MONSTER FILM GIANTS – James Whale
James Whale directed four of the most intelligent, witty, and visually striking horror films ever made: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). With this quartet of classics he virtually created, and then dominated, the genre. Whale’s monsters ranged widely, from Henry Frankenstein’s brutish creation and a scientist seeking power through invisibility to the decadent perversity of Horace Femm (in The Old Dark House) and Dr. Pretorius (in Bride of Frankenstein). Unable to produce one-dimensional villains, Whale gave these characters individuality, depth, and complexity.
Probably the most versatile and sophisticated of all directors associated with horror films, the English-born Whale worked on 22 features during a Hollywood career just over a decade long. These include comedies, war stories, courtroom dramas, adventures, a musical, and a slice of contemporary British life. They are not all of equal quality, but many reveal sensitivity, eccentric humor, and a confident cinematic style. Whale’s back ground as a painter, magazine cartoonist, and designer of stage sets and costumes polished his visual sense, while his experience directing and acting in plays heightened his feeling for drama, for character, and for good dialogue well delivered.
Although he worked in Hollywood’s factory system, Whale often was the dominant creative force behind his pictures. His association with Universal—one of the smaller, less regimented studios—helped make this possible: Its “family” atmosphere fit Whale’s temperament, as did the enlightened passivity of Carl Laemmle.Jr., the youthful vice president of production who hired talented people and let himself trust their judgment.
The best of Whale’s films reveal his contradictory characteristics, which somehow
seldom clash. Whale respected an author’s intentions, while revealing his own distinctive personality; his films are both literate and highly visual, and they mix flamboyant theatricality with slice-of-life realism. Personally, Whale was soft-spoken and gentle but also forceful and decisive; elegant but gawky; sardonic yet vulnerable; introspective though engaging as a raconteur. Although he craved success and its trappings, he did so more on a social and artistic level than on a crassly material one.
During his years at Universal, Whale bypassed entrenched production methods, following through on his artistic decisions with unwavering determination. Uncomfortable among strangers, he frequently worked with people he knew but he rarely sought their advice or opinions. Despite his aloof and even imperious manner, Whale’s charm and dedication usually won over his associates. Ted Kent, who edited many of his films, stated years later that Whale was “firm in his belief in his authority—but as firm as he was, he was a very kind and considerate man.” He added, “I can’t remember any conversation over the years that didn’t involve the picture that we were working on. Outside conversation never existed; it was just all the picture.”¹
Cinematically, Whale followed his instincts, creating films that have his stamp on
every aspect. He generally collaborated with his scriptwriters, selected his performers and technicians, and guided department heads with sketches of sets, costumes, and makeup. Ted Kent recalled that the backs of Whale’s script pages were full of drawings. “He was very talented,” Kent explained, “in sketching sets for the art director, especially if it was a castle, or a ballroom, or places that had columns and arches and drapes. He would give them something to start with—you know, an impression of what he thought. Then the art director would come back with his detailed drawing.” Elsa Lanchester, who acted in Bride of Frankenstein, agreed that Whale “conceived” his sets. In that movie, she added, the forest was built on a long but shallow sound stage, so Whale used forced perspective—he was a master at it—to create the impression that the set covered a large area.²
In addition, Whale designed the look of the Bride’s hair, which stands stiffly away
from her head, in contrast to the script’s description of it as “curled close” and hanging “straight and dark on either side.” Lanchester also described the director’s meticulous concern about the dress she wore as Mary Shelley: He insisted that it be of “the finest possible white net, with iridescent, sequined butterflies and moons and stars on it,” even though such details would not be obvious on the screen.
Whale’s distinctive use of editing went against the accepted standards of the time. He often cut directly from a medium shot of a character to a slightly closer one of the same person, as opposed to the usual method of moving the camera nearer during a shot or cutting away to a different character before returning to the closer view. Ted Kent disliked Whale’s editing style, calling it abrupt and “choppy.” Working on a Whale film, he explained, was bad for his reputation among other editors, who would say, “It wasn’t very well cut. It just jumped all over the place.”³
Whale carefully prepared his shooting scripts to indicate these cuts and then added even more. Significantly, instead of filming an entire scene from various angles, as most directors did, he shot only those sections he intended to use. Gloria Stuart, who acted in three of his films, quickly realized that Whale on the set was “cutting the film the way he wanted it.”⁴ The result left an editor no choice but to construct the scene the way the director intended. To Ted Kent, this meant that Whale “was afraid the editor would botch it up. He probably was of the opinion that the director was the one that should edit the pictures and, if he had to have an editor do it, he’d … get everything nailed down: ‘This
is the way I want it and this is the way it’s going to be.’ That was the kind of guy he was.”⁵
Whale’s four horror films clearly illustrate this approach, as in the progressively
closer shots with which he introduces the Frankenstein Monster and the Invisible
Man. During conversation scenes, Whale also edits frequently, in ways that illustrate and emphasize the dialogue. A perfect example appears in Bride of Frankenstein’s prologue, where varied camera positions isolate sections of Lord Byron’s speech, under lining them and expressing their meaning visually. What Whale had planned, in the shooting script, as a single medium-close shot becomes, in the film, the following four shots: [Medium shot of Byron] “I should like to think that an irate Jehovah was pointing those arrows of lightning directly at my head—[close-up of Byron’s head]—the unbowed head of George Gordon, Lord Byron, England’s greatest sinner. [Long shot of Byron and Shelley] But 1 cannot flatter myself to that extent. Possibly those thunders are for our dear Shelley—[medium shot of Shelley]—Heaven’s applause for Eng land’s greatest poet.” Audiences rarely notice Whale’s unique editing, but it does have a psychological impact, as the viewer first senses the emphasis on Byron and then the shift away from him.
Because Whale made his basic decisions about editing in advance, he was free on
the set to concentrate on the actors’ performances. At this stage of production, he drew on a sensitivity to mood and character that developed during a theatrical career that included the first major English productions of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard, as well as plays by Pirandello, Maugham, Shaw, and Moliere. As a result, Whale spent much time rehearsing a film’s cast, leading them to an understanding of the text. As Mae Clarke, who starred in three of his films, recalled, “Our objectives became: What did the author want? What did he not say, and assumed we would?”⁶ Whale’s method involved describing a scene’s situation and the character’s feelings in it. “He wouldn’t say how” to play the scene, according to Clarke. Instead, “he would tell you what was happening.” After, he would say, “Now let’s see what you want to do.”⁷ Gloria Stuart elaborates: “He would say how he felt the scene, we’d play it, and then he’d start to work individually. Very politely, very thoroughly, very tactfully.”⁸
Although the actors may have felt free to produce their own results, Whale actually guided them to his interpretation.”With James,” said Stuart, “every single line, every single movement, your whole approach to the character was very meticulously discussed,” and rehearsal continued “until James had everything exactly the way he wanted it.”9 At times, he even provided a demonstration. In Frankenstein, for example, all of the Monster’s movements were Whale’s. “I saw him do them,” declared Mae Clarke, who explained that when Henry Frankenstein “first said ,’Sit down,’ Whale mapped it all out. He said, ‘Now you don’t know what sit down means, but you know because his hands are going that way he means back. So you go You hit the chair, you go down.’ “¹⁰
Generally, the actors gave Whale what he wanted, according to Gloria Stuart, but
“if someone angered him or opposed him—said ‘Yes,’ and then did it their own way—he was very swift to notice and point it out, sometimes with an unkind word. There was never any yelling though.”11 Once, when Claude Rains tried to steal a scene from Ms. Stuart (in The Invisible Man), Whale told him, “Now, Claude—don’t be naughty. We can take it over and over and over, because we’d like half of Gloria!”¹²
Even cooperative cast members sometimes found themselves frustrated or bewildered by Whale’s attention to seemingly irrelevant details. Valerie Hobson, who appeared in Bride of Frankenstein, disliked the wedding dress she wore in her first scene—”it made me look like an elephant!”—and considered it “a lot of nonsense” when Whale told her, “You mustn’t wear any underclothes.”13 Evidently the director didn’t volunteer a reason for this, but when Gloria Stuart questioned why her character wore an evening gown in The Old Dark House, he explained that, when she runs through a corridor, “I want you to be like a flame, like a dancer.” This is a revealing insight into Whale’s poetic visual sense, but Stuart thought the idea “pretty ridiculous.” Nevertheless, “that’s what he wanted and that’s what he got.”¹⁴
Gloria Stuart’s first impression of Whale was of someone “very austere, very cold,
very English—very removed from the scene,”15 but “once initial familiarities developed, the atmosphere became an easy, good one, although always very serious.”16 Mae Clarke also felt that everyone on the set developed a comfortable familiarity. “We all knew each other almost like a family excepting it wasn’t a gooey family, it was a professional understanding of each other’s motivations, etc. So we had a very pleasant association that way.”17 Because Whale had few close friends, this sort of professional “family” became his mainstay. He felt comfortable and in control when working, perhaps because he could be close to people without having to deal with them on a more intimate, personal level.
James Whale s personality—his private nature, his sensitivity, and his sometimes biting humor—derived from a basic insecurity that had its roots in childhood. Born on 22 July 1889 in the town of Dudley, he was part of a large, working-class family that struggled against poverty in the grim industrial Midlands of England. Although he soon revealed artistic ability and attended the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts, a more formal cultivation of his talent was out of the question. Whale seemed reluctantly destined for a life of physical labor, but at the same time this introspective, sensitive, and talented boy—who was also, according to actor Alan Napier, “skinny” and “slightly undersized”18—felt apart from his surroundings and was probably teased, and even ridiculed, by his more earthy peers.
Whale defended himself by taking the initiative and cultivating his differences. He
adopted the manner of dress and precision of speech of a gentleman, not a factory worker, and he exaggerated his sensitive, artist’s demeanor. Whale also cultivated a quiet self-confidence, which was usually justified but not always completely felt. At the same time, he positioned himself as an observer of his own existence, someone above and apart from events and people, commenting with ironic skepticism on others and, implicitly, on himself.
These tendencies would define Whale’s adult personality, for even at the peak of his success he was—according to a close friend, author R. C. Sherriff—”a loner” whose defensiveness about his lack of education and social polish made him combative. Once, after Sherriff had introduced him to some upper-class acquaintances, Whale spoke on and on about how worthless those people were.¹⁹Having grown up in a rough-hewn family, he spent his adult life obsessed with refinement and class, and with the contradiction between his desire for good breeding and his actual origins. “Jimmy saw everything in terms of a step up the ladder,” concluded Alan Napier. “He gloried in achieving success.”20 Whale truly enjoyed the work he did, but that was not enough, nor did he merely seek to live the good life. His need for achievement was also inspired by a resentment of those who had mocked him, a feeling that had lingered for so long that it became a part of his nature; success offered the satisfaction of being well-paid and respected for doing what those around him had for years disdained, thereby satisfying (but never totally venting) his need for revenge.
Such success, however, was still far off when in 1914, during World War I, Whale
found himself a lieutenant in a Worcestershire regiment. He served his country, fighting in France and Belgium, until on 25 August 1917 his platoon was caught in a trap and captured by the Germans. As a prisoner of war, Whale passed the time doing charcoal sketches of other soldiers and helping to put on plays, for which he improvised sets as best he could. He also played a lot of bridge and won about ,£4,000 ($20,000 in those days). Returning to England at the war’s end, Whale brought along the IOUs he had collected and cashed them all. Most of the money went to help his family.
In 1919 Whale, still an aspiring artist, had a few satirical cartoons published in the
magazine the Bystander, but he soon relinquished art in favor of his new interest, the theater. He acted in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production of the seventeenth-century play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Beaumont and Fletcher; a program lists him in the catch-all category, “Soldiers, Gendemen, Boys.” The production ran for the standard two weeks, from 30 August to 12 September 1919. At the end of December, he played the role of Rugby in a Manchester production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ernest Thesiger, who appeared as “Slender,” later described the thirty-year-old Whale as “a frail ex-prisoner-of-war with a faun-like charm.”²¹
During much of 1920, and into 1921, Whale served as stage manager and played
various small parts in the Birmingham Rep’s touring production of Abraham Lincoln, by John Drinkwater. Then, back in Birmingham, he designed the costumes for George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion and appeared as an extra in the production. Later in 1921, he joined the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, which had been taken over by the London-based Nigel Playfair. Whale’s main job was as stage manager, but he also played small parts. In September 1922, Playfair brought his Liver pool production of Arnold Bennett’s Body and Soul to London, where Whale served as associate stage manager during its run. He then stayed in London to stage-manage Playfair s Polly, an adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
At the Liverpool Rep,Whale had developed a close relationship with the company’s set and costume designer, Doris Zinkeisen. Playfair also brought her to London, where she designed his 1923 production of Karel Capek’s The Insect Play. “Miss Zinkeisen was very good-looking and wore exotic clothes,” recalled John Gielgud (who acted in The Insect Play, along with Claude Rains and Elsa Lanchester). “She was at that time engaged to James Whale, a tall young man with side-whiskers and suede shoes.” They “made a striking pair at the dances to which Playfair, with his charming hospitality, used to invite the company.”22 It was also during Potty’s long run that Whale made his debut as a director with Geoffrey Whitworth’s Father Noah—A Mystery of the Ark, for which Zinkeisen designed the sets and costumes. Performed on 12 June 1923, this curtain-raiser was part of a benefit for the Library Fund of the British Drama League.
Whale evidently enjoyed sharing this Bohemian period of art and outlandishness
with a kindred spirit, but something happened around this time that caused him and Doris Zinkeisen to part company. Perhaps Whale simply recognized and accepted his homosexuality; this clearly had happened by the spring of 1925 when he invited Alan Napier to an all-male party.23 However, the change may have been more deeply psychological than that. Elsa Lanchester, who knew him then, never fully understood the break-up with Zinkeisen, but, she said, “I think he believed that was to blame for his not having a ‘normal’ life.”24
At any rate, Lanchester noted a shift in Whales personality, a growing bitterness. “I don’t think he liked humanity very much,” she concluded, and this seemed particularly true of women.25 However, Whale and Zinkeisen did remain friends: In 1936, she designed the costumes for his film Show Boat (1936) and also painted a large portrait of him; twenty years later, he remembered her in his will. This pivotal aspect ofJames Whale’s life will probably forever remain vague, for he rarely spoke in personal terms about himself or his past. It seems clear, though, that he initially felt himself to be an outsider because of his social origins and artistic nature; his homosexuality then heightened that feeling.
Near the end of Polly’s run, Whale became involved with London’s nonprofit theater organizations, which produced revivals or new plays on a showcase basis, usually on Sunday evenings. From September 1923 through September 1924, he was stage manager (or stage director) of six such offerings and also designed the sets for two of them, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Much Ado about Nothing. With this experience behind him, Whale was hired to aid J. B. Fagan, the director and designer for the Oxford Players, a repertory company in that university city that put on a new program each week of the academic year.
During the 1924-25 season, Whale served as assistant director, designed a majority of the sets, and played several supporting roles. The Oxford Players—who included John Gielgud and Alan Napier—performed a wide range of works, including Shaw’s Candida, Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, and Barries The Admirable Crichton. Two of these productions, which Whale designed and in which he acted, were so well received that Fagan later brought them to London: The first, Richard Hughes’s A Comedy of Good and Evil, lasted for only fourteen performances, but the second, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, premiered on 25 May 1925 and didn’t close until 19 September. The enthusiastic London critics, echoing their Oxford counterparts, noted that the production achieved the slice-of-life, human comedy style of the Moscow Art Theatre, with all of the characterizations kept in “almost perfect balance.”26
As both designer and actor, Whale received special attention. The Era found his set tings for The Cherry Orchard “particularly good and the second act, laid in the open fields, was exceedingly beautiful. The delightful background, the colors of the costumes, and the compositions of the figures made a picture of striking beauty.”27 At the same time, the influential James Agate singled out Whale’s performance as the awkward Ephikhodof, who “cannot enter a room without tripping, hand a bouquet without dropping it, or play billiards without breaking his cue. . . . He is only a small character, yet he has his place, and when he speaks the world centers round him for the space of that utterance.”²⁸
One month after The Cherry Orchard closed, Gielgud and Whale returned in
Chekhov’s The Sea-Gull, with Whale again designing the sets. Then, during 1926—²⁷,he rejoined Nigel Playfair for three consecutive productions. He was stage director for Riverside Nights, a revue that included a parody of Chekhov’s plays, which Whale designed and in which he acted. Subsequently, Whale played “Baptiste” and stage directed Moliere’s The Would-Be Gentleman, then designed George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, in which he portrayed Squire Sullen.
Nigel Playfair’s son Giles later described the Whale of this period as “quiet, cynical, an entertaining conversationalist, but not quite the kind of man for whom I would have predicted great success [because] his manner was too precious and too docile to fit him well for the actual task of stage management. Stage hands like to be given their orders directly and in the roundest possible terms. James Whale would lead them aside and whisper confidentially, ‘Don’t you think it would be fun if we had a bit of green paint on that flat?’ His methods of command did not win their respect.”²⁹
Nevertheless, through 1928 Whale found frequent employment as a stage manager or stage director, and also as a designer and actor. In the nearly four years after he returned to London from Oxford, Whale performed one or more of these functions in nine commercial productions and twenty nonprofit ventures. In addition, the nonprofit world gave him three chances to direct: Light o’ Love (7 December 1925), Caged (21 December 1927), and The Young Visitors (10 January 1928).
Finally, Whale directed his first commercial production, a double bill of Fortunato
and The Lady from Alfaqueque, by Serafin and Joaquin Alvarez Quintero, which he also designed; it played from 22 October to 17 November 1928. Respectful reviews were undercut by the fact that Harley Granville-Barker—the theatrical legend who had, with his wife, written the English-language adaptations—periodically took charge of the production and even insisted that O. B. Clarence be hired to play Fortunato, a role that Whale had intended for himself. Not that this incident interfered with Whale’s career, for from 7 to 20 November he acted in High Treason, while also directing and designing The Dreamers, a delicate tale about reincarnated lovers that had a two-week run starting on 12 November. Thus, for several days that month, Whale’s efforts were represented on three London stages simultaneously.
Soon after, Whale directed and designed the Incorporated Stage Society’s production of Journey’s End (9 and 10 December 1928), a play by R. C. Sherriff about the pressures of trench warfare. Laurence Olivier starred as Captain Stanhope. The glowing reviews led to a commercial run, but Olivier had his eye on a different play, so Whale replaced him with a relative unknown, Colin Clive. Even as he conducted rehearsals to blend Clive with the rest of the cast, Whale recreated his role of Medvedenko in a one-week revival of T)\e Sea-Gull. Then Journey’s End premiered on 21 January 1929 and suddenly Whale, Sherriff, and Clive were famous.
After fulfilling commitments to design two other plays, Whale inevitably followed
where his hit show led. He rehearsed a second company of Journey’s End, offered six performances in London, then sailed to New York for a 22 March premiere. Next, Whale journeyed from New York to Hollywood, where he directed the dialogue scenes for Paramount’s The Love Doctor (1929). By September, he was back in New York rehearsing the Chicago company of Journey’s End, after which he returned to Hollywood to direct the dialogue scenes of Hell’s Angels (1930), the World War I air epic that producer Howard Hughes had been shooting as a silent film since November 1927.Then, in New York, Whale staged the Quinteros M Hundred Years Old; after its premiere on 1 October 1929, he again headed to Hollywood, where he filmed Journey’s End, with Colin Clive—on a leave of absence from the London production—as Stanhope. Finally, in April 1930, Whale returned to England, having been away for more than a year. While there, he directed R. C. Sherriff*s next play, a small scale comedy called Badger’s Green, which premiered on 12 June 1930.
