James Whale | The Old Dark House | Remember Last Night? | The Great Garrick

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James Whale

James Whale was a Hollywood film director.

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House (1932) is the definitive film about a group of travelers trapped overnight in a spooky mansion. The film is rich in atmosphere. The film only exists today because it was preserved by the great experimental director Curtis Harrington. This is a reminder of the great need for film preservation.

Trapped in a House: Links to Green Hell

Green Hell (1940) is recognizably Whale's work. In many ways, it is The Old Dark House (1932) in the jungle. In both films, a group of "normal" people is trapped in a house. They are under siege by a group of menacing outsiders: the natives in Green, the strange family in House. They are also threatened by weather: in both films there are violent storms raging outside the buildings, and in both films, wind violently blows in through open windows, disrupting the interior of the building.

The "normal" people in both cases are English, as was Whale. They are not quite as normal as all this suggests however - both groups have a mass of seething personal problems which they thrash out, including romantic relationships. The outsiders are separated by race (they are Welsh in House, Native Americans in Green), by a strange physical environment (mud slides and floods in House, the jungle in Green), and by strange personalities in House.

Revealing the Characters

The chief dramatic action in House is the revelation of personality. What are the characters like? This is what the audience is most concerned with in this film. One meets a new character, who seems strange. The person talks, and eventually sets forth their hidden inner self, which is often, as in Laughton's case, surprisingly more complex than the audience first thought.

The Charles Laughton lower class businessman in The Old Dark House is notably eccentric, strange, and both sympathetic and odd.

Staging: 3D Theatrical Space

Whale likes to group his characters around a table, or by chairs around a fire. Their physical arrangement gives clues to their personalities.

The other aspect of Whale's staging around tables and staircases is that it tends to give a sense of 3D space to his images:

Whale was a stage director in Britain long before he entered the movies. The space in his shots is roughly similar to a stage. There is no sense, as in Howard Hawks, of the action taking place within a floating cinematic frame. Instead, we see a three dimensional stage like region in which his characters are arrayed. The jungle scenes in Green Hell show an unusual spatial integrity as well, with the camera tracking the characters through them.

An Experimental Montage - and Eisenstein

House has a striking avant-garde sequence. It occurs after one of the women has a terrible fright, and shows a succession of strange images, many of which involve distortions in strange mirrors. The scene seems to represent the mental state of the woman. Or perhaps it is a summing up of the frightening events of the film to date, as it repeats many of the eerie lines of dialogue heard in the film so far. It is a very well done sequence, full of expressionist distortions. And it certainly contributes greatly to the atmosphere and emotions of the film. But it is hard to say what exactly it signifies: it does not seem to be a "real" event, or a hallucination, or pure mental imagery of the heroine. Its nearest analog are the memory montages in many films, where the hero rehears key lines of dialog from different scenes of the film. These memory montages tend to take place late in the film, often involve key decisions being made by the hero, are often emotionally intense, but tend to be shot in a clear realistic style so that the audience can understand them easily. The sequence in House is different in that it takes place early in the film, is full of expressionist camera techniques, and seems designed to convey an emotional state of mind. Also the imagery in the sequence seems "new", whereas the memory montages are recapitulations of previous events, so that the hero and the audience can review them.

In addition to the distorting expressionist filming, the sequence involves montage. Whale seems influenced by the montage technique of Eisenstein. There are also more "normal" montage sequences in Show Boat (1936): when Paul Robeson sings "Old Man River", it is accompanied by montages of black people working. There are some of the most Eisensteinian montages anywhere in a Hollywood film.

Remember Last Night?

Remember Last Night? (1935) is a comedy-whodunit.

It has spectacular production design by Charles Hall, who made the jaw-dropping sets for Broadway and Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat, as well as lots of Chaplin and Whale. Whale takes full advantage, with compositions that extract geometric patterns from the sets. Plus one spectacular tracking shot through room after room of a huge mansion, which looks like Art Deco on Steroids.

The comic tone gets a drastic change of pace, when a hypnotist is brought in to restore the cast of rich dipsomaniacs' memory. This guy is a full mad scientist, right out of Whale's Frankenstein. His equipment is the most Lang-like thing I have ever seen in a non-Fritz Lang film. Showing once again how oriented Whale was to Expressionism. The equipment generates huge spirals, both of light and shadow - recalling the spiral imagery in M and Fury. And the spirals are combined with mirrors - what could be more Lang like than a mirror, which shows up in every Lang film, nearly. This mirror is painted with spirals - a spiral mirror. Dr. Frankenstein's lab has an ancestor in the scientist's lab in Metropolis. This hypnotist and his equipment are descended from both Metropolis and Frankenstein.

