Today we celebrate the birthday of the great film director James Whale (1889-1957).
While chiefly known, revered and loved for his gothic horror films (infused with a layer of dark humor and camp), the great theme of his life and work is actually war, specifically the First World War. Whale had served as an officer in the conflict and been captured by the Germans. Ironically, it was by participating in amateur theatricals in the POW camp that he discovered his love for acting and directing. (How VERY different from the Second World War!) Whale made his reputation by directing stage and screen versions of the World War One drama Journey’s End in 1929 and 1930. (The London stage version at various times had Laurence Olivier, Maurice Evans and Colin Clive, whom Whale would later cast in Frankenstein in 1931). Whale would also direct the dialogue sections of Howard Hughes’ WWI aviation epic Hell’s Angels (1930), and also the original (and superior) version of the wartime romance Waterloo Bridge (1931) featuring the incomparable Mae Clarke, whom he would also cast in Frankenstein.
As David Skal points out in his terrific book Monster Show, the horrors of that war must certainly have been one of the determining factors in the expressionistic horror films that emerged in the years after. Whale, ironically was influenced by German cinema. His horror (and comedy-horror) films are what he is best known for today: Frankenstein, The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But he was eager not to be pigeon-holed and he directed films in a wide variety of other genres, with notable successes being the musical Show Boat (1936) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). There are about a dozen other films to his credit, which I am most eager to see, being such a fan of these better known ones. At the top of my list are Remember Last Night (1935), in which a group of revelers wakes up after a night of partying to discover one of them has been murdered, and The Great Garrick (1937), a bio-pic about the famous actor.
As we have said, the shadow of World War One hung over his entire life. Just as it played a role in the launch of his career, its decline is usually marked by the 1937 film The Road Back, a sequel to the WWI epic All Quiet on the Western Front. The Road Back suffered studio interference instigated by the Nazi party, resulting in cuts and re-shot scenes, and bans in several countries. Ultimately it was a critical and box office failure. Whale’s loss of prestige meant most of his subsequent movies were thankless B pictures, and no work at all after 1941. If you’ve seen Gods and Monsters (1998) you’ll have some sense of his last years. Obscurity, illness and pain, culminating in suicide. What a cut-throat town. He’d been at the top of the industry a decade before, made millions for the studio, and directed top actors in the business like Charles Laughton and Claude Raines. But no one seems to have lifted a finger on his behalf.
We would be remiss in the extreme if we didn’t mention that Whale was one of the first openly gay men working in Hollywood — or anywhere in society, for that matter. Many have retroactively read that aspect of his personality into certain of his films, notably the hilarious character of Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. Herewith then, one of my favorite scenes in all cinema, chiefly because it is so unexpected, uncalled for and weird. David Lynch, I think, would have been quite impossible without the precedent of James Whale.