A chance to direct and design two one-act plays by Ferenc Molnar, One, Two, Three and The Violet, lured Whale back to New York; the program premiered on 29 September 1930, but Whale’s main interest now was films. When Universal’s Carl Laemmle, Jr., asked him to direct Waterloo Bridge, based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play about a London prostitute’s wartime affair with a soldier. Whale agreed and began a union with Laemmle and Universal that for six years provided nearly ideal working conditions. Although he would visit England often, Whale settled comfortably in Hollywood, where he established a long-term relationship with producer David Lewis, whom he had met in 1929. In 1936, however, Laemmle left Universal, taking with him Whale’s power base and, ultimately, his confidence; this led to a lengthy retirement that began in 1941 and ended with Whale’s suicide in 1957.
Through most of the 1930s, however, James Whale experienced both artistic and
financial success, although he never lost his sense of personal insecurity. In 1936, he described Hollywood as a dreamland from which he hoped never to awaken. Having worked there since 1929, and currendy at a professional peak, he nevertheless declared, “I always cash my check the minute I get it, to make sure it’s real. That they should pay such fabulous salaries is beyond ordinary reasoning. Who’s worth it! But why not take it.” This view of his uncertain status reflected Whale s philosophy about the artificiality of existence. In the same interview, he declared: “And the architecture! And furnishings! I can have modernistic design one day, and an antiquated home over night! AH the world is made of plaster of paris. I get to feel that maybe Buckingham Palace is, too!”³⁰
Whale reassured himself about his own position through the people he knew and
the fantasies he kept to himself. He was, said David Lewis, “very much interested in royalty, rich people, the beautiful people, the jet set of the time—he knew he couldn’t make it, but he was going to be there, with them.”31 Thus, Whale enjoyed the company of Ernest Thesiger, who was reportedly related to royalty, and once kept a semi fictional diary in which he imagined himself a lost prince. At times, Whale “borrowed” events from Lewis’s life, incorporating them into his own anecdotes. Not that he couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy; such indulgences were more wish fulfillment than self-delusion.
Whale’s elegance and artistry were quite real, but they also derived from a calculated performance in which he played the real-life role of “James Whale.” The initial appeal of Hollywood may have been the chance to make a lot of money, but Whale quickly felt at home in this land of artifice, for he himself was a creature of illusion. Whale probably sensed that he could function better as an upper-class gentleman in America than in England, so he remained in California even after his film career ended. Physically, he cut an attractive figure, and to Americans he seemed the essence of a reserved but articulate English artist. In 1936, an interviewer declared that he “looks and sounds like Leslie Howard—but with more animation.”32To a later eye, his strong but sensitive features evoke both Joseph Cotten and Peter O’Toole.
Just as Whale designed his own personality and stage-managed his life, he suffused his films with elegance and sophistication: The richly furnished settings through which his characters often move had much in common with Whale’s own quarters; vases of flowers such as those seen on his sets also filled his home and office. In his work as in his life, Whale’s appetite for style generally harnessed his personal bitterness, keeping it within the bounds of socially acceptable irony. In addition, his sensitive response to Chekhov-style realism resulted in scenes that possess an aura of naturalness. Horror stories, however, also presented Whale with the opportunity to develop heightened characters and situations into which he could channel his inner conflicts and defensiveness, resulting in a quartet of films unlike those of any other director.
Whale’s theater work includes several precedents for his later direction of fantasy
and horror films, including two 1928 plays in which he acted. The first, A Man with Red Hair (adapted by Benn W. Levy from Hugh Walpole’s novel), starred Charles Laughton as the warped Mr. Crispin, who believes that pain is the most exquisite of all sensations. In his gloomy cliff house, Crispin indulges his love of torture, and the macabre production went all-out to evoke horror, prompting one critic to describe Crispin as “a thing so evil and malignant that it can paralyze one’s power to combat it.”33 Whale played Crispin’s son, a character described by reviewers as “strange,”34 “masochistic,”35 and “almost repulsive.”36
A Revival of London’s Grand Guignol consisted of five short plays, the longest being “After Death,” by Rene Berton, “a gruesome and nerve-shaking piece of modern science, used to cause mere horror.” In it, Whale played a condemned murderer who steadfastly claims his innocence. Guillotined, he becomes the subject of a scientific experiment to revive his dead brain. The process succeeds, and, when asked again about his guilt, the dead man still indicates “No,” whereupon the prosecutor goes mad and “frantically endeavors to carry off the head, which he had demanded in the name of the law.”3?
To the horrific plots and atmosphere of these plays, we must add the ideas implied by two semi-allegorical fantasies in which Whale acted during 1925-26. In A Comedy of Good and Evil, an attractive young girl is really an emissary of the Devil (a duality later suggested in Bride of Frankenstein), and the theme of Mr. Godly beside Himself is “the inner tragedy of mankind,” which involves “a longing for beauty, a yearning after something vast and almost undefinable; and when we try to … grasp this elusive something, we become inarticulate.”38
When Whale, in 1928, directed Fortunato, he himself planned to play the good hearted but unfortunate title character, “a creature of infinite pathos, [a man] bewildered all the time by the tossings of misfortune.”39 Fortunato’s image of human helplessness—along with Mr. Godly’s concept of elusive beauty—evidently stirred something in Whale’s nature. Only three years later he directed Boris Karloff in a role that combined the essence of these characters, the Frankenstein Monster.
Although much work had already been done on the script of Frankenstein (1931)
before Whale became involved, he turned what would have been a brutal, simplistic horror tale into a complex, sensitive, and surprisingly personal work. Not a direct adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, the film owes its existence to Peggy Webling’s 1927 play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, which Hamilton Deane performed in repertory with his own version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After touring England with both productions, Deane opened Frankenstein in London on 10 February 1930, where it played for two months.
Earlier, playwright John L. Balderston had adapted Deane’s Dracula for the Ameri
can producer Horace Liveright, who scored a success with it on Broadway and sold the rights to Universal Studios, which released its film version in February 1931. Seeking to repeat this process, Liveright had Balderston adapt Webling’s Frankenstein, and this version (which included some significant changes) received a U.S. copyright on 11 March 1931. Less than a month later, on 8 April, Universal bought the film rights, before Balderston’s play ever went to the stage.
Meanwhile, in March, writer/director Robert Florey met with Richard Schayer,
the head of Universal’s writing department, to discuss possible projects for Bela
Lugosi, the star of Dracula. Florey, with Garrett Fort (who contributed the dialogue), prepared a screenplay of Frankenstein dated 15 May—20 June 1931, and on 16—17 June he directed two test scenes: Victor Moritz’s conversation with Dr. Waldman and the coming to life of the Monster. Florey had envisioned Bela Lugosi as the scientist, but Universal decreed that because Lugosi had played a monster in Dracula, he had to remain a monster in Frankenstein; also in the scenes were two other Dracula alumni, Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye. According to Paul Ivano, who photographed the tests, Universal liked the results and screened them for all the directors on the lot.⁴⁰ Strangely, Universal’s records do not mention the Florey-Fort screenplay, but do list separate scripts by Richard Schayer (18 May) and Garrett Fort (8 June).
During this time, James Whale shot Waterloo Bridge (1931), his first film under a
five-year contract with Universal. Upon its completion near the end of June, Whale took an interest in Frankenstein because “it was the strongest meat and gave me a chance to dabble in the macabre.” He added that it would be “amusing” to deal with a subject that “everybody knows to be a physical impossibility.”41 Having already made three consecutive films about World War I, Whale no doubt also wanted a change of pace. Carl Laemmle.Jr., readily deferred to his new star director, so Florey, with only a one-film contract, found himself writing and directing the lower-budgeted Murders in the Rue Morgue (1931) instead of Frankenstein. Lugosi, who disliked the nonspeaking role of the monster, joined Florey to play Dr. Mirakle, a character inspired by Florey’s
version of the scientist in Frankenstein.
Whale quickly began to modify Frankenstein’s screenplay, with John Russell providing some revised pages on 17 July and Francis Edwards Faragoh submitting a full script on 7 August. Faragoh and Garrett Fort received credit for the final screenplay, dated 12 August. Meanwhile, Whale—rejecting the studio’s suggestion that Leslie Howard play Frankenstein—insisted that Colin Clive be brought from England for the role. Quite close to the start of shooting on 24 August, Whale also cast Mae Clarke (his lead in Waterloo Bridge) as Frankenstein’s fiancee and Boris Karloffas the Monster.
Although Robert Florey claimed that he never consulted John Balderston’s play, his initial script and the finished film both owe much to that work. All three, for example, take place in the town of Goldstadt and center on Henry (not Victor, as in the novel) Frankenstein; his fiancée; his boyhood friend. Victor Moritz (who loves Frankenstein’s fiancée); and his former professor, Dr. Waldman. In addition, Florey retained the content and structure of the play’s first half, while expanding on it by depicting eventsthat the play’s characters only report.
Balderston began with Waldman and Victor at Frankenstein’s laboratory, where
Henry, who has avoided everyone for weeks, is “nervous” and “at the point of hysteria.” During a thunderstorm, he tells how he obtained corpses from a grave and the gallows and stole a brain from Waldman s dissecting room. Then, as his astonished visitors watch, he gives life to the new body he has fashioned. Florey adds the character of Fritz—a dwarf assistant with whom Frankenstein can talk while working—and actually shows them gathering body parts. He also adds a scene that introduces Victor and Frankenstein’s fiancée (Amelia in the play, Elizabeth in Florey’s script) and establishes their concern about Henry. Then. Victor visits Waldman and the two men go to the laboratory, where the action follows that of the play.
Florey, however, made the laboratory more isolated by placing it in a deserted
windmill instead of Frankenstein’s house. He also prolonged the actual creation and made it more dramatic. In the play, Frankenstein uses a large galvanic battery that “gives off queer lights” and “sends out sparks,” explaining that he has captured “all the rays in the spectrum—the ultra-violet, beyond that—and the great ray beyond that— which in the beginning brought Life into the world.” Variations on this dialogue appear in Florey’s script and the final film. However, Balderston’s Frankenstein also discusses alchemy and administers an “elixir of life” to help bring the body to life. Florey discarded the alchemy aspect and elaborated on the use of electricity by making the play’s atmospheric thunderstorm functional, with Frankenstein using the lightning in his experiment instead of a battery. Balderston, Florey, and the film all end the creation scene with the Monster raising his arm; then, Balderston has Waldman declare,
“You make yourself equal with God,” which Florey changed into Frankenstein’s line, “Now I know how it feels to be God!”
Both Balderston and Florey follow the creation with a scene set a few weeks later.
In the play, Frankenstein has taught the Monster to talk, but he still views his creation as a soulless brute, chaining him in a dark cellar and, he explains, controlling him with a whip. The Monster now enters and, when Waldman opens a curtain, he “sees the sun, drags himself into the sunlight and kneels holding up his hands like a savage in prayer to the sun.” When Frankenstein uses the word “fire,” the Monster cringes, because earlier Frankenstein had burned him with a red-hot iron. During this scene, Victor and Baron Frankenstein enter and, later, Amelia arrives; the sight of her stirs the Monsters sexual awareness and he abruptly demands a woman for himself.
Florey obviously chose to prove Frankenstein right about his Monster by having
Waldman identify the owner of the brain Fritz stole as “criminally moronic,” a man who led “a life of brutality—of violence and murder!” Florey also omits the Monster’s ability to talk and his encounter with sunlight. Instead, he shows Frankenstein whipping the chained Monster to make him stop howling. When the Monster picks up the whip, Frankenstein retrieves it by burning his creation with a red-hot iron. Florey also simplifies the character of Waldman, who in the play is a priest as well as a scientist. As such, when Frankenstein wants to kill his creation, Waldman resists, calling it murder. In Florey s version, Waldman is solely a scientist and it is he who declares that the Monster “should be destroyed!” As if to prove Waldman right, the Monster immediately kills Fritz, so Frankenstein and Waldman subdue him with a hypodermic injection.
The play’s second act occurs some weeks later, at the Baron’s house. As Franken
stein and Amelia prepare to marry, they learn of murders committed in the countryside. Then the Monster1—having found the address on a letter in Henry’s coat—enters and encounters Katrina, Frankenstein’s gentle and innocent sister. Unafraid, Katrina offers her hand and the Monster touches it, pleased to have found someone who does not try to hurt him. Attracted to the “shin-ing wa-ter” of a nearby lake, he goes with her to examine it. Soon the bewildered Monster returns, carrying the drowned Katrina, and explains what happened: “Boat float—like leaves—like bird—shin-ing water. She beau-ty—I want her float—on shin-ing wa-ter—she not float. . . kill beauty—kill friend. Why did you not tell me the shining water could kill?”
Again the Monster demands a woman, explaining that in his travels he saw “woman—man—mate, bed.” When Frankenstein refuses to create a companion for him, the Monster threatens to take Amelia and grabs her; in their struggle, he tears off her bridal veil and the top of her dress. Another six months pass as Frankenstein prepares a mate, but at the last moment he changes his mind and the angry Monster accidentally kills him. Agonized, the Monster follows Waldman’s suggestion, prays for God’s help, and is struck by lightning. He dies with a look of peace on his face, leaving Amelia comforted by Victor.
Florey, continuing his process of simplification, takes this part of the story in a different direction. He has Waldman prepare for “cranial dissection” of the Monster, who awakens and strangles the doctor. Then, Florey gives his Monster a more brutal form of sexual awareness by elaborating on Balderston’s “mate, bed” line: Peering through a cottage window, the creature observes a young peasant couple as the woman undresses and they start to make love. Suddenly, with “eyes gleaming bestially,” he bursts in, kills the man, and—it is strongly implied—rapes his wife. Then, after a short interlude establishing Frankenstein’s wedding preparations, Florey offers his less innocent version of the “shin-ing wa-ter” scene. The childlike Katrina is now an actual child, Maria, who smiles at the Monster and holds out a flower. “Without changing the expression of his face, he starts to advance towards her. . . .The Monster’s shadow falls across her face,” and he reaches for her, as the scene ends.
News of Waldman’s death interrupts the wedding preparations, then Maria’s father carries the child’s body to town. This leads to Florey’s totally new ending, in which the townspeople hunt the Monster, who carries Frankenstein back to the old mill/laboratory. Initially, Florey had the Baron shoot the Monster, but in midscene he changed his mind and had Maria’s father do it; then, the man fires again and hits Henry in the chest. The villagers set fire to the mill, the Monster hurls Frankenstein’s body to the ground, and flames consume the mill and the Monster. In an epilogue, Victor consoles Elizabeth in the village church, as a new day dawns.
Balderston’s play is limited to a few interior settings in which characters report significant events, but it also gives the Monster both a dangerous and a vulnerable side. Florey made his script more cinematic and dramatic by adding scenes that depict those events, but he brutally simplified the Monster and the emotions he provokes. Whale retained most of Florey’s scenes, but he also reworked all of the major events and characterizations to increase their subtlety and significance. Frankenstein’s ultimate success must, therefore, be credited to Whale, who elevated a shallow, if intense, melodrama by taking its subject seriously. Interviewed in 1931,Whale said, “I tried to make it seem as real as it was possible”⁴¹by applying a general rule he had stated even before Glmingjourney’s End: “The simpler a big situation is presented … the harder it
strikes.”-” Frankenstein, Whale told Colin Clive shortly before shooting started, contains “none of Dracula’s maniacal cackles,”⁴⁴so a reviewer’s comment about the filmthat “beside it Dracula is tame”⁴⁵must have pleased the director.
Henry Frankenstein, as depicted by Florey, possesses intelligence but lacks passion ate idealism and nobility. Instead, he is fanatical and hysterical, an admitted paranoid who shifts between grimness and a “mad gaiety.” Florey describes him, in the laboratory, as “disheveled and haggard, his surgeon’s uniform stained with chemicals and looking as if he hasn’t had it off for days—his eyes feverish, face glistening with sweat.” After the death of Fritz, Frankenstein completely loses control, “reeling around the room, alternately laughing and crying, careening against whatever appears in his way.”
Whale consciously avoided such a one-note, “mad scientist” approach. He saw
Frankenstein as having a complex personality, one reminiscent of Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End, who is nervous and high-strung from the strain of command and the tensions of trench warfare. In 1931, Whale explained that he chose Colin Clive for the part because he could project “tenacity” (as opposed to obsessiveness) and “level headedness,” even “in his craziest moments.”46 Writing to Clive, he described Frankenstein as “normally and extremely intelligent, a sane and lovable person, never unsympathetic, even to the Monster.”47
Whales conception evolved in stages. In Florey’s version, Frankenstein himself
whips the Monster and burns him with the hot iron, but the shooting script shifts the blame to Fritz, who accidentally disturbs the Monster by striking a match. Finally, in the film, Whale has Fritz deliberately antagonize the Monster with a torch and Frankenstein tries to stop him. During the post creation scene between Frankenstein and Waldman, the shooting script still has Frankenstein “nervously walking up and down” and speaking “in an excited, argumentative voice,” as he had in Florey’s version, but by the time he shot the scene Whale had clarified his vision, so in the actual film Frankenstein is seated, totally calm and thoroughly composed.
Whale wanted Frankenstein to be a “very strong, extremely dominant personal
ity”48 with the “kind of romantic quality which makes strong men leave civilization to shoot big game.”49 Thus, Whale gave the character a sensitivity missing from Florey’s version. This quality is most directly seen in Frankenstein’s speech to Waldman, which does not exist in Florey’s screenplay or in the shooting script. “Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things—what eternity is, for example—I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy!”
These lines, delivered with quietly powerful sincerity by Colin Clive, give the character depth and substance. No one can say who wrote the speech, but Whale surely inspired it, for its roots lie in Journey’s End, when Stanhope contrasts a fellow officer’s lack of curiosity with his own compulsive imagination. “I suppose if Trotter looks at that wall he just sees a brown surface. He doesn’t see into the earth beyond—the worms wandering about round the stones and roots of trees. . . . Whenever I look at anything nowadays I see right through it. Looking at you now there’s your uniform— your jersey—shirt—vest—then beyond that. . .. It’s a habit that’s grown on me lately—to look right through things, and on and on—till I get frightened and stop.” Here, and throughout the film, Whale re-created Florey’s Frankenstein in Stanhope’s image.
Although Whale rendered Frankenstein sympathetic, he did not make him a totally positive figure. To present this aspect of the character, Whale had to change Dr. Wald man from a voice of moral authority, whose statements should be taken at face value, to someone who only seems knowledgeable. Early in the film, Waldman tells Victor and Elizabeth that Frankenstein is “interested only in human life—first to destroy it and then re-create it,” but clearly Frankenstein never killed anyone to further his experiments. Later, even before he learns that Frankenstein used the abnormal brain, Waldman declares, “This creature of yours should be kept under guard! Mark my words, he will prove dangerous!” The news about the brain only confirms what Waldman already assumed. This scientist evidently feels no need to observe events before drawing conclusions; he starts out with a fully formed idea, and no events can shake him from that belief.
