Wednesday, September 2, 2020

James Whale | The Old Dark House

inside out
by Douglas Messerli

Ben W. Levy and R. C. Sherriff (screenplay, based on the book by J. B. Priestley), James Whale (director) The Old Dark House / 1932

It is almost a wonder that we still have James Whale’s 1932 classic horror film, The Old Dark House with us. It was not until Curtis Harrington, an admirer of Whale and his later biographer, met the creator of Frankenstein in Paris and, soon after, London where the younger devotee showed the film publicly, inviting its creator to attend, that the film began to be reassessed.
     It was not until 1967 when Carrington, now himself a director put under contract to Universal Studios, knowing that the film had been remade by William Castle four years earlier, began to worry about the original film’s safety. Since the rights were now held by Columbia and the 1932 version was of no value to its original studio, he feared, as with so many older films, it might have already been left to rot.
     After the 3rd time of seeking the film’s whereabouts in the Universal vaults, it was finally discovered, the first reel in unusable condition. Immediately writing letters to Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection, and the American Film Institute for help, he found that Eastman was willing to put up the money for a restoration.
     Even after four copies had been made (one each for Eastman, the Museum of Modern Art, AFI and the Universal vault, the film was still kept away from most film viewers except at special showings. It was only through the 2017 restoration and re-release by the Cohen Film Collection—a DVD of which I watched earlier this morning—that contemporary viewers might perceive just how important and unusual (we might as well call it “queer”) this film truly is.
      Critics have long noted just how influential Whale’s work was to the horror genre that followed its release. From the early scenes of strangers (2 autos filled with 5 travelers) trapped in a disastrous rainstorm and forced to take cover in a manor with nearly endless stairs, wrinkled mirrors, and owners that do not receive their intrusion with open arms, to the guests’ gradual perception that something is terribly wrong with the owners and their seemingly haunted pasts, and, finally, to those gathered being isolated into smaller groupings of couples and individuals, we see in this work nearly all of the basic tropes of horror films dating from just a few years after The Dark Old House’s release to the hundreds that followed, as varied as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1939 and 1965), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). I just saw a gay horror film, Dream Boy (from 2018), that was similarly influenced by Whale’s set-ups . 

