Monday, November 5, 2012

The Old Dark House - 1932

Director:                          James Whale
Writers:                           J.B. Priestley (novel)
                                         Benn W. Levy (screenplay)
                                         R.C. Sheriff (additional dialogue, uncredited)
Producer:                        Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Cinematographer:          Arthur Edeson
Interior Design:               Charles D. Hall
Film Editing:                   Clarence Kolster                                      
Make-up                          Jack Pierce

Morgan                                  Boris Karloff
Penderel                                Melvyn Douglas
Sir William Porterhouse       Charles Laughton
Gladys                                    Lillian Bond
Horace Femm                       Ernest Thesiger
Rebecca Femm                     Eva Moore
Margaret Waverton               Gloria Stuart
Philip Waverton                     Raymond Massey
Roderick Femm                    John Dudgeon  (Elspeth Dudgeon)
Saul Femm                            Brember Wills

What is it!?  What do they want!?  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!? 
......No beds!  They can’t have beds!
  Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) from the film

As my sister hints there are, I’m afraid, no beds.”
   Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) from the film

I think it’s a wonderful film.  I remember I did a seminar at Filmex on James Whale, and someone said to me, ‘How did it feel, Miss Stuart, making classics?’  Well, we didn’t know we were making classics.  All we were hoping for was to make a good movie.  But all of James’ films are classics.” 
  actress Gloria Stuart
Tom Weaver.  Universal Horrors.  (McFarland & Co. 1977)

“James Whale, a former stage actor and director, handles the film much like a play: it is a series of dramatic entrances and exits; …moments of genuine shock providing a form of “curtain,” to be followed by a “buffer” scene of tranquility before the next thrill sequence develops.  But if the methods are those of the stage, the execution is pure cinema, with a wonderfully mobile camera, Whale’s typically effective use of short, sudden closeups, and beautiful lighting.” 
 William K. Everson.  Classics of the Horror Film.  (Citadel Press. 1974)

left to right:  Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvin Douglas
A car struggles through a late night rainstorm in the Welsh mountains.  The car’s passengers are wet, tired, and very cranky.  They have no idea where they are and the soggy map is useless.  The driver and his wife are at each other’s throats as only a happily married couple can be after a long day, and their back-seat friend is trying to keep up everyone’s spirit with jokes and songs.  The road is flooded and the muddy hillside is starting to crumble.  A landslide blocks the road so the group has no choice but to seek shelter in a gloomy, forbidding mansion.

So begins “The Old Dark House”, directed by James Whale.  Most movie fans, especially horror fans, are familiar with Whale’s most famous films—1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein”, but this film is less well known.  While it is mentioned by those who are familiar with it in the same breath with Whale’s horror films it cannot be classified as strictly horror: It is more of a mystery/thriller/comedy.  Whale was one of the best directors at combining all three genres in one film.  Here the comedy is subtle and very clever.

This movie not only comments on class, post war trauma and disillusion, the struggle between the old world and the new industrial commercial age, medieval as opposed to modern family relationships, it also often speaks to religion.  Unlike in “Bride of Frankenstein” where Whale tempered his sardonic pokes at organized religion with reverent scenes in the blind hermit’s cottage, the blows are not softened in this film.  The devout are painted as either selfishly hypocritical or dangerously insane.

Along with movies such as “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon”, this is one of the perfect, or at least near perfect ensemble casts.

James Whale was born in Dudley, England in 1889, the fifty-second year of the reign of Queen Victoria.  In most cases the world into which he was born; a poor, rural mining town, would be an unlikely hothouse in which to cultivate an accomplished theater and film director.  Physically frail, and with a sensitive and creative nature, he was unfit for a life in the mines or factories.  Whale managed to get training at a local art school and developed an interest in designing for the theater. 

Whale enlisted in the army during WWI and received a commission as first lieutenant.  During action in France, he was captured and spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp.  While there he produced and acted in plays for the entertainment of his fellow prisoners.  After the war, he found work in a variety of positions in theater – set design, costumes, stage manager, actor and director.  His first big directing success was with the R.C. Sherriff play about the lives of English soldiers in the trenches, “Journey’s End”.  It went to London, and then on to Broadway.

