James Whale

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)

For The Bride of Frankenstein, director Whale takes a contradictory approach. It's either more is more, or less is less. More music, all the time. Franz Waxman's frequently playful music rarely fits its scenes, unless Whale is going for a melodramatic farce, which he really doesn't seem to be doing. I kept hoping he would be, because it might make the film more compelling.

More Monster–Boris Karloff is nonsensically running around the countryside, finding someone to accidentally kill or not. William Hurlbut's screenplay contrives connections between loose, if memorable, scenes and never pauses to explain why the Monster kills another little girl. Maybe he really liked doing it from the first one.

Of course, the Monster could explain since Karloff now has lines to deliver. But all of his lines are lame.

Poor Colin Clive has almost nothing to do. None of the characters in Bride have arcs running the whole film–not even the Monster–but Clive pops in at the beginning and then at the end. In one of Hurlbut's weaker moments, Clive goes from pro-mad scientist to anti-mad scientist at the snap of the fingers. It's ludicrous.

Ernest Thesiger's good as the villain. Valerie Hobson not as Clive's wife.

Whale doesn't have enough coverage so Ted J. Kent's editing is usually bad. Except the finale, which is wondrous and is so tightly edited, one has to wonder why the rest of the film is so loose. Probably because there has to be a story.

It's a trying seventy-five minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by William Hurlbut, based on an adaptation by Hurlbut and John L. Balderston and a novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, John J. Mescall; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (The Monster), Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius), O.P. Heggie (Hermit), Una O’Connor (Minnie), and Elsa Lanchester (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).


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).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the digest version

The eight millimeter digest version of Frankenstein removes all but three main characters. Colin Clive gets the most time, though loses all subplots and character, with Boris Karloff probably coming in second. It’s odd to watch Frankenstein and have the monster make so little impression but it’s clearly possible.

Dwight Frye, for a while, makes the greatest impact, but only because he’s present in most the background of the establishing scenes.

The digest also retains the drowned little girl, Maria, though she’s barely there too. It’s strange to see what the editors thought was the most resonate, but the little girl’s drowning does lead to the manhunt, which does feed the finish. I guess it makes sense.

The little edits are bad. Reaction shots are cut, the film’s just generally sped up. Frankenstein loses top much personality when s drastically cut.

Even the fiery windmill sequence suffers in this abbreviation.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Remember Last Night? (1935, James Whale)

I wish I knew if Remember Last Night? is supposed to be a knock-off of The Thin Man or if it’s just a highly coincidental release, coming a year later, with a similarly intoxicated, ritzy couple solving crimes as they get more intoxicated (Robert Young and Constance Cummings play the couple in this film). Remember Last Night? is based on a novel, which suggests the latter.

The film’s about a bunch of facile rich party animals getting involved with murder–imagine “Sex and the City” with couples, set in the thirties, with murder investigation thrown in.

It’s a nearly unbearable film. While completely unsuited for comedy, Whale does have some amazing crane shots, just beautiful work, but then he’s got these terrible inserts and all of his close-ups look somewhat off. His direction of the actors is also problematic, but some of those failures might just be the script.

The script’s entirely contrived–when they need a detective, they call one (Edward Arnold), who isn’t supposed to be investigating, mind you, just helping them out. The same goes for a psychic (Gustav von Seyffertitz). It’s never explained why socialite alcoholic Young knows detective Arnold.

The acting’s not bad. Young has his moments and Cummings is excellent. Sally Eilers, Robert Armstrong and Reginald Denny are all strong, though the script gives out on them all eventually (well, except Armstrong, only because he’s barely in it).

The film misuses Edward Brophy, which I hadn’t believed possible before seeing this one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Harry Clork, Doris Malloy and Dan Totheroh, based on a novel by Adam Hobhouse; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Whale and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Arnold (Danny Harrison), Robert Young (Tony Milburn), Constance Cummings (Carlotta Milburn), George Meeker (Vic Huling), Sally Eilers (Bette Huling), Reginald Denny (Jake Whitridge), Louise Henry (Penny Whitridge), Robert Armstrong (Flannagan), Gregory Ratoff (Faronea), Monroe Owsley (Billy Arliss), Jack La Rue (Baptiste Bouclier), Edward Brophy (Maxie), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Professor Karl Jones) and Arthur Treacher (Clarence Phelps).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)

I’m trying to imagine how Frankenstein looks on the big screen–maybe on one the size of Radio City Music Hall; James Whale fills the screen upward. He directs the viewer’s attention always up, starting with the first scenes in the tower laboratory. The frames are obviously filled with extensive detail, which video certainly does not preserve. This style–tall screen (versus wide screen)–amplifies the watered-down Expressionist sets.

The film’s set design is stunning. Again, to complement Whale’s tall screen shots, the Frankenstein manor has cavernous rooms. The actors frequently occupy corners, making me wonder if theatrical audiences had to search for them in the expansive shots. But when the film’s sets are for the outdoors–the film’s famous graveyard opening for example–Whale uses the frame much differently. The painted backdrop, the endlessly murky sky, is Frankenstein‘s suspension of disbelief on-switch. Opening with it, Whale gets the viewer to accept he or she is no longer on familiar ground. Edward Van Sloan’s opening warning probably contributes as well.

