Gloria Stuart

The Old Dark House (1932, James Whale)

The Old Dark House is a strange film about strange people doing strange things. Director Whale and screenwriter Benn W. Levy rarely let the film get a set tone–unless one counts the consistent mix of comedy and horror. It’s not straight comedy; the comic elements tend to be either absurdly strange or pedestrian. Husband and wife Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart bickering over his driving until the storm becomes too dangerous for an argument, for example.

Whale goes for peculiar horror elements–relying on his cast to be creepy enough in their performances sometimes, but other times utilizing for practical effects in scenes without a cast member having to do much. The editing, from Clarence Kolster, is spectacular. Whale often goes for a visceral reaction, like when Boris Karloff’s vicious manservant preys on Stuart.

But just like the mix of light comedy and horror, Whale and Levy take the time to deepen even Karloff’s character. All of the characters end up getting some depth, both the “regular” people and then the crazy family living in the titular house. The film’s both cynical and hopeful, with Lilian Bond’s chorus girl having an arrangement with industrialist Charles Laughton, but not one with expectations.

Because Laughton’s messed up, just like almost everyone in the film. Melvyn Douglas’s drunken, mildly broken World War I veteran is ostensible lead–it’s between him and Stuart–and the film subtly implies his problems.

It’s a deliberately, beautifully made, beautifully acted (Ernest Thesiger mesmerizes) film. Truly fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff, based on a novel by J.B. Priestley; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Clarence Kolster; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Lilian Bond (Gladys), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm) and Brember Wills (Saul Femm).


The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale)

The Invisible Man is a filmmaking marvel. First off, R.C. Sherriff’s screenplay sets things up speedily and without much exposition. The film introduces Claude Rains’s character through everyone else’s point of view–first the strangers he meets, then his familiars–all while Rains is front and center in the film. Even though he is, after all, invisible.

Rains is another marvel. The script is excellent, Whale does a peerless job directing (more on his contributions in a bit), but Rains makes the whole thing possible. With him, Invisible isn’t some horror picture or a sci-fi one, it’s a very simple, very tragic story of a man going mad. It doesn’t need the special effects, it just needs Rains. Everything else is a bonus. It’s an outstanding performance.

The whole cast is great–Gloria Stuart has to sell the idea Rains was once a lovable guy, so goes Henry Travers for instance. William Harrigan gets to be a sleaze bag but a decent enough minded one.

Now for Whale. Many of the special effects in The Invisible Man are unbelievable. Even the ones where they obviously used some kind of matte decades are sort of unbelievable, but the practical effects–where the bandages must have been suspended by wire–those are astonishing. And Whale knows, early on, to wow the audience. But he never lets up with it; it’s one wow after another.

The Invisible Man gets better on every viewing. The work from Whale, Rains and Sherriff is singular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, based on the novel by H.G. Wells; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Gloria Stuart (Flora Cranley), William Harrigan (Dr. Arthur Kemp), Henry Travers (Dr. Cranley), Una O’Connor (Jenny Hall), Forrester Harvey (Herbert Hall), Holmes Herbert (Chief of Police), E.E. Clive (Const. Jaffers), Dudley Digges (Chief Detective), Harry Stubbs (Inspector Bird), Donald Stuart (Inspector Lane) and Merle Tottenham (Millie).


The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford)

Warner Baxter is one good actor. I’ve only seen him in one other film, but he’s great in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Baxter’s got a depth to him–he builds on it, adds to it, throughout scenes and throughout the film. Shark Island is about the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg–and is an idealized portrait of the physician, which is unimportant–and almost everything in the film happens to Baxter… and when he actually has to do something for himself, it’s a big something.

Shark Island is another pre-World War II John Ford film. This John Ford is the one who made The Informer, not the one who made The Searchers (but it is the same Ford who made Stagecoach). Color didn’t change Ford too much, since the post-WWII cavalry trilogy are not the same Ford as this film and at least one of those is black and white. The Shark Island Ford is the one who did exciting things with confined space and people’s place in that space, as opposed to the later Ford, who did things with open space and the place of people in that space. That sentence has two “that” spaces, I hope it makes sense. Since Shark Island is from the 1930s and it’s from Fox, it has a certain feel to it. It’s filmic. Fox films from the 1930s don’t have the crispness of an MGM or Warner picture. Ford perfectly creates a 1860s time period too. It’s lushly rural for the Maryland scenes and then the scenes on the prison island are spacious but confined. With Shark Island, you get the feeling Ford didn’t know what he was doing and he was trying things. Ford is the most confident filmmaker I’ve ever seen, so seeing him exert himself and succeed is interesting.

He does get quite a bit of help from Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Johnson went on to write The Grapes of Wrath for Ford, which might be the last of this period of his career. Regardless, Johnson is unsung superstar. The Prisoner of Shark Island has a number of conversations and they’re these beautiful moments–even if they aren’t the defining conversations of the film, which are beautiful too–but these conversations are perfectly paced and rich. They’re rich. They’re full of living character. Ripe with it. Having Gloria Stuart as the wife makes a lot of the film work. Without her, it wouldn’t work as well. Stuart’s wonderful in the film. There’s also a great performance by Ernest Whitman, who was black and got fourteenth billing instead of fourth (which he deserved). Then there’s John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard. He’s so good and Ford knows it. He gives Carradine these awesome creepy angles, something a later Ford wouldn’t have done.

I guess Shark Island never had a VHS release in the United States–but Fox Movie Channel shows it a couple times a year (probably not for President’s Day, though it would be interesting–the film presents Lincoln as a humane, soft-spoken, decent person, which modern Americans certainly don’t find appealing in a president). I watched the Masters of Cinema release from the UK, which (for once) didn’t have any noticeable PAL speedup. It’s a good film to see, for both Baxter and Stuart, but particularly for Ford.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; written by Nunnally Johnson; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by R.H. Bassett and Hugh Friedhofer; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson), Francis Ford (Cpl. O’Toole), John McGuire (Lt. Lovett), Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth), Douglas Wood (Gen. Ewing), John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin), Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd), Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper), Ernest Whitman (‘Buck’ Milford) and Paul Fix (David Herold).


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