The Great Garrick

The Great Garrick (1937) is a strange but entertaining comedy melodrama. The great real life English actor David Garrick is invited to leave for France and appear with the Comédie Française. When his circumstances lead to false reports that he has insulted the French during his farewell curtain speech in London, the French troop decides to teach him a lesson at a country inn in Paris. The troop takes over all the roles in the inn one night, and stages a series of bizarre incidents meant to frighten and embarrass him.

The Great Garrick conveys the magic of the theater. As it progresses, it shows the great passion of actors for conveying their roles. It shows the wonder that pervades the theater. If the actors sometimes seem child like, they also have a child's enthusiasm and gift for the marvelous.

Mass Hoaxes - and Virtual Reality

The Great Garrick is part of a long line of works dealing with mass hoaxes and alternative realities. The film definitely anticipates today's ideas about Virtual Reality. It plunges its characters into an imaginary existence, an alternative reality that is all encompassing. Science fiction writers in the 1930's were already creating stories about Virtual Reality for pulp magazines. It has been a staple of sf ever since. Today, such alternative universes are typically conceived of as being created by computer, but this film shows that a troupe of actors and the imagination can do many of the same things.

The concept of a gigantic hoax, in which many people play fictitious roles, became a staple in Silver Age comic books. They were especially popular in tales involving the Superman family. Some comic book tales, like The Great Garrick, let the reader into the hoax from the start. Others were structured as mysteries, with the hoax only being revealed at the end, as part of the solution to the mystery plot. The comic book writer Jerry Siegel created a whole series of such mystery situations.

There are also non-science fiction precedents for this film, in the theater. George M. Cohan's play Seven Keys to Baldpate (1914) plunged his characters into elaborately fictitious story lines, gigantic hoaxes. The play can be found reprinted in Famous Plays of Crime and Detection (1946), edited by Van H. Cartmell and Bennett Cerf.

Camp, Theatricality - and Noël Coward's Hay Fever

Noël Coward's comedy play Hay Fever (1925) involves a famous acting family that is always "on". They are forever dramatizing every incident, and turning it into theater. One weekend, some innocents come to stay with them, and become totally engulfed in the family's theatrical delusions. These delusions are not a hoax - they are simply the affectations of a theatrical family. But they do involve a sort of alternative world cut off from conventional reality.

One suspects that Whale, a prestigious stage director before his entry into film, would have been familiar with Coward's play. Its tone of campy, over the top theatrics is very close to that of Whale's film, The Great Garrick.

Both Garrick and the French troupe, are depicted as being in full acting throttle throughout most of the film. They are "on", and their performances are richly exaggerated. The acting style favored by everyone is definitely Camp. It shows a systematic, comic exaggeration of theatrical mannerisms, all raised to the nth degree. Such a Camp sensibility is rooted in the gay experience, and both Whale and Coward were gay men with deep ties to the theater. Camp shows up in other of Whale's films, as well. Many of the performances in The Bride of Frankenstein (1934) show a similar over the top Camp sensibility.

Links to The Old Dark House

The Great Garrick also has links to Whale's earlier The Old Dark House (1932). Both deal with outsiders staying a night in a large spooky building. Both buildings are full of bizarre, eccentric residents, whose actions scare the visitors. The residents' behavior in both films is related to Camp: everyone in The Old Dark House is probably gay, and their performances have aspects of a gay sensibility. Also, as in The Old Dark House, the visitor and the locals are of different nationality: here English and French. However, the mood in The Great Garrick is as sunny and comic, as that of the earlier film was sinister and tragic. Correspondingly, the weather in The Great Garrick is fine, a beautiful, romantic moonlit night.

The sets of The Great Garrick fall into similar categories to those of The Old Dark House, although they are much cheerier looking. There is a large public room in both films, with a gigantic staircase leading out of it to upper floors, and large tables for dining. Many of the central dramatic encounters in both films take place here. There are bedrooms and corridors upstairs. There are "outdoor" sets, plainly on studio sound stages, showing the front of the buildings and their grounds. There is also a garage area in both films, reachable only from the outside of the building.