In the late 1920’s silent films found their voice.  Audiences loved hearing as well as seeing the stories on screen and demanded more.  Producers, realizing that they needed to hire actors who could speak the language effectively and writers and directors who could work in the new medium, scoured the theater world for talent.

While in New York Whale came to the attention of producers at Paramount Studios and in 1929 arrived in Hollywood.  After a short, unrewarding stint at Paramount he was hired by Howard Hughes to direct the sound dialogue scenes for Hughes' silent film, “Hell’s Angels”.   In 1930 a small production company, Tiffany-Stahl, hired Whale to direct the film version of “Journey’s End”.  

Also in 1930 Carl Laemmle Jr. signed Whale to a contract with Universal, which at that time was a minor movie factory looking to establish itself alongside the more prestigious studios.  A successful and classy English theater director was just the meat they were hungry for.   
Whale directing Boris Karloff in "Bride of Frankenstein" 
“The Old Dark House”, released in 1932, was Whale’s fourth film for Universal. 
It was adapted from the hugely successful novel, Benighted, written by J.B. Priestly and published in England in 1927.  For the U.S. publication the somewhat enigmatic title was changed to The Old Dark House and it sold equally well with the more obvious and eerie moniker.  I’m guessing (and this is only a guess) that the name change also may have had something to do with some forward-looking someone with an eye to a film adaptation.  Tell the truth, which movie would you rather see – one titled “Benighted” or one titled “The Old Dark House”?

Why the book Benighted was selected as a film project is something of a mystery, though it is thought that Whale himself may have chosen it.  Laemmle, Jr. was looking for a vehicle for his new horror star-in-grooming, Boris Karloff.  After “Frankenstein” Karloff was wasted in a few non-horror roles. The book may have been chosen both for Whale and to showcase Karloff.

Boris Karloff struggled for years as a bit player in eighty films.  His breakthrough role as Frankenstein’s creation came when he was forty-three years old.  For “The Old Dark House” he received top billing, which was a bit of false advertising for audiences who went to the movie on the strength of Karloff as the star.  His character is relatively minor and has no lines.  The actor is billed simply as “Karloff” and a pre-credit title card assures the audience that this is indeed the same actor as the Karloff who played the unfortunate undead creature the year before.  Perhaps some movie-goers would have been confused, or perhaps it was primarily a clever public relations ploy to promote Universal’s new star.  

When our three travelers arrive at the mansion and knock on the door Penderel (Melvin Douglas) jokingly speculates about the occupants, 
wouldn't it be dramatic, supposing the people inside were dead, all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them. 
The door opens a few inches and we get our first glimpse of Boris Karloff who plays the butler, Morgan.  This character is mute and so in response to Penderel’s request makes only a few guttural sounds.  After the door closes Penderel makes the quip,Even Welsh ought not to sound like that.”   This is a James Whale touch found in many of his films, switching the mood back and forth quickly – tension, humor, tension.

Whale uses light and shadow brilliantly in this film to set both mood and character.  The film seems to have been shot almost exclusively with ambient light, either from candles or the fireplace.  Below on the left is Morgan’s scarred, disfigured countenance as it appears in the doorway, with one side in darkness, the other in firelight.  The shot is so beautifully composed and perfectly balanced in the frame that it appears almost exactly the same upside down as upright.  I don’t want you to have to juggle your computer and possibly drop it in order to see the effect, so…this being a full service review blog, I have upturned the still for you.

After our elegant trio enter the house we meet more of its eccentric residents.  Horace Femm, played by the unforgettable Ernest Thesiger, descends the staircase and introduces himself with his dry, arched voice.  The camera waits with us at the bottom of the stair looking up as Thesiger’s extraordinary face approaches us; a devil with the very fires of hell blazing behind him.  His stilted, angular features and deep set eyes are accentuated by makeup and lighting, turning his face into a skull mask.

