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September 11 - September 21

James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code

The story of James Whale’s rise and fall in Thirties Hollywood illustrates the high stakes risks and rewards of filmmaking in the studio era. Whale’s early successes earned him only a brief freedom, and the subsequent decades have been unkind, with some of his best films remaining little-seen and the story of his life and career increasingly encrusted with myth, rumor and speculation. Associated most vividly with Universal’s horror films, Whale in fact distinguished himself in almost every genre prominent in 1930s Hollywood: the musical, the melodrama, the war film, costume drama and screwball comedy.

British-born James Whale began his career in a WWI prison camp. Captured by the Germans, he became active in the camp’s theater, which led him to the London stage after the war, achieving fame with his production of Journey’s End, the celebrated drama about life in the trenches. He came to Hollywood on the coattails of this achievement, ending up at Universal Pictures, where he stayed for most of the 1930s.

Whale was a man of striking contrasts. Although the war left him an abiding antipathy towards Germany, his filmmaking was profoundly influenced by Weimar cinema: the sly wit of Lubitsch, Murnau’s mobile camera, and the visual stylization of German expressionism. Born into poverty, he projected the air of a proper British gentleman that barely concealed the wicked sense of humor so important to his films.

Streaks of perverse wit and a fascination with the dark side of human behavior make Whale’s work from the early and mid-1930s so memorable, yet these qualities are in short supply in his later films, undoubtedly due, in part, to the restrictions of the Production Code, designed to rein in the wilder strains of Hollywood filmmaking after its enforcement began in 1934. Yet there is no one obvious reason for the decline of Whale’s career at the end of the 1930s but rather several. His reign as one of Universal’s most valued directors came to a sudden end when the studio changed management in 1936, due in part to the extravagant cost of Whale’s Show Boat. Removed from the studio’s protection, Whale acquired a reputation for being difficult; he may also have become too disillusioned, or burnt out, to pursue work as hungrily as he would have needed to. And some have also pointed to Whale’s homosexuality as another source of his alienation from the studio establishment. Robert Aldrich later said, “Jimmy Whale was the first guy who was blackballed because he refused to stay in the closet.”

While this retrospective gives central place to Whale’s horror films, which fully retain their visual distinctiveness and the thrill of their subversive natures, it also gives a chance to revisit Waterloo Bridge and Show Boat, two of Whale’s best films, that have in recent years emerged from the shadows cast by subsequent, inferior remakes, while also bringing new prints and rediscoveries from Universal with the rarely-screened gems Impatient Maiden and especially The Kiss Before the Mirror.

Special thanks: Rob Stone, Library of Congress; Pat Doyen, George Eastman House.


Friday September 11 at 7pm

The Old Dark House

Directed by James Whale.
With Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 70 min.
Print courtesy of the Library of Congress

Just as Whale set the standard for horror with Frankenstein, he created in The Old Dark House a classic of the horror subgenre named for this very film that announced Whale’s distinctive blend of horror, satire, camp and farce. The typical “old dark house” film features innocents who stumble upon a sinister mansion; here, in a typically perverse Whale touch, the heroes are a flighty, cynical quintet who are hardly wholesome themselves. Still, they are no match for the freakish Femm family that inhabits the house. Perversely, Whale cast aging actress Elspeth Dudgeon as the Femm patriarch – she is credited in the film as “John Dudgeon,” a secret joke that was not revealed until 1975.

Remember Last Night?

Directed by James Whale.
With Robert Young, Constance Cummings, Edward Arnold
US 1935, 35mm, b/w, 76 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

Remember Last Night? recalls The Thin Man’s mix of urbane comedy and murder mystery, and indeed, MGM’s success may have helped Whale convince Universal to let him try the same combination, which he pulled off with obvious relish and considerable sparkle. Raffish sophisticates Tony and Carlotta Milburn celebrate their six-month anniversary with a wild traveling party, house-hopping among their splendidly decadent social set and awakening the following morning to discover a corpse in the next bedroom. Too hung over to remember what happened, they find themselves retracing their steps to piece together the events of the night before. This sadly overlooked classic offers perhaps the best showcase for Whale’s deliciously offbeat and subversive comedy.

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Saturday September 12 at 7pm

Frankenstein

Directed by James Whale.
With Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 71 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

Universal hoped to repeat the success of the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) with a version of Frankenstein. When the Laemmles offered the project to Whale, his imagination was fired by the material, and he took total control over both the screenplay and the production design. Taking advantage of the subject’s visual possibilities for the grotesque and the macabre, Whale emulated the look of German expressionist cinema – in striking contrast to the low-key naturalism of Waterloo Bridge, his previous film. The juxtaposition of Frankenstein’s impending marriage and the creation of the monster, who will disrupt that union, remains notably charged and open to the many contemporary queer readings of the film.

Bride of Frankenstein

Directed by James Whale.
With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger
US 1935, 35mm, b/w, 75 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

Frankenstein’s success guaranteed that Universal would produce a sequel. Wary of being seen exclusively as a director of horror films, Whale balked at the idea. To secure his cooperation, the studio granted him almost complete freedom, and Whale took advantage of the situation to create his most outlandishly perverse film. The resulting horror-comedy is widely considered his masterpiece and can be read as a darkly satiric assault on the institution of marriage. The film opens with a prologue featuring a ménage à trois between the Shelleys and Lord Byron before settling into the story of Henry Frankenstein returning to the laboratory to create a mate for his monster. The climactic meeting of the would-be spouses is simultaneously hilariously and heartbreakingly grotesque.

