Journey’s End (1930) marked several firsts. It was the first film directed by James Whale, 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).
It is Frankenstein, not Dracula (1931) which is considered the grandfather of the American horror film, even if Tod Browning‘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 Boris Karloff, who gives a pantomime performance worthy of Chaplin or Chaney.
Bill Condon‘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 Dwight Frye 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 changed. It’s a romantic comedy drama, albeit one replete with Whale’s trademark gallows humor, starring Mae Clark, Lew Ayres, Una Merkel, and Andy Devine, all taking potshots at the institution of marriage. This underrated film did little box office and is scarcely available today.
The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from J.B. Priestly’s novel, is aptly named: it’s the quintessential example of the “old dark house” genre. The cast includes Karloff, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Melvyn Douglas, and (practically stealing the entire film) Earnest Thesiger and Eva Moore. Whale’s mordant British humor sparkles throughout. Thesiger’s femme atheist Horace Femm is commanding, judiciously making mincemeat of lines such as “Would you like some gin? It’s my only weakness.” (He will repeat the line in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein). Horace is in constant battle with his fundamentalist Christian sister Rebecca (Moore). When she chastises her brother for neglecting to say grace, Horace apologizes to his guests: “I have forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits. The beef will seem less tough when she has invoked a blessing upon it.” Moore’s memorable “Beds! We have no beds!” is as loaded as Thesiger’s “Have a potato!” Whale’s jabs at puritanism seep throughout, coupled with his genuine love for eccentric characters.
Whale loads the film with mise en scene, having an entire house to play with. His penchant for framing characters against towering windows and his textured play with shadow and light provide visual spice. Horace’s pyro brother (Brember Wells) and 100 year-old father (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon) round out a prefect cast worth repeating. The film was considered lost for a number of years. Fortunately, it was discovered near the end of Karloff’s life, which delighted the actor.
Whale was fortunate to have Karl Freund photograph his compositional penchant for windows (and mirrors) for Kiss Before The Mirror (1933). The art deco sets are simply gorgeous, as is Gloria Stuart as a wife who pays the ultimate price for her adulterous ways (it is still pre-Hays code). Frank Morgan defends Paul Lukas for the dastardly deed in this compact crime-of-passion melodrama, executed in high style.
The Invisible Man (1933) made a star of the great character actor Claude Rains (almost without ever showing his face). Gloria Stuart again exudes sex, contrasting sharply against her invisible (and therefore impotent) mad scientist fiancee (Rains). The shrieking Una O’ Connor has a delightfully comic character turn. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff superbly adapted H.G. Wells’ novel. John P. Fulton’s effects are a perfect match for Whale’s humor. Whale’s repeated use of windows take on additional meaning when framed against a megalomaniac serial killer. The director listed it as one of his favorites amongst his own films.
By Candlelight (1933) sees Whale back in sophisticated romantic comedy territory. It’s chock full of knowing double entendres. Based on a popular play by Siegfried Geyer, the film was a hit, despite receiving criticism from some quarters for the miscasting of Paul Lukas. Whale was asked by producer Carl Laemmle to take over. He brought in frequent editor Ted Kent and photographer John Mescall, fashioning it into an Ernst Lubitsch-like art deco pre-code comedy, with star Nils Asther soaking in the proceedings in suave glow. Laemmle was pleased with the film, and Whale received a hefty raise.
One More River (1934) was critically well-received but died at the box office. R.C. Sheriff adapted the novel by John Galsworthy. This was the first film Whale made under the new Hays code, and it created censorship issues with the Breen office, requiring reshoots. Because of changes in social mores, the film, a class parody, is ravishingly dated. The elegant Clare (Diane Wynyard) is saddled with an abusive, sadistic husband, Gerald (Colin Clive). After Gerald rapes Clare (the original scene was cut and reshot) she sues for divorce. Gerald hires an equally sadistic attorney (Lionel Atwill) and the film’s second half takes place in an imperious courtroom, replete with sadistic doors and piercingly somber bookshelves. Clare has a platonic love interest in the gentle, but down-on-his-luck Tony (Frank Lawton). Clare chooses love over financial security (like those silly 1930s types used to do), which is used against her. Fortunately, she has an empathetic judge (Gilbert Emery). Again, Whale tackles puritan mores in this unjustly neglected masterpiece.
