Jmaes Whale‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like Luis Bunuel, Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”
Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant Curtis Harrington. Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.
R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.
The Old Dark House opens with travelers seeking refuge from a storm. Sanctuary appears in the form of an old dark Welsh house, but its promise of shelter is a facade. Unknown to Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their hitchhiking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) a tempest is brewing within the house. They are joined by two more “invaders” who belatedly enter the scene: Gladys (Lilian Bond, oozing sex) and Sir WilliamPorterhouse (Charles Laughton, avoiding sex). From The Cat And the Canary (1927) to The Black Cat (1934), along with the inevitable sendup in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) we are all overly familiar with the “old dark house” clichés. The original gives more than we have come to expect if we know only the references.
Scarred, mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff) meets the trio. He reluctantly opens the door. This was the actor’s first Universal Horror follow-up to his role as the Monster in Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Due to the runaway success of that groundbreaking film, the studio gives Karloff quite the promotional buildup in the credits, assuring 1932 audiences that this is the very same actor who played Colin Clive’s Monster: a “testament to the star’s versatility.” Actually, it is a small but effective role for the top-billed Karloff. He is part of an animated ensemble (and, comparatively, the least interesting of the house’s inhabitants). Early in his career throughout the 1930s, first class talent often surrounded Karloff (1932’s The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride, 1939’s Son Of Frankenstein), but this was before studios got lazy and cast him opposite hacks, making him the sole draw in increasingly mediocre films.
Morgan summons master Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger, who does his best to steal the show, as he did in Bride). Horace introduces the lot to the fanatical Rebecca (Eva Moore). The interplay between Horace and Rebecca is a model of eccentric precision:
Horace: “Allow me to introduce my sister, Miss Rebecca Femm.”
Rebecca: “What are they doing here? What do they want? What did they say? What do they want? What are they doing here? What’s all the fuss about? What?”
Horace: “You must excuse my sister, she’s a little deaf. In fact sometimes quite deaf.”
After resigning herself to unwanted guests, Rebecca screams: “No beds! They can’t have beds!” The smell of potential sex in the house sends poor Rebecca to the brink of insanity. While we become privy to her vestal austerity, reminiscent of “19 Kids and Counting,” insanity is merely a surface theme. Rather, The Old Dark House is a film of bereavement that climaxes (repeatedly) in heterodox humor.
Rebecca: “Horace what are you doing? We aren’t all heathens!”
Horace: “Oh, I had forgotten my sisters strange tribal habits. The beef will seem less tough when she has invoked a blessing upon it.”
Rebecca: “If I cant hear, I can see. You’re blaspheming.”
Horace: “On the contrary, I was merely telling your wondering guests that you were about to thank your Gods for their bounty.”
Rebecca: “That’ll do… I know your mocking, lying tongue.”
Horace: “Have a potato.”
The film’s protagonists are not caught up in existential questions or conflict. They simply ignore them. Rather, they concern themselves with daily living. The point is intentionally pronounced.
Horace’s atheism is a facade, as is Rebecca’s piety. Horace offers sanctuary to the immigrants and accepts them as they are. Rebecca would turn them away and is prone to judge them. It is Horace who actually suspects judgment is at hand and hopes for divine intervention. Rebecca’s judgment extends to her dead, “loose” sister (who isn’t even afforded posthumous sympathy from the severity of her dogmatism). Horace never speaks of or for their late sibling, and we sense the result of her accidental death was this descent into familial madness. Horace exists as a symbolic rejection of labels. He is neither believer nor thorough atheist. He wants to believe, but cannot. He is confined to the imprisonment of being “between,” just as he is confined to the old dark house (as he is wanted by the police). The consequences of this strain, and life under his sister’s eternal damnation, is an emaciated, fatigued shell.