Thesiger, with his upturned nose always looked as if he had caught the scent of something unpleasant, but only his character’s good manners kept him from mentioning it.  He was a friend of Whale’s and was a seasoned stage professional.  This was his American film debut.

Thesiger's most famous film role was Dr. Pretorius in “Bride of Frankenstein”, another outlandish characterization; however where Pretorius was slightly menacing, Femm is a spineless, sniveling coward.  He whips himself up into near hysteria at the mention of the house being cut off and possibly washed away by the storm, and he is cowed by the other members of the household, especially his sister, whom we shall meet in a moment.

Both Pretorius and Femm share an effeminate affectation, but Doctor P. was a bit more erotically inclined toward Henry Frankenstein than Femm seems capable of demonstrating toward anyone.
Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, with one of his creations, in "Bride of Frankenstein"

An amusing factoid:  Thesiger  was a skilled needlepointer which is somehow not hard to believe.  According to Whale biographer James Curtis, Thesiger wrote a book on the subject and referred to himself as “the stichin’ bitch”. 

As Femm invites his visitors to sit down, he picks up a bouquet of flowers.
  My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,"
he explains as he unceremoniously dumps them into the fireplace.  With this one gesture we understand his relationship with his sister- no love lost there in a family feud that probably goes back decades.

Speak of the devil, Horace’s sister Rebecca makes her entrance.  She flutters down the stairs barking the questions I quoted at the top of this article.  Rebecca is a gnome-like, almost deaf creature who is as unabashedly inhospitable (“No beds!  They can’t have beds!”) and crotchety as Horace is superficially polite.  She is also a stern religious maniac whom Horace takes delight in needling with his sarcastic atheism.  Rebecca is the owner of the house and the one who wears the pants in the family.  Morgan ignores Horace’s orders and listens only to Rebecca.

English actress Eva Moore plays Rebecca, and although it may be a bit hard to believe from watching this film, Moore was a famous beauty of her time along with her two sisters.
A young Eva Moore.
She was also a distinguished actress of stage from 1887 and film up to the 1940’s and was an active member of the women’s suffrage movement.

Horace Femm invites his guests to have a drink, which Penderel accepts with pleasure.  We get to know a bit more about Penderel in this scene.  Horace suggests a toast “to illusion” which Penderel seconds with amusement.

Penderel:  Illusion!  Ha!  I’m precisely the right age for that toast, Mr. Femm.
FemmOh, I presume you are one of the gentlemen slightly, shall we say battered by the war?
Penderel:  Correct, Mr. Femm.  War generation slightly soiled, a study in the bittersweet, the man with the twisted smile.  And this, Mr. Femm, is exceedingly good gin.
Watch for two small details which reveal the James Whale touch: Thesiger as he walks toward the fireplace and sniffs the bottle of gin and Eva Moore wrinkling her nose in puritanical disgust at the sight of the others drinking alcohol. 

(This moment marks an intersection between the two Thesiger characters, Horace Femm and Dr. Pretorius – gin.  Here, Horace offers it to Penderel, It’s only gin you know.  I like gin.”  In “Bride of Frankenstein”, Pretorius offers Henry a toast to “a new world of gods and monsters” with a glass of gin, which he refers to as my only weakness.  Was this because gin was [and still is?] practically Englands's national drink, or perhaps it was a personal favorite of Thesiger?)

Penderel is a dashing, WWI veteran who had his boyish ideals knocked for a loop by a war which left him a damaged romantic.  Melvyn Douglas is great in the role, as he always was in everything.  His casual, droll delivery and the tiny crack in his voice when he responds to Femm’s invitation for gin, Mr. Femm, I honestly believe I could join you in a drink”, add just the right feather-light touch of humor . 

