Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Hauntingly Beautiful Films of James Whale
I just recently read A New World of Gods and Monsters, an outstanding and exhaustive biography of director James Whale written by James Curtis. Although the British Whale helmed a vast array of movies and plays in his career, he's best know for directing horror classics like Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House (which starred Gloria Stuart yeeeears before Titanic). The book inspired me to revisit the Frankenstein films last weekend for the first time in years.
I knew I loved The Bride of Frankenstein, which is a much jauntier and more comical effort than its predecessor, but I was equally impressed with the original this time. Stylishly directed and handsomely produced, it's a lush and supremely dark story that must have really freaked out audiences in 1931. (I still think it's creepy as all get out, immersed as it is in the world of cemeteries, alleyways, and cavernous laboratories.) The cast is uniformly excellent, with Colin Clive an appropriately brooding and obsessive Dr. Frankenstein, Mae Clarke as his bewildered and anxious bride Elizabeth, and Fred Kerr as an amusingly ornery Baron Frankenstein. Of course, Boris Karloff steals the show in a legendary role as the monster, and while his appearance, mannerisms, and guttural growls may be the stuff of parody now, he remains a startling presence onscreen. As Curtis notes in his book, Whales stages the creature's first entrance for maximum effect. The monster backs into the room, then slowly turns around as a succession of increasingly close shots (a trademark Whale flourish) reveal his ghoulish visage. Jack P. Pierce's iconic makeup frightened the public upon the movie's release; indeed, it frightened most of the cast and crew, and retains a powerful effect to this day. Watching the monster stalk in the background as an oblivious Elizabeth paces her room, I couldn't help remembering a thousand latter day slashers containing the same set-up. But here, nearly eighty years ago, was where it all began. Despite these ghastly details, Whale's success with the material stems from his deep empathy with Frankenstein's creation. According to Curtis, an associate who read the script revealed that he "felt sorry for the damned monster," and this comment unlocked the key to the material. The pitifully misunderstood creature does not set out to create havoc; even his most heinous act, the drowning of a young girl (a scene often targeted by censors) stems from his naive belief that she will float like the flowers they've been tossing in the water. Indeed, it is the vicious and ignorant reaction of the villagers and Frankenstein's own humpbacked assistant that dooms the monster to brutality and fiery destruction (or so we think).
Of course, the massive success of Frankenstein had Universal clamoring for a studio, but it was not until 1935 that Whale relented and gave them one. While Curtis revealed Whale's initial belief that he had nothing new to do with the story, the director ultimately hit on a stroke of inspiration within the original Mary Shelley novel. In the book, Frankenstein's creation begs for a companion to assuage his loneliness, but the would-be bride is destroyed before she can be revived. The fancifully titled Bride of Frankenstein would expand on this plot line to unforgettable effect. This time, the script was imbued with a heavy dose of gallows humor, and opens with a hokey and yet wholly appropriate prologue depicting Mary Shelley regaling her friends Percy Shelley and Lord Byron with the continuation of her ghoulish tale on a stormy night in Switzerland. (The three friends were famously recounting ghost stories when they hit on the idea to write some of their own, leading Mary to write her famous novel. I somehow doubt their banter was quite as polished and zippy as was depicted here, though.) The sequel's plot brings in another strikingly mad scientist, the comically sinister Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a wonderfully flamboyant performance). Una O'Connor steals most of the show, meanwhile, as the hilariously dramatic and screeching housekeeper Minnie. (That Minnie's terrified hysterics have the audience rolling in the aisles mere moments after the monster kills two people is a testament to both her comedic gifts and Whale's deft balance between humor and horror.) Frankenstein is tempted back into more forbidden experiments by Pretorius, who initially appeals to the doctor's still raging curiosity before resorting to kindapping to force his compliance. Meanwhile, the surviving monster escapes the ruins of the windmill where he and Frankenstein clashed in the original film, killing off the drowned girl's parents in the process. (I love the bit with him drowning the father while an owl looks on dispassionately, truly a clever and unsettling touch.) The monster wanders aimlessly until he encounters a blind hermit (a perfectly cast O.P. Heggie) who shows him kindness and teaches him how to speak and enjoy life's pleasures. Karloff was opposed to this development, according to Curtis, but Whale's instincts were correct. The creature is further humanized and fleshed out, expanding on the themes of the first film and showing the audience that the monster is to be sympathized more than feared. In fact, it is only the intrusion of violent villagers that shatters the new found peace and harmony between the creature and the hermit, leading to one of the most poignant images in all of cinema: Karloff stumbling out of the hut's burning ruins, wailing "Friend, friend!" Their relationship has been the subject of some critical speculation, especially in light of Whale's homosexuality. (My queer identity professor even showed us a clip from the film, emphasizing how tender and loving the characters' first meeting is.) The monster himself has struck some as a queer allegory, a misfit who is persecuted simply for being different. While Curtis balked at any such interpretations of the material, arguing that Whale's reserved manner would have precluded any overt manifestations of his sexuality, I can't help feeling there's something to these readings. After all, it's entirely possible that Whale expressed certain themes on an entirely subconscious level, and I'm reminded of that old adage: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale." Besides, the gay Thesiger's queeny Pretorius could singlehandedly elevate the film to a high level of camp. In any case, Bride concludes with another spectacular creation scene and the revelation of one of the strangest and most compelling creatures ever put on celluloid. In less than five minutes of screen time, Elsa Lanchester makes an indelible impression with her bird-like movements, hissing and screaming vocalizations, and utterly bizarre appearance. When she rejects the monster just as cruelly as everyone else, he decides to destroy them both, along with the nefarious Pretorius. (In a last minute editorial decision, the Doctor and Elizabeth are allowed to live, though sharp eyes viewers can apparently spot Frankenstein in a shot of the tower exploding.) Thus concludes an utterly spectacular and hugely entertaining one two punch from the man who would be, fairly or not, forever remembered as the Father of Frankenstein.