The forgotten films of British director James Whale, remembered today for his groundbreaking Hollywood horror films, including “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” as well as Ian McKellen’s portrayal of him in “Gods and Monsters,” will be on display at New York City’s Film Forum during a one-week, 15-film retrospective starting today.
In a New York Times piece titled “Voluptuary Stuck in a Box,” Terrence Rafferty describes the paradox that defined Whale’s career: “Whale never wanted to be Universal’s ‘monster man,’ as he was called, to his chagrin, after his early successes. It was his misfortune to be very, very good at the disreputable genre that chose him, and his further misfortune that the studio didn’t, at the time, have much else going for it. His ‘Frankenstein,’ with its stark compositions, rambunctious crowd scenes, sneaky humor and unexpected sympathy for the brutish lab-concocted creature played by Boris Karloff, supplied a richer experience of terror than anything that had preceded it in the early era of talkies. Whale was stuck, forever after, with an unwanted specialty, a costume that seemed to hamper him like the too-small clothes his creature wore.”
“Instead of the easily definable horror-auteur that history would prefer, Whale was an artist of many mediums (theater, cinema, painting, drawing), genres and sensibilities, but the unavailability of the majority of his body of work, either in theatrical revivals or on home video, has prevented audiences from fully understanding him,” writes The L Magazine’s Cullen Gallagher, who recommends checking out the “deliciously and despondently Pre-Code” “Waterloo Bridge,” as well as 1935’s “Remember Last Night?” “Who would have expected Will Hays to approve a boozy, screwball murder mystery in which the characters are too drunk to notice a murder and too hungover to really care?” notes Gallagher regarding the latter. “I’ll raise a glass to this forgotten 30s gem any day.”
“Whale’s one musical, a film of Oscar Hammerstein’s operetta ‘Show Boat,’ is definitive,” observes Nick Pinkerton in the Village Voice. “The Mississippi River setting is full of American myths, and Whale perfectly connects to the collective nostalgia—and guilt—of his adopted country. One appreciates not only the tragic grandeur Whale gives Paul Robeson’s ‘Ol’ Man River,’ but also the director’s intelligence—knowing to do nothing that might break the intimate spell of Helen Morgan’s tremulous, wrenching rendition of ‘Bill,’ one of the most perfect movie moments we have.”
“It was with ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ that Whale’s artistry reached full flower,” writes Stephen Whitty in an appreciation of the director in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “The screenplay to the first, by ‘Journey’s End’ playwright R. C. Sherriff, was full of rich dialogue; no one could have delivered it better than the young, velvet-voiced Rains (unseen until the final shot). And the special effects (supervised by John P. Fulton) are remarkable even today, as in a sequence worthy of a surrealist’s nightmare, Rains unwraps his bandages to reveal – nothing at all.” Watch the scene on YouTube.
The New York Times’ Dave Kehr runs down some of the retrospective’s highlights: “Sunday brings a rare screening of his 1933 masterpiece, ‘The Kiss Before the Mirror,’ an audaciously stylized drama (complete with a stunning 360-degree panning shot) about a Viennese lawyer (Frank Morgan) who suspects his wife (Nancy Carroll) of infidelity. Brimming over with masochistic longing, it’s one of the glories of the early sound period.”
In the A.V. Club, Simon Abrams counts down Whale’s five “most memorable monsters.”
For more on the films of James Whale, check out David Lugowski’s essay in Senses of Cinema.