Douglas was born in 1901 as Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg in Macon, Georgia.  He started on the stage while still in his teens and made his Broadway debut in 1928 in “A Free Soul” as gangster Ace Wilfong (played by Clark Gable in the 1931 screen version).  He starred in the Broadway hit “Tonight or Never” and when it was filmed in 1931 he was brought to Hollywood to recreate his role for his screen debut. 
Garbo melting before Melvyn Douglas in "Ninotchka"
He specialized in suave, sophisticated, easy-going romantic leads (as Cary Grant would in a few years).  On screen he romanced several leading ladies, notably Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.  In the fifties he returned to Broadway and in later years resumed his movie career in mature, character roles.  He won his first academy award as the father in 1963’s “Hud” and his second for playing the elderly millionaire in “Being There”, 1979.  His last film role was as Dr. John Jaffrey, one of the members of the doomed Chowder Society in 1981’s “Ghost Story”.
L - R, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas in "Ghost Story"
Douglas was married to stage actress/California congresswoman Helen Gahagan for almost fifty years.  She is memorable for the title role of the immortal queen in 1935’s “She” (her first and last screen role).  Ms. Gahagan lost her senatorial race to “Tricky Dick” Richard Nixon in 1950.  Melvyn Douglas and his wife were both active political liberals and he was one of the early supporters and members of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union which was created to guarantee fair working conditions and compensation for actors.  Actress Illeana Douglas (“Cape Fear”, “To Die For”, “Stir of Echoes”, “Ghost World”) is his granddaughter.

After she reluctantly allows the visitors to spend the night around the fireplace, Rebecca shows Margaret to her bedroom to change out of her wet clothes.  A remarkable scene takes place there which is a good example of how Whale would see-saw the mood of the film between comedy and thrills.

While Margaret changes her clothes, Rebecca sits down and acidly tells the story of how her sister Rachel had died in that very room long ago.  She describes Rachel as a wild, wicked beauty who deserved her painful death.  Rebecca’s religious dogma does not yield one ounce of sympathy or understanding for anyone else’s humanity.  With each venomous word about “fleshly love”, and distorted camera angle Rebecca becomes less and less a slightly comic deaf old lady who misunderstands everything she doesn’t hear, and more a frightening harpy who sentences everyone to hell.   Whale ratchets up the tension more and more as she lays into Margaret, telling her that she is as wicked as Rachel was.  Margaret finally snaps when Rebecca lays her hand on Margaret’s bosom saying, “that’s finer stuff still, but it will rot too in time."

Whale adds a small, almost throw-away comic bit as Rebecca leaves the room.  She pauses in front of the mirror to check her image and touch up her hair – a very funny moment of hypocritical vanity after her cracked moralizing about Margaret thinking only about her own looks.

Whale renews the tension as Margaret finishes dressing, remembering Rebecca’s tirade and imagining she sees her in the mirror.  The quick cuts of Rebecca’s distorted face are mixed with quick close up shots of Morgan, who I interpret is not so much in Margaret’s imagination as he is actually peeking at her through one of those secret panels that creepy movie mansions always seem to have.  Margaret’s panic escalates and she runs down the corridor to the safety of her husband and Penderel.

Something that may seem incongruous or even foolish today is the fact that she is the only one of the three soggy travelers who has changed her clothes, not to mention that she has put on an elegant, sleek evening gown and jewelry.  As Gloria Stuart describes it on the DVD commentary:  
This scene is very interesting because, James had me change into a Jean Harlow, bias-cut, pale pink, velvet gown with spaghetti straps, and earrings and pearls as I remember.  And I said to him, ‘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 alright, I put on the dress as you can see, and Boris chased me up and down the corridors and I was a white flame.  It was strictly a matter of camera and style.  There was no legitimate reason for me being in that dress.  Lillian Bond didn’t have to change and she came in very wet.  But then of course, Karloff didn’t chase her.” 
Something else to remember is that this was the day when people “dressed” for dinner; evening gowns for the ladies and white tie and tails for the gents, so audiences at the time may have found it more realistic than we do today.  In the end, Whale was the director and had the final say.  Ms. Stuart is gorgeous in it and it is a striking visual so it must have been the right choice.
Gloria Stuart as "a white flame".
Gloria Stuart was a favorite of James Whale, he used her in two other films: “Kiss Before the Mirror” and “The Invisible Man”, both in 1933.
With Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man".
She was discovered performing at the Pasadena Playhouse by film studio agents, and was signed to Universal.  She started in film in 1932 and “The Old Dark House” was one of five movies in which she appeared that year.
Studio publicity for ingenue Stuart.