Without a musical score, with incredibly delicate sound design and occasionally jarring cuts, Frankenstein is a strange dream. The first scene with Boris Karloff is the best example of this dream state. The nearly silent introduction to the monster, combined with the perspectively challenged sets, distances the viewer from Colin Clive and Van Sloan. This approach to the narrative–it being distant from the characters and more objective–really plays out in the last scene. As the Monster burns in the windmill, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but the film doesn’t encourage any sympathy. The lack of music really makes the narrative perspective indifferent.

That indifference only applies to the story of Clive and Karloff–and to some degree to Clive’s romance with Mae Clarke. The film’s very strange for the first act–with the grave-robbing, followed by Dwight Frye robbing the medical college (the lecture in the medical college is also worth some examination, which I’m not going to make time for here), then the rather frank scene between Clarke and John Boles. The friendship between Boles and Clive’s characters hardly gets any screen time, yet it’s present and important to the film. Frankenstein takes a lot of filmic shortcuts, usually to good effect, and that conflicted friendship is successful.

But it isn’t the most successful… the strangest thing about Frankenstein is the place of Frederick Kerr as Clive’s father. As it plays out, Kerr is the film’s main character. Even with all the conflict stemming from bringing a monster to life, the real focus is Clive and Clarke’s wedding, specifically what Kerr’s great scenes related to it. When Kerr first appears, Frankenstein changes direction–it goes from being uncanny to a bent traditional–and each of his scenes is better than the previous.

His performance isn’t the film’s best–all the principals are great, with Clive somehow turning that field day for overacting into one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of insanity. But in Whale’s detachment, Clive becomes even more removed in his recovering sanity. Boles and Clarke occasionally seem like they’re in a melodrama, but both have some great moments. Van Sloan’s great, as is Frye.

Karloff’s performance is singular.

Only in the end–like with most Universal horror films–does Frankenstein begin to show its stitches. The lack of content, of actual story, comes out as everything begins to run together (the Monster’s off screen rampaging, the attack on Clarke) and logic hops out the window. Around the same time, men in 1930s dress appear alongside the guys in lederhosen, which might give logic a shove.

It doesn’t really matter much, because by that time, Frankenstein‘s already established itself. Whale’s technically superior hunt through the mountains and the windmill finale, as narratively problematic as they are, still work great.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Sinners in Paradise (1938, James Whale)

It’s James Whale’s “Gilligan’s Island,” only with more rear screen projection, as a plane crash in the Pacific brings a varied bunch together on a tropical island. It’s a boring sixty-five minutes–the script’s real stagy, with a two or three week (there’s a lot of problems with time) break in the middle, with the second half establishing all the changes instead of showing them occur. And Whale’s not much of a director here. As good a job as he does inside (even though almost all of Sinners in Paradise was shot on a sound stage), the pseudo-exteriors don’t work. It’s all too goofy, with labeled straw huts and everyone having changes of clothes after swimming from a burning plane.

The movie’s tolerable due more to geniality than anything else, though some expectation is laid throughout for the ending, especially in regards to the future of John Boles’s character. Boles is on the island when the plane crash survivors arrive and, in a strange string of scenes, refuses to help them. At that point–though the time on the plane itself is misspent–Sinners is still moderately well-paced. The script hasn’t gotten around to speeding past all the interesting moments. Of course, the viewer learns Boles’s backstory, but the characters never do, which is an awkward choice, but it does give Whale a cheap way out at the end.

Boles is visibly worn out–and Whale’s awkward close-ups, a holdover from before sound design, don’t do him any favors. Madge Evans is okay as his love interest, but her character never gets to be developed either. Charlotte Wynters is similarly okay as an heiress and Gene Lockhart is funny as a possibly corrupt senator. Marion Martin is annoying and the rest of the cast is either serviceable or bad.

Except for Bruce Cabot, who has fun–shirtless almost all time, which is never explained either–as a gangster with a heart of gold.

Where the movie’s most interesting is in its politics. It’s anti-war profiteering and pro-union. There’s a lot of subtle socialism in the exposition (co-writer Lester Cole was one of the Hollywood Ten), not to mention the inference true democracy and the senator’s version of it are quite different.

It’s a strange b-movie, if only because of the script (at times, even though Whale isn’t directing it right, the dialogue is excellent), not to mention the political elements. And it doesn’t hurt, even though Boles’s performance is a tad broad, his chemistry with Evans is palpable.

And who can get down on a movie with an uncredited Dwight Frye bit part?

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Harold Buckley, Louis Stevens and Lester Cole, based on a story by Buckley; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Maurice Wright; music by Charles Previn and Oliver Wallace; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Madge Evans (Anne Wesson), John Boles (Jim Taylor), Bruce Cabot (Robert Malone), Marion Martin (Iris Compton), Gene Lockhart (State Senator John P. Corey), Charlotte Wynters (Thelma Chase), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Franklin Sydney), Milburn Stone (T.L. Honeyman), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Jessup), Morgan Conway (Harrison Brand), Willie Fung (Ping) and Dwight Frye (Marshall).


Scroll to Top