Initially, Frankenstein has an open mind about the Monster. “You must be patient,” he tells Waldman. “Do you expect perfection at once? … I believe in this monster as you call it. … He’s only a few days old, remember.” Later events, however, shake his confidence until he starts sharing Waldman’s assumption. In the cellar, Frankenstein protects the Monster from Fritz’s cruelty by taking the whip from him and saying, “Come away, Fritz. Just leave it alone, leave it alone!” But Frankenstein does not enforce his order and instead turns away—literally and morally—leaving Fritz and the torch behind. Thus, the death of Fritz is due both to the dwarfs own provocation of the Monster and to Frankenstein’s neglect, as he shirks his responsibility to both of those beings to whom he serves as a kind of guardian.
Eventually, Frankenstein accepts a degree of responsibility for the Monster when he tells Victor, “I made him with these hands and with these hands I will destroy him.” That takes courage, yes, but it is easier to join a manhunt than to acknowledge that the manhunt would not have been needed if he had done his duty earlier. Franken stein, to the very end, remains blind to his failure, oblivious of the fact that the Monster possessed the potential for a somewhat normal life and that he himself indirectly caused the deaths of Fritz, Maria, and Waldman—not because he gave life to a monster but because he ignored his responsibility to tend and teach the Monster.
Florey had deprived the Monster of even potential humanity; from the start, he is
even more of a beast than his criminal brain warrants. In the first post creation scene, Florey s monster wears “an expression of dumb animal hate and fear.” Elsewhere, his eyes “gleam with animal cunning” and, when he recognizes Frankenstein near the end, his face shows “an imbecilic, terrible smile of triumph.” Florey used the criminal brain as a blunt excuse for turning the Monster into a destructive brute.
The criminal brain device remains in the final film, but Whale consistently contradicts its implications. Throughout, his direction of Boris Karloff carefully creates sympathy for the Monster, returning to Mary Shelley’s (and, to a lesser extent, Balderston’s) concept of a newly born creature rendered violent by ignorance, chance, and the violent responses of others. As Karloff later recalled, “I don’t think the main screenwriter, Bob Florey, really intended there to be much pathos inside the character. But Whale and I thought that there should be; we didn’t want the kind of rampaging monstrosity that Universal seemed to think we should go in for. We had to have some pathos, otherwise our audiences just wouldn’t think about the film after they’d left the theatre, and Whale very much wanted them to do that.”⁵⁰
Florey had dropped the Monsters encounter with sunlight, which appeared in
Balderston’s play, but Whale restored the scene and, in the process, gave the character dignity. The result is one of the film’s finest moments. When Frankenstein opens a ceiling window, the Monster is drawn to the patch of brightness. He stands and stretches his hands upward, trying to grasp its intangible beauty. Afraid of agitating the creature, Frankenstein closes the window and, with the light abruptly removed, the Monster looks with bewilderment at his creator, who has bestowed a glimpse of unexpected radiance and then deprived him of it. Karloff’s facial expression and empty-handed gesture eloquently convey the Monster’s sense of loss and his confusion at the mysterious power that this “father” and “God” has over his life. If the addition of Frankenstein’s speech about curiosity establishes Whale s mature conception of
the scientist, this touching, almost allegorical scene does the same for the Monster.
Immediately after the light scene, Fritz enters with a torch and brings it close to the Monster, who backs defensively against a wall. As Fritz persists, what began as a delicate introduction to beauty becomes an ordeal. Whale, by juxtaposing the bright beauty and comforting warmth of sunlight with the pain and aggression of fire, has confronted the Monster with two opposing qualities of the same element. He has also dramatized, in a clear, schematic fashion, the positive and negative alternatives of human existence.
For the Monster, this scene represents the first and only fork in the road of his life, but one over which he has no power of choice, for Frankenstein and Waldman perceive him as out of control and overpower him. “Shoot it—it’s a monster!” declares Waldman, in a typical misjudgment of events. As a result, Frankenstein loses confidence in his creation’s potential, and ceases to protect and educate him. Therefore, this scene marks the beginning of the end for the Monster and turns the burning of the mill at the film’s climax into the final triumph of flame over sunlight, of pain and destruction over beauty and sensitivity.
Appropriately, script alterations give the Monster motives for killing other than
innate destructiveness. Fritz, himself a deformed outcast, vents his pent-up hatred on the confused Monster, taunting him into a frenzy with whip and torch. In both the Florey and Whale versions, the Monster kills Dr. Waldman out of self-preservation, but Whale dropped the references in the Florey/Fort dialogue to his being “butchered” and “torn to pieces.”Whale’s attention to the Monster is also evident in a short scene of him leaving the laboratory after killing Waldman, which has no counterpart in either Florey’s screenplay or the shooting script. In it, Whale’s direction and Karloff’s pantomime clearly convey the Monster’s emotions (he recoils from the room where he was chained and tormented) and his childlike awkwardness (his arms dangle limply at his side as he stumbles down the stairs, and he reacts with surprise as a door swings open at his touch).
Whale also expanded the Monsters encounter with little Maria by returning to
Balderston’s concept. The Monster now accepts the flower from Maria, examines her tiny hand, and kneels down to make “boats” by tossing flowers onto the lake. Having rendered this part of the encounter innocent and gentle, Whale next showed the Monster throwing the girl into the water because he mistakenly thinks she will gain in beauty, as the flowers had. Whale followed this with shots of the Monster s bewilderment and concern, and Karloff’s pantomime conveys with vivid pathos the full meaning of Balderston’s line, “Why did you not tell me the shining water could kill?”
The death of Maria serves multiple purposes. Of course, it provides the main reason for the villagers to hunt down the Monster. It also reveals the Monster’s childlike thought process, as we see him draw what seems to be a logical conclusion; but an actual child would be physically unable to put such thoughts into action, unlike the fully grown Monster. In this way, we can see the great injustice done by Frankenstein, who failed to protect his “child” from such mistakes. In addition, the distress felt by the Monster at the scene’s end adds poignancy to his plight, for this moment of plea sure has, like the sunlight, been abruptly taken from him. According to Karloff, while shooting the scene he and the crew members “were all very hostile” about Maria’s death and wanted her scene with the Monster to have a happy ending.⁵¹That response was doubtless the same one that Whale sought from the audience.
Universal ultimately shortened this scene so that it ended, like Florey’s version,
with the Monster reaching for Maria. But most of the added qualities remained and contradict any conclusion that the Monster molests the girl. Florey, however, may indeed have meant to suggest a sexual attack because, two scenes before, his Monster had observed the peasant couple making love and raped the woman. In recent years, Universal has almost completely restored the scene, although—based on the film’s cutting continuity—it still lacks two close-ups of the Monster’s puzzled expression and one of the water’s surface after Maria sinks out of sight.
Surprisingly, Whale did not extract Florey’s criminal brain device from the final
script, despite its inconsistency with his concept of the Monster. In fact, he even
stressed it by adding a normal brain, which Fritz drops, to serve as a contrast and alter native. This unfortunately resulted in the illogicality of Frankenstein not noticing the jar’s label or the “degenerate characteristics” Waldman pointed out to his students. The shooting script weakly dismisses the whole problem, when Waldman reveals which brain had been stolen, by having Frankenstein look surprised, then offer the lame rationalization, “It’s only a piece of dead tissue.” However, Colin Clive’s fine acting— his pause and glance over one shoulder before saying the line and his rising inflection at its end—makes this dialogue almost acceptable by suggesting that Frankenstein does not believe his own words. Unfortunately, this also implies that the Monster really is doomed to what Waldman called a life “of brutality, of violence and murder.”
Considering the numerous changes that Whale made before and during filming,
the fact that he retained the criminal brain can hardly be an oversight. Therefore, the obvious contradiction between Waldman’s claim about the brain’s influence and the observable facts of the Monster’s actions and reactions may actually be part of Whale’s point; seen in this light, the film dramatizes the difference between starting with an assumption, then interpreting events in a way that reinforces it, and starting with an open mind so that an observer (the viewer) will draw a different conclusion about the Monster than do Waldman and, eventually, Frankenstein.
In 1931,Whale mentioned drawing Boris Karloff’s features and contributing to the
makeup design.52 True, he often did provide technicians with sketches to guide their work, but the Monster’s basic appearance probably existed before Whale became involved; according to both Florey and Paul Ivano.Jack Pierce’s makeup for Lugosi in the test was similar to that eventually used for Karloff, and one page of Florey’s script contains a rough sketch of the Monster’s familiar square-skulled head, with a notation that Pierce should add bolts to the neck. Whale, however, may have mellowed the Monster s appearance to increase audience sympathy, for a photo exists of Karloff in an unused version of the makeup, one with forehead clamps and a distortion of the lower lip that make him seem more vicious and fearsome than he does in the actual aim.
Edward van Sloan’s recollection that Bela Lugosi’s Monster resembled Paul
Wegener in the German film The Golem (1920) probably derives from the fact that Florey—who admired Wegener’s performance—had directed Lugosi to walk stiffly, like the Golem. Whale, on the other hand, made Karloff’s walk a loose-limbed one, thereby increasing the Monster’s credibility as a person who does not yet have full control of his sewn-together body parts.
Besides altering Florey’s tone and characterizations. Whale made many scenes more concise. The dialogue that establishes Victor’s fondness for Frankenstein’s fiancée is almost halved, conveying the information less bluntly, and Frankenstein’s nervous collapse became shorter and less repetitious. A single interlude of Henry and Elizabeth on a patio replaces Florey’s two scenes—of them walking by a lake and drifting in a canoe—which would have been more trouble to film than their significance justified. Whale also established the wedding celebration in a simple tracking shot of dancing and drinking townspeople, in contrast to Florey’s plan for an elaborate camera movement past a puppet show, a dancing bear, a candy seller, a carousel, a shooting gallery, and the village inn. This might have accurately summarized European peasant entertainments, but it also would have placed undue emphasis on extraneous events.
In general, Florey’s script tended to sprawl and needed tightening. This is well illustrated by an outline of his first scenes:
A. 1. Frankenstein and Fritz dig up a newly buried body.
2. Frankenstein and Fritz obtain a body from the gallows.
B. Victor and Elizabeth discuss a letter from Waldman about Frankenstein. Victor leaves to talk with Waldman.
C. 1. Waldman lectures a class about the criminal brain.
2. Victor talks with a secretary at Waldman s office.
3. In a hallway outside the lecture hall, the secretary tells Waldman that Victor wants to see him.
4. Fritz, in the empty lecture hall, steals the criminal brain.
5. Victor talks with Waldman in the latter’s office, and the two decide to visit Frankenstein.
The shooting script retained Florey’s choppy structure and even added a new scene of the characters in a carriage, on their way to Frankenstein’s laboratory. It also changed the letter received by Elizabeth to one from Henry, which makes the situation more
personal for her while still prompting the visit to Waldman, and it has her accompany
Victor to Waldman’s office. After filming, however, Whale eliminated Waldman’s secre
tary by dropping one scene and reducing another to a brief shot ofWaldman and his
students leaving the lecture hall. He also grouped all the body-stealing activities
together by placing the lecture and Fritz’s theft after the gallows scene. The result is
much more succinct:
A. 1. Frankenstein and Fritz dig up a newly buried body.
2. Frankenstein and Fritz obtain a body from the gallows.
3. a. Waldman concludes his lecture on the criminal brain.
b. The class and Waldman leave the lecture hall.
c. Fritz steals the criminal brain.
B. Victor and Elizabeth discuss a letter from Frankenstein and decide to visit Waldman.
C. Victor and Elizabeth talk with Waldman in his office and decide to visit Frankenstein.
Next, we observe Frankenstein’s laboratory activities, until the other characters arrive and he offers firsthand exposition. This intensely dramatic sequence climaxes with the Monsters creation, followed by an extreme change of pace as Baron Frankenstein grumbles to Elizabeth. Victor, and the Burgomaster. Then, while the Baron prepares to find his son, we return to the laboratory as the Monster encounters sunlight and, agitated by Fritz’s torch, is overpowered. Next, the Monster kills Fritz, whereupon Victor, Elizabeth, and the Baron arrive to take Henry home. After the Monster kills Waldman and leaves the laboratory, scenes of Frankenstein at home and of the wedding preparations provide another breather, followed by the death of Maria. A return to the wedding preparations begins the unbroken climax, as the Monster invades the house and confronts Elizabeth, Maria’s body is brought to town, and the Monster hunt leads to
the deserted mill, where he is consumed by flames.
Thus, everything ties together neatly, without a wasted moment: Each intense climax is followed by a change-of-pace scene that also provides new information or introduces another character; later, the participants in these scenes enter a dramatic one. To achieve this efficiency, though, Whale had to modify the shooting script’s structure, in which the Baron’s first scene occurs after the subduing of the Monster and before the death of Fritz. Ultimately, Whale placed this scene earlier, where it separates the creation from the Monster’s entrance; the relief it provides is more useful there, but the change does complicate the story’s time sequence, for Victor, Elizabeth, and the Baron now take far too long to reach Frankenstein’s laboratory. Also, Maria’s scene originally followed the one between the Monster and Elizabeth, where it interrupted the momentum of the climax.
Most of Whale s structural changes help streamline the film, but one has the opposite effect. Robert Florey had placed Frankenstein’s laboratory in an old mill, so at the climax the Monster carries Frankenstein there because it is the only refuge he knows. The shooting script and film, however, locate the laboratory in a watchtower, which renders the mill just an arbitrary setting for the finale. This change, though, was not complete, for at one point the film’s dialogue still refers to Henry’s laboratory as being in a mill.
Unfortunately, to maintain the pace and power of the film’s final third, Whale per
mitted the inclusion of several contrived moments. Some are relatively minor, such as the failure to explain how Waldman’s body was discovered in the isolated laboratory or why Maria’s father is convinced that she was murdered; clearly, any attempt to explain these things would have clogged the narrative and interrupted the flow of events that builds to the Monsters inevitable destruction. More problematic, though, is the scene between the Monster and Elizabeth in her bedroom. Does he realize that this is his creator’s home, and does he know this woman’s identity? What, in fact, are his intentions as he approaches her? The scene appears designed to make viewers fear for Elizabeth’s welfare, which it certainly did in 1931; “little gasps of terror burst across the house,” reported one audience member.⁵³However, the Monster does nothing but stand opposite Elizabeth and growl a response to her screams, in a weird parody of a conversation. Later, we see him depart as Elizabeth lies unconscious on the bed. The Monster may have attacked her—that is what Frankenstein seems to assume—but even if we believe otherwise, the film remains vague.
In Balderston’s play, the Monster grabs and struggles with Frankenstein’s fiancée in the context of his demand for a mate, but Florey dropped that aspect of the plot and never had his Monster confront Elizabeth. The shooting script reinstates the confrontation, but Whale, himself, was probably inspired less by Balderston than by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which he screened in July “to get some ideas for Franken stein”5* and which also has a dark figure enter through a background window and approach the white-clad heroine in the foreground. Although the scene helps to motivate Frankenstein’s pursuit of the Monster, Whale’s writers did not justify its presence, so the result feels arbitrary. Even more awkwardly, to set the scene up Whale uncharacteristically allowed the blatant contrivance of having Frankenstein foolishly lock Elizabeth in her room.
Both Florey and Whale intended to end their films with Frankenstein’s death, but
Florey included a final scene of Victor comforting Elizabeth, while the shooting script concludes more starkly on the burning mill, without any superficial optimism. Shortly before releasing the film, however, Universal added a one-shot epilogue that establishes Frankenstein’s survival; because Colin Clive had already left for England, the scene was staged with Frankenstein seen only in the distant background.
Aside from the peasant diversions, Florey’s script offered no light touches.Whale, by casting the blustery Frederick Kerr as the Baron and having his dialogue rewritten, gave that character the added dimension of humor—although, in truth, he is not especially amusing. (Kerr had played a similar role in Waterloo Bridge.) More in line with the eccentric humor of later Whale films is the scene in which Fritz answers the knocking at the laboratory door; during shooting, the director added the hunchback’s grumbling and his pause on the staircase to pull up a recalcitrant sock.
Whale also extended the creation scene’s dramatic possibilities. In Florey’s script,
Victor and Waldman are the only observers; a synopsis in Universal’s files has Elizabeth arrive with them, but Henry sends her away for her own safety; in the final film, she remains through the entire sequence and her presence adds a gentle facet to Frankenstein’s treatment of the intruders, while providing characters with whom both sexes in the audience can identify. Whale felt that the creation scene must be convincing or the audience would not accept what followed, so he used the observers in thelaboratory as surrogates for those in the movie theater.
He also turned Frankenstein into a kind of director who sets the stage to impress
his visitors and, by extension, the audience. Whale noted that, in this scene, Franken stein “becomes very conscious of the theatrical drama.”⁵⁵He “deliberately tells his plan of action” so that everyone “will settle down to see the show. Frankenstein puts the spectators in their positions, he gives final orders to Fritz, he turns the levers and sends the diabolic machines soaring upward. . . . He is now in a state of feverish excitement calculated to carry both the spectators in the windmill [sic] and the spectators in the theatre with him.”56 Some new dialogue—”Quite a good scene, isn’t it? One man, crazy. Three very sane spectators!”—establishes this approach, as does a camera angle that places Henry in the foreground, facing the trio, who are grouped in the middle ground. During the experiment, the spectators sit on a raised platform a little apart from the scientist’s “stage,” and Whale periodically cuts to them for reactions.
Florey had planned to reveal the Monster’s face in a close-up even before the
experiment began. After that, the Monster would first be seen chained in the cellar. Whale kept Karloffs face covered and added a striking, gradual introduction to the Monster as he backs into the laboratory through a doorway, then pauses and turns around. Although Whale’s editing is not as complex as it would become a few years later, his handling of the Monster’s entrance anticipates that style: The shooting script calls for only a single medium shot, but Whale cuts from a long view to a medium shot (as the Monster turns), to a facial close-up, and finally to an extreme close-up (from forehead to chin).This extends the moment’s impact, while allowing viewers a progressively better look at the creature.
Elsewhere, Whale imposed his visual style on Florey’s ideas. In the original script,
Florey planned to begin Victor and Elizabeth’s first scene with a close-up of a photo of Frankenstein; then, the camera would track back to reveal Elizabeth with the letter and finally the whole room as the maid announces Victor’s arrival. Instead of this cam era movement, which would delay the action, Whale accelerates the pace by using four separate close-ups—the photo, the maid announcing Victor, Victor entering, and Elizabeth rising—before cutting to a long shot of the entire room. Florey had the initial audacity to open with the photo, but Whale’s editing rendered the introduction more concise, dramatic, and involving. Not that Whale rejected the moving camera, but he used elaborate tracking shots sparingly.
Because most of the scenes created by Florey and Fort remain in the film in some
form, Universal’s failure to provide Florey with a writer’s credit is a distressing “over sight” (which was rectified only on European prints and only after Florey complained). His initial script provided a useful skeleton, one that Whale and his writers fleshed out and infused with life, creating Frankenstein—a film that is spare yet complex, combining a forceful plot line with depth and perception. Still, despite the number of creative hands involved, this masterpiece is clearly dominated by Whale’s skilland sensitivity.