     The couples and one extra traveler—Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and her husband (Raymond Massey), and Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his companion Gladys (Lilian Bond)—all basically represent the normative heterosexual world come a-calling on this weird household.
       That is not to say that everything at this moment is so very normal at the moment of the visitors’ arrival. In fact, the film begins with Massey, who driving through a muddy road finds himself momentarily stalled, emphatically yelling out the picture’s first word: “Hell!” “What are you stopping for?” snaps his wife, “Either or forward and backward, but you can’t stop here.” There is no question that the Wavertons are clearly “wavering” in their affections for one another.
       From the backseat, moreover, the somewhat drunken and certainly inattentive Penderel spouts his cynical message when assessed of the situation, replying about their destination: “As a matter of fact…I’m not even sure that I want to go to Shrewsbury. As far as that goes I’m not sure that I want to go anywhere.”
     Later, it is suggested that Penderel’s lack of a mission in life and his cynicism have vaguely to do with the time he spent in the War (WWI), a war in which Whale himself served and apparently (so we discover in the film Gods and Monsters of 1998) was forced to watch for several days his dead lover whose body had fallen to hang in a bush just beyond their trenches. Certainly, like the famed British Penderel family, named after the famed English witches of Pendle forest, this tag-along traveler is somewhat haunted by his own past.   
      At the present the Wavertons and their friend are stuck in Wales with a mountainside crumbling just behind their slowly crawling car. When they finally find a mansion, with lights ablaze, in the middle of nowhere they decide they definitely can no longer go back and with the rising waters will not be safe to move forward.
       A long clap of the knocker upon the door (a scene that might have been perfectly at home in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, 1974) they are met with the hairy face and blood-streaked nose of Frankenstein himself, Boris Karloff playing Morgan. When the apparent butler of this estate mumbles a few incoherent words, Penderel quips “Even Welsh ought not sound like that.”
     When they are finally let into the central room where a fireplace roars, they are met at the staircase by a tall, gaunt man wearing a high-buttoned collar who they presume to be their host: “My name is Femm. Horace Femm,” he prissily announces. Femm is played by Ernest Thesiger who performed as Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s film of three years later, The Bride of Frankenstein, a character that gay film historian Vito Russo describes as “sissified,” while I’d simply argue he was identified at the time of the film as a stereotype of a homosexual.
       Horace describes himself as “nervous,” which well he should be given that his coarse, rather mannish and highly religious and near-deaf sister is the real master of the house, who keeps declaiming “no beds!” presumably defining her fear that they might be used for sexual intercourse.
       While Mrs. Waverton slips out of her wet clothing into a silky dinner gown Rebecca Femm’s (Eva Moore) bedroom, the elderly woman sizes up the woman she defines as a sinner, stating “You think of nothing but your long straight legs and your white body and how to please your man,” but it will eventually rot, even as will your soft skin, she rails, touching Margaret on her upper rib cage briefly, the girl recoiling in horror. It’s hinted that this highly Christian woman also has lesbian longings and, we later discover, may have even been involved with her sister’s death because of her incestuous lesbian feelings for her.
       Having now perceived this horror film as being filled with campy delights, we are treated to a dinner with the Femms, Wavertons, and Penderel of boiled potatoes, roast beef, pickled onions, and bread, during which Horace keeps asking each guest if they want a potato almost as if his query had some secret significance, perhaps because they belong to the nightshade family, some varieties of which are poisonous.
       A second couple arrives, who also represent a normative sense of society, but who nonetheless are not at the moment quite as ordinary as they first might appear. Porterhouse (Laughton)  is delighted, predictably, to see beef has been served. His companion, Gladys DuCane (Bond) soon after revealing her real name is Perkins, admits she is just a chorus girl, and not a very good one at that. She is being paid, not a large sum by the successful mill-owner she later insists during a romantic (and rather unbelievable) interlude with Penderel Her role simply to accompany Porterhouse, no sex involved. He still loves his dead wife, she attempts to explain, who died after being shamed for attending a fancy party in a new cotton dress. In short, he and she are also outsiders, despite their pretense, and in another situation, he fears, would be snubbed by people like the Waverton’s for being loud and course commoners. Class, in short, is also at work in this horror story.
       So far, the strange Femm family have been presented simply as sexually outside of the group their visitors represent, although we might wonder whether Sir Porterhouse was simply lonely for female companionship and disinterested in women entirely accept as something like a piece of apparel, an ascot or hunting jacket which helps to establish his position in the societal world of which he seeks to be part.
       But the horrors—or shall we say real sexual oddities—they must face have just begun. Because of the storm, Morgan has taken to drinking, a pattern, so the Femms assure the others that is most dangerous, particularly for the women, since, it soon becomes apparent, he transforms into something akin to a sex maniac.
      As the lights go out, evidently a regular occurrence at the Femm house, Horace is sent upstairs for a lamp—four flights in all—a task of which he is terrified. Taking Mr. Waverton with him, they slowly climb the stairs with Horace attempting several times to lure Waverton into his room or simply stop in their ascent. Along the way, moreover, Waverton hears the sound of a high moaning voice.
       When he alone finally reaches the top, he discovers a locked door, a plate of consumed food placed just outside it. Someone is clearly within, being kept away from their company, perhaps not unlike Rochester’s mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
       As he begins his descent, lamp in hand, he stands for a moment outside the door from which the high voice previously emanated. Entering the room, he discovers there the 104-year-old Femm grandfather, Sir Roderick Femm, played in this case by a bearded woman, Elspeth Dudgeon (listed in the credits as John Dudgeon).
        Whale apparently claimed he was unable to find a male old enough the match the voice he sought, yet we certainly recognize this Sir Roderick, despite his long white whiskers, to be a woman, a kind of female transvestite.
     As film observer Rocco Thompson writes of this scene:

Sir Roderick’s single scene throws the already conspicuous queer elements in The Old Dark House into sharp relief. Though the house’s visitors may be rigidly defined by a largely cisgender, heterosexual exterior world, the Femm household is a queer space where the lines between gender are more pliable than rigid. Of course, in the cultural climate of the 1930s, this relaxed attitude toward gender identity would have been considered dangerous and debauched….

