The Old Dark House (1932) Directed by James Whale. Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey (73 min). Shown with Pure Feud (1932) Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
On a dark and stormy night, unlucky travelers are stranded in a lunatic-filled mansion. Whale and Karloff, fresh off their monster hit, Frankenstein are aided by silky Gloria Stuart, Oscar nominated as Titanic’s old Rose. “The fun is how adroitly Whale tightropes between droll nonsense…and the macabre. Grade: A. —Entertainment Weekly.
The Old Dark House is “perhaps the most bizarre 73 minutes of cinema ever made in Hollywood.” (Nollen). A genuine auteur work, the novel was adapted by a close friend of Whale, Benn W. Levy. Ernest Thesiger, a great pet of director James Whale’s, stars, clearly warming up for his tour de force in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. Even when reissued in the 1970s, horror fans often missed the point: that it was a burlesque of the genre, and not an out and out scare. The dialogue is meant to be dryly amusing, and there is even the in-joke of the family patriarch being played by Elspeth Dudgeon, a woman. Even though many contemporary writers have read much into Whale’s being gay, and his cinematic interest in monsters and other outsiders, Curtis Harrington says Whale would have been appalled at anyone’s reading that into his films. “He was making a wonderfully amusing entertainment.” (Del Valle).
Whale became famous with his stage direction of the tragic WWI play, Journey’s End which he then turned into a hit film, both starring Colin Clive. Whale was invited to Hollywood to direct another tale of the Great War, Waterloo Bridge. Up to that point, his experience with horror themes was limited to acting in a play where he’d portrayed the demented son of Charles Laughton, wrongly executed and then kept alive as a severed head. He may have originally accepted the assignment to direct Frankenstein so that he would not be thought of only as a director of war movies. Horror films, particularly those starring Boris Karloff, would become his legacy.
James Whale on the set with Gloria Stuart
Boris Karloff…born and died William Henry Pratt, he never legally changed his name…was oddly determined to be an actor. His father was born in 1827, and he was the end of a long line of children, the first born in 1850, and he, the last, in 1887, to a forbidding but oft-married English father. The family had ties to Civil Service in India, and his mother was half Indian, or his father was. He was raised by his straight-laced older siblings, and was properly schooled. But, in 1909, Billy Pratt ran away to Canada, where he worked laborers’ jobs and acted in touring stock companies. He apparently pulled his theatrical name out of thin air. He had no training as an actor, was extremely bow-legged, and had a stutter as well as a lisp; a most unlikely candidate for the stage. He started doing extra work and bit parts in Hollywood in 1916, in between stints driving a truck, doing day labor and selling ice cream. He was in 18 films in 1931, the year of Frankenstein; working a week here and a week there. But, one of those films recreated a flashy stage part as a murderous convict in The Criminal Code, which led to his becoming Frankenstein‘s monster. He used his imposing body to create the thrill of fear, and then softened it by his playing the monster as a child, yearning for his father’s love.
He had taken the advice of Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, to heart. Chaney told him in the mid-1920s, “The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality” (Nollen). Bela Lugosi railed against the fates that denied him the matinee idol status in the US he had enjoyed in his native Hungary. He turned down the part of the monster in Frankenstein because he had no lines. But Karloff, never having been famous, did not resent the typecasting that relegated him to thrillers.
After Frankenstein, Universal swiftly signed Karloff to a contract without much of an idea of what they would do with him. The introductory credits of The Old Dark House stress that it was the same actor that played Frankenstein’s monster, fearful that he would not be recognizable in a different make-up. In a number of films of the 1930s, he was billed simply as “Karloff.” James Whale was also without a project, since a planned adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man had stalled. Universal purchased a novel by J.B. Priestly, Benighted, specifically for Whale to direct. It had been a best seller in both England and America, and although Priestly intended it to be an allegory of the shadows of the recent war, audiences reacted enthusiastically to its crisp dialogue, juicy characters and spooky allure. Whale relished the potential for black humor; he saw the film as a parody of the gothic thriller. Cast with many colleagues of Whale from his stage days in England, the film boasts Charles Laughton in his American film debut. Karloff was assigned the butler, Morgan, “dark hulking shapelessness, like something monstrous spawned by the shadows.” The American title of the book, The Old Dark House, evoked such previous Universal hits as The Cat and the Canary, and a sound remake, The Cat Creeps. Charles D. Hall’s haunted house set would have a long life in other, cheaper horror productions, here it is caressed by Arthur Edeson’s atmospheric photography.
