November 30, 2009, 11:24AM
Often film lovers talk about the time, as a child, that the curtain was finally pushed aside and they realized that movies didn’t just exist, but had to be directed into being – that there was a wizard behind everything they saw, pulling all the levers.
And for me, that moment came sometime around third grade, courtesy of Ch.5’s old “Creature Features” movie program, and a broadcast of “The Invisible Man.”
I already loved monster movies, and consumed them precisely the way I consumed Fresca and Clark bars – constantly and indiscriminately. But watching the Claude Rains picture I began to notice things in it that I’d noticed, and liked, in other old monster movies.
Like Dwight Frye – the assistant in “Frankenstein” – in a small part as a reporter. Or Una O’Connor (an acquaintance of my Irish grandfather’s, I was thrilled to find out later) as the same sort of screeching fishwife she played in “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Or just a general kind of oddball comedy, often coming at the strangest moments.
So I looked the movie up (in Leonard Maltin’s original “TV Movies,” I think, about the only film-reference book I knew of back then) and found out that all three films – plus “The Old Dark House,” which my monster magazines had sadly informed was “lost” – had been directed by the same man, James Whale.
And before I could even spell “auteur theory,” I was a firm believer in it. This man’s movies were different.
Whale was the first director a lot of kids knew about, as it seemed he’d directed most of our favorite scary movies. But he deserves better than being half-forgotten now, along with our old Famous Monsters magazines and Aurora models. He deserves to be rediscovered (as his own “The Old Dark House” eventually was, moldering in a studio vault.)
Full of dark wit and immense style – as well as a sly gay sensibility – Whale had a career whose intensity was matched only by its brevity. He worked in a variety of genres, pushed the boundaries of cinema (and censorship) and gave us some immortal films -- all within a dozen years. A full reappreciation is in order.
And, actually, a full reappreciation is under way, at the Film Forum, which from Friday through December 10th is running 15 of Whale’s films – including not only the horror classics, but the original version of “Waterloo Bridge,” the definitive “Showboat” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
Born in 1889, the elegant but hardly upper-class Englishman enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of World War I – and ended up spending much of it in a German POW camp. After the Armistice, Whale returned to England, where he turned a lifelong love of art into a career in theatrical stage design.
Eventually Whale turned to directing, having a hit in 1928 with the in-the-trenches drama “Journey’s End.” Hollywood offers followed, and Whale answered, doing some work on “Hell’s Angels,” and then adapting “Journey’s End” into a film. It was an early talkie smash, and Whale followed it with another play adaptation, “Waterloo Bridge.”
Whale’s obvious talent for coaxing performances from actors and dealing with difficult material (the span in the title of “Waterloo Bridge” is where the heroine sells herself to men) won him most-favored-status at Universal and his pick of any property. He chose “Frankenstein” – a movie the studio had previously tried to get going with director Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi, and abandoned.
Whale’s approach was fresh, and diverse. For Dr. Frankenstein, he chose Colin Clive, an old friend who had done “Journey’s End” with him, on stage and on film; for the monster, he picked Boris Karloff, a long-time minor player who, Whale decided, simply had an interesting face.
Yet there was already, clearly, a Whale style. Despite the bulky primitiveness of early `30s sound cameras, Whale kept his in motion; he had an artist’s eye for what should be in – or just out of – the frame. (Notice the way he introduces the monster by having him enter the room backwards.) There were odd flashes of humor (like Fritz, the deformed assistant, pausing to pull up a sock before answering the door) and genuine horror (not the monster tossing the little girl into the pond – that would be the easy choice -- but the creature’s anguish after he realizes what he’s done).
And there was a natural empathy for the struggles of the different, the outcast, the sensitive, the high-strung – not a surprising point of view for a man who, even when homosexuality still meant a jail sentence, lived openly with his lover, producer David Lewis.