Interestingly, Hell is above, and as one ascends the house, each level takes the viewer closer to the brimstone. As we soon learn, the 102-year old invalid patriarch Roderick Femm is upstairs. He is played by Elspeth Dudgeon (billed as John Dudgeon), which casts the vignette in an androgynous milieu. On the level above Roderick is Saul Femm (Brember Wells), the pyromaniac brother obsessed with hellfire and the Biblical narrative of the doomed King Saul. Wells commands attention once he enters the scene. Like his scriptural namesake, Saul once enjoyed God’s favor, but is now condemned to a life shorn of divine inheritance. Morgan’s love for Saul is replete with sexual connotations, and Karloff springs to drunken life as he sprints to defend and sympathetically coddle the misunderstood brother (Biblical parallels abound).
Whale plays with a train set of symbols: white virginal gowns and curtains, ominously dwarfing windows and the darting flames of foreshadowing candles.
After a near fatal inferno, the house, its guests, and inhabitants survive to an overlit breaking dawn. Horace and the guests breathe the breath of new life. Rebecca, Saul, Morgan, and Roderick withdraw to the cover of dusk.
As much as The Old Dark House is a companion and precursor to The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is a contextual sequel to Frankenstein. Karloff’s new fans had complained about the smallness of his role in House. They wanted a prominent monster, just as he had been in his star-making performance. Whale and Universal were prepared to give them what they wanted: a Karloffian monster, albeit an invisible one. Whale wanted Karloff (or more accurately, Karloff’s voice) in the title role. Unfortunately, Karloff was in the middle of a contractual dispute with Universal and was temporarily freelancing elsewhere. Actually, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise; American cinema was thus introduced to one of its greatest character actors through Claude Rains performance as Dr. Jack Griffin, AKA The Invisible Man. Whale listed this as his favorite among his own films, and it is easy to see why. Of his horror foursome, Frankenstein is the most subdued in Whalesian humor. The director makes up for that shortcoming here, and The Invisible Man may very well be his blackest comedy.
While no actual deaths occurred in The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man is replete with homicides. Actually, of all the Universal monsters, it is this invisible human who takes the most lives; which does not mean Dr. Griffin is without some sympathy.
The theme is identical to Frankenstein: the consequences of scientific men daring to emulate God. Like God, Griffin becomes unseen and, as a pre-Code deity, he’s a naked one who exclaims: “An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob and rape and kill.”
He does just that, pushing over baby carriages, stealing a bicycle from an old man, throwing it a crowd, killing elected officials, and wrecking a train, killing hundreds.
Griffin’s “bad luck” comes from poverty (the story is set deep in the Depression), failure to meet societal expectations, imagination, ambition, and drug addiction, all while engaged to Flora (Gloria Stuart again) who is the daughter of a wealthy inventor father Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers).
Unable to get back to visibility, Griffin flees. Much to his dismay, he is forced to take residence in the Lion’s Head Inn under shrewish, hayseed landlady Jenny Hall (the inimitable Una O’ Connor) and her bore of a husband (Forrest Harvey).
Griffin has another bourgeoisie nemesis in Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), who also works a “good, steady job” for Dr. Cranley. Kemp has a perpetual erection for the buxom Flora and soon Griffin (invisible and impotent?) comes a visiting Kemp. Harrigan is so adept at inspiring our disdain that we wait in eager anticipation for his inevitable murder.
Griffin is not only the proverbial fish out of water with his blue collar peers and potential family, but he is an even worse misfit among the Inn’s drunken gossips. As Griffin observes, the invisible drug “lights up my brain,” transforming him into an egomaniacal narcissist.
John P. Fulton’s effects still look contemporary, but the film is not an excuse for tricks. Whale never loses sight of his characters or narrative.
Beautifully, Griffin’s eventual downfall comes from simply taking a nap at the wrong time, in the wrong place. The farmer who discovers the sound of Griffin sleeping in his straw runs to the police: “There’s breathing in my barn.”
Until that misstep (literally—a footprint in the snow), Griffin is a pre-Code model of crime that pays (and enjoys every minute of it). The Invisible Man pays for its audience as well. It’s a thoroughly entertaining ride through stylish mass murder mayhem.
4 thoughts on “PRE-CODE JAMES WHALE HORROR: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)”
Agreed, an astounding film. IMO, Wahle should be required viewing for aspiring filmmakers.
Reblogged this on Cryptic Town and commented:
Ahhh. The Old Dark House is one one my favorites. Well-documented here.