Ms. Stuart had a fascinating life; she never stopped expressing herself artistically.  She created art furniture, painted in oils, wrote books, grew award winning bonsai trees, and in the 1980’s learned the art of creating and publishing hand crafted art books, starting her own publishing company, Imprenta Glorias.  She retired from films in the 1940’s for the stage.  She took care of her ailing husband and after his death began working sporadically in films and TV.  Her role in 1997’s “Titanic” as the older ‘Rose’, the character played in the past by Kate Winslett brought Ms. Stuart her first academy award nomination.  Gloria Stuart remained a vibrant and beautiful woman until she died at the age of 100 in 2010.

In the next scene the Femms invite their guests to dine with them.  That is, if “invite” is the word to use – Rebecca calls them to the table with an angry, intimidating shriek, “SUPPER!”

This meal is another place where Whale deftly weaves tension with comedy – Rebecca’s flat, hollow grace followed by greedily stuffing her face, her brother who refers to her prayer as “my sister’s strange tribal habits, the solemn passing of a piece of bread around the table, Morgan’s creepy leering at Margaret and her obvious discomfort, Penderel and the Wavertons doing their best to maintain some level of sane normality in the face of the Femm household’s insanity.  Horace’s line, “have a potato” is one of the least appetizing offers ever.  Penderel politely offers, “Vinegar, Miss Femm?” to the sour old lady. 

The meal is interrupted by the arrival of two more stranded travelers -- nouveau riche Sir William Porterhouse travelling with his chorus girl pal Gladys Ducane.  He is a profoundly lonely man after the death of his wife, but it is made clear in later scenes that his relationship with Gladys is one of genial companionship, not sex.  They are both lower class characters who bring a breath of fresh air to the environment.  James Whale, who was from the lower class himself by birth and who achieved higher class status through hard work and reinvention, probes English class distinctions throughout “The Old Dark House”.  

After the meal Horace and the five visitors sit by the fire getting to know each other better.  Sir William tells the pathetic story about his wife Lucy.  She had been snubbed by his bosses’ society wives because of her her new “cotton frock” which she wore to a company event.   As he speaks he casts an accusing look at the elegantly clad Mrs. Waverton.  He tells the group that Lucy worried she wasn’t good enough and was holding him back, and he believes that this drove her literally to her grave.  He got his revenge on the upper class snobs by being better at business than they and ruining them.

Sir William, annoyed by Gladys’ obvious interest in Penderel, mocks her by revealing to the others that her real name is not the refined “Ducane”, but the decidedly more ordinary “Perkins”.  She defiantly owns her real name, denying that she was trying to put anything over on anyone,
I’m not as dumb as that.  These people know a chorus girl when they see one.”
However, instead of fanning the flames of a class war, Whale pours oil on the waters, if you will tolerate mixed metaphors.  Upper class Penderel is drawn to common little Gladys and decides to propose to her.  When Gladys breaks the news to Sir William he takes it very well.  He and Penderel form a friendly bond which promises to become a lasting friendship. 

Even the very proper Wavertons are portrayed as decent, kind-hearted people who behave impeccably but fairly with everyone.  In fact, each of the five outsiders display these traits, which, outside of society’s artificial demarcations, are the real mark of genuine class. 

Charles Laughton was born in Yorkshire, England and brings that regional accent to his role in this movie, his American film debut.  The following year he would appear in another horror thriller, “Island of LostSouls” as the insane Dr. Moreau.  He was married to Elsa Lanchester, who was of course the “Bride” of Frankenstein.  The two appeared together in ten films. 
Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse
Lillian Bond had the right background to play the chorus girl, Gladys.  She had appeared on Broadway with the “Ziegfield Follies” and Earl Carroll’s “Vanities”.  Gladys is a lively, electric counterpoint to the dour Rebecca Femm and the mannered Margaret Waverton.

