Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Shocktober Director of the Day: James Whale

That's Elsa Lanchester in the title role of director James Whale's 1935 masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, a film I'll talk about in moment (or three).

Openly gay James Whale's directing career started as WWI POW, directing plays and skits in order to maintain morale amongst his fellow POWs. After the war, he returned to England and took up a career as a cartoonist before returning to the stage with a production of Journey's End, a play about WWI. He subsequently went on to make Journey's End into a film in 1930, starring frequent collaborator Colin Clive, who later gain fame as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, maker of monsters. Whale made two more WWI films that year, Hell's Angels and Waterloo Bridge.

The following year, he made the first of many film adaptations of Mary Shelley's classic Horror novel Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff as the Monster (a role Bela Lugosi turned down because he thought he'd be unrecognizable under so much makeup).  The film was sensation and like Tod Browning's Dracula, caused women to faint in the aisles.

Whale's next foray into the genre was 1932's The Old Dark House, starring Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and the recently deceased Gloria Stuart. It tells the story of a group of travelers seeking shelter from a storm in a gloomy castle in Wales, and is probably the primary inspiration for The Rocky Horror Show.

Gimmick-meister William Castle remade The Old Dark House as a comedic Horror movie in 1963:

In 1933, Whales tackled H.G. Welles' The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains and Ms. Stuart as his ill-fated love:

Familiar character actress and hysterical screamer Una O'Connor makes another of her many appearances in a Whale film. Sadly, Whale's next genre film would be both his best and his last. 1935's Bride of Frankenstein would reunite him with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, but would be the last time Whale visited the Horror genre. It is also one of the best genre films of the era, made at the height of Whale's artistic prowess:

Whale went on to make several dramas and romances, including the first version of Jerome Kerns' musical Showboat with Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel:

Whale's later life was chronicled in Bill Condon's (Dreamgirls) brilliant 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellan (X-Men; The Lord of the Rings), Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave.

James Whale made 22 films over his career, but is best remembered for his astonishing genre films, which have rightfully earned the title "Classics." Whale was openly gay at at a time when being so often meant the end of one's career, but his artistic vision was so strong, it transcended sexuality and affected audiences worldwide, for generations to come. I fear we will not see his like again, though I pray I am wrong.

More, anon.

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