John L. Balderston and William Hurlbut wrote the screenplay for Whale’s most famous film, The Bride of Frankenstein(1935). Some have gone so far to say it is the last masterpiece of horror. There certainly has never been a film like this macabre comedy. Whale, Thesiger, Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Una O’ Connor, E.E. Clive, composer Franz Waxma, editor Ted Kent, expressionist photographer John Mescall and Universal Studios all peaked here. Soon, less in-the-know executives and second-rate artists will spoil the acerbic fun had here by all. The role of Dr. Pretorious was originally intended for Bela Lugosi, whom Whale vetoed, finding the Hungarian less interesting than the withered Thesiger. The director had an astute point. Karloff objected to the monster being given dialogue, but wisely conceded to Whale’s artistic intuition. Lanchester’s Bride, with her deco do, became nearly as iconic as the Monster. Kenneth Strickfaden’s set work surpasses the earlier film. The finale (with one amusing editorial gaffe) finds the director and crew playing in the aesthetic toy box, right down to bristling canted shots framing the principals for maximum emotional effect. Whale never enjoyed himself more while sliding everything but the kitchen sink under the censor’s radar. With its latent themes of same-sex relationships and necrophilia, Bride is one of the most delightfully eccentric productions in the entirety of cinema.
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.
Show Boat (1936) was Whale’s only musical. It is unfortunate that he did not get to direct more musicals, because this is the definitive Show Boat, 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 and reshooting much of it with uncredited director Edward Sloman. A devastated Whale disowned it and refused to see it. His version is forever lost. John Mascall’s camerawork, as usual, is superb, particularly in crowd and trench scenes. However, the film is a truncated travesty. Critics responded with scathing reviews and the film died a quick death at the box office. Whale was blamed. Rumors have persisted that Whale’s open homosexuality made him a target for the new studio heads. Although Whale did not hide his lifestyle, nor did he flaunt it, as he was fiercely private. Rather, it was the debacle of The Road Back which sealed his fate. His career as an “A” director was finished.
The Great Garrick (1937) made by Whale on loan to Warner Brothers, was released around the same time as The Road Back. Unfortunately, it too was a box office failure and largely ignored by critics, despite being one of Whale’s most assured, buoyantly stylized works. In this costume farce Brian Aherne spoofs machismo in his portrayal of the great 18th century actor David Garrick. The young Olivia de Havilland is a beautiful and virginal runaway countess posing as a wannabe actress. The cast includes Edward Everett Horton, Lionel Atwill, and Lana Turner as eccentrics, one and all. The Great Garrick has all the quicksilver sparkle of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” Again, Whale excels in well-coordinated, complex crowd scenes. Ernest Vajda adapted the script from his own play. The crystal clear cinematography is by Ernest Haller.
Sinners In Paradise (1938) was an attempt, by studio heads, at humiliating punishment. Given a “B” budget and clichéd script, Whale sat in the director’s chair and allowed the film to proceed in cruise control mode. Although it lacks Whale’s signature touches, he did muster enough enthusiasm to keep it from a being a total disaster, albeit barely. It was extensively re-edited before release. At this point, Whale was too disinterested to care.
Wives Under Suspicion (1938) had an even lesser budget, resulting in cheap sets, second rate cinematography, and “B” level actors. It’s a loose, code-mandated remake of Kiss Before the Mirror. Although all of Whale’s films made a profit, even the ones which did not do well at the box office, he was clearly suffering through the fulfillment of his contractual obligation. Wives competes with Sinners as Whale’s worst film.
Port of Seven Seas (1938) continues the decline. Now on loan to MGM, Whale may have felt like he had been thrown from the frying pan into the fire itself. Preston Sturges adapted Marcel Pagnol’s French play “Fanny.” Port shows little Sturges, and even less Whale. Wallace Beery, Frank Morgan and Maureen O’ Sullivan fail to save what is essentially a “B” programmer.
While Man in the Iron Mask (1939) is not exactly a return to form, it is at least far superior to the lethargic 1998 version with Leonardo DiCaprio. Whale inserts energy into the proceedings, helped by the casting of Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, and Warren William. Peter Cushing debuts in a brief part. The performances are the thing here, and Whale proves a sympathetic actor’s director, even in his decline. The box office success did little to help Whale’s standing, however.
The Green Hell (1940) had camerawork by Karl Freund, editing by Ted Kent, and a cast of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan Bennett, George Sanders, Alan Hale, and Vincent Price. Yet, the film is saddled with a dreadful jungle script, which Whale could not salvage.
George Brent (miscast) and Martha Scott are the leads in the Nazi suspense tale, They Dare Not Love (1941). It was yet another hack script. Whale’s enthusiasm finally gave out and he was unable to complete it. The studio brought in Charles Vidor to finish it. They did Vidor no favors. This is the last official film to credit James Whale as director.
Eight years later Whale made one other film, Hello Out There (1949). It was a short, and never released. Unquestionably one of the great directors, Whale, as he probably preferred, went out in a whisper. Fortunately, he had been a shrewd investor and could afford his retirement until his tragic suicide in 1957.