There was more humor to come in “The Old Dark House,” a frightened-travelers Gothic that not only collected a fine cast (Karloff, plus Charles Laughton, plus Melvyn Douglas, plus Raymond Massey) but introduced American filmgoers to Ernest Thesiger, one of the grand eccentrics of English theater. (Another flamboyant artiste, he too had enlisted in World War I – purely with the hopes of being assigned to a Scottish regiment where he could wear a fetching kilt. Alas, he spent the war in trousers.)
But it was with “The Invisible Man” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” that Whale’s artistry reached full flower. The screenplay to the first, by “Journey’s End” playwright R. C. Sherriff, was full of rich dialogue; no one could have delivered it better than the young, velvet-voiced Rains (unseen until the final shot). And the special effects (supervised by John P. Fulton) are remarkable even today, as in a sequence worthy of a surrealist’s nightmare, Rains unwraps his bandages to reveal – nothing at all.
“Bride of Frankenstein,” like “The Old Dark House,” started out as a bit of a lark, with Whale bringing back Thesiger (and some of his lines from that original film) and casting Elsa Lanchester as both the monster’s “mother,” Mary Shelley, and his mate. But the filmmaking was utterly serious.
Franz Waxman’s operatic score daringly used different motifs for the characters; Whale’s camera was never more mobile, nor the angles more crazily askew. And the religious feeling that had been censored out of the original “Frankenstein” (where Clive uttered the banned line, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”) ran riot here, with one sequence even explicitly comparing the monster to Christ.
Where could Whale go after this?
Not on with more horror movies, wisely; he had done everything he wanted to. And so he moved on to other things. He did a classic musical, with the 1936 “Showboat,” starring Paul Robeson; he did period comedy, with “The Great Garrick.”
But the Laemmle family that had originally owned Universal, and hired Whale, had been forced out in the mid `30s by faceless businessmen; when the Hitler regime insisted that the studio cut the anti-Nazi sentiments of Whale’s 1937 drama, “The Road Back” or face a German boycott of their entire slate, the new bosses quickly capitulated.
Disgusted, Whale left Universal for a while. He returned, briefly, to direct the rather lifeless swashbuckler, “The Man in the Iron Mask,” then quit for good in 1940 after finishing “Green Hell,” a subversively gay-tinged jungle adventure (famous later, mostly, for contributing its elaborate sets to the studio’s “Mummy” movies).
When no other major projects turned up, and several theatrical ventures failed to pan out, the director left show business entirely. Retiring to the pleasant house he still shared with Lewis, he painted, toted up the income from his smart real-estate investments – and avoided anyone who wanted to only talk about those old horror pictures.
He was soon, frankly, forgotten – until he was found dead, drowned in his swimming pool, in 1957. Whale’s death, ironically, came just as his films were being revived on television, and led to tabloid speculation about the monster maven’s “mysterious” end. (Years later, Christopher Bram’s excellent novel “Father of Frankenstein” – adapted into “Gods and Monsters,” also showing at the Forum -- would fictionalize these last months.)
But there was, Lewis revealed shortly before his own death, no mystery at all. Whale was 67, depressed and debilitated by several strokes; tortured by insomnia and mood swings, he’d become convinced he was slowly losing his mind. The drowning was planned; he had even left a suicide note (which Lewis, preserving his lover’s privacy to the end, concealed for years). “Please forgive me, all that I love, and may God forgive me, too,” Whale had written, but “the future is just old age and illness and pain.”
It was a cheap irony – the kind a fine director like Whale himself would have immediately cut – but the man who gave us nightmares was no longer able to face his own. And so, the charming Whale – forever “Jimmy” to his friends, even in his old age – took his own life.Yet he gave life to so many other characters – Fritz and Dr. Pretorious, the Monster and the Hermit, the Bride and the Invisible Man. He gave joy to so many others – with comedies, with musicals, with adventures, with things that go bump in the night. And to generations of budding film buffs, he even gave something else – proof positive that Dr. Frankenstein isn’t the only one who stitches things together out of separate parts and brings them to life. Movie directors do, too.