Idle and ailing, James Whale drowned himself in his swimming pool in 1957—shades of the obsolete Englishman-in-Hollywood from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Whale’s filmmaking career had come and gone with the 1930s, and was almost forgotten. But genius has a way of sustaining—so, Film Forum’s one week, 15-film marathon.
From the same circles of ’20s London bohemia as Waugh, Whale hit Hollywood with the Talkies, and his West End theater résumé meant film work. (Whale began in stage design, and his sets remained impeccably dressed.) By the time Whale directed his third film, Frankenstein (1931), he spoke through his new medium fluently, even poetically, as when Boris Karloff’s Monster and the little girl meet by the lake. By the time Whale gave Frankenstein a Bride (1935), he was a master, alloying high camp with primal emotion.
Whale’s name is synonymous with horror/fantasy because of those films—and for his Invisible Man (1933), which plays less well today, dependent as it is on doted-over trick photography (the floating cigarette puffing away, etc.). Least-touted of Whale’s horrors is 1932’s The Old Dark House, which strands a terrific ensemble cast (including Karloff) in the secluded manor of some Welsh gentry, each family member more degenerate than the last. In the character of Charles Laughton’s knighted bigmouth industrialist, still smarting from slights before his social rise, Whale’s sensitivity to class shows—a gift no more common then than now. (The director was himself a working-class son of the hardscrabble Midlands slums who convincingly adopted an aloof, aristocratic bearing.)
In his few working years before the Production Code hardened, Whale brought a worldliness to the decidedly provincial Universal Lot. Ultra-Anglo One More River (1934), which barely escaped the shears of Joseph I. Breen, has Diana Wynyard wrestling a divorce from her husband, played by Whale’s discovery and finest star, Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein), here at his ulcerous, hate-encysted best. Remember Last Night? (1935) is a daffy, near-indecipherable whodunit, with glib Long Island socialites trying to remember clues to a murder after a blackout, drunk, treating the detectives on the scene like hired help (Arthur Treacher’s imperial butler is a standout in a field of character parts). Before devolving into melodrama, Impatient Maiden (1932) has a dandy of a first act, with determinedly single gal Mae Clarke and her roommate glibly flirting with an ambulance crew while a lovelorn attempted suicide recovers on their couch. Whale’s camera glides through their Bunker Hill rental with the same elegance it shows in drawing rooms.
Whale’s one musical, a film of Oscar Hammerstein’s operetta Show Boat, is definitive. The Mississippi River setting is full of American myths, and Whale perfectly connects to the collective nostalgia—and guilt—of his adopted country. One appreciates not only the tragic grandeur Whale gives Paul Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River,” but also the director’s intelligence—knowing to do nothing that might break the intimate spell of Helen Morgan’s tremulous, wrenching rendition of “Bill,” one of the most perfect movie moments we have.