Before its official release on 2 November 1931, Frankenstein was previewed in Santa Barbara. Far more brutal and macabre than Dracula, the picture must have been a shock to the unsuspecting audience. David Lewis attended the preview and recalled that from the first scene the audience was distraught. “They gulped and they started to run around the theater. You never saw such a performance!” The next day, according to Lewis, the theater manager telephoned “Junior” (as he was called) Laemmle and said, “I had about five calls last night from people at two and three o’clock in the morning, saying, i can’t sleep and I’ll be damned if you will.’ ” Laemmle, worried about the impact of this bombshell, asked others in the industry for advice. Opinions may have varied, but Edward Montagne’s comment—as reported by David Lewis— was probably typical: “Tell him to leave it alone, he’s got the hit of all time.”⁵⁷
Universal’s advertising campaign made certain that spectators knew what to expect, with statements like “No thriller ever made can touch it” and “To have seen Frankenstein is to wear a badge of courage.” Some ads even declared, “If you have a weak heart and cannot stand intense excitement or even shock, we advise you NOT to see this production. If, on the contrary, you like an unusual thrill, you will find it in Frankenstein.” Others included misleading references to sex:”No man has ever seen his like— No woman’s kiss has touched his lips!” announced one ad, and another juxtaposed a photo of Colin Clive and Mae Clarke with the line, “I gave him life, but he wanted love!” Also, the studio at the last moment added a prologue in which Edward van Sloan steps in front of a theater curtain and warns the spectators that the film “will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even—horrify you!” Such emphasis on sensationalism helped to prevent complaints, while attracting curious viewers.
From the start, Frankenstein was a tremendous success. At its Los Angeles premiere, lines formed for the 10 A.M. showing and remained until midnight; the theater dropped the usual shorts and newsreel to fit in more showings. In New York, Franken stein drew crowds on a rainy opening night and became Broadway’s biggest hit. Extra showings were scheduled, with the Mayfair Theatre selling tickets as late as 2 A.M. The film’s first week set a new house record of 553,800 (a dramatic contrast to 819,000 for the previous week’s film).
Frankenstein set similar records in both cities and small towns. At a time when tickets cost 25-50 cents and films seldom played longer than one week, Frankenstein often doubled the box-office take of the prior film and was held over. In Detroit, where children were barred and no one was admitted during the final reel, police had to control the waiting crowds, and the second week’s income topped the first week’s record. In Ottumwa, Iowa, “a midnight performance crowd broke the plate glass in front of the theatre in efforts to gain admission,” while in Cedar Rapids “approximately 3,500 people attempted to enter and … it was necessary to call out the fire department to check the crowd after the police failed.”⁵⁸
The artistic and financial triumph of Frankenstein reinforced “Junior” Laemmle’s confidence in Whale, but the director declined to imitate that work’s straightforward intensity. Instead, he gave each of his three subsequent horror films a complex, idiosyncratic tone, one that combines dramatic impact with his often witty acknowledgment of a situation’s theatricality. Thus, humor derives from danger, instead of alternating with it; the manner, actions, and personalities of the menacing characters are often both amusingly odd and potentially lethal. This blend is a delicate one, and Whale constantly risks slipping into simple parody, but for the most part he maintains his precarious balance.
The Old Dark House (1932) is Whale’s most subtle and characteristic work in this
vein. Universal no doubt envisioned only a follow-up to Frankenstein that would
reunite Whale with Karloff, but this one-of-a-kind work creates an entirely different mood. Its basic plot—a group of people are stranded one stormy night in the isolated home of mysterious eccentrics—was already overused by 1932, but The Old Dark House is the final word on the subject, spoken by literate, sophisticated collaborators who shared an amused respect for the melodramatic formula.
To adapt J. 13. Priestley’s 1928 novel (titled Benighted in Great Britain and The Old Dark House in the United States),Whale turned to his friend, British playwright Benn W. Levy, who had written the stage version of A Man until Red Hair and the screen play of Waterloo Bridge. Levy had also adapted Marcel Pagnol’s Topaze for a 1930 London production that starred Raymond Massey, but he was best known as the author of several witty, ironic comedies, including The Devil, which premiered in London in 1930 with Ernest Thesiger as “an unsuccessful author who glories, or pretends to glory, in his decadency.”59 Thesiger repeated his role on Broadway, where the play— called The Devil Passes—opened in January 1932, ran for about two months, and closed not long before Whale began shooting The Old Dark House. Levy’s experience
with both sophisticated horror and drawing-room comedy made him an ideal choice to write the script for Tlie Old Dark House, which smoothly combines those two styles.
After Universal purchased the novel’s screen rights on 6 January 1932, F. Hugh
Herbert wrote an incomplete script; then, Levy submitted a ten-page treatment on 29 January, followed by two script drafts (20 February and 8 March). Jack B. Clymer finished a screenplay on 17 March, and Levy handed in the final version eight days later. By the time shooting began in April, Levy had returned to England, so Whale’s friend R. C. Sherriff—the author of Journey’s End—visited the set and provided on-the-spot phrase polishing.
Because The Old Dark House is set in Wales, the director justifiably cast the film
with actors he knew, and who knew each other, from the London stage. This resulted in the kind of ensemble acting usually found only in theatrical repertory companies. First to arrive at the old, dark house are Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), a cynical veteran of the war. Later, a self-made businessman. Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his chorus girl “companion,” Gladys DuCane (Lillian Bond), join them. Massey, a Canadian, had for more than a decade directed and acted on the London stage; in 1925, he performed with Whale in Tlie Prisoners of War. Laughton, of course, played Whale’s father in A Man with Red Hair and was Elsa Lanchester s husband. At one point, Whale had contacted Colin Clive about playing Penderel; Melvyn Douglas’s performance may lack Give’s distraught intensity, but he is one of the few American actors able to appear convincingly British. Studio ingénues Stuart and Bond effectively serve their mostly passive, reacting functions.
Whale hired Ernest Thesiger for the pivotal role of Horace Femm, the most prominent member of the film’s unusual household. A familiar figure on the English stage, Thesiger began acting professionally in 1909 and played Captain Hook in Peter Pan, the Dauphin in Saint Joan, Mephistopheles in Dr. Fausttts, and a social reformer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Whale acted with Thesiger in 1919, and in 1927 he stage managed two plays in which the actor appeared. Thesiger invested each of his roles with a distinctive, somewhat peculiar manner. Holding his tall, lean body straight, with tight control, he has the demeanor of a decayed nobleman or disdainful servant. To this, his brittle features add the look of a startled bird of prey; his nose—angling sharply upward and tapering to a pinpoint—turns his face into a living skull distressed by an unsavory odor. Speaking with amused, arrogant irony, Thesiger makes even ordinary lines sound droll. His looks and manner evoke both servitude and condescension, but always with a prissy hauteur that conveys a corrupted rationality, a sour dignity.
Eva Moore portrays Rebecca Femm, Horace’s religiously obsessed, hard-of-hearing sister. In 1909, she was the romantic lead in Old Heidelberg, with Thesiger cast as a student. Her later stage roles included Miss van Gorder in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery The Bat. To play the aged and bedridden Sir Roderick Femm, Whale took the unusual step of hiring an actress, Elspeth Dudgen (billed as “John Dudgeon”), who inevitably gave her character an odd quality; in 1924,Whale had stage-directed a production of Macbeth in which she played one of the witches.
As Saul Femm, a pyromaniac, Brember Wills has only one scene, but his entrance
has been so anticipated that much depends on the actor’s ability. Wills’s distinguished background includes a role in Karel Capek’s robot play, R. V. R., the main character in Elmer Rice’s expressionist Vie Adding Machine, and Androcles in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. In 1929, Whale designed the sets for two productions that featured Wills, whose diminutive stature and dramatic intensity are essential to the director’s conception of the climax of The Old Dark House.
In adapting The Old Dark House, Levy remained remarkably faithful to his source.
Most of the script’s incidents, their overall structure, the characterizations, and even the dialogue derive from the novel. During the plot’s single evening, the Wavertons and Penderel are admitted to the house by Morgan (Boris Karloff), a mute butler, and accept the reluctant hospitality of Horace and Rebecca. During dinner, Sir William and Gladys arrive. Later, after the drunk and brutish Morgan attacks Margaret Waverton, Philip knocks Morgan out; then, the Wavertons enter a room where the aged and helpless Sir Roderick lies bedridden. Meanwhile, Penderel and Gladys tell Sir William that they have fallen in love. Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons that Morgan will probably release the maniacal Saul, which he does. When Morgan and Saul descend the stairs, two of the men wrestle the butler into the kitchen and Rebecca locks the door, leaving Penderel to face Saul. The men struggle and Saul is killed. In the morning, the group leaves the fear, insanity, and darkness of the night and the house
A good deal of the novel’s philosophizing, in conversation and in the characters’
thoughts, had to be eliminated in the interest of pacing and to keep the film from
being talky. Yet a surprising amount of it remains, including a condensed version of the truth game, in which each character tells something private about himself or herself. Even Penderel’s cynical outlook is included, although adroitly changed from a lengthy monologue to a brief question and answer.
Horace: I presume you are one of the gentlemen slightly, shall we say, battered by
Penderel: Correct, Mr. Femm—War generation, slightly soiled, a study in the bitter sweet, the man with the twisted smile—and this, Mr. Femm, is exceedingly good gin.
These evocative lines were created for the film. Totally gone, though, is Priestley’s
symbolic use of the stormy, isolated setting to create a microcosm of helpless humanity in the midst of “a gigantic hostile power.” Instead, the storm is reduced to somerather less cosmic sound effects.
Otherwise, Whale and Levy re-created the novel in filmic terms. The dialogue is
rendered more concise for dramatic effect. When Rebecca shouts, “No beds! They can’t have beds!” Horace ironically declares, “As my sister hints, there are, I’m afraid, no beds.” The tightness of this line lends itself better to Thesiger’s sardonic intonation than the novel’s clumsier version, “As my sister hints, there are no beds, I am afraid, at your disposal.” Similarly, in the novel Horace discourses on his favorite drink: “It is not whiskey, which all you young men drink now, I believe.This is gin, which I prefer to all the other spirits, except, of course, the very old brandies. With some lemon, a little sugar perhaps, some hot water if you care for it, gin is excellent, and, remember, the purest of the spirits.” This becomes the terse, and therefore amusing, “It’s only gin, you know. Only gin. I like gin!”
In addition, Whale and Levy heighten aspects of the novel in a purely cinematic
way. Priestley had treated the introduction of Horace and Rebecca Femm almost
casually; they simply walk in together through a ground-floor doorway, followed
immediately by Morgan. The film, however, keeps Morgan out of the way—he was already encountered at the front door—and provides the Femms with separate entrances. For example, Horace dramatically descends a staircase, which Whale stages in a single shot, with knowing skill: As Horace moves down the steps and into the foreground, the camera tracks forward and tilts up to provide a close, angled shot that emphasizes Thesiger’s startled-skull features. This staging allows for a gradual revelation of Horace, while also exposing viewers to the staircase, which will be employed more fully in the climax. A little later, Rebecca receives her own introduction.
Whale did not just adapt and reconstruct Priestley’s material in a faithful but cinematic manner (although that in itself is no small accomplishment). He also made it his own by adding a more complex tone—a peculiar sense of humor that the novel consistently lacks. Whale never stretches for laughs, however; they arise naturally out of the characters, evoked by the director’s cut to a certain shot or by the actors’ vocal inflections.
During the opening scene in the Wavertons’ storm-besieged car, when Philip comments sarcastically, “I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck,” Whale unexpectedly shows a tight close-up of his hat brim, as rain flows under his collar. Shortly after, Margaret examines their map and declares hopelessly, “It’s all a stupid puddle!” Philips reply, “It seems to represent this country very well!” is matched to a close-up of the limp and soggy map. These lines of dialogue are not particularly funny in themselves, but they become so when juxtaposed with the close-ups mentioned. Thus, Whale achieves humor through the use of cinematic style. The novel merely mentions that Philip feels the rain go down his back, and the lines about the map, although lifted from the book almost verbatim, hardly evoke a smile there.
In keeping with his film’s odd tone, Whale adds an entirely new bit of business for
Horace Femm’s first scene. After introducing himself, Horace picks up some cut flowers and a vase, and declares, “My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers.” He then tosses the bouquet into a blazing fireplace. The unexpectedness of this action and Thesiger’s matter-of-fact manner make the moment funny, but Horace s implied antagonism toward Rebecca makes it disturbing, as well.
Throughout, Whale develops Horace’s personality through other additions to, or
modifications of, the novel. While carrying the gin and glasses to his guests, he sniffed the top of the open bottle with muted pleasure, and when he says, “I like gin,” Whale cuts to a close-up of Rebecca disdainfully wrinkling her nose. At the dinner table, as Horace mocks Rebecca’s desire to say grace, he is shown in a close medium shot, his face framed by the carving utensils he holds—a fork and a wicked-looking knife. During the meal, Horace twice says, “Have a potato.”This simple line, delivered with clipped precision by Thesiger, is simultaneously comic and threatening. Its only source in the novel is indirect and vague: Priestley simply mentions that Horace “somewhat fantastically proffered” some potatoes. In another change, the script turns Philip’s speculation about the source of the house s electricity into a statement by Horace, who declares, again with matter-of-fact exactitude, “We make our own electric light here—and we are not very good at it.”
Whale visually elaborates on the strangeness of the dinner. When Rebecca passes
some bread stuck on the end of a fork, none of the guests feels like taking any, and Whale’s camera follows the fork, in a close shot, as it journeys down the length of the table. The camera also tracks, in close-up, from plate to plate while Rebecca digs in and a visitor picks at a large black spot in a potato. Later, by moving the after-dinner conversation from the table to chairs by a fireplace, Whale avoids excessive exposure of one setting while creating a new mood by filming the speakers from across the top of the flames. Even a close shot is taken from this position, which gives the atmosphere and the image an otherworldly quality.
Various undercurrents, not present in the book, are suggested through Whale’s staging. When Horace authoritatively directs Morgan to show the visitors where to put their car, the director cuts to Rebecca and Morgan: He looks toward her, she nods, and only then does he go. The image, not the dialogue, makes it clear who really is in charge. During dinner, Whale prepares the viewer for Morgan’s later drunken attack on Margaret by showing him, while serving, pause and look her over each time he passes.
One of the high points of The Old Dark House occurs when Margaret Waverton
enters Rebecca’s room to change from her wet clothes. The old lady remains and
starts talking about her sister, Rachel, who died in the same room. A fall from a horse had injured her spine and for months she lay in bed, screaming with pain. “She used to cry out to me—to kill her. But I’d tell her to turn to the Lord. She didn’t. She was Godless to the last.” At this point, Whale visualizes Rebecca’s warped psyche by cutting during her dialogue from a direct shot to Rebecca’s reflection in a mirror, then to her face distorted by a section of the mirror’s glass, and finally—in what is really a jump-cut—to her face even more distorted. After that, lie returns to a normal-looking shot of the two women. “[Normal image] They were all Godless here. They used to bring their women here. [Reflection] Drazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins, they filled the house with laughter and sin, laughter and sin. [Distortion] If I ever went down among them, my own father and brothers, they would tell me to go away and pray. [Extreme distortion] They wouldn’t tell Rachel to go away and pray! [Normal image] And I prayed, and left them with their lustful red and white women.” Here, Whale’s images and Eva Moore’s edgily insane delivery combine to slip viewers out of the concrete world, providing a direct exposure to Rebecca’s inner deformity and Margaret’s perception of it.
Probably associating Margaret with the young and attractive Rachel, the old lady
now turns on her guest. The two figures are in profile, in a medium long shot, when Rebecca starts to taunt Margaret, calling her, “Young and handsome, silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body—and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you?” As Rebecca’s speech becomes more intense, the camera tracks closer, finally pausing when she reaches for the other’s dress and says, “That’s fine stuff—but it’ll rot!” Then Whale cuts to a side angle, shooting past Rebecca toward Margaret as the fanatic places an open palm against her victim’s bare chest, declaring, “That’s finer stuff, still—but it’ll rot, too, in time!” Mrs. Waverton backs away and the camera moves forward slightly, putting Rebecca out of the frame and intensifying Margaret’s repulsion.
In the novel, Priestley diluted the impact of this confrontation in two ways. First,
the verbal attack is separated from the touch by a digression about Margaret’s child (never mentioned in the film). Then, Rebecca says her final lines, only without the touch. Margaret has to ask, “What’s finer stuff?” and Rebecca repeats, “That is,” and touches her skin. It is to the film’s advantage that Whale and Levy eliminated both Margaret’s question and Rebecca’s repetition.
After Margaret recoils from Rebecca’s touch, the old woman finally leaves her
alone. Having put the audience on edge, Whale here shifts the mood by having
Rebecca pause near the door to check her hair in a mirror The woman who has just called Margaret “wicked” and “vain” is oblivious of her own unjustified vanity. The deadpan inclusion of this incident, totally without precedent in the novel, is typical of the director’s unpredictable flashes of humor.
With the tension reduced at Rebecca’s departure, the camera moves with Margaret as she crosses the room and casually opens a window, as if to freshen the fetid air. Suddenly, all equilibrium is again lost as a burst of wind surprises Margaret and the viewer, throwing objects and curtains into confusion. (The fact that the wind’s power and abruptness are funny in no way undercuts the distress caused by the event.) Her equanimity now totally shattered, Margaret sits in front of the dresser mirrors, which distort her young, attractive face. Her mind stops resisting, and the memory of her unsavory encounter floods in on her. The distorted shots of Rebecca are repeated, and the woman speaks a few phrases, followed by cackling laughter. Also edited into this scene are extreme close-ups of Morgan, who seems to be spying on Margaret, but perhaps only in her imagination. The result is a remarkable evocation of the woman’s emotional condition.
Out of this entire sequence, only the dialogue relates closely to Priestley’s original
version. In the novel, while Rebecca talks, Margaret notices “a fungus cheek” on one side of the woman’s face, which “looked like grey seamed fat, sagging into putrefaction.” The distorted reflections in the film convey a similar impression, but with greater impact. Once Rebecca leaves, however, novel and film part. Margaret is described as sitting at “the little cracked mirror” as “the familiar reflection brought comfort to her.” When she opens the window, wind and rain enter, but “the air was unbelievably fresh and sweet” and the darkness “friendly.” Whale’s version of the scene is much more disturbing and emotionally complex, and it is executed with visual ingenuity and impeccable pacing.
Later, these events are referred to in a short but startlingly imaginative vignette. It is, in fact, a practically perfect case of translating a novelist’s account of his character’s train of thought into visual imagery and thereby heightening the effect. Disturbed by Rebecca’s touch and her own imaginings, Margaret, alone, observes a candle’s flame.
Idly she held one hand above it and began twiddling her fingers, watching their play of light and shade. Then she saw the shadows they cast, a dance of uncouth crazy figures,
savages leaping in the smoke of a ceremonial fire, and she brought her hand away… . Her mind swayed towards unreason. There came gibbering into it the fancy that she was the victim of a plot, that all the others had been deliberately spirited away by Miss Femm, who would lock them all up and then come creeping back to lay a toad-like witch’s hand upon her. For one sickening moment she could feel that hand.