Like the shot I described earlier of Boris Karloff’s face in the doorway, this scene around the fire is another fine display of Whale’s direction and Arthur Edeson’s lovely cinematography.  The actors remain visible in the dim light and in novel arrangements the camera gives each one equal time. Below you see a shot of the group, as if the camera is placed within the fireplace itself and is gazing out through the flames. 

After the electricity finally goes out for good, Philip Waverton and Horace go upstairs to get an oil lamp.  Horace is obviously terrified about something and makes an excuse to lock himself in his room.  Philip retrieves the lamp, but hears a strange voice coming from behind one of the doors. 

Meanwhile, Margaret has been left alone and Morgan takes the opportunity to chase her around the dining table.  He has been drinking and is now a staggering, leering brute, turning over tables in order to get at Margaret.   Philip knocks him out and takes Margaret with him back upstairs to investigate the mysterious sounds.  (This is about the first chance Karloff has to do anything at all in the movie.)  

They enter an old bedroom which houses 102 year old Sir Roderick Femm, the father of Rebecca and Horace.  (In the book Roderick is the oldest sibling, not the patriarch of the clan.) 

 This is an unlucky house” he says.  He warns the couple about the son they haven’t met—Saul, who is kept locked in the attic.   According to Sir Roderick, Saul is a pyromaniac who “only wants to destroy, to kill” and make the house “a burnt offering”.  They keep Morgan because he is the only one who can handle Saul, but the bad news is that when Morgan has been drinking, as he has been tonight, he may let Saul out.  Sir Roderick explains that the entire family is touched with madness—everyone but him that is.

Sir Roderick is an ancient bundle of bones covered with wisps of hair who speaks in a high cackling voice.  The actor's name in the credits is “John Dudgeon”, however the character is actually played by an actress by the name of Elspeth Dudgeon.  Gloria Stuart said that this was a great joke that Whale played on the ensemble and revealed the identity of the actor after the scenes had been filmed.   

Elspeth Dudgeon worked in films until 1955, though many of her roles were uncredited.  She appeared in more James Whale films, including  "The Impatient Maiden”, “Show Boat” and “The Great Garrick”.  In “Bride of Frankenstein” she played the tiny part of the old pipe-smoking gypsy woman who demanded the “pepper and salt” for her meat just before the starving creature crashes their campfire.

"Pepper and salt.  Where's the pepper and salt?"  Elspeth Dudgeon in "Bride of Frankenstein"
Horace leaves his room briefly to announce that Morgan has indeed released Saul from his room, and tells Philip to wait for Saul downstairs and to kill him.  Horace disappears back into his own room, leaving his guests to do the dirty work.

The film now moves into a long passage of unrelenting tension which climaxes in violence.  Rebecca and the five unlucky travellers are gathered at the bottom of the stairs nervously listening to Saul’s mad laughter echoing through the house.  Suddenly a white hand appears at the top of the banister, the owner just out of sight.  Then Morgan appears and staggers down the stairs toward the group.  The white hand remains motionless where we first saw it.

Morgan tries to attack Margaret, but is restrained by the three men who take him into the back room to lock him in.  Rebecca flees to her own room muttering “the sins of the father…the sins of the father”, and Penderel returns to guard Gladys and Margaret.  The two women are locked in a closet for safety as Penderel turns to face whatever insanity is about to appear. 

The owner of the hand slowly comes down the staircase.  The dangerous  maniac we have all been expecting is shown to be a timid, frightened, little rabbit of an old man who cowers in front of Penderel.  “Please don’t touch me…I’m not mad, I swear before heaven I’m not mad!”  He tells Penderel that he is the victim of his cruel family because he knows a terrible secret—they murdered their sister Rachel.  Penderel believes this and assures Saul that he will be safe.

