Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Old Dark House (Universal, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008, 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve spent the morning watching videos: the 1932 movie The Old Dark House and last December’s MTV Unplugged with Bob Dylan. Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as their joint follow-up to Frankenstein the year before, The Old Dark House is a magnificent movie, not especially frightening but full of Whale’s dry-wit comic touches and playing against cliché. Interestingly, an opening credit attached to the film assured audiences that the Karloff who played the mad, (almost) mute butler Morgan in this film was indeed the same actor who had played the Frankenstein monster in the earlier film — just in case you couldn’t recognize him through the heavy (and completely different) makeup, which made him look like a cross between a particularly hirsute longshoreman and an ape. While Karloff didn’t get much chance to do pathos in this film — except towards the end, when he’s seen cradling the dead body of his one friend, the pyromaniac brother Saul Femm (Brember Wills) — Whale assembled probably the greatest all-star cast ever put together in a horror film, with Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton as the three men stranded at the titular “old dark house” overnight (there are also two women involved — Gloria Stuart as Massey’s wife and Lillian Bond as a chorus girl who transfers her affections from Laughton to Douglas during the evening) and Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore and Wills as the Femms (the craziest, most anti-social family ever created by a fiction writer — in this case J. B. Priestley, whose source novel for this film was called Benighted — since Edgar Allan Poe made up the Ushers).

Thesiger plays Roderick Femm, Jr. (the “Jr.” is unstated, but we do meet a Roderick Femm, Sr. in the film — more on that later), a withdrawn aesthete whose nomenclatory similarity to Poe’s Roderick Usher is probably no coincidence. Thesiger was one of the great horror actors; when he says, “Have a potato,” it sounds as sinister as most actors do when they say, “I’m going to kill you.” Moore is his sister, Rebecca Femm, a religious fanatic (the constant gibes at Christianity throughout this film are probably no coincidence, either, given that the director was Gay) who points to Gloria Stuart’s filmy white dress — and then at her even filmier white skin — and tells her that age and sin will ruin them in time. Even though all the Femms are senior citizens, their father is still alive; Roderick Femm, Sr. is 100 years old, bedridden — and, in an interesting streak of Whale casting, is actually played by a 102-year-old woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, whom Whale found in Britain and brought here especially for the role (although, to preserve her apparent maleness on screen, Whale credited the performance to “John Dudgeon”). It’s the father who explains to us that the brutish butler Morgan is on staff because his strength is needed to protect the house and its inhabitants against the even stronger evil brother Saul (the only Femm, it seems, who had a first name beginning with a letter other than “R”) — who turns out (surprise!) to be a seemingly harmless old man, who in fact (double surprise!) turns out to be a maniac who corners Douglas in his cell-like room (he’d been kept locked up for years, but on the night our guests arrived Morgan got drunk and, frustrated when his attempt to rape Gloria Stuart was foiled, let Saul out), quotes him the passage in the Bible about the original Saul’s murder attempt on David, throws a knife at him and sets fire to the top story of the house. Eventually the fire goes out (apparently put out by the driving rainstorm that led our heroes to seek shelter at Chez Femm in the first place), everybody finally falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion (except Saul, who is killed in a fight with Douglas, who is injured) and they all wake up in the morning to a bright, sunny English day.

The Old Dark House is one of Whale’s four horror masterpieces of the early 1930’s, and — at least in England — it was as popular as the other three (General Films, Universal’s British distributor, made it a regular Sunday night feature at theatres throughout Britain from 1932 to 1945). Somehow, it mysteriously disappeared, only to resurface in 1970 — I saw it for the first time at the San Francisco Film Festival of that year, at 1 a.m. in a darkened theatre (this is one movie that really should be seen at night in a theatre — it loses some of its nervous, nervy appeal on TV), and again in the late 1970’s at the UC Theatre in Berkeley (the northernmost outpost of the Landmark chain). It turned out to be one of those films whose copyright was grabbed by Raymond Rohauer, who did film buffs a great service by rescuing from oblivion some of the greatest movies of all time (including Buster Keaton’s silent masterpieces and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr), but who also locked his treasures away from the world for years with the manic intensity of a Femm — only recently have the Keatons Rohauer controlled finally made it to home video, and one suspects it will be a while before The Old Dark House likewise surfaces on cassette. (A remake I’ve never seen from 1963 — which starred Tom Poston, and whose director, William Castle, offered Karloff a chance to repeat his original role, which Karloff turned down because the script was terrible and too far removed from the original — circulated on TV for years.) A pity, given how comprehensively MCA has been restoring so many of the Universal horror classics to well-deserved video circulation (including such oddities as the Spanish-language Dracula) — especially given the historical importance of The Old Dark House as Charles Laughton’s first feature-length film[1] (and Raymond Massey’s second, and first in the U.S. — its only predecessor was the 1931 British film The Speckled Band, in which he played Sherlock Holmes), though Laughton is almost unrecognizable with a full shock of dark hair and a thick Welsh accent! — 5/15/95


I called Charles, made some pancakes and — as a Hallowe’en celebration — went over to see Charles with two of the quirkier horror films ever made by Hollywood, The Old Dark House (virtually a British picture in exile since the director, writer and most of the cast were British and it took place in the British countryside) and The Seventh Victim. Charles liked both movies, though he was a little put off by their abrupt endings — certainly James Whale’s spoof of all the old-house movies to that time (and, for that matter, since) and Val Lewton’s doom-laden tale of Satanism in contemporary New York hardly count as typical “horror movies” then or now (and one wonders what 1932 audiences made of The Old Dark House after being lured in to see it by ads stressing the participation of the star and director of Frankenstein!). — 11/1/96