Because a filmed version of this would be impossible, Whale replaced it with a new, but related, incident. When Margaret begins making shadow figures on the wall with her hands, the camera moves forward, placing her body out of the frame and leaving only the shadow of her figure. Suddenly, Rebecca’s distinctive shadow darts into view, faces Margaret’s shadow, touches the shadow s chest, then darts away. Next, Whale cuts to the actual figure of Margaret who, startled, looks around but sees no one. There is never any verbal reference to this shadow fantasy, as if Whale trusted the viewer to draw the necessary conclusions. Such a subjective embodiment of a characters state of mind, while entirely appropriate, is also creatively daring, especially in 1932.
Even less like the novel is the film’s climax, although the basic situation is the same in both versions: Morgan, drunk and out of control, has released Saul and the two descend to the top of the main staircase, with Morgan in full view but only Saul’s hand showing around the corner, resting on the banister. In the novel, Saul is big, heavy, and “unusually powerful”—a screaming maniac who attacks Penderel right away. Whale and Levy altered and expanded this situation to make it more dramatic and, in the process, characterize Saul more fully. The script has continually pointed toward Saul’s entrance as the climactic event, with ominous references to him as the dangerous brother locked away upstairs; Horace is so frightened that he refuses even to go near the room. Whale realized that after all this fear and preparation, and with everyone’s attention focused on the top of the stairs, no one who stepped into view could fulfill the viewers indefinite expectations.
So, the filmmakers purposely disappoint their audience with a calculated reversal of expectations. Saul, when he emerges, is a small, weak-looking, shy man who pleads pathetically with Penderel. “Don’t let them put me back. I’m not mad—I swear upon Heaven, I’m not mad. . . .They’re frightened of me. I know something about them. Years ago, they killed their sister, Rachel—but I won’t tell, I promised I’d never tell.” Here, Saul acts and sounds reasonable, except perhaps that he eagerly blurts out his knowledge of the killing despite his promise not to tell. Penderel and the viewer begin to relax, whereupon Whale starts to build the tension again. At one point, when Penderel is not watching, we glimpse the real Saul as, in close-up, he raises one eye brow and curls his upper lip. Coming from this seemingly gentle creature, the expression chills.
Seated at a table with Penderel, Saul declares that he has made a study of flame. As he talks, a single candle burns in the foreground. “Flames are really knives. They are cold, my friend, sharp and cold as snow. They burn like—ice.” Brember Wills delivers these lines straightforwardly, but the ideas belie the rationality of his tone. Then Saul picks up a carving knife and gestures with it as he talks. “Did you know my name is Saul? Saul, my friend. And Saul loved David. . . . But Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him, and it came to pass on the morrow that an evil spirit came upon Saul, and he prophesied, and there was a javelin in Saul’s hand, and Saul cast the javelin—.”At this, Saul throws the knife at Penderel, just missing his head.
Although written for the film, this dialogue fits remarkably well with Priestley’s
plot. Horace’s mockery of religion and Rebecca’s religious fanaticism link neatly with Saul’s Biblical parallel, while the javelin and flame references connect with Saul’s attraction to knives and his reputation as a pyromaniac; earlier, Horace’s statement that Saul wished to make the house “a burnt offering” had already tied his compulsion to religion. Thus, Whale and Levy provide what Priestley failed to attempt: a valid unification of Saul with the film’s overall motifs.
Saul knocks Penderel out, grabs a torch, and climbs to the landing, where he ignites the curtains. Penderel regains consciousness, follows, and—in a situation evocative of Frankenstein’s climax—man and “monster” fight on a high place, beside a railing, for possession of a smoldering torch. Saul is now fearsome, moving with imp-like agility. Suddenly, his head thrusts forward to bite Penderel’s neck. In the novel, the struggle concludes with Penderel falling through the railing to the main floor and both men die, Penderel of a broken neck and Saul “perhaps from shock and a weak heart.” One version of the script retained this ending, as indicated by a synopsis in the studio’s files, but two changes were made before or during shooting. The final film explains Saul’s death more specifically by having the two men fall together. Moreover, as had also happened with Frankenstein, the early plan to kill off the hero was dropped, so Penderel is permitted to survive.
Filled with unexpected subtleties of style and idiosyncrasies of tone, The Old Dark
House is a brilliantly individual work. In fact, it was probably too individual for 1932. Although one trade reviewer mentioned the film’s comedy content Universal advertised it as strictly a horror film. One ad read: “A Lifetime of Terror—Lived in One Mad Night! Ten Men and Women Storm-bound in a House Accursed—While Fear Played Havoc with their Bodies and Souls!” Newspaper reviewers generally praised the film, especially the performances, but were no more helpful than the ads in conveying its tone. Because of this, and because of the studio’s emphasis on its new star, Karloff, The Old Dark House disappointed and perhaps confused audiences. It was not a financial failure, but during its first week in New York it did a little less than half the business of Frankenstein.
Before Whale shot his third fantasy film, The Invisible Man, in July 1933, it took almost two years to develop an acceptable script. Universal had acquired the rights to H. G. Wells’s novel in September 1931, as a possible follow-up to Frankenstein and Murders in the Rue Morgue, and announced in October that Bcnn Levy would write the script and Whale direct. However, the studio soon assigned Whale to Impatient Maiden (1932), and in December Robert Florey became writer-director of The Invisible Man, which would star Boris Karloff. In January 1932, Garrett Fort was listed as a writer, with Florey still directing, but a treatment by Whale dated 3 January indicates that Universal had more than one iron in the fire.
The next month Universal purchased The Murderer Invisible, a 1931 novel by Philip Wylie with a similar premise; the studio may have envisioned combining elements of both books, for Wylie’s more menacing character was better suited to Boris Karloff than Wells’s hero. Years later, however, R. C. Sherriff stated that he wrote the final script without referring to The Murderer Invisible and suggested that the studio bought the rights only to avoid any chance of a plagiarism suit.61 (Despite some claims that Wylie himself worked on the screenplay, studio records do not list him among the many writers engaged.)
From April 1932 through June 1933, Universal accumulated at least nine treatments and eleven scripts, prepared by twelve different writers. Garrett Fort began the process with a screenplay submitted on 9 April. In May, John L. Balderston prepared a treatment, revised Fort’s script, and prepared one of his own. Balderston’s screenplay was in turn revised by Cyril Gardner. The studio next considered treatments by John Huston (July), Richard Schayer (September), James Whale (November), Governeur Morris (December),Whale and Morris (no date), and John Weld (January 1933).
While numerous typewriters rehashed Wells’s plot, Whale and Sherriff concentrated on a sequel to Universal’s highly successful All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).The studio had owned Remarque’s continuation of the story, The Road Back, since 1929, and in 1931 Whale was chosen to direct, after finishing Waterloo Bridge. Universal postponed the picture because of its high budget, however, so Whale made Franken stein and Impatient Maiden. Then, in February 1932, he had the studio ask R. C. Sherriff to adapt The Road Back. The playwright, who was studying history at Oxford University, accepted Universal’s offer to work in Hollywood for several months during the spring and summer.
Upon his arrival, Sherriff received an office and secretary on the Universal lot, but
he preferred writing at home, in the evening. At Whale’s suggestion, he visited the office in the morning, gave the secretary his night’s work to type, then observed activities at the studio, including the filming of The Old Dark House. At noon, he would leave, having officially put in his time. During this period, Whale suggested that Sherriff follow The Road Back with The Invisible Man. The idea of adapting Wells’s novel attracted the writer. “I’d read the book as a boy,” he recalled. “It had thrilled me, and I’d never forgotten it.”62 Sherriff was, however, anxious to return home, so the studio allowed him to write in England, with the stipulation that he return to Hollywood for conferences later. After discussing the project with Whale, Sherriff set to work at his country house near London. (In his autobiography, Sherriff states that he wrote The Invisible Man in Hollywood and adapted The Road Back in England, but news items in Variety at the time indicate otherwise and, during a 1971 interview, Sherriff confirmed the actual order of events.)
Whale sailed to England with Sherriff for a holiday and in September he
returned, ready to start The Road Back, but the studio again delayed production and assigned him to The Kiss before the Mirror, filmed early in 1933. While Sherriff worked, other hands also tried to turn The Invisible Man into a horror film. Scripts were submitted by Preston Sturges in November 1932, Governeur Morris in December, and John Weld in February 1933. Sherriff finished his first version on 4 March 1933, two days before Laird Doyle completed his and two months before Preston Sturges submitted his second.
Meanwhile, Universal decided to make a sequel to Frankenstein. Whale opposed the idea and pinned his hope of avoiding it on Sherriff and The Invisible Man. Finally, on 12 June, Sherriff submitted a second draft, which more than satisfied Whale and the studio. Variety reported that Universal considered it “the perfect screen version of a novel.”⁶³Whale was especially pleased at the chance to sidestep Tlie Return of Frankenstein.
In May 1933, Universal still expected to star Boris Karloff in Tlie Invisible Man, but
the studio refused to pay him the raise written into his contract, so Karloff walked out. This left Whale quite literally with an invisible man for his lead. Colin Clive turned the part down, although he admitted that the role appealed to him, Whale then turned to Claude Rains, whom he had known in London, before the actor conquered Broadway in the late 1920s. Whale tested Rains and signed him shortly before the start of shooting. David Lewis recalled Whale’s reasoning: “Rains has the greatest voice in the world and if he can’t be seen, his voice has the needed presence.”65 But to get Rains, the studio had to give him star billing, an unusual situation for a filmic novice and one that caused the already-signed Chester Morris to leave the film. At close to the same time, Whale added Una O’Connor to the cast; she, too, had been evident on the London stage of the 1920s. As with Tlie Old Dark House, the presence of these and other British actors helped give Tlie Invisible Matt an authentic atmosphere.
Shooting began at the end of June 1933 and didn’t end until late August.This was a long period for the early 1930s, but a technicians’ strike probably contributed to the undue length. First set for release on 24 August, the film didn’t appear until November, owing to the meticulous laboratory work required for the shots in which the title character is seen partly clothed or disrobing. In 1934, photographer/technician John P. Fulton described the special effects he used for such scenes. First, the normal characters and their reactions were photographed and the negative developed in the usual fashion. Next, a special set was covered with black velvet and Rains costumed in black velvet tights, gloves, and headpiece. On top of this, the actor wore whatever clothes were required. Then, when the camera filmed him against the black background, the clothing seemed to move by itself in empty space.
For many shots, Rains’s cloth head-covering could contain no openings, so he
breathed through a tube that ran up his pants leg. The headpiece also muffled sound, so even a voice amplified by a megaphone could barely be heard. Because the actor’s movements had to be carefully timed to match actors and a setting filmed separately, they required much rehearsal and many retakes. This material was later combined with the other footage to form a single shot.
One of the most difficult shots involved having the Invisible Man unwrap his head
bandages while reflected in a mirror, which required the filming and combination of four separate pieces of film: the wall and the mirror, with the mirror’s surface covered by black velvet; the character, seen from behind, performing the action; a front view of him, doing the same thing, to serve as his reflection; and the room’s opposite wall, which would also be seen in the mirror. “All of these had to be perfectly coordinated—matched in viewpoint, perspective and action to a fraction of an inch,” Fulton declared.”It was as difficult a shot as I have ever made.”66
Thanks to Fulton, The Invisible Man’s illusions are smooth and convincing. Perhaps more important, though, Whale treats the special effects like any other element of a scene, using them in a dramatic and cinematic fashion; instead of being intimidated by the technical problems and presenting each effect in a single shot, he employs considerable editing during these scenes and thereby heightens their dramatic effect. The trick photography exists for the film, not the reverse, and the picture’s ultimate success depends more on the script and the director’s handling of it.
Universal had urged Sherriff to base his adaptation on the many prior attempts, few of which bore any relation to Wells s plot. For example, Richard Schayer’s treatment has a scientist render his mutilated assistant invisible and later stand trial for a murder committed by the man. In a final courtroom scene, the invisible assistant’s suicide solves the scientist’s problem. Preston Sturges then added to this premise: After the doctor treats his “maniacal” assistant with the invisibility drug, the two journey to Russia to avenge the killing of the scientist’s relatives during the Revolution.
Rejecting this grab-bag of “extravagant and fantastic and ridiculous” plots, Sherriff
sought to return to the “charm and the humor and the fascination” of Wells’s story.
But when he asked Universal for a copy of the novel he was told that the studio’s was lost—and that everything worthwhile from it had gone into the scripts. Sherriff persisted and, after a futile search through Hollywood’s bookstores, eventually located a secondhand copy. A rereading of the novel reinforced Sherriff’s faith in Wells’s approach. “His secret was a simple one. To give reality to a fantastic story, … it had to be told through the eyes of ordinary, plain-spoken people. If you tried to fasten extra ordinary people to extraordinary events the whole thing fell to pieces.”⁶⁸
After analyzing the difference between a novel and a film script, Sherriff concluded that a scriptwriter must “prune away the side-shoots and keep to the main stem,” so that “every line of dialogue was there to drive the story on.” Because Wells had essentially done that in his book, Sherriff simply “dramatized it chapter by chapter, and it was mainly a matter of turning narrative into dialogue. I had to add ingredients here and there to tighten up the drama, and condense a lot. . ., but when it was finished I felt reasonably sure that this was the genuine, unadulterated story which Wells himself had conceived.”69
Although not as close to the novel as Sherriff recalled, the film is an excellent adaptation that captures Wells’s lightness combined with tension and that retains both his narrative structure and specific incidents. The film’s opening section, in particular, re creates the novel with a purist’s faithfulness. Each work opens with the bandaged stranger’s arrival at an inn, develops his irritation at the locals’ curiosity, and provides an initial climax when he strips off his clothes in front of them. After indulging in some impish and angry pranks in the village, the Invisible Man, Jack Griffin, contacts Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) for help in creating a reign of terror. Sherriff has Kemp notify the police, but Griffin escapes and announces that he will execute Kemp as a lesson to all who would resist his power. Soon after accomplishing this, Griffin himself is killed and, at death, regains visibility.
In the middle of the novel, Wells’s character has a long monologue in which he
recounts his early experiments, his need for money, his robbery of his father, his problems in adjusting to invisibility, and his ways of stealing clothes from stores. No doubt to “keep to the main stem,” Sherriff wisely dropped most of these details, for they would have required a prolonged recitation by Griffin, a major series of flashbacks, or an earlier beginning of the story. The first choice would have been dramatically static, the second would have interrupted the film’s pace, and the third would have sacrificed the impact of opening with Griffin’s mysterious arrival at the inn.
To counteract the reduction of Griffin’s explanation to Kemp, and no doubt to
provide the love interest demanded by American studios, Sherriff added two new
characters: Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), with whom Griffin had been working, and
his daughter, Flora (Gloria Stuart), Griffin’s fiancée. He also increased Kemp’s importance by making him an associate of Griffin and a rival for Flora’s affections, instead of just a slight acquaintance. These three people discuss Griffin’s disappearance in scenes intercut with the main action and provide some of the exposition removed from the other scene.
Sherriff’s changes help unify the action by providing characters who are involved
in most of the film’s major events. Further tightening the book, Sherriff eliminated
the tramp who helps Griffin after the trouble at the inn and gave Kemp two of that characters functions: accompanying Griffin to the inn to recover his notebooks and seeking police protection when the Invisible Man threatens to kill him. In a major change, Griffin now carries out his threat, whereas in the book he is killed while chasing Kemp, who survives. The film therefore builds to a more dramatic climax.
The model for these added aspects was probably Frankenstein, for the two films
share the situation of a passionate young scientist who has disappeared in order to experiment alone, leaving behind a worried fiancée, a fatherly associate (Dr. Cranley here combines Dr.Waldman and Baron Frankenstein), and a friend who is fond of the fiancée. Both films first introduce the menace situation, without explanation, followed by a scene in which those left behind provide exposition. Even die dialogue in the exposition scene evokes Frankenstein, as Flora speaks of receiving a cryptic note from Griffin. The plot then returns to the initial situation, which builds to a climax as the menace is “created.” After another scene with the normal characters, the two groups of people converge.
These similarities could have resulted from Whale’s contribution to story conferences with Sherriff, or perhaps from the writer studying Whale’s prototype film. There is, however, an intriguing contrast in the way the two pictures use their similar elements. Whale had intended Frankenstein to end with the scientist’s death, but the studio let Henry regain consciousness; something similar had occurred with Penderel at the end of The Old Dark House. It is tempting to think that the director, in preparing 77ie Invisible Man, decided that this time he would kill off both the main character and the heroine’s other suitor.
Of course, this ending’s difference from that of Frankenstein develops logically from the changes made in Wells’s plot. By increasing Kemp’s importance, Sherriff and Whale provide Griffin with a specific antagonist, thereby creating a more precise conflict than exists in the novel—and adding an element that is not part of Henry Frankenstein’s relationship with Victor Moritz. Such a conflict is dramatically necessary in The Invisible Man, because there is no overt struggle between the scientist and a monster, as there is in Frankenstein. Here, the scientist himself becomes the monster.
Because the conflict between Griffin and Kemp has gained in importance, it also
must come to a definite resolution, and because viewers have been encouraged to relish the Invisible Man’s power, they would feel shortchanged without this preliminary victory before his inevitable destruction. Thus, the film’s fantasy of omnipotence is allowed a brief extension, but even modern audiences express surprise that Griffin isallowed to accomplish such a cold-blooded murder.
The movie prepares its audience for Kemp’s death by emphasizing his cowardice, a trait that inhibits viewer identification and arouses some antipathy. The gentle, good looking Victor Moritz hints at his affection for Elizabeth and then lets the matter drop, whereas Kemp has a sour personality and presses his case too hard. He is hardly an outright villain, but neither does he act like a gentleman in taking advantage of Griffin’s absence, so we are shocked that he is killed, without being disturbed at his death.
Griffin s megalomania exists in both book and film, but Wells never lets him start
his reign of terror, while in the film he causes one good-sized train wreck. But any
thing gained must be paid for, and the film pays for the train wreck by declaring that a drug used by Griffin has driven him insane. This reduces the character’s moral accountability for his actions and allows the viewer to avoid the discomfort of vicarious guilt. The book’s narrator considers the possibility that Griffin has gone insane, but rejects the idea, recalling instead the “extraordinary irascibility” of this “intensely egotistical and unfeeling man.”
Sherriff gave Griffin two dynamic speeches about his plans for seizing power that
have no counterparts in the book, and because of the vividness of these monologues, Griffin’s megalomania gains in importance. The first such speech is delivered to Kemp. “The drugs 1 took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held—the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders, here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. We might even wreck a train or two. Just these fingers, ’round a signalman’s throat.”
A pivotal figure in the development of horror films, Griffin is one of the first scientists to proclaim his superiority to the masses and revel in it, seeing no reason why he shouldn’t rule the world. Of course, the attraction of power was implicit in most of the horror films that preceded The Invisible Man. Audiences relished the supernatural abilities of Dracula and Im-ho-tep, the ruthlessness of Dr. Mirakle, the brilliance of Henry Frankenstein and Henry jekyll, and the physical force of the Frankenstein Monster and Mr. Hyde. They also were fascinated by these characters’ independence and isolation, by their willingness to venture into the Forbidden and the Unknown. But all of these characters had limited goals, and few verbalized a desire for power. Griffin, however, embodies this Superman aspect completely.