When Penderel turns his back, we suddenly see the real Saul—in one brilliantly executed move, a tilt of the head, the actor's features slide from frightened to frightening.
Brember Wills as Saul Femm.
James Whale has switched gears on us again, but not with humor this time.  We have had our fear of Saul built up bit by bit, but when he is revealed our fear is deflated by our sympathy for the little man.  Then, just when we are breathing a sigh of relief, Whale unveils the madman beneath the exterior and shows us that we were right the first time.

Saul now goes into full-on, uninhibited crazy mode, the unhinged strain of the family in full flower and murderously focused.   He picks up a carving knife and backs Penderel into a chair as they both sit at the dining table.  Saul launches into a deranged speech about his interest, 

“I’ve made a study of flame.  I know things about flames that nobody else in the world knows… Flames are really knives.  They are cold, my friend.  Sharp and cold as snow.  And they burn like ice.” 
He segues into a biblical theme:
 “My name is Saul.  Saul, my friend.  And Saul loved David.  But Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him and was departed from Saul…And there was a javelin in Saul’s hand and Saul cast the javelin… And David avoided out of his presence twice, twice my friend.  But the third time, the third time you must be careful…”

Saul holds the carving knife like a javelin and hurls it at Penderel, barely missing him. 

The two men struggle as Saul attempts to set fire to the house.  In the fight they both fall over the second floor bannister onto the floor, killing Saul and knocking out Penderel.  Morgan then returns to the scene, releasing the two young women from the closet.  He knocks out Gladys as she tries to go aid Penderel.  As he grabs Margaret, she tells him to let her go, that she needs to go help Penderel and Saul.  At the sound of Saul’s name, Morgan forgets Margaret and goes to Saul.  Morgan cradles his dead friend tenderly, rocking back and forth with grief before carrying the body upstairs.
L-R: Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Brember Wills, Boris Karloff.
It is the only moment of acting with any depth that Karloff is allowed in this movie and is not unlike the way Karloff’s creature will mourn the dead Igor in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein”.   

Miraculously, Penderel is not dead.  Hours later the exhausted visitors are wakened by a bright and cheerfull Horace Femm, wishing them “Good morning”, and telling them that the flood seems to have subsided.  Philip and Margaret go to get help, leaving Sir William still asleep, and Gladys and Penderel sharing a kiss.

Horace smiles as he accompanies the Wavertons to the door.  “So happy to have met you” he says, as if the night had passed in the most pleasant manner and not with the violent death of one brother and the house almost being burned down.

Rebecca is seen in an upstairs window, giving them all a final disgusted “Bah!!"

The film is faithful to the book for the most part, with some notable changes.  The romance between Penderel and Gladys is speeded up considerably in the movie.  Logically it would have to be condensed for the purpose of time, but the fact that the sophisticated Penderel falls so quickly and forcefully for Gladys is just barely believable.  The biggest change is that in the book Penderel dies from his fight with Saul and the movie ended originally the same way.  But after the movie previewed it was decided that audiences would not accept the romantic hero dying, so Lillian Bond and Melvyn Douglas were brought back to film a new ending.

With the enormous success of “Frankenstein”, Whale became the fair haired boy at Universal, able to select the projects he wanted.  He tried to avoid being identified as a “horror” director, and picked scripts in a variety of genres—comedy, drama, war, musical.  Between the years of 1930 and 1941 he made a total of twenty films, mostly at Universal Studios.  Many of his films had critical success but less enthusiastic box office.

His film of “The Invisible Man” in 1933 was a huge hit, both critically and with the public; although it, like “The Old Dark House”, is less horror than comic thriller.  Because he did not want to make another horror film, in 1935 Whale had to be persuaded to make “Bride of Frankenstein”.  He accepted the project only when he realized the script’s potential for his own brand of sly parody and social and religious commentary.

