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Saturday, November 3, 2007

James Whale (originally published 11/98)

Although Hollywood can be bountifully munificent toward those who bask in its glory, it can be, and has been, equally brutal to those whose careers have passed out of its limelight. As Billy Wilder showed us in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), the life of one who had once upon a time been the toast of Hollywood can be melancholy indeed.

"Gods and Monsters," currently playing in limited release, portrays the twilight years of a director of Hollywood's golden era. Unlike Wilder's film, which was built around a fictional actress who had outlived her success, writer-director Bill Condon's subject in "Gods and Monsters" is a real Hollywood luminary. Based on Christopher Bram's novel "Father of Frankenstein," its main character is James Whale, who directed some of the most revered classics of the Universal horror film cycle of the thirties. Inscrutable and eccentric, Whale is an excellent subject for dramatic treatment. What could be more interesting, I ask you, than an openly gay Englishman living in Hollywood in the thirties and making American horror films based on works by English writers? Like the man who made them, Whale's films are noteworthy for their fascinating eccentricities. If you want to sample this intriguing filmmaker's work for yourself, look for these titles on home video.

"Frankenstein" (1931). The irony is that Whale, who is now so thoroughly identified with horror films, took on this adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel in part because he was concerned about being typed as a director of wartime dramas. After the success of "Journey's End" (1930) and "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), each of which told stories arising out of the trauma of World War I, "Frankenstein," with its Gothic moodiness and expressionistic sets, represented a refreshing change of pace for Whale. He could hardly have known that the success of this film, along with that of Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931), would kick off a cycle of horror titles from Universal that would still be going strong when Whale retired from filmmaking.

"The Old Dark House" (1932). Whale's adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel "Benighted" gave him the opportunity to allow free reign to his wickedly eccentric sense of humor. Whereas Priestley's novel is a rather somber affair, Whale takes every opportunity to inject dark humor into the proceedings. The storyline, a prototype for many another thriller, involves a group of travelers who are stranded on a dark road in a rainstorm and are forced to seek shelter in a forbidding old house. The occupants of the house, a decidedly creepy family, do not seem at all pleased at the idea of entertaining houseguests. Whale brings out the humor inherent in this absurd situation without in any way compromising its creepiness.

"The Invisible Man" (1933). As he had with Priestley's "Benighted," Whale adapts with a light hand H.G. Wells's story of a scientist who discovers an invisibility formula. The comparatively sober scientist of the Wells story becomes a raving megalomaniac, apparently because the invisibility formula is also a mind-altering drug. Once again, Whale is able to add a leavening of humor to an eerie story without compromising the underlying mood.

"Bride of Frankenstein" (1935). Regarded by many as Whale's masterpiece, the sequel to "Frankenstein" represents the culmination of Whale's trademark blend of humor and the macabre. Colin Clive, reprising his role as Henry Frankenstein, is paired with Ernest Thesiger, whose gift for eccentric whimsy Whale had used to good effect in "The Old Dark House." Together the two mad doctors create a mate for the Monster amid the most elaborate concatenation of flying sparks and twitching dials any filmmaker had ever assembled.

Sadly, most of Whale's non-horror output remains unavailable on video. His excellent version of "Showboat" (1936), the one with Paul Robeson, is available, as is his version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939), but "Journey's End" (1930) and "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), the films that made his reputation, are not. Neither are "One More River" (1934) or "Remember Last Night" (1935), each one a significant work by a major Hollywood talent. I can only hope that "Gods and Monsters" might prompt Universal to open the vaults and allow these treasures to see the light of day once more. This is, after all, the studio that resurrected the Frankenstein Monster some half dozen times. Bringing a few worthy films back to public view should be child's play by comparison.

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