This characteristic does exist in Wells’s novel, but Sherriff’s dialogue and Rains’s
dynamic performance heighten it considerably. In this regard, The Murderer Invisible may have influenced the script, for Wylie’s novel does deal directly with its invisible character’s megalomania, as when he declares, “Power has always been denied me. My compensation will come—and it will not be the power of Wealth—wholly—not power over a few thousand employees—it will be power over leaders—then power over a nation—and at the last power over the world.”
Such a figure would naturally attract people who, boxed into a corner by the
Depression, were intrigued by men who ignore the rules and take matters into their own hands, whether they be Jack Griffin, Little Caesar, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a character in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) says, regarding the selection of a leader for a collective farm, “We got a big job here and we need a Big Boss!”This fascination faded in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the Depression receded and reports from Germany revealed some of the realistic results of putting the Superman philosophy into practice.
Because Griffin is the film’s central figure—the “hero”—viewers are led to identify
with him; therefore, although each individual watching The Invisible Man would certainly not tolerate someone else having the total power that Griffin desires, he or she likely enjoys fantasizing about having it personally. Thus, Griffin’s assertion of God like omnipotence by killing Kemp is really the emotional climax of the film, with the Invisible Man’s death merely a perfunctory requirement for returning the world to order. Even Whale seemed to lose interest at this point, for the discovery of Griffin sleeping in a barn occurs abruptly, and the actual trapping of the fugitive lacks the director’s usual knack for pacing a scene to elicit its full quota of tension. Instead, the shots leading to this climax are too short and, when events happen, they happen too quickly. It is almost as if Whale, unable to show Griffin’s reactions directly, stops treating him like someone with feelings. So, after the barn is set on fire, all we get is a shot of the straw moving when Griffin wakes up, then a shot of the barn doors opening as he leaves. After that, his footprints appear in the snow and he is killed. Very little dread is established in the police, and no emotion at all is created for Griffin. (The climax of Frankenstein makes a good contrast here, for in that film Whale evokes considerable terror and sympathy when the Monster is trapped in the burning mill.)
In general, though, Tlie Invisible Man reveals the full flowering of Whale’s visual
style, especially in his editing among a large number of slightly varied setups. He
knew when to cut and when not to—when a few extra shots can build tension, when a shift of angle will satisfy the viewer’s eye during an expository speech, when a stationary medium shot will dramatize significant dialogue, when a close-up will heighten a revelation. Whale seldom returns to the exact shot from which he had cut away a few seconds before. Instead, he uses a new setup, perhaps one placed a little closer to the subject or one viewing it from a slightly different perspective.
The first scene between Kemp and Flora illustrates how Whale blends this fluid
editing with dialogue. As the two discuss Griffins disappearance, the shots shift
directly from a medium long shot of the couple to a closer shot of them, followed by a tight close-up of just Flora as her comments become more intense and personal. Then, Kemp tries to undermine his missing rival in a medium shot of him and Flora, which leads to a close shot of them both.
Another scene that illustrates Whale’s intelligent combination of editing and dialogue is a conversation between Griffin and Flora at Kemp’s house. Again, the characters hardly move, yet the scene is far from static, for the image shifts among various medium shots of both and close-ups of each individual. The script had indicated only one shot for the speech, with which Griffin ends the scene, but during shooting Whale divided it into three: [Medium close shot of Griffin, who rises as he speaks and the camera tilts up at him] “Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, [close-up of Griffin] into the secrets of Kings, even the Holy of Holies. Power to make the multitudes run screaming in terror [medium shot of Griffin] at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me. Frightened to death! The whole worlds frightened to death!”
At other times. Whale chooses not to edit at all, as when Mrs. Hall first shows Griffin to his room at the inn. Aloof, he stands in the background, facing away from her and us. She putters around, too nosy to leave, hoping to learn something about the stranger. In a long shot, she stands on the right in the foreground, straightening something, then moves to the left to adjust a lamp, then back to the right as she brushes a chair, then again to the left after Griffin orders some food. Throughout, the camera pans back and forth with her, while always keeping Griffin in the frame, as the central point to which she is drawn. Here, the lack of cutting conveys the magnetic field of her curiosity, creating the scene’s subtle humor.
There is, in fact, quite a lot of humor in Vie Invisible Man. Wells s novel, too, has a
witty tone, so here—unlike in The Old Dark House—it is consistent with the source. But The Invisible Matt veers closer to farce than did the earlier film, which is probably inevitable, because farce involves physical violence that deflates figures of respect and an invisible man can tweak noses with impunity. This unseen prankster swats a passerby with a broom, knocks over a baby carriage, tosses an old man’s hat into a river, throws rocks through a store window, splatters ink on one policeman, and pulls the pants off another. In the midst of a chase, his shirt drops to the ground just as a cop swings his club—and hits another pursuer on the head. These events succeed as comedy by virtue of Griffin’s impishness and a feeling that no one is ever really hurt.
Because such farce derives from Griffin’s invisibility, Whale easily isolates it from
the film’s serious segments, in which Griffin can be seen, albeit wrapped in bandages. Occasionally, Whale mixes the two moods. At the end of the second invisible ram page, just after a policeman absurdly waves his club at nothing, Griffin chokes an official until he lies unconscious on the floor. Then he picks up a wooden stool and cracks the man’s skull with it! In this impressive shifting of gears, Whale leaps from painless farce to brutal murder. An earlier shift in the other direction is less successful. After a tense confrontation between Griffin and Mr. Hall, the landlord is thrown down a flight of stairs. The tone of this scene is then disrupted by the screeching of Mrs. Hall (Una O’Connor). At this point, Whale departed from his shooting script by having the half-conscious man raise his head and in a weak voice tell his wife to shut up. Fortunately, this bit of contrived comedy is the film’s only moment of overindulgence.
The film offers sunder humor in some of the dialogue and its delivery, such as
policeman E. E. Clive’s pompous statement of the obvious:”He’s invisible, that’s what’s the matter with him!” It probably isn’t a coincidence that as the Invisible Man removes his clothes to surprise the police he says, “This will give them a bit of a shock,” just as he unzips his trousers. Griffin also reveals some of the arch, haughty manner associated with the coy madness of Ernest Thesiger’s Horace Femm as he declares his intention to murder people of varied social classes, “just to show we make no distinction.”
Most contemporary reviewers and audiences responded favorably to Vie Invisible
Matte humor, in contrast to their uncertainty about Vie Old Dark House. Variety
noted that one audience laughed readily at the scenes involving moving objects or the Invisible Man discarding his clothes.70 However, Whale’s mixture of moods still provoked some critical confusion, with Variety unsure whether all of the laughs had been intended. Richard Watts, Jr., in the New York Herald-Tribune, even described the scene of Griffin unwrapping his head as “properly frightening.”71 Such contrasting reactions were possible because the concept of the scene—and the film—contains both humor and horror, comedy and tragedy.
By 1933, Universal’s horror films had already passed their peak of audience popularity. After Frankenstein, viewers had been disappointed in the overblown Murders in the Rue Morgue and the subtle The Old Dark House and TIte Mummy. Only a few fantasy/horror films caught the interest of a wide public: King Kong was a blockbuster in 1933, but The Invisible Man offered healthy competition. Also, at a time when reviewers had already revealed condescension toward horror films, The Invisible Man inspired a rare respect, owing both to its inherent quality and its literary origin. The New York Times called it “one of the best features of its kind. … in many ways a far better picture than was rankenstein.”12 Even H. G. Wells, at a luncheon given to publicize the film, praised Universal and Whale for “a triumph of production” and for the “almost complete suppression of romantic interest and the absence of a star.”
The Invisible Man’s quality and success reinforced the reputations of Whale and
Sherriff and established Claude Rains as a Hollywood presence. Seeing it remains a rewarding experience, given the film’s knockabout farce, whimsical charm, adventure, fantasy, and brutal violence. It depicts human aspiration, human arrogance, human accomplishments, and human absurdities. It arouses emotions of omnipotence and helplessness, provoking both objective laughter and subjective sympathy. It inspires awe at technical ingenuity, while making us forget that what we are seeing is impossible. Most of all, amid the comedy and the spectacle, the fantasy and the illusion, it never forgets the tragic solitude of a man who has gone beyond the normal and is trapped there, isolated, unable to return—he has achieved his goal but lost everything in the process. Not surprisingly, as David Lewis recalled, this was the film of which Whale was by far the proudest.
By making The Invisible Man, Whale had managed to avoid Universal intended
sequel to Frankenstein; the studio even announced that Kurt Neumann would make The Return of Frankenstein. Late in September 1933,Whale took over the direction of a comedy, By Candlelight, and also turned to another of the studio’s ideas for a fantasy film, A Trip to Mars. Several writers had already labored over Mars during 1932. First, R. C. Sherriff wrote a screenplay, dated 3 March, but Universal may have been dissatisfied with it, for on 18 March the studio purchased an original story by Harry O. Hoyt. Ralph Parker submitted treatments on 19 and 24 March, and two months later Richard Schayer and Tom Reed offered another treatment (20 May) and a screenplay (13 June). After that, the project was set aside.
Universal’s synopsis tells the far-fetched story of Professor von Saxmar, who
launches an unmanned rocket to Mars, where it explodes. This angers the Martians, who retaliate with a rocket that destroys half of Europe. When an American reporter tells Saxmar that only a manned expedition can prevent more deaths, the scientist at first resists. “Then, an insane light appearing in his eye, he consents.” So Saxmar, his daughter, and the reporter journey to Mars, where they encounter giant insects that possess almost-human intelligence; at one point, an army of large ants defends a Martian city from an attack by equally large spiders. In the glass palace of the Martians’ Queen Meera, the reporter and the Queen fall in love, a process that renders her more human. When the ants rebel against their Martian masters, Saxmar and his daughter are killed and their Irish terrier, which had learned to talk on Mars, dies “with a cheerful wisecrack on his lips.”The lovers, however, escape safely to Earth and a Niagara Falls honeymoon.
Considering the elaborate settings and Willis O’Brien-type special effects that A
Trip to Mars would have required, it is not surprising that budget-conscious Universal shelved the project. However, in September 1933 Whale revived it as a vehicle for Karloff. R. C. Sherriff soon set to work on a new script, and in December Whale sailed to England for a combination holiday and conference. Two months later, he returned with the completed script, expecting to film it in March 1934.
Together, Whale and Sherriff completely rewrote the plot. Although publicity continued to use the title A Trip to Mars, both Sherriff and David Lewis insisted that the location was changed to the moon. The approach, too, shifted from fantastic adventure to realistic semi documentary. A copy of this unproduced script has yet to appear, but in 1973 Lewis recalled the project quite vividly. “It was a brilliant script. . . .The blastoff, everything, was as it finally happened. It wasn’t exactly as it happened, but it was damn close! And the moon was an absolutely desolate place. On Earth, they’d believed the moon was inhabited—they found no one there, it was darkness, they became lost, unable to breathe, and so forth.” According to Lewis, Whale wanted to make this picture—”It was his and Sherriff s ‘baby’ “—but even though the budget would have been smaller than that for the earlier version, Universal again backed off. So Whale turned instead to One More River (also from a Sherriff script), which he filmed in May 1934.Then, once again, he faced the specter of Frankenstein’s creation.
In December 1931, shortly after the release of Frankenstein, Robert Florey had anticipated the possibility of a sequel and written a story entitled The Monster Lives! which drew a great deal from Mary Shelley’s novel and was never used. Only in June 1933 did the writing department set to work. Tom Reed submitted a treatment on 10 June, then worked on three versions of a screenplay through the end of July. “They’ve had a script made for a sequel,” Whale told Sherriff, “and it stinks to heaven. In any case I squeezed the idea dry on the original picture, and never want to work on it again.”
Late in 1933, Universal tried once more, with L. G. Blochman submitting a new
treatment on 5 December and Philip MacDonald providing a 36-page story on the
day after Christmas. No further writing was done until Spring 1934.Then, around the time Whale set aside his objections and agreed to direct, the studio hired horror veteran John L. Balderston (Dracula, Frankenstein, Tlie Mummy), who submitted a screen play on 9 June. After two more attempts, he completed his fourth and last version on 23 July. Balderston’s script provoked some basic objections from the Hays Office, which enforced Hollywood’s production code, whereupon Universal brought in William Hurlbut for rewrites during October and November. The final shooting script,77 completed on 1 December, provoked a new set of concerns from the Hays Office. This time. Whale himself met with a code representative to discuss the problems, which ranged from religious irreverence and the large number of killings to the use of the word “entrails,” which was called “offensive to mixed audiences” (and was changed to “insides”).
Production on what came to be called Bride of Frankenstein finally began in January 1935. About two months later, Joe Breen, of the Hays Office, screened the finished film and became “gravely concerned.”The film, he declared, was “definitely” in violation of the code “because of its excessive brutality and gruesomeness.” In addition, “the shots early in the picture, in which the breasts of the character of Mrs. Shelley are exposed and accentuated, constitute a code violation.” But, he added, “careful and intelligent editing of the picture may remove the difficulties.” Universal made many of Breens suggested cuts (along with others that tightened the film’s pace) and reduced the movie’s running time by about seventeen minutes.
Although Balderston did not receive a screenplay credit, elements from his adaptation of Weblings Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre found their way into Bride of Frankenstein. These include the Monsters halting, monosyllabic speech, his demand for a mate, and his threat to kidnap Amelia/Elizabeth unless Frankenstein complies. Also inspired by the play and Robert Florey’s script was a scene of the Monster observing a peasant couple as they make love, which arouses his sexual desire. Predictably, the Hays Office wanted Universal to turn that scene into “an unsuggestive, unobjectionable, and harmless picture of the pure and innocent affection felt between simple folk” by eliminating “Eric taking down Hilda s hair, and undressing … the kiss and the action of falling back on the bed.” It also urged that the Monster not ask for a “mate,” because it “suggests that he desires a sexual companion.”80 In response, Hurlbut completely omitted the peasant couple and had the Monster desire a “friend.”
Whale did not want to make just an ordinary sequel, “to pick up the Monster and
have him go like fury,” according to David Lewis. “He said that if he had to make the sequel, he was going to make it different enough in conception and idea and treatment . . . that it would stand on its own.”81 Once Whale became involved, he conferred frequently with the writers and had them include the tiny creatures created by Dr. Pretorius and the prologue with Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. As the script evolved, the totally new character of Dr. Pretorius became a pivotal figure who quite eclipsed Henry Frankenstein; Whale’s decision to cast Ernest Thesiger in the role further determined the film’s tone, making it a cross between the drama of Frankenstein and the arch humor of Vie Old Dark House. Through Pretorius, Whale includes and intertwines a coy fascination with death, an ambivalent attitude toward religion, a suspicion of women, and a disdain of human nature in general.
Referring to Frankenstein, Whale said in 1931, “I never intended this picture for
children, but I would like to make a children’s version.”82 Evidently, the director saw in the situation a mythical, almost fairy-tale quality. Although he certainly made Bride of Frankenstein for adults, in it he emphasized fantasy and humor over macabre real ism. Faced with the basic implausibility of the Monster’s survival, Whale deliberately selected artificiality as his style. The acting, incidents, and settings all exist on a level far above reality, and every emotion is pushed to its extreme. The Monster was a simple, tragic image of the human condition; now, he possesses a self-awareness that gives him a new majesty in defeat. At the same time, the Monster is almost comically human, as he talks, enjoys music, drinks wine, and smokes a cigar. He also cries at the blind her mit’s kindness and at his bride’s rejection.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein (again played by Colin Clive) is limited to various degrees of anguish, until scientific passion finally takes over in the creation scene. The enthusiastically perverse Pretorius dominates, as he entices the film into his bizarre world. Leaving the graceful arches and large, open rooms of the Frankenstein mansion, Henry and the viewers enter the cramped garret of Pretorius, with its angled walls and pointed shadows. There, Henry trades his relatively scientific methods for the vague procedures of his former teacher. The tiny figures that Pretorius claims to have grown “from seed” exist totally on the level of fantasy and justify Henry’s comment, “This isn’t science—it’s more like black magic.”
Because Bride of Frankenstein picks up events exactly where the original film
ended, Whale refreshes the viewer’s memory through a prologue in which Mary Shelley discusses her story. As Lord Byron offers a summary, we see shots from the earlier film (and one, of a murder, that is new). Then, Mary decides to tell the “rest” of her tale. Oddly, this prologue is set in the nineteenth century, whereas Frankenstein had been updated to the present, but the main portion of the new film circumvents this contradiction by existing in an uncertain time period that permits elaborate laboratory equipment while treating the telephone as a new invention.
The prologue also has a subtler purpose. Whale insisted that Elsa Lanchester play
both Mary Shelley and the bride, thereby linking the two females. He stressed Mary’s daintiness and poise, Lanchester explained, to imply that within the pretty and delicate woman existed “a nasty spirit, a real evil,” that the two were “the same person.”8′ Actually, the bride doesn’t live long enough to reveal a nasty or evil side, but the basic idea of such duality remains valid and is, certainly, conveyed in the prologue. When Byron describes Mary as an “angel,” she coyly asks, “You think so?” Later, he declares, “Astonishing creature Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark, and yet you have written a tale that sent my blood into icy creeps Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived a Frankenstein—a monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves? Isn’t it astonishing?” Mary responds, “I don’t know why you should think so.”
The film’s main body begins as the villagers leave the charred remains of the mill.
The parents of the drowned Maria remain behind, however, for the father must see the Monsters corpse with his own eyes. As a kind of punishment for his vengefulness, he falls through the floor into a pool of water and is killed by the Monster (Boris Karloff), who has survived there, burned and dangerous. Shortly after, the Monster throws Maria’s mother to her death. At each murder, Whale cuts to a sleepy owl looking passively on, a typically quaint touch that contrasts with the script’s blunt description of a rat “quivering in a crevice between the stones.” The Hays Office had protested that showing a rat “has in the past proved offensive,” so Whale improved the scene by using the incongruous owl instead.
For the most part, Whale’s humor in Bride of Frankenstein is witty and off-beat, but because of his fondness for Una O’Connor, he encourages her to greater excess, even, than she showed in Vie Invisible Man. She plays Minnie, a servant whose comments and screams throw several scenes off-balance, irritating and distracting more than they amuse. Just after the deaths of Maria’s parents, the Monster stands quietly behind Minnie until she turns, screeches, and runs off howling. Later, the pompous Burgomaster (E. E. Clive) tells Minnie to “shut up,” a bit of business borrowed from Vie Invisible Man and not part of Bride of Frankenstein’s script.
Soon, Frankenstein has recovered enough to converse with Elizabeth (now played
by Valerie Hobson). He tells her, “I dreamed of being the first to give to the world the secret that God is so jealous of—the formula for life. … It may be that I’m intended to know the secret of life. It may be part of the divine plan!” But Elizabeth calls his work “blasphemous and wicked,” adding, “It’s the Devil that prompts you. It’s death, not life, that is in it all and at the end of it all.” Having linked death with the Devil, Elizabeth unknowingly juxtaposes both with Pretorius. “When you rave of your insane desire to create living men from the dust of the dead, a strange apparition has seemed to appear in the room. It comes, a figure like Death, and each time it comes more clearly, nearer. It seems to be reaching out for you, as if it would take you away from me. There it is—look—there!”This speech climaxes with a knocking at the door and a shot of the cloaked, death-like figure of Pretorius seeking admittance.