Producer: Mervyn Le Roy

Other people also made creative contributions to The Great Garrick. The credits say the film was "personally supervised" by producer Mervyn Le Roy. Mervyn Le Roy had just finished making the elaborate historical drama Anthony Adverse (1936), and his feel for historical, costume dramas is evident here. Le Roy also had made many back stage looks at show business people, both historical and contemporary, and this film fits into that tradition.

Costumes: Milo Anderson

Milo Anderson shows his great gift for costume design. His coat and gown for Olivia de Haviland are beautiful. They are richly elaborate, especially the coat. His costumes for Brian Aherne are also spectacular, especially the shiny coat he wears at the inn. Aherne's costume is explicitly something Garrick wears to play a role - the dialogue makes this explicit. He is trying to make a full formal impression. One suspects that Garrick is nearly always on - it is part of his identity and personality as an actor.

Script: Ernest Vajda

Ernest Vajda was a Hungarian writer, noted for his creation of sophisticated screen comedies and romantic dramas. Many of his screenplays are in collaboration with numerous other writers, in the 1930's Hollywood style. So it is hard to pinpoint his contribution to many films. But it is reasonable to note the wit, rich European atmosphere, warm feelings and the heightened theatrical quality in many of his films, and to suggest that he had something to do with this. Vajda worked on the scripts of all of Lubitsch's early sound musicals, as well as the important feminist film, A Woman Rebels (1936); and such Sidney Franklin films as The Guardsman (1931), Smilin' Through (1932), Reunion in Vienna (1933) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). He worked with Whale one more time, on They Dare Not Love (1941). For The Great Garrick, he gets sole screen credit, a somewhat rare occurrence. His work is billed as "a play for the screen", in keeping with the theatrical motif of the story. It certainly does have the feeling of a good play, with good characters, dialogue and plot.

Camera Movement and Cutting

Whale uses relatively long takes and camera movements in several scenes. These are used especially when he wants to include the whole troupe of actors in a shot. At the theater at the end, the camera gracefully weaves through the whole troupe, as it is on stage just before the opening curtain. Many of these shots have a celebratory quality. The camera movement conveys a party atmosphere, a sense of joy and fun. These scenes celebrate the magic of the theater.

Whale tends to cut to close-ups when an actor needs to convey intense emotion. He does not use close-ups so much for cross cutting, or to convey conflict between two people. Rather, when a character is in the grip of intense feeling, the camera will cut in so that the performer's face can be seen clearly. This is similar to the approach of Max Ophuls, in such late films as Lola Montès (1955). Whale uses close-ups more frequently than Ophuls did in his final films, however. Whale's close-ups tend to include a good deal of background, as well as the actor's upper body. He still wants to convey the person's milieu. He also likes to make graceful compositions out of the background.

Whale tends to work within a shot for as long as possible in this film, rather than cutting. Frequently, he will pan within a shot, both to have movement, and to preserve the shot while the characters change position. He typically cuts only when he needs to adjust the camera's distance from the characters. He can move the camera closer, to record the emotion on the character's face, or to get a better view of the action. Similarly, he can cut to move the camera back, in order to get a wider view of the spectacle.

One shot shows dueling actors entering the hero's room, followed by much of the troupe. The shot pans from the doorway, turning to the other side of the room, as the duelists and the other actors enter and cross the room. At this point, Whale cuts to a closer look at the hero, heroine and duelists. After a while, he reverts back to a long shot again, with the camera in apparently the exact position it had at the end of the first pan. Then the initial pan reverses, with the camera panning back to the doorway, showing the duelists and actors leaving the bedroom. The whole effect is nicely symmetrical. It also shows the care Whale took to stage scenes gracefully, within long held shots.


Some strikingly composed shots have circular arcs:

Crowd Scenes

The Great Garrick is full of crowd scenes. Whale often includes a large group of actors from the Comédie Française. Each has his own bits of business, including the elaborate postures and arm gestures that recur throughout the film. The individual actors are also coordinated, so that they move as a group. The crowd stagings are elaborate and complex. They must have involved quite a bit of effort to rehearse. They are so full of bits of business, that they are often hard to fully take in on first viewing. They are as complex, and as full of multiple foci, as such avant-garde works as Jacques Tati's Play Time (1967).