Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters

James Whale by James  Curtis
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it was amazing
bookshelves: hollywood, horror, nonfiction

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”I did talk to James Whale about his films, but not at great length. It’s hard to describe his attitude toward his own work. He was a tremendous wit, and he treated anything like that very lightly. He had no great pose as an artist; to me, his films were much more artistic than anything about him, or the way he presented himself. If you praised his work, he was very self-disparaging, very modest, very unpretentious. It was hard to get anything serious about his work out of him.”

Of course, I knew who James Whale was, but I really didn’t know anything about him until I watched Gods and Monsters(1998), starring Ian McKellen as Whale and a very young Brendan Fraser as his gardener. I was really struck by the elegant portrait that McKellen was able to paint of this man, famed for creating monsters.

Whale was already on my mind from a recent trip to Scotland. I made a point of dropping by the Frankenstein Bar in Edinburgh. Whale’s masterpieces Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein were being played continuously on two humongous screens. As I sat there nursing a beer, enjoying the films, I wondered what other films James Whale made.

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I opted for a beer at the Frankenstein Bar, despite the sales pitch by the bartender to try a Red Bull/ Jagermeister drink that all the college kids are swilling these days. Was he trying to see the monster that lurks within?

I was without internet in Scotland and spent some time musing about James Whale while walking the beautiful streets of Edinburgh, trying to think of another movie Whale had made. I finally dredged up The Invisible Man (1933), with Claude Rains, from my pre-google memories. I remembered that there were strange elements from that movie that had stuck with me. I was soon to learn that strange elements were a trademark of his movies, even the ones without monsters.

Inspired by Gods and Monsters, I decided that I really did need to watch more films by James Whale. I started at the beginning with his directorial debut,Journey’s End. Whale had also directed it on the stage in London and had been particularly taken by the actor who played Captain Stanhope. ”Colin Clive is like a beautiful pipe organ. All I have to do is pull out the stops and out comes this glorious music.” After much wrangling, nothing is ever straightforward in trying to bring an actor, director, and film together, he landed Clive for the film version.

I then watched Waterloo Bridge (1931) with Mae Clarke and her smashing smile, playing a down on her luck chorus girl. After just two films, Whale was given Frankenstein to direct, which unknown to everyone at the time was a very fortuitous matching of material and director. Whale landed Colin Clive for the role of Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the Monster, and cinematography history was made.

By the time we met James Whale in Gods and Monsters he was washed up, not exactly banned from Hollywood, but certainly not welcome to work anywhere anymore. He had a good run, but with a string of box office failures towards the end of his career, he was out of the game. Whale composed a list to show a friend of the good movies he had made, compared to a list of the terrible movies he had made. ”The fucking producers--they wrecked this lot. The others I got my own way with.”

James wanted out of the horror picture business. He wanted to direct big budget films. No one really thought the monster horror films would be anything more than a fluke anyway. The public would soon tire of them, and the studios were very careful not to get burned by flooding the market with too many horror offerings. In retrospect, of course, I think Whale would have done quite well if he had stuck with his monsters. He had a knack for making us care about them. We see them as monsters, of course, but ones that we could feel some empathy for and even maybe see some of ourselves in them.

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I love this publicity shot of Elsa Lancaster as the Bride.

The Bride of Frankenstein came along in 1935. The Invisible Man was released in 1933. People tend to pass over the other films that Whale made between his Monster flicks, but there was one little gem in there that I found to be a perfect treat. The Old Dark House(1932) certainly brought some chills, but also mixed in some well timed, off color humor that added levity to the horror. Karloff, some would argue, was underused as Morgan the brutish butler, but it just wasn’t necessary for him to be a larger presence in the movie. Gloria Stuart, who early in the film changed from her wet clothes into this lovely dressing gown, had a few questions of Whales as to why.

”’Why me, James? Nobody else is changing. Why am I changing? He said, ‘Because Boris is going to chase you up and down the corridors, up and down the stairs, and I want you to appear as a white flame.’ ‘So, all right, I put on the dress and Boris chased me up and down the corridors, and I was a white flame.’”

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The lovely Gloria Stuart with the hand of Boris Karloff above her head about to shut the door.

Dare I say that The Old Dark House is my favorite James Whale movie? Well, I do have a few more to see, but there is no need for me to is my favorite James Whale movie.

Whale, like all the directors of the period, had to deal with the Code era of Hollywood and frequently had to be creative to get his more “scandalous” ideas through the Code Board. When we allow censorship, the power of those censoring knows no bounds. Waterloo Bridge, for example, couldn’t have been made in the Code Era because Mae Clarke played a prostitute. Directors often had to reshoot scenes to get a picture approved that added unexpected costs to a film. It was hard to gauge what would pass and what would not because many of the decisions seemed arbitrary and even nonsensical.

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I won’t tell how it all ends with James Whale. Some will want to read this biography, but maybe more of you will at least see the movie Gods and Monsters and have a chance to meet the dapper man who made monsters.

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Reading Progress

May 5, 2019 – Started Reading
May 5, 2019 – Shelved
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: hollywood
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: horror
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: nonfiction
May 11, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by leslie hamod (new)

leslie hamod Wonderful review but yikes! Would I like this?

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Leslie! Check out the movie Gods and Monsters

message 3: by leslie hamod (new)

leslie hamod Will do! Thanks Jeffrey!

message 4: by Jaline (new)

Jaline Fabulous review, Jeffrey! :)

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Jaline!

message 6: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Beautiful review Jeffrey....Being a fan of the director Mr. Whale and seeing all his films, including the Ian McKellen movie, Frankenstein is such a classic, and my favorite.

Jeffrey Keeten Henry wrote: "Beautiful review Jeffrey....Being a fan of the director Mr. Whale and seeing all his films, including the Ian McKellen movie, Frankenstein is such a classic, and my favorite."

Thank you Henry! I haven't seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen have been really good. I haven't watched the ones that the studio...mucked up, but I still expect to see a bit of the unusual that Whale always found a way to tuck into his movies.

message 8: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Wonderful review! Also, there is a Frankenstein Bar in Edinburgh?!

Jeffrey Keeten Gabrielle wrote: "Wonderful review! Also, there is a Frankenstein Bar in Edinburgh?!"

Indeed there is. I was there during the day when it was quiet, but the bartender told me to come back in the evening and I would see it rock and roll. I discovered that Scots really do like to have a good time. :-) Thanks Gabrielle!

message 10: by Forrest (new)

Forrest Excellent review. I am looking forward to being "without internet" in the UK this summer. Maybe I will make some horrifying discoveries, too!

Jeffrey Keeten Forrest wrote: "Excellent review. I am looking forward to being "without internet" in the UK this summer. Maybe I will make some horrifying discoveries, too!"

Only those of us alive before internet have any semblance of deep memories. You might find yourself sifting through some old thoughts, some pages from books you read years ago. Recently I challenged some friends at dinner to have a conversation without pulling out our phones to google. It was terrifying to find out how much we have given over in memoir power to google. There were many people bouncing very uncomfortably in their seats trying to remember something, itching to grab their phone. Thanks Forrest!

message 12: by Forrest (new)

Forrest Yep. I've dedicated myself to getting back to more "analog" life (he says while typing into his smartphone). I've begun writing snail mail letters again and am spending much less time online. Feels . . . good for the brain.

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