The Old Dark House was not supposed to be Charles Laughton’s American film debut, but script troubles with The Devil and the Deep resulted in a loan out from Paramount to Universal for The Old Dark House. Whale was an old London friend (he used to frequent Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester’s avant garde nightclub, the Cave of Harmony) and the old friends dined together on the Laughtons first night in Hollywood. “You’ll love it here,” Whale said to Laughton, “I’m pouring the gold through my hair and enjoying every moment of it!” (Callow). Laughton almost played it straight in the high camp haunted house, “never before or since has a director assembled such a last of living gargoyles.” (Callow). Raymond Massey, in one of his earliest roles, dismissed his part as “a long and colorless juvenile part that didn’t permit much acting.” (Brunas).
Fan magazines didn’t know what to do to promote an actor who was so unattractive. This awkard photo is from the April 1933 New Movie Magazine, of the actor supposedly vacationing in Palm Springs.
This was Gloria Stuart’s second film. A California stage actress, she had been courted by both Paramount and Universal studios. Universal offered her twice as much money, and she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize Paramount would offer her better material. She was still a bit snobbish about the movies, having trained at the prestigious Pasadena playhouse, but being part of a company of distinguished British stage actors changed her mind. Tea was served daily at 11 and 4—but only for the British cast members, Stuart felt rather slighted by their clannishness. Her first shots were on the back lot at night during the downpour that opens the film, “We had wind machines, we had rain machines, it was cold, it was windy…we were wet. It took about four or five hours to shoot and the set-up was very elaborate because of the distance we traveled.” Her companions groused, but she was chipper, “It being my first location and my second movie, I thought it was such fun, and I really enjoyed it.” She thought Whale the most talented director with whom she ever worked. “He was a wonderful, inspired man, great taste, knew exactly what he wanted. He had a wonderful feeling for actors. Unlike many directors, he rehearsed you thoroughly. He was very precise as to where you stood, how you moved. There was nothing he wasn’t in charge of. He supervised your hairdressing, the wardrobe….he came onto the set each morning and on the left hand side of his script every setup and ever detail was indicated. And, on a James Whale set there was no clowning around no chit-chat and joking as you’d have with other directors. We had to be quite serious.” (Server)
Gloria Stuart would eventually leave the screen, giving priority to her husband, sculptor Gordon Newell. The captions from this February, 1934 issue of Silver Screen read, “Gloria Stuart is the provocation and despair of her sculptor husband” and, “Gordon Newell, husband of our Cloria, photographed beside the bas-relief which he sculptured (sic) from his beautiful wife.
The caption reads, “Gloria Stuart, the never-worry girl. ‘Life’s too short to bother about things,’ is her philosophy. Yet, with a record of eight pictures in one year to her credit. And, a new one–‘The Kiss Before the Mirror’–almost ready for your consumption, with Paul Lukas, Frank Morgan and Nancy Carroll. Have you noticed that all of the critics have picked Gloria to be a first rank star this year? Don’t you agree?” From The New Movie Magazine, April, 1933.
After the storm, “James had me change into a Jean Harlow style bias cut pale pink silk velvet gown with spaghetti straps and earrings and pearls. And I said, why me, James? Nobody else is changing. He said, because Boris is going to chase you up and down the corridors and up and down the stairs, and I was 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. It was strictly a matter of camera and style—there was no legitimate reason for me being in the dress. Lillian Bond didn’t have to change, and she came in very wet. But, Karloff didn’t chase her.” (Curtis). Gloria Stuart had a kind evaluation of a film that was not much admired at the time, “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 make classics. All we were hoping for was to make a good movie. But all of James films are classics.”