To Minnie, Pretorius declares that he has come “on a secret matter of grave importance,” which the servant reports to her master as “on a secret grave matter.” Aside from being an amusing pun, this phrase—coming when it does—further connects the intruder with death. We soon learn that Pretorius had been a doctor of philosophy at the university, but was booted out. “Booted, my dear Baron,” he declares, relishing his own prissy superiority, “is the word—for knowing—too much.” Inexplicably, Pretorius and Frankenstein talk as if the Monster is alive, without knowing it for certain or even acting concerned.
Pretorius takes Frankenstein to see the tiny figures he has created and keeps in jars: a King, a Queen, an Archbishop, a Devil, a Ballerina, and a Mermaid. (The shooting script called for a seventh figure, a baby, “already twice as big as the Queen, and looking as if it might develop into a Boris Karloff. It is pulling a flower to pieces.” Wisely, Whale dropped both the baby and the scripts self-conscious flippancy.) Pretorius is a manipulative God figure who gave these beings life, determined their identities, and controls their actions. He is also archly disdainful of them, which is revealing of Pretorius and probably of Whale, who conceived of them in the first place.
The King, a parody of the male sex drive, scrambles out of his glass “home” at every opportunity, trying to reach the Queen. Pretorius cavalierly picks him up with tweezers, drops him back in his bottle, and places a dish on top. “Even royal amours are a nuisance,” he declares. (It is hardly coincidental that this figure resembles King Henry VIII, the womanizer portrayed in 1933 by Charles Laughton, who happened to be a homosexual, Eba Lanchester’s husband, and an actor in The Old Dark House.) Pretorius further reveals his purely academic interest in heterosexuality when he speaks of the mermaid, an experiment with seaweed. “Science, like Love, has her little surprises,” he comments mockingly. In this context, one should note that the script’s title page bears a quotation from William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” (Songs of Experience, 1794): “So I turned to the Garden of Love / That so many sweet flowers bore; / And I saw it was filled with graves.”
Whale satirizes religion by having the Archbishop discovered asleep; when awakened, he leaps up and gives blessings with an empty, mechanical gesture. The film’s mockery even extends to high art, as Pretorius quips that his ballerina “won’t dance to anything but Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song,’ and it gets so monotonous.” In fact, the only figure for whom Pretorius has any respect is the Devil, and the reason is clear. “There’s a certain resemblance to me, don’t you think? Or do I flatter myself?” He then adds, “Sometimes I have wondered—” and the script leaves the sentence unfinished, but in the film he completes his thought:”—whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all Devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.” At the end of this scene, in a section edited out, Pretorius s assistant Karl (Dwight Frye) enters the room, catches a glimpse of the figures, and declares to another assistant, “He
is the Devil, I tell you!”
Several times in his early scenes, Pretorius—the witty Devil-God—cynically blasphemes. Speaking of his pathetic human dolls, he says,”l also have created life, as they say, in God’s own image.” He urges Henry to follow the lead of nature, adding derisively, “or of God, if you like your Bible stories.” (In the script, the line reads, “if you are fond of your fairy tales,” but the Hays Office found this too “derogatory.” On the face of it, “Bible stories” is innocent enough, but Ernest Thesiger’s voice could give any dialogue a haughty, condescending twist.) At one point, Pretorius drinks a toast “to a new world of Gods and Monsters,” making a profane link between the two. Frankenstein, a comparatively reverent challenger of God’s preeminence, is more repelled than attracted by what Pretorius represents. “I want no more of this Hell’s spawn,” he asserts.
Part of a conversation between Frankenstein and Pretorius illustrates how carefully Whale divided his dialogue scenes into shots. With both characters seated, there is virtually no action, but editing gives the footage variety and visual energy, while the changes from shot to shot control the emphasis placed on each part of Pretorius’s speech:
[Long shot of Pretorius] You think I’m mad. Perhaps I am. [Medium close-up of Pretorius] But listen, Henry Frankenstein. While you were digging in your graves, piecing together dead tissues, I, my dear pupil, went for my material to the source of life.
[Medium close-up of Frankenstein] I grew my creatures—[Close-up of Pretorius]—like cultures. Grew them, as Nature does, from seed. [Extreme long shot of both men] But still, you did achieve results that I have missed. Now think, what a world-astounding collaboration we should be—[Medium close-up of Pretorius]—you and I, together.
This pattern of shots is far more imaginative than the standard setups called for by the script: a close-up of Pretorius and a medium shot of Pretorius and Frankenstein. The carefully structured Frankenstein had alternated scenes of its different characters and then had their paths cross. Bride of Frankenstein, however, settles for a long segment devoted to the scientists, followed by an even longer one detailing the Monster’s adventures. These two sets of characters and events remain separate for much of the film’s length, creating a sense that each exists in an isolated world and leaving the viewer without a clear grasp of chronology and parallel action. Only as the picture nears its climax do the two lines of development merge and strike sparks off each other. When we leave Frankenstein and Pretorius to rejoin the Monster, the mood shifts from decadence and perversity to more straightforward emotions. The Monster is dis
covered moving through a forest in the daylight, so he must have killed time for many hours after emerging from the mill. He pauses at a stream to drink and, repelled and angered by his reflection in the water, he splashes it away in a major step toward self awareness. The Monster then makes friendly overtures toward a shepherdess, but she screams at the sight of him, loses her balance, and falls into the stream. Not yet totally alienated, the Monster rescues her, but she misinterprets his grasp. (Here, Whale sneaks through a blatant continuity error, intercutting a shot of the Monster holding his hand over the girl’s mouth with close-ups in which her mouth is uncovered and she screams in panic.) The girl’s cries attract two passing hunters who fire at the Monster, and he, wounded, flees into the woods. The hunters rouse the villagers, who set out after the hapless creature. For the two forest scenes, Whale stylized his sets to reflect the action that occurs in each. The scene by the stream has a lush, pastoral quality created as much by the set ting’s foliage and underbrush as by the herd of sheep and the musical score. In contrast, the mob pursues the Monster across a barren landscape dominated by trees as tall, straight, and bare as telephone poles. Superbly visualized by Whale, this chase evokes the excitement and pathos of the first film as the Monster, a formidable adversary, crouches above his enemies and pushes over a boulder, crushing several men. The sequence ends with the Monster overpowered and tied to a post. Whale s staging of this suggests a crucifixion, as the Monster is raised upright and held for a few seconds before being dropped into a wagon.The editing emphasizes this moment by using six
shots, in place of the single setup indicated in the script.
• Medium long shot of the Monster being raised into position.
• Closer shot of the Monster, upright.
• Extreme long shot of the Monster, the crowd, and the wagon.
• Long shot of the Monsters full figure, as he starts to fall.
• Extreme long shot, as the Monster falls into the wagon.
• Close shot of the Monster, pinned down by a pitchfork placed around his neck.
In this way, Whale forcefully conveys the scripts description of the Monster “raised against the sky, a terrible but pathetic sight—friendless, persecuted and almost crucified.”
Brought triumphantly to town, the Monster is placed in a cell and chained to a
massive garroting chair. Again his pain is emphasized, as Whale cuts between the hammering of the chains into the stone floor and the Monsters face as he screams in angry agony. The scene’s emotional force is great enough to obscure the fact that hammering the ends of the chains would surely not inflict such pain. The Monster then regains his composure, breaks loose, and wreaks havoc on the village. By now, the audience is rooting for him, so his escape has the desired effect, even though someone able to snap chains and rip a heavy door from its hinges would surely not have been held by the ropes that bound him to the post.
The impact of the Monster’s imprisonment is also diminished by the presence of
Minnie, who peers into the dungeon and calls out, “I’d hate to find him under my
bed at night. He’s a nightmare in the daylight, he is!”When the Monster reaches the street, the script had one man raise his gun to fire, then lose his nerve and start to run; the Monster catches him, “shakes him as a terrier a rat, and throws him to the pavement,” trampling his body as he moves on. Whale, probably on the set, weakens this action with comedy by having Minnie thrust the man into the Monster’s path, saying, “Why don’t you shoot him?” and then running for safety herself. The rest of the Monster’s rampage is depicted indirectly, in shots of the villagers discovering bodies— a choice which saves time and also softens the Monster’s character. A dead girl, in her communion veil and white dress, is found outside a church, killed by our monstrous Christ. An elderly man and his wife lie dead inside their house (although groans were added to the sound track to suggest that they still live). Omitted from the final print are shots of the child’s mother carrying the girl’s body, of a female corpse lying in a mortuary, and of a dog howling over the body of its master, whose fishing pole lies beside him in the woods.
In one lengthy sequence that Universal deleted, the Burgomaster conducts an
inquiry into the various deaths. After questioning several villagers, he determines that no one actually saw a murder committed.”Monster indeed!” declares the Burgomas ter. “It’s all nonsense and poppycock.” Ordering the courtroom cleared, he adds, “Let me hear no more of this monster business!” As the Burgomaster mutters to himself about the people’s foolishness, the Monster appears in a window and, reaching through, grabs the skeptic, drags him outside, and “cufis him soundly, first from one side, then the other—and drops him, then turns away.” Among those in flight are Uncle and Auntie Glutz (Gunnis Davis. Tempe Piggott), whose nephew, Karl (Dwight Frye), has gotten an idea. After observing his uncle remove a bag of money hidden in his bed, Karl strangles the old man, takes some of the money, and leaves. Then Auntie Glutz discovers her husband’s body and the sequence ends as Karl says to himself, “Very convenient to have a Monster around. This is quite a nice cottage—I shouldn’t be surprised if he visited Auntie, too.”
Whale may have cut the Burgomaster’s investigation because of its similarity to
Inspector Bird’s inquiry in The Invisible Man and because the Monster’s semi comic “punishment” of the Burgomaster would have weakened the mood. Also, the Hays Office had wanted the number of killings reduced, and specifically urged Universal to cut the subplot involving the Glutz family. But because these scenes distract from the Monster’s adventures anyhow, they aren’t missed.
With this footage gone, we follow the Monster without interruption as he—in an
unscripted scene—encounters some gypsies camped in the forest. The Monster seems to ask for food, but the gypsies flee in terror. He reaches for a piece of meat still cooking over a fire and burns his hand, a new contact with flames that drives him back into the night. The scene effectively concludes the Monster’s escape, but it leaves behind an inconsistency: Having gone out of his way to attack the people in town, the Monster here meekly “asks” for help.
Despite the cuts, the Monster has already attacked more people in this film than in the first film, yet Whale does not dwell on those deeds. Instead, he emphasizes the mistreatment of the Monster by others. No longer the uncontrolled embodiment of our nightmares, the Monster has become more victim than menace, an “outsider” persecuted by a society that refuses to understand and accept him. As a result, the Monster arouses greater audience sympathy.
Attracted to a hut by the light and the music of a violin coming from within, the
Monster remains outside, wary. When the blind hermit who lives there senses his presence and goes to the door, the Monster still hesitates, expecting the usual fear and abuse. Instead, because of the gentle blind man’s affliction, the Monster is for the first time treated like a human being. The hermit feeds and reassures him and gives him a place to sleep. This character has strong religious associations—he dresses like a monk, plays the “Ave Maria,” and seems to have a crucifix on every wall—but unlike the tiny Archbishop, the hermit is presented without ridicule or irony. Beside the Monster’s cot, he prays: “Our Father, I thank Thee that in Thy great mercy Thou hast taken pity on ‘my great loneliness and now, out of the silence of the night, hast brought two of Thy lonely children together and sent me a friend, to be a light unto mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble.” The “Ave Maria” builds in intensity on the soundtrack and the Monster, having finally discovered warmth and security, sheds a tear.
All of this verges on the maudlin, but after the previous events the audience shares the Monster’s feeling of relief, and Whale’s careful handling keeps the scene in control. However, as the final shot fades out, a crucifix on the wall remains visible, glowing with a garish neon brightness. This touch, which pushes the scene’s mood over the edge into bathos, was a last-minute idea of the editor, Ted Kent, who decided it would be consistent with Whale’s aims; Kent had the laboratory print the fade so that the crucifix remained unaffected86 and Whale probably did not even know about theeffect until it was too late.
The amount of time that passes between this and the next scene is vague. The
script states that a few months have passed. In the actual scene the hermit’s line,
“Remember our lesson?” implies that more than a day has gone by, yet the Monster’s reactions to bread and wine are clearly those of a first encounter. After eating and drinking—and repeating the words “bread,” “drink,” and “friends”—the Monster tries a cigar. At first, he enjoys it, but on the set Whale modified this idyllic scene with a touch of comic realism, a close-up of the Monster starting to feel sick. Because the Monster reacts with alarm at the flare of a match and is reluctant to approach the blazing fireplace, the hermit explains that fire can be both good and bad; the Monster weighs the words, then reaches for the hermit’s violin, saying, “Good!” He understands the concepts.
The Monster is seated at his friend’s feet, puffing happily on a cigar and listening to the music, when two hunters blunder into this refuge and bring him suddenly down to earth. One of the hunters (John Carradine) declares, “This is the fiend who has murdered half the countryside,” and the other adds, “He isn’t human. . .. Frankenstein made him out of dead bodies,” thereby adding another bit of information to the Monsters self-knowledge. Violence erupts, and the hunters pull the hermit from his home. During the struggle, fire spreads into the room and, changing from “good” to “bad,” engulfs the Monster in a new inferno. When he finally reaches the door and safety, he is again alone, his brief exposure to pleasure ended. Standing quietly, he makes the familiar questioning gesture with his hands and calls out in vain for his only friend. It is an affecting moment.
The two scenes with the hermit are at least as important as any in Bride of Franken stein and should not be minimized in favor of the more off-beat ones that follow. They establish the Monster’s humanity, denying for all time that his “criminal brain” (never referred to in the film) had doomed him to villainy. The carefully depicted interaction of these two characters is both touching and amusing, and because the Monster has experienced this paradise, we understand why he helps Pretorius force Frankenstein to create a friend for him; later, having experienced kindness and companionship, he feels this new friend s rejection with a particularly sharp pain.
Abruptly deprived of a stability that came from understanding and acceptance,
the Monster resumes the aimless journey of his existence. In the next scene, which heightens his feeling of bitter futility, the Monster emerges by a road just as some children pass; he pauses and, at the sight of him, they scream and flee. Unmentioned by the script, but prominent in the shot, is a roadside shrine with a crucifix that stands near him. Then, once more pursued by villagers, the Monster finds himself in a cemetery where, according to the script, he encounters “a huge Christus” and “sees it as a human figure tortured as he was in the wood. He dashes himself against the figure, grappling with it. The figure is over-turned. He tries to rescue the figure from the cross.” As if in response to his sympathy, the fall of thestatue reveals an underground crypt, which offers the Monster protection from the approaching mob.
After reading the script, the Hays Office evidently felt that the Monster’s actions
might be viewed as irreverent, so it urged the filmmakers to substitute “some other type of monument” for the statue of Christ. Whale complied and used the figure of a bishop instead, although the crucifix is clearly visible in the background. This change, of course, eliminates the possibility of making the intended point about the Monster’s empathy and rescue attempt (which might, in any event, have been too subjective a motivation to depict clearly). As a result, in the reconceived scene the Monster appears to attack the statue, which replaces a positive urge with a negative one; in its hypersensitivity, the Hays Office had converted a moment that was pro-Christ into one that is starkly anti-Church. Also, it keeps the underground vault from being a reward and a place of protection, placing the emphasis instead on its nature as a chamber of death, where the Monster feels at home and declares, “I love dead! Hate living!”
Actually, such bitter resentment at hypocritical goodness is consistent with Whale’s feelings, as revealed in the comments of Dr. Pretorius and the actions of his tiny Arch bishop. In fact, the origin of the cemetery scene’s final version can be found, three years before, in an unused treatment for The Invisible Man by Governeur Morris, a writer with whom Whale had collaborated. In it, a mutilated man is so physically repugnant to the woman he loves that she takes refuge in a convent. In an effort to overcome his appearance, he becomes invisible and instigates a reign of terror to make her return. “He is baffled by the spectacle of the holy cross round her neck as she approaches. In a demonic frenzy against all holy elements which seek to refute his own hellish impulses, he seeks to destroy a religious monument towering above them.” Perhaps the version of the scene in Bride of Frankenstein that resulted from the interference of the Hays Office is closer to Whale’s true feelings than the one in the shooting script.
Hidden in the death vault, the Monster observes the arrival of that other death fig
ure, Dr. Pretorius, who has come for a skeleton to use in his new experiment (creating a “mate” for a creature he still has no reason to believe is alive). After completing his work Pretorius declares, “I rather like this place,” and remains in its atmosphere of death and decay; next to a neat pile of female bones topped by a skull, he sets out his dinner, a chicken and a bottle of wine.
The Monster now steps into view and Pretorius, unruffled, says, “Oh—I thought I
was alone.” He offers the Monster a cigar, adding, “They’re my only weakness.” (He had earlier offered Frankenstein a drink of gin, saying, “It’s my only weakness.” Evidently, he has two “only” weaknesses, one of which jokingly refers back to The Old Dark House.) Pretorius tells the Monster that he will make a woman, a friend for him, and the Monster likes the idea. Evidently anticipating some resistance from Frankenstein, Pretorius decides that he can use the Monster to “add a little force to the argument.” Finally, the film’s two plot threads have been knit together, and in a most appropriate fashion: The figure of Death meets a living corpse in the house of the dead, the God-like Devil and the Devilish Christ come face to face, and the two social outcasts join forces.
We then encounter Henry Frankenstein for the first time since early in the film.
During the interim, he has married Elizabeth, and the couple are about to depart
when Pretorius intrudes. After Elizabeth leaves the room, Pretorius confronts
Frankenstein with the Monster and then secretly sends his new assistant to abduct Elizabeth. This forces Frankenstein to join Pretorius, and they set to work in a larger version of the first film’s tower laboratory.
When a fresh, young heart is needed, Pretorius sends his assistant, Karl, out to murder for one. Frankenstein convinces himself that it comes from an accident victim, and Whale subtly improves on the shooting script to point up this self-deception. In the script, Frankenstein tells Karl to get the heart, adding, “There are always accidental deaths occurring.” Karl replies, “I’ll try,” and leaves. The film’s version of this is the same, except that Frankenstein says, “There are always accidental deaths occurring,” after Karl departs, which makes the line more clearly a rationalization, and Pretorius then responds sardonically, “Always!”
A subsequent discussion of the new heart illustrates Whale’s ability to depict the
interaction of several characters, to imply more than is stated, and to do so in a highlycinematic way.
• [Close-up of Karl.| Karl: “It was a very fresh one.”
• [Medium shot of Pretorius who, worried that Karl will give the truth a away, drops something to distract him.)
• [Close-up of Karl, who turns, startled by the warning noise.]
• [Close-up of Henry, suspicious.] Henry: “Where did you get it?”