After "Bride" Universal producer Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted Whale to direct their long overdue “Dracula” sequel, “Dracula’s Daughter”, a lackluster film eventually released in 1936 when Universal was no longer under the Laemmle family control.  Whale managed to stall his involvement with that film long enough to avoid it completely (directing duties went to Lambert Hillyer) and be able to direct the project he wanted -- his one and only musical, “Show Boat”, also released in 1936.  By the way, Whale’s “Show Boat” is considered the very best film version of that play, but its large budget was one of the straws that finally broke Universal's financial back.  Carl Sr. borrowed heavily to keep the studio above water, but in 1936 Universal was forced into bankruptcy, pulled from the familial embrace of the Laemmles and pushed into the cold, gray-flannel arms of Standard Capital Corporation.

When “The Old Dark House” opened in the States it received mixed reviews, though the New York critics were enthusiastic.  However, after a good opening week ticket sales dropped sharply and it had a short run before it was pulled.  England was a different story as it broke box office records there.  It was re-released in 1939, but after that was not seen again until the 1970’s.  Universal let the rights expire after the re-release and had no interest in the movie after that.

Columbia picked up the rights and filmed a remake in 1963, starring Tom Posten and Robert Morley and directed by gimmick-meister William Castle.  In spite of many of the cast sharing the names of the original characters, the story is quite different; it is more of a comic murder mystery and frankly is pretty awful.  However it does have a clever, and for a Castle film unusually impressive, opening credit sequence.  It was drawn by cartoonist Charles Addams, who created the characters on whom the creepy Addams family was based and the credits have that same flavor.
Title image for 1963 remake.  Titles drawn by cartoonist Charles Addams. 

The 1932 film was thought to be lost for many years until director Curtis Harrington, a friend of Whale’s, championed the film and insisted that Universal check their vaults for a print – then check them again – and then check them again.  Finally in 1968 the original negative, already partially deteriorated, was found.  Universal had no interest in picking up the tab for restoration, so Harrington contacted George Eastman House in Rochester, New York which was able to create, and paid the costs for, a new negative from which to strike prints.

Luckily for us Harrington did not give up his quest to return this film to the light.  It stands as one of Whale’s best as well as one of the best of the genre and deserves a place on any shelf of classic films.  To a contemporary viewer it may seem a bit creaky at first glance, but if you can appreciate Whale’s dry wit you will be rewarded with the most entertaining seventy-two minutes you will have experienced in some time.

It is certainly the apotheosis of all “Old House” chillers…  Nothing better in this vein has been done before or since.  (It) is the kind of film one wants to see more than once, and from the second viewing on, it gains tremendously.  One has time then to forget about its lack of spectacular thrill set-pieces, and just sit back and admire its mood, its style, and its wit.
 William K. Everson.  Classics of the Horror Film. (Citadel Press. 1974)

At this point in 2012 the phrase “old dark house” is something of a cliché, similar to “a dark and stormy night”.  With mind-numbing regularity we have seen any number of movies set in an eerie mansion, a murderer on the loose, strangers trapped by a storm, etc. ever since the release of the grandmamma of them all – “The Cat and the Canary” in 1927.  Whale himself was probably influenced by that film (he had expressed admiration for it) and in his movie poked fun at the genre’s conventions at the same time as he observed them.

The genre has been spoofed deservedly over and over with various degrees of success.  For one of the funniest catch the movie “Dark and Stormy Night”, by writer/director Larry Blamire.

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  1. Wonderful analysis of an overlooked film! I admit this is my least favorite of the Whale horror pictures, but perhaps a second viewing will reveal some of its better assets to me.

    One thing I always find so interesting is how people read so much sexual subtext into Bride, but not this film. From Rebecca's prudery about the guests getting beds to Morgan's leering at Margaret to the suggestion of incest going on in the Femm family, there's just a ton that could be read into IMO.

  2. "Tell the truth, which movie would you rather see – one titled “Benighted” or one titled “The Old Dark House”?
    I'd prefer to see a filmed adaptation of Benighted using the original U.K book title.

  3. Definitely, that would be interesting. I'm just afraid that a lot of people wouldn't know the meaning of the word 'benighted' and might think it was yet another reboot of the Batman series.