James Whale is best remembered today as the director of four of the most beloved horror films ever made: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films are the work of a powerhouse director and are arguably the most impressive horror films of the 1930s, classics that film lovers continue to discover generation after generation. What’s unusual is that Whale was never particularly interested in the horror genre and spent the majority of his career directing movies and plays that have little in common with those four amazing films. James Whale began his career in show business in the most unlikely way imaginable. While fighting for Great Britain in WWI, Whale was captured by the Germans and he had his first experience as an actor while he was still a POW. After the war, he began working in theater professionally and eventually drifted to Hollywood. When the current director and star of the upcoming film Frankenstein both decided to turn down the project (Bela Lugosi was originally cast as the Monster), James Whale took on the directing assignment and hired his friend Boris Karloff to play the Monster. The rest is history.
Before, during and after Whale’s highly successful flirtation with the horror genre, Whale directed several other movies, including a version of Show Boat (1936) that some regard as the best film version of that musical. That said, Whale’s post-horror career unfortunately was one of slow, perpetual decline at least from a commercial standpoint. He retired from filmmaking in 1941 with a brief attempt at a comeback with a short film in 1950. After a few strokes sadly left him perpetually in pain, James Whale decided to take his own life by drowning himself in his swimming pool in 1957. For anyone interested in his personal life, the life of James Whale was explored in the excellent biopic Gods and Monsters (1998) starring Ian McKellen.
If you haven’t seen this film, shame on you. I first watched it on VHS with my grandparents at the age of 9. Throughout the movie, my grandmother kept reminding me that she was not allowed to see the movie when it was first released (she would have been 5 or 6 at the time) because it was considered too terrifying. While Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) certainly deserves credit for getting the 1930s horror craze fully underway, I think that James Whale’s Frankenstein is the superior film. The photography, music and production design are gorgeously gothic and Frankenstein contains one of the most hauntingly beautiful sequences in any horror movie I’ve ever seen. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson puts it far better than I ever could, “In the scene of the monster and the little girl floating flowers on a pond, the balance of hope and menace is so exact that the scene still has the riveting effect of the best Hitchcock.”
More than 80 years after the film’s release, Boris Karloff deservedly remains a horror icon and he would go on to collaborate with James Whale on two more horror films.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Due to some complicated issues regarding the rights to this film, there was a period of several decades where the film was unavailable and consequently The Old Dark House is the least well known of James Whale’s horror films. The movie is an overlooked gem. The scenario is one of those classic dark and stormy nights where several people are forced to take refuge in a crumbling old mansion occupied by the creepiest old family imaginable. What I love most about the story is how the central characters keep discovering stranger and crazier family members locked away in different parts of the house all while being terrorized and pursued by the mute drunken butler played by Boris Karloff. Perhaps some of the film feels a little stagey, but overall this is a fantastic early horror film with a dark sense of humor that I never grow tired of.
The Invisible Man (1933)
James Whale could have simply made this into a radio production and it would have been equally compelling due to the incredible vocal talents of one man. Claude Rains turns in the performance of a lifetime as the murderous Invisible Man and his voice alone carries the movie. Rains invests the character with so much gravitas, insanity, ambition and heart, one can’t help but root for him even as his crimes and serial killings continue to escalate and wreak havoc. From a technical point, this movie also pulls off the impossible of making an Invisible Man believable in spite of relying on the prehistoric special effects available to the crew at the time of the film’s production.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
“She’s alive! Alive!” I first saw the highlight of Clive Brook delivering these classic lines from The Bride of Frankenstein while watching Weird Science (1985) as a kid. While the least scary of these four films, I feel that this is James Whale’s masterpiece. There is so much about this movie to love. The movie opens with Elsa Lanchester playing Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley engaging in the now legendary horror story contest with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Lanchester is more famous for playing the Bride but I’ve always loved this little tip of the hat to the original source material that inspired the movie franchise. Overall this sequel is stranger, funnier, and ultimately more disturbing than the first Frankenstein as we see Karloff’s monster evolve into a tragic hero who feels that he and his Bride would be better off dead rather than live in a world that hates and misunderstands them. This movie is required viewing for all fans of film history.
After The Bride of Frankenstein James Whale turned his back on the horror genre, but Universal was not about to let their famous movie monsters rot on a shelf. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Universal made a lot of sub-par horror films featuring the likes of Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and of course, Frankenstein’s Monster. Unfortunately a lot of these characters are now more famous from being lampooned in comedies such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Young Frankenstein (1974). Personally I adore these two comedies but there were many other uninspired sequels and spinoffs of the classic Universal monsters that effectively defanged and declawed them making the movies safe and enjoyable for children. That said, the original classics remain for us to enjoy and I always maintain hope that one day some brilliant young filmmaker will come along, dust off these characters and remind us again why they defined a genre for an entire generation.
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