Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Classic Movies Directed by James Whale

Born on July 22, 1889, the English director James Whale stands with Tod Browning as one of the most important developers of the 1930s horror genre. Both directors worked to give the iconic Universal horrors their sense of style, but Whale set the bar particularly high with his combination of terror and sly, subversive comedy in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale directed 23 films over the course of his career, but the Universal horrors are the pictures for which he is best remembered today. In honor of Whale's birthday, here are ten classic movies where you can see the director's hand at work.

1) Journey's End (1930) - Whale's first directorial effort was an adaptation of a 1928 stage play about World War I. Its cast included two actors who would later be major players in the Universal horror unit: Colin Clive and David Manners.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1931) - This romantic drama about a prostitute and a soldier stars Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery, but it was also the third screen appearance of 23 year old Bette Davis. A 1940 adaptation of the Robert Sherwood play would prove more enduring with stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

3) Frankenstein (1931) - Whale's first horror picture would shape the genre for decades to come, influencing countless later adaptations of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel. With Boris Karloff as the resurrected monster and Colin Clive as his mentally unbalanced creator, Whale crafted a stylish, wry, and genuinely terrifying masterpiece. Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, and the deliriously mad Dwight Frye also contributed to Whale's success with their performances.

4) The Old Dark House (1932) - As the name implies, this film belongs to the "old dark house" genre of horror, with Whale emphasizing the absurdly comedic possibilities of the conventional plot. The collected cast makes this picture a delight for classic movie fans, with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, and Raymond Massey all in the mix, but the strangest pleasure is Elspeth Dudgeon cross-dressed to play the elderly Sir Roderick Femm.

5) The Invisible Man (1933) - Whale's next horror production took the darkly humorous aspect of the genre to a whole different level, with the increasingly mad Claude Rains gamboling invisibly and wreaking havoc all over the English countryside. The film was the first screen role for Rains, who remains unseen until the very last shot, but his voice proved the real draw. Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers star as the friends trying to save Rains from himself, but Una O'Connor also demonstrates her ample talent for scene-stealing and an ear-piercing pitch.

6) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Whale's earlier efforts paved the way for this outstanding picture, which also mingles absurd comedy with its gripping horror. The film reunited Whale with Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, and Una O'Connor, but its most iconic, if only briefly seen, performer is the young Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the shock-haired Bride.

7) Show Boat (1936) - Whale is remembered primarily for his horror, but this 1936 musical drama proved that he could also tap into tender emotions. Generally considered the best film adaptation of the original stage play, Whale's Show Boat gave the world both spectacle and sentiment, with touches of the Whale humor still in evidence. The cast includes many top stars, from Irene Dunne and Allan Jones to Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan, but the film is known today primarily for Paul Robeson's performance as Joe and his powerful rendition of "Old Man River."

8) The Great Garrick (1937) - After The Bride of Frankenstein, Whale moved away from horror, making several dramas and war films. This picture took Whale into the territory of the romantic comedy, with a period setting and Brian Aherne as David Garrick, the great theater personality of the 18th century. Other notable members of the cast include Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Lionel Atwill, and Lana Turner.

9) The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) - Whale continued the period theme with this adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas adventure, with Louis Hayward starring in the double role of the twin royals. Swashbuckling regulars in the cast include Alan Hale and Montagu Love, but Joan Bennett, Warren William, Joseph Schildkraut, and Albert Dekker also make appearances.

10) They Dare Not Love (1941) - Sadly, by the beginning of the 1940s Whale's career was more or less over.  Show Boat had been his last truly memorable work. They Dare Not Love, a World War II drama starring George Brent, Martha Scott, and Paul Lukas, would be his last feature film.

In 1998, Whale's story became familiar to a new generation of moviegoers with the release of Gods and Monsters, adapted from Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein. In the film, Ian McKellen plays the director at the very end of his life, while Brendan Fraser stars as the gardener who befriends him. You can also learn more about Whale by reading James Curtis' 2003 biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters.

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