (which Miss Clarke believes to be “unfounded and untrue”) caused the director to retire to the wealthy, isolated world of his Pacific Palisades house in 1941. Little was heard of him in Hollywood until his tragic death in 1957; indeed, in his exile and death, he became like a character in one of his films, a fascinating, dramatic outcast.