Stuart was selected to be a WAMPAS baby star in 1932, an award given to up and coming starlets by the West Coast movie exhibitors. She shared the honor that year with Ginger Rogers, as well as some lesser known beauties, including Toshia Mori, a Japanese actress, and the only Asian American so honored. Stuart did make some other well known films in her youth, like The Invisible Man opposite Claude Rains and supporting Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But, her greatest fame was reserved for the end of her life. She played the 101 year old Rose, Kate Winslet’s aged avatar, in the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Stuart didn’t win her Oscar, but she was the oldest person ever nominated. Her newfound fame allowed her to share her very strong opinions on the Hollywood studio system with many people newly delighted to listen.
The 1932 WAMPAS Baby Stars, Stuart is second from left, Ginger Rogers is second from right, Toshia Mori stands behind her.
Ernest Thesiger, of course, steals the film. He played the elegant Dr. Pratorius in The Bride of Frankenstein a few years later. He and Whale enjoyed rehearsing different line readings, and bits of comic business. In the book, his character is described as “a man so thin, with so little flesh and so much shining bone ought to be braver than that, he was almost a skeleton, and skeletons, jangling and defiant, are brave enough.” Jack Pierce, Universal’s ace make up wizard completes the effect.
The film’s quirky take on the haunted house genre was not much appreciated in 1932, and after being reissued in the late 1940s, the film disappeared. Universal let their rights lapse in 1957, and it was never shown on tv. Director Curtis Harrington, a horror aficionado who worked mostly in television, was a friend of Whale’s in his last years. In 1968 he was under contract at Universal. He begged for the vaults to be scoured for vaults for any remnant of a print. Universal claimed that all prints and negatives were destroyed when the rights reverted back to the Priestly family, who had optioned the novel Benighted to Schlockmeister William Castle, who remade it in color in 1963. Finally, they told him they had a nitrate negative in which the first reel was so deteriorated that it couldn’t be printed, but they had a “lavender protection print” they could use to fill in. Universal had no interest in a property they saw no foreseeable income from (before the days of home video) and Harrington came up with the few thousand dollars needed from the George Eastman House and the Film Foundation. Eventually, a few immaculate copies were made, for George Eastman House, for MoMA for AFI and LoC, and one for Universal. Harrington even told Boris Karloff, filming an episode of the 1970s tv series The Name of the Game, that he had managed to rescue it. Karloff’s puzzled reaction: “Oh, that’s nice.”
Cast and crew on set.
Architectural Digest showed Karloff in the kitchen of his Bowmont Drive home, Coldwater Canyon, about 1937
Pure Feud is a Vitaphone short starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen was a very popular vaudeville star in the 1920s. Ventrioquists were usually near the bottom of the stage hierarchy, but Bergen’s act, in which his disrespectful wooden dummy Charlie cracked wise as the mild mannered Bergen played straight man, had been stellar. Vaudeville was dying, though, replaced by sound films, and when the Palace, the country’s classiest house, closed in 1932, Bergen wasn’t sure where his career would take him. He started playing night clubs, but it seems as if this–not particularly amusing–comedy short was a way of exploring possible new career paths. Directed by Joseph Henabery, a Vitaphone regular (he played Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) it boasts a somewhat less inert style than Henabery’s usual. Shemp Howard has an unbilled part as a “hillbilly.”
Thanks to Mike Mashon at the Library of Congress.
(Sources include: “Boris Karloff” by Christopher Bram in the April 1998 Architectural Digest Sources include James Whale A New World of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis, Dear Boris, by Cynthia Lindsay, Boris Karloff by Scott Allen Nollen, Boris Karloff, A Bio-Bibliography by Beverly Bare Buehrer, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor by Simon Callow, “Big Shop of Horrors” by Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice, Universal Horrors by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver, “Curtis Harrington on James Whale” by David Del Valle, January-February 1996 Films in Review, “Gloria Stuart” by Lee Server February, 1988 Films in Review, Knock Wood by Candace Bergen. Photo of cast and crew, and Old Dark House ad from The Films of Boris Karloff by Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals.)