      Before the characters might even be able to assimilate this new shock, they are told that Morgan has helped the Femm brother, Saul (Brember Wills) to escape his room. Saul is known by the family to be fascinated by fires, having attempted before to burn down the house of so many evils.
      After Waverson and Porterhouse struggle to lock up Morgan in the kitchen, Penderel must alone face Saul, the maddest and most clever of the entire Femm tribe. After locking up the two women in a closet with only a candle for company—itself a rather interesting conceit given that the director was sexually out through most of his career—Penderel faces off with Saul, who first tries to convince them that the other family members have locked him away for the knowledge he holds that might put them in prison (Horace has previously admitted that he is wanted by the police). Finally, the mad firebug begins a long disquisition about the power of fire, with a knife in hand.
      Penderel keeps trying to assure his would-be storyteller that he is a friend, and so Saul insists that he does love Penderel just as the Biblical Saul, the first king of the Israelites, loved David, thus bringing up another story of mania which confirms the love-hate relationships that the entire Femm family have with one another and the world.

     Saul, if you recall from your Bible, was the first king of the Israelites, who commonly sought out the company of the prophets and also suffered from “troubled spells” seeking out David, the young shepherd who is known for his lovely harp performances. Soothed by the music, Saul appointed David his armor bearer, and invited him to court periodically to soothe what modern Biblical scholars suspect was a kind of mania suffered by the king.
      When David later slayed the Philistine warrior Goliath, Saul offered the beautiful young man his daughter Merab, but David graciously refused.
       As time passed, the increasingly popular David killed tens of thousands of Saul’s enemies, while Saul himself slayed only thousands, the common followers suggesting that David was the greater warrior.
       The Biblical passages note that at least twice while David was playing his instrument to calm Saul’s furies, Saul threw spears at David—precisely as Saul Femm throws a knife at Penderel during their long conversation, suggesting that the third time will not be an intentional miss.
      Saul offered another of his daughters, Michal, for marriage, an offer David again resisted stating that he is too poor to marry her. Saul offered the bridal payment of 100 Philistine foreskins, presuming the young man wwould die in the attempt; but when David brings him 200 foreskins, he had no choice but to permit the marriage, while now holding a terrible grudge against his son-in-law.
       Over the next several years, Saul, following David’s trail, attempted to waylay and murder him. But each time Saul’s own son Jonathan, now a close friend of David’s, helped the one he loved escape. That love has often been spoken about as a true bonding of friends, which today we might almost describe as a queer—and certainly it is odd, if nothing else—relationship.
       A reconciliation between the two enemies was finally reached when David sneaked into Saul’s camp stealing his spear and water jug while leaving behind his own spear to make it clear to the king that he had spared his life.

       Accordingly, the mention of this story, obviously well-known to the this Bible-reading Femm, speaks of a dimension of love, jealousy, and would-be destruction that parallels his and Rebecca’s murder of their own sister (an event which Roderick claims to have witnessed) as well as explaining his own mania behind his attempt to kill Penderel and burn down the family estate.
       A battle between the two, with Penderel attempting to put out the flames Saul has started, ends with both men falling from the staircase to the floor below, both apparently now dead.
       Meanwhile, Morgan, having broken down the kitchen door, scoops up the dead Saul in his arms, obviously in great pain over his condition, and gently carrying him up the stairs to his room much like a lover trying to console both his beloved and release his grief.
      The beauty of this unexpected and strange act of what is close to if not actually an expression of homosexual love is lost on the rest of the guests, who rush to Penderel’s side, with Gladys finally perceiving a faint heart beat as he comes to, he finally asking her, as he has promised, in the cold light of morning if she will marry him.
      Given Penderel’s previous cynicism and the sorrows that he has suffered in war, it is hard to believe that this new-born couple will truly be able to actualize their momentary commitments, just as we have begun to perceive that the argumentative Waversons, unable to begin anew or to return to what first brought them together, will never be a truly happy couple. If nothing else, Sir Porterhouse will now lumber through the rest of his life alone or with another proxy of his poor beloved wife.
      With the storm having passed, the night guests are in rather a hurry to escape into what they might describe as normality. Horace enters to offer them good luck on their forward journeys as if he had been simply a loving host of a long but lovely dinner party.
      Is it any wonder that The Old Dark House was a notable failure of the 1932 box office?

Los Angeles, September 1, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).

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