• [Close-up of Karl.] Karl: “I gave the gendarme fifty crowns.”
• [Close-up of Henry.] Henry: “What gendarme?”
• [Close-up of Karl, who looks toward Pretorius.] Karl: “It was a—”
• [Close-up of Pretorius mouthing the word “police.”]
• [Close-up of Karl, who finishes his sentence.] Karl:”—police case.”
The scripted version merely noted that the dialogue would be delivered in a medium shot and made no reference to Pretorius.
The actual creation scene allows Whale to take full advantage of his larger budget
and expand on the comparable sequence in Frankenstein. Impressive electrical instruments crackle with anticipation, each in its own shot, and the table containing the body soars majestically to the distant top of the tower laboratory, as the camera stresses the movement by simultaneously descending. When the scientists check gauges and give orders in intense close-ups, side lighting molds their faces atmospherically and the camera tilts slightly. Through it all, the music maintains a pulse-like rhythm that builds tension, infusing the air with the life force that soon will enter the reclining form. At the experiment’s peak, the Monster throws Karl from the high walls—a life is lost as one is gained. The table is lowered and the music, now gende, anticipates what the scientists soon discover: They have succeeded.
The awe one feels in watching this cinematic choreography is only slightly diminished by the Monster’s unmotivated appearance on the roof to attack Karl and by special effects, which, in combining live action with a model tower, render the struggling figures transparent. Nor does it really matter that the music turns a bit too gentle and changes moods a few seconds too soon. The awe is there, but despite the elaborate staging, we have seen it all before and the impact of the first time evades recapture.
A tongue-in-cheek quality soon enters the scene as Frankenstein and Pretorius,
having unwrapped the woman and dressed her in a flowing white gown, present her to the camera. “The bride of Frankenstein,” announces Pretorius, forgetting for the moment to whom the name belongs, and wedding bells peal forth on the soundtrack. However, Whale immediately regains his balance, elaborating on the script with a series of close-ups of the woman as she turns her head stiffly, surveying the world.
She is led to a seat and the Monster enters.There now remains only the playing out of the tragedy, for the outcast remains an outcast, even to his intended “friend.” The Monster’s painfully gained self-knowledge makes the hostility of his ironically labeled “bride” especially acute, to him and to the viewer. “I love dead! Hate living!” he had said, and now, realizing the futility of his existence, he declares, “We belong dead,” and pulls the lever that destroys the tower, returning the two freaks of nature to their origins. His “we” also includes Pretorius, and appropriately so, in view of the many associations of that gaunt figure with death.
Elizabeth has somehow escaped her captivity and, in the shooting script, arrives at the tower in time to die with the others in the explosion. The climax was filmed this way, and in the scene’s brief long shots Frankenstein can still be seen amid the avalanche of debris. However, footage was also shot of the Monster telling Franken stein, “You—go. You—live,” and of Frankenstein and Elizabeth reaching safety. Like Frankenstein, this sequel provides a token happy ending, even though the Monster has no reason to be generous to his creator. In any case, the final impression of the Monster is consistent with Whale’s almost entirely sympathetic attitude. The script has him utter “an ugly cry,” his eyes having “the gleam of a wild vengeance” as he pulls the lever, but in the film’s final close-up the Monster’s eyes gleam only with elegiac tears.
Whale’s ambivalence about making Bride of Frankenstein shows in the final product: It both refuses to take itself seriously and contains some remarkably serious and moving scenes. “He knew it was never going to be Frankenstein,” recalled David Lewis. “He knew it was never going to be a picture to be proud of. So he tried to do all sorts of things that would make it memorable.”The result is flawed, but it also is a success, with a wider, more flamboyant scope than Frankenstein and a more daring conception of the Monster. In a sense, it is less a sequel than an alternative to its predecessor. Although not as consistent a film as Frankenstein, it is equally memorable in its deliberate mixture of tones, and so it finally did become a picture of which Whale could be proud.
Bride of Frankenstein turned out to be the last film for which Whale gathered his
extensive family of collaborators, though not his last good film. It also was his last
horror picture. Universal did announce, in June 1935, that Whale would direct Dracula’s Daughter, but although R. C. Sherriff worked on the script throughout the fall, Whale ultimately kept his distance, leaving Lambert Hillyer to carry out the assignment in 1936.
Whale’s total output of films was wide-ranging; the horror films are only a small part of it—a part that, if taken in isolation, can be misleading about the nature of his talents and interests. However, these four films did permit Whale to be more personal than he was in most of his other films. Because horror had not yet been defined as a genre, there were few precedents to follow. Whale was able to create several new models, and in the process of developing them he placed much of himself-—or, rather, his view of himself—in the central characters. Taken together, these figures compose a multifaceted self-portrait.
Whale changed both Frankenstein and the Monster into characters different from
the ones he had inherited, turning them into people who interested and, presumably, satisfied him. For all their superficial differences, it is revealing that they have one major trait in common: Each functions as an outsider, someone generally set apart from and derided by humanity. Henry Frankenstein is set apart by intelligence, imagination, and sensitivity, but for him these qualities do not automatically result in isolation. A secure position in the social family awaits him, but pride and ambition prevent his accepting it. He refuses to compromise his nature—to deny his interests or temper his goals. Instead, he gives full vent to his distinctive abilities. In so doing, he consciously accepts the inability of society to understand or accept him (“I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy”), and he deliberately isolates himself from the world (“I believe in this monster, as you call it, and if you don’t—well, you must leave me alone”). Of what does Frankenstein’s compulsive, solitary work consist? He seeks to bring into existence that which never existed before; to create something unfamiliar, something new.
Frankenstein shares this psychological and emotional position with Whale, who
also willfully followed his own nature, who set himself apart from his mundane working-class background by accepting his homosexuality and engaging in artistic creation; ultimately, success permitted—and demanded—that he completely control every facet of his films. Seen in this light, Frankenstein’s disappointment in the result of his creative effort echoes the inevitable response of all true artists: When the work takes on a concrete form, it somehow never matches the nebulous and profound ideal that existed in the creator’s mind.
Frankenstein, the scientist-rebel, indirectly reflects Whale, the artist-rebel, and in
Bride of Frankenstein’s prologue we find three artist-rebels who, in the shooting script, are clearly conceived as variations on Whale, himself: elegant figures disdainful of society and traditional morals. The demure Mary Shelley describes herself, Percy, and Lord Byron as “infidels, scoffers at all marriage ties, believing only in living fully and freely in whatever direction the heart dictates.” As a result, “I am already ostracized as a free thinker,” while Percy Shelley—”that pink and white innocence, gentle as a dove”— was “thrown out of Oxford University as a menace to morality . . . and reviled by society as a monster himself.” The cheerful Lord Byron adds, “We’re all for shocking ’em—eh, Shelley? ‘The world is a bundle of hay; Mankind arc the asses that pull.’ “These three consciously place themselves above and apart from society and, in the process, court its antagonism. For all the inherent arrogance of their rebellion, however, these people do not seem like offensive monsters. They are, instead, intelligent, sophisticated, gentle, and—above all—creative. (Most of this material was probably shot, but cut before release.)
Frankenstein’s Monster casts Whale’s self-portrait in a different light. He too is an
outsider, but not by choice. His physical characteristics—over which he has no control—inspire fear and hatred in the “normal” people he encounters, who instantly draw erroneous conclusions, who cannot see past the superficial facts of appearance and reputation to recognize the true self beyond. This, in turn, forces the Monster initially to defend himself and ultimately to develop a resentful aggressiveness, which then gives society further evidence to support its first reactions. The film’s viewers should recognize in the Monster’s reaction to sunlight a sensitive nature, an attraction to the beautiful and the delicate. But just as Henry Frankenstein tried to achieve an elusive goal, the Monster in his way is doomed to failure as he seeks to grasp that which can never be grasped, to possess and absorb that which will forever be outside himself.
The hermit scenes in Bride of Frankenstein are also interesting for what they reveal about Whale’s identification with the Monster.This is the only gende and honest relationship the Monster experiences in the film. Two lonely outcasts have found each other. “I will look after you,” says the hermit, “and you shall comfort me.”Together, they settle into a contented companionship; they have all they need, as long as the rest of the world remains shut out. But society will not leave them alone, and it disrupts their stability. The sincerity of this relationship contrasts with the pairing of the effete Pretorius with Henry Frankenstein, whom he lures away from his fiancée; these two form a much less wholesome couple, who serve as “parents” to an artificially created “child.” The appealing combination of the Monster and the hermit also stands in sharp contrast to the grotesque incompatibility of the Monster and his female counterpart, as well as to Mary Shelley’s “nasty spirit” and the tiny King’s parodied virility. Only Henry and Elizabeth, the standard romantic couple, are free of such negative overtones, although Whale revealingly intended to kill them off at the film’s end.
In Frankenstein (and, to a lesser extent, in Bride), the villagers—as in most traditional horror films—band together to rid society of a threat to its stability, an abnormal intrusion, and to reestablish a condition of balance and consistency. However, Franken stein does not depict this process favorably. Yes, the Monster has become a nightmarish menace, but Whale treats the villagers like a lynch mob, engaged in what he in 1931 called “the pagan sport of a mountain man-hunt.”87 Lost in their anger and hatred, caught up in a mass compulsion to destroy, they become so unthinking that, when the Monster is trapped in the mill, they eagerly set it on fire and burn him alive; during this climax, Whale again and again cuts not to the triumphant villagers but to their frightened, helpless, and agonized victim. Frankenstein’s true monster is not Henry’s creation but society itself; in Bride, the villagers only capture the Monster, but Whale maintains his outlook by turning the scene into a kind of crucifixion.
Both Frankenstein and the Monster embody the director’s view of himself and his
position in life and work, but Sir William Porterhouse (in The Old Dark House) and
Jack Griffin (in The Invisible Man) reflect a slightly different aspect of Whale—a compulsion to rise above his humble origins and prove himself by gaining status and material success. Sir William, the earthy businessman from the industrial North of England, explains how he and his wife had been snubbed by the gentry. “That’s what started me makin’ money,” he declares. “I swore I’d smash those fellows and their wives who wouldn’t give my Lucy a kind word. Hah! And I have smashed ’em—at any rate, most of ’em.” For Sir William, like Whale, financial achievement is less an end in itself than a means of punishing those who had been so disdainful.
Griffin, too, rebels against his economic status. “I wanted to do something tremendous,” he tells his fiancée, “to gain wealth and fame and honor. … I was so pitifully poor. I had nothing to offer.” Nothing, that is, except intelligence and ability and determination. Resenting how others had made him feel inferior, Griffin develops a heightened sense of superiority (“He’s got the brain of a tapeworm, a maggot, beside mine”) and a need for power that can grant him revenge on ordinary society (“to make the world grovel at my feet”). Whale, like these men, started life a poor and insignificant person, possessing only a keen mind and innate talent, and like them he felt the disdain of others; he shared their need to achieve something significant and, ultimately, to punish the world.
Neither character quite captures Whale’s position, however, for the power he
gained was not an ability to wreck trains, torment people physically, or crush them financially. Rather, it involved a calculated positioning of himself apart from and above others; then, from that privileged vantage point, he revealed to the world that he refused to take it seriously. This was conveyed less through the words he used than through his coy, overstated, not-quite-sarcastic manner of speech, a manner that blurred the distinction between honesty and irony; he could simultaneously mean what he said and sound as if he didn’t mean it.
For example, after greeting Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester upon their
arrival in Hollywood, Whale declared, “You don’t know how wonderful it is, when
you’ve had nothing, to be able to pour gold through your hair!” In another instance, Whale recalled for Curtis Harrington how Boris KarlofF had summoned him to see his makeup for The Mummy (1932). When Karloff’s face was unveiled, Whale declared, “This is the most marvelous thing ever seen on the silver sheet!” Whale’s use of “silver sheet” instead of “silver screen” is typically arch, but neither statement is particularly witty; to understand their distinctive quality, one must imagine them being spoken with the vowels drawn out in a kind of ostentatiously insincere drawl.
Ultimately, Whale’s manner reflected his disdain for life and his separation from it, but he usually stayed just short of sarcasm and condescension. Thus, Gloria Stuart, who socialized with Whale during the early 1930s, could say that he “had a very sharp sense of humor, and he could be very cutting, too. [But] he was charming and relaxed” and “a wonderful companion.”90 At times, though, he could be perceived as crossing the line if the listener felt strongly about the subject of a comment. When Whale said of Boris Karloff, “Oh, he was a truck driver” Elsa Lanchester—who liked Karloff—considered the statement “rather nasty” and “derogatory.”91
This aspect of Whale emerges forcefully in The Old Dark House and Bride of
Frankenstein through the wry irony of Ernest Thesiger’s characters. According to Elsa Lanchester, Thesiger the man was exactly the same in the films as in life—”prissy and bitter and witty, too.”92 He was, she said on another occasion, “very acid-tongued—not a nasty person at all, just acid.r9i Valerie Hobson found him not only “terribly funny” with “an amusing face, an amusing twinkle,” but also “a terribly sweet man” with “a kind and gentle heart.”94 These English women perhaps understood Thesiger better than did Whale’s American companion David Lewis, who disliked Thesiger: “He was just as nasty as he could be! He hated my guts when he first met me. He came to the house for dinner one night and treated me like … the butler or the secretary.”95
Lewis felt that Whale’s interest in Thesiger was mostly due to “the fact that he was related to royalty.”96 Ms. Lanchester, however, speculated that Whale enjoyed Thesiger’s company because he empathized with his exaggerated manner, for Thesiger acted on the outside the way Whale felt under the surface.97 In partial support of this theory, Gloria Stuart confirms that Whale spoke with some of the archness and irony that one hears, in a more extreme way, in Thesiger’s voice.98 Certainly, aside from their different economic and social origins, Whale and Thesiger had much in common. At school, Thesiger was “bullied by my contemporaries and disliked by my masters, both, probably, for the same reason, namely that I possessed a somewhat unbridled tongue
combined with an uncomfortable knack of finding out people’s weak spots. This does not make for popularity.” Consequently, he spent his childhood “painting or wande ing about with other physical outcasts, or, more frequently still, by myself. … To be unusual or unconventional was the one sin not forgiven by the British schoolboy.”99
Later, during four years spent at an art school, he finally was happy. “For the first
time in my life I was among people who were amused and not scandalized by any
odd thing that I might take it into my head to do. Did I sit in the window threading
bead-chains instead of painting, there were plenty of people to tell me that I was
‘deliciously original.’ Did I command the other students to tickle the palms of my
hands with their paintbrushes during the ‘rests,’ I was considered rather attractively decadent and sybaritic.”100 Although he frequency performed in amateur or charity theatrical productions, Thesiger considered himself a professional painter until he concluded that he would “never make a fortune with my brush” and shifted to acting full-time.101 By 1915, when he enlisted in His Majesty’s Army, Thesiger had already established his lifelong style of viewing life as theater, with himself as a player who observed his own actions from a discreet distance. He readily adapted to his role of soldier: “I seemed entirely to have forgotten my real identity, but at the same time I never could quite forget that it was only a character part that I was playing.”102
Whale carefully crafted the roles of Horace Femm and Dr. Pretorius for Thesiger,
so when the former describes saying grace as one of “my sister’s strange tribal habits” we can perhaps hear an echo of Whale’s own style of speech, and when Pretorius states that life might “be much more amusing if we were all Devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good,” we probably hear Whale’s opinion of society’s righteousness. One obituary of Thesiger summed him up by saying, “He never moved without grace or spoke without elegance, but implicit in his performances there was a quizzical mockery of those qualities.”103 This statement could also describe the style and essence that Whale sought for himself, and which to a considerable extent he attained.
A true psychological and emotional portrait of James Whale can only be achieved
by combining elements drawn from all these characters: helpless persecution, intense commitment and ambition, powerful resentment, prim passivity, and cynical wit. The range of his personality was extensive, but all of these factors merge in the form of an outsider who hovers on the sidelines of life and society, shadowed by the prospect of doom and destruction.
These aspects maintained a balance within Whale during the 1930s, when he felt
secure in the protective and reinforcing cocoon of “Junior” Laemmle’s confidence, the familiarity of his collaborators, and the acceptance of his friends. When the Laemmles lost control of Universal in 1936, the studio passed into less sympathetic hands, and Whale never again received the combination of support and independence he required to work at his best. He made some films for other companies and some for the “new” Universal, but they only occasionally reveal his individual style and personality. In effect, he had accepted—or given in to—the standard directorial formula. In 1941, the struggle no longer seemed worth the limited gain, and Whale retired from films.
The motion picture medium fascinated Whale, to whom directing was, in David
Lewis’s words, “a sublime job which satisfied him inside and made it possible for him to function as a human being.”104 When he lost the power to control his working environment he also lost the ability to use his creative talent in the medium he loved. Whale’s sense of futility increased, and he retreated, like Horace Femm, to his mansion—the only setting left for him to design.
At one point, when David O. Selznick offered him a job, Whale told Lewis, “I was
quite embarrassed, because I’m not a beginner and I don’t like to be treated like a
beginner.” In the mid-1950s, RJCO considered making H. G. Wells’s Vie Food of the Gods, a novel Whale had wanted to film, so the producer contacted him. “Jimmy, at that time, was disillusioned, unhappy . . . very lonely for films,” explained David Lewis, but his professional confidence had disappeared and “he was frightened to death.” After meeting with the producer, “Jimmy came home and said to me, ‘I don’t think I want to do it. I really don’t think I want to do it.’ “”« Living well on his investments, Whale became a dilettante, directing only a few minor plays and a short film that was never released.
When Whale took up with a younger man, David Lewis moved out of their home,
although the two remained friends. “Later on,” said Lewis, “he filled his house full of what I thought were sad young men, but I wouldn’t judge him on it.”106 Whale painted in his studio and entertained. To an extent he did enjoy himself, as he put his past success behind him. At any rate, Curtis Harrington recalled, he did not want to be out there fighting for projects.107 Instead, he led a life of aimless irony.
In 1956, Whale suffered several strokes and was twice hospitalized, for two weeks in September and for thirteen days the next month. When he returned home, Whale physically wasn’t able to paint, so Lewis bought him a camera, hoping that would provide an artistic outlet, but he never used it. He seemed to have lost both the interest and the ability to create. From 19 January to 23 March 1957, Whale spent a total of four weeks at Las Encinas Sanitarium, which began a period of dependence on prescription drugs. Finally, on 29 May 1957, he wrote a message to “all I love,” explaining that “for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills The future is just old age and pain.”108 With that he obtained the peace he sought by drowning himself in his swimming pool.
At the peak of his Hollywood career, Whale exerted complete control over every
facet of his films; “I don’t believe he could have worked any other way,” concluded Ted Kent.109 Therefore, when he lost that power Whale simply ended his career. His personal life reveals the same kind of control, as he precisely defined both himself and his environment. Because Whale could not live any other way, when he felt even that ability start to slip away, he chose to make one last use of what power remained, ending his life as he had lived it, with an act of self-definition.
During his last fifteen years, Whale had set himself apart from his film career and he never lived to find his work truly appreciated. Although that career was regrettably short, during it he created many works of enduring merit. Not the least among them are his four horror films, which remain models of the genre and of sensitive movie making—and through which viewers can encounter the essence of this enigmatic and private individual.