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Sunday September 13 at 7pm

The Man in the Iron Mask

Directed by James Whale.
With Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, Alan Hale
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 110 min.
Print from Sony Pictures

Alexandre Dumas’ 1847 novel of wrongful imprisonment and swashbuckling adventure with the Three Musketeers has been often filmed, but Whale’s version remains a favorite. Independent producer Edward Small made the film as a follow up to his 1934 Count of Monte Cristo and hired Whale at a time when the latter was looking for work after leaving Universal. Small was known for keeping his directors on a tight leash, and The Man in the Iron Mask was no exception. Yet while the film bears relatively few traces of Whale’s signature – no dark humor or satiric impulses, no Expressionist lighting or jump cuts – it clearly demonstrates his strong command of fleet cinematic storytelling.

The Invisible Man

Directed by James Whale.
With Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 70 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

Like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man offers an unsettling cautionary tale of scientific hubris run amok. The film’s story of a mild-mannered scientist transformed by his fantastical invention into a raving megalomaniac is less an ethical debate about man playing God than an existential allegory about the seductive nature of power. Although Whale cast Claude Rains as Griffin because of Rains' extraordinarily expressive voice, the actor was chagrined to learn that his face would remain unseen for almost the entirety of his first Hollywood film. Destined for a place in film history due to its special effects, The Invisible Man's success vindicated Whale's effort to tie dark humor to shocking violence.

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Monday September 14 at 7pm

Waterloo Bridge

Directed by James Whale.
With Mae Clarke, Kent Douglass, Bette Davis
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 72 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Universal gave Whale the job of adapting a popular and topical stage play for his first Hollywood assignment. Roy, a naïve American soldier in London during World War I, falls in love with the winsome Myra, another American, played by the mesmerizing Mae Clarke. Claiming to work as a chorus girl, Myra cannot tell Roy that she has lost her job and now makes her living as a prostitute. Out of this melodramatic (and definitely pre-Code) material, Whale fashions a vivid tale of sacrifice and suffering whose box office success quickly earned Whale a spot as one of Universal’s top directors. Look for a young Bette Davis in one of her first roles as the soldier’s sister.

Impatient Maiden

Directed by James Whale.
With Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke, Una Merkel
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 72 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

After Frankenstein, Whale returned to melodrama with another
vehicle for Mae Clark, one of the most sadly neglected great actresses from the 1930s. Here she is a young career woman in love with an ambulance driver who hopes to become a doctor. He wants to establish his medical practice before they marry, but her willingness to wait is complicated by the attentions of her boss. The film’s casual and racy view of pre- and extra-marital affairs marks it as prime pre-Code melodrama, one that was, in fact, at one point envisioned as a vehicle for Clara Bow.) Whale’s camera, highly mobile as usual, sails right through a handful of walls as it tracks the characters. New print from Universal Studios.

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Sunday September 20 at 3pm

Show Boat

Directed by James Whale.
With Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan
US 1936, 35mm, b/w, 113 min.
Print courtesy of the George Eastman House

The stage musical Show Boat is credited with bringing a new maturity to Broadway when it opened in 1927. Universal’s first film version, from 1929, was part talkie, part silent, and only included some of the score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Besides retaining most of the score, Whale’s remake includes several cast members from the original Broadway production, notably Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan. Whale proves strikingly adept at both the musical numbers and the dramatic sequences, turning away from the romantic comedy that provides the narrative thread for so many 1930s musicals to instead offer a full-fledged drama about racism, miscegenation, failed marriages and human weakness among a performing troupe in the South around the turn of the twentieth century.

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Monday September 21 at 7pm

The Kiss Before the Mirror

Directed by James Whale.
With Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 66 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

A dark and highly stylized psychodrama, The Kiss Before the Mirror traces the breakdown of a lawyer who begins to suspect his wife of infidelity, even as he is defending a friend on trial for having murdered his wife. For this operatic material, Whale sought out famed German cinematographer Karl Freund to produce another visually striking and rhapsodically cinematic masterpiece, complete with complicated tracking shots and 360-degree pans, one that (in the words of a critic of the day) “might well have come from the UFA studios a dozen years earlier.” Whale remained rightfully proud of this still largely unknown gem. New print from Universal Studios.

One More River

Directed by James Whale.
With Diana Wynyard, Colin Clive, Mrs. Patrick Campbell
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 85 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

This adaptation of John Galsworthy’s last novel focuses on the more dramatic of the book’s two plots, the story of a society woman’s divorce from a violent husband and her affair with a younger man. Like so many of Whale’s melodramas, it benefits from his ability to ground the material in well-crafted detail, whether imagined or, as in this case, remembered from his life in England. The Production Code went into effect while Whale was making the film, and he was forced to cut a scene wherein the sadistic husband attacks his wife. Whale’s camera, highly mobile as usual, is especially brilliantly deployed in the film’s climactic courtroom sequence.

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