James Whale | The Old Dark House
| Remember Last Night? | The Great Garrick
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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
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
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
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
- The staircase seems to be going directly back into the depth of the
frame in Whale's shots, rather than being photographed from the
side. It gives a perspective effect.
- Similarly, when the characters finally enter the old man's bedroom,
we see a long, long room, with the bed stretched out parallel to the
line of sight at the far end.
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
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
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
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:
- At the theater
at the beginning, Whale concludes a long tracking shot around
the Drury Lane theater by shooting through the circular basket
handle of a vendor.
- Later, when he shows the actors gathered on
the stage of the Comédie Française, they are seated
in a circle. This is especially clear during an overhead shot,
when the prompter is ejected from a stage trap door.
- At the end
of the film, when Garrick speaks once more from the stage, the
circular apron of the stage forms a prominent part of the compositions.
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).