Charles and I finally got to watch a movie, and I reached back to the early years of Universal’s talking horror films again and ran The Old Dark House, an unsung masterpiece James Whale made in 1932 that, since it doesn’t really have much of a plot, offers far more of a showcase for Whale’s quirky wit than just about any of his other films (though The Bride of Frankenstein remains his masterpiece in the genre). There’s really not much more story to it than a motley group of five travelers, in two cars — first Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas, second-billed); then self-made man Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, in his first American film) and his (platonic) companion Gladys Duquesne, nèe Perkins (Lillian Bond) — are driving through the back country of Wales when a ferocious rainstorm forces them to stop for the night at the home of the sinister Femm family: brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger coming off as what Truman Capote would have been like if he’d made it to his 80’s), his religious-fanatic sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their father Roderick (played by an actor who was billed as John Dudgeon but was really the centenarian British actress Elspeth Dudgeon, given outrageously phony whiskers and a male first name to pass herself off as a man) and their older brother Saul (Brember Wills), whom they keep locked up. 

In order to make sure Saul doesn’t get out, they need to have a fierce-looking butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, top-billed but still under the title), who like the Frankenstein monster (at least in the first Universal Frankenstein) is mute except for inchoate grunts and moans. (When Penderel and the Wavertons arrive at the Femm manse and Morgan greets them at the door with such noises, Penderel says, “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!”) About all that happens during the evening is that Morgan gets the hots for Margaret Waverton and tries to rape her, but Philip fortunately saves his wife by throwing an elaborate lantern at the butler; and later on Morgan lets Saul out of the locked room — and he turns out (surprise!) to be a mild-mannered little old man who’s really (double surprise!) a pyromaniac who attempts to set the Femm home on fire by lighting some of the heavy wall curtains with a log from the fireplace. (He tried to do this once before but this time around is stopped well short of causing any danger for the other people in the film.) Eventually one of the guests kills Saul in self-defense, Morgan gets a sad scene when he’s shown cradling his dead friend Saul in his arms (the one best bit of acting Karloff did in a film that otherwise really didn’t challenge him all that much), day breaks, the travelers leave — in the meantime Gladys has transferred her affections from Porterhouse to Penderel, and leaves with him — and the Femms go back to being the Mother of All Dysfunctional Families. I can’t separate my feelings about The Old Dark House from the context in which I first saw it: at the end of a long day at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival — I’d sneaked in and sat in the theatre as they ran movie after movie, culminating with this and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both were recent rediscoveries at the time and hadn’t been seen publicly in decades — Mystery not since its initial release in 1933 and Old Dark House not since 1945, when Universal’s British distributor, General Film, withdrew it because all the prints had worn out — and I was sitting there in the Palace of Fine Arts theatre wondering how the hell I was going to get home since the last buses back to Marin County had long stopped running by the time the film ended. (I walked home about halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge and was apprehended by a police officer, who took me the rest of the way home and said he’d been inclined to let me go but I’d said something that made him feel like I was mocking him — that early in my life my tongue was already getting me into trouble with authority figures!) 

It struck me then as the scariest film I’d ever seen, albeit in a low-keyed, un-obvious way — there aren’t any real horror sequences in it but it’s spooky as all get-out thanks to Whale’s superb direction, a marvelous script by Benn W. Levy (and an uncredited R. C. Sherriff) that leaves us almost totally at sea as to what’s going to happen next, wonderfully atmospheric cinematography by Arthur Edeson, almost Caligari-ish sets (Universal’s art department head, Charles D. Hall, is the only name credited) and an overall combination of spookiness and cheekiness that works surprisingly well. About the only disappointment in The Old Dark House is how little Boris Karloff has to do: he has surprisingly little screen time, the heavy hairpiece and beard he wears in character as Morgan gives him little room for facial expressiveness, he doesn’t get a chance to use his voice and a couple of his scenes — a quick succession of three ever-closer shots of his face and the attempted rape of Margaret — are all too obviously rehashes of his work in Frankenstein (there’s even a written prologue to the film explaining that the mad butler in this movie and the “mechanical monster” — sic; he was actually electrical — in Frankenstein were indeed played by the same actor), but the rest of the film is so good and the cast is probably the most stellar ever assembled for a horror film (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton! Only The Ghoul, with Karloff, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke and Ernest Thesiger, even comes close). The Old Dark House is a first-rate film, easily on a par with Whale’s three better-known Universal horrors (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein) and worth being better known than it is. — 10/25/08


Last night Turner Classic Movies celebrated Hallowe’en by showing a marathon of films with haunted-house themes, and I watched four of them, starting with The Old Dark House, the second of the three films in which James Whale directed Boris Karloff and the first time in his life Karloff got top billing. (In Frankenstein he was billed fourth and the opening credits listed the actor playing the Monster as “?”; only the closing “A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating” credits bore Karloff’s name.) Whale made this in 1932, starting with a novel by J. B. Priestley (whose name is misspelled “Priestly” on the opening credits) called Benighted about a group of travelers stranded in Wales on a dark, stormy night who take refuge in — you guessed it — an old dark house. Universal was already big on old-dark-house thrillers — in 1927 they’d had one of their biggest hits of the silent era with an adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play The Cat and the Canary, about an elaborate plot to drive an heiress crazy (and thereby disqualify her from the inheritance) through making it seem like the old dark house she was about to inherit was haunted. They’d remade The Cat and the Canary in 1930 as The Cat Creeps (this version is lost but a few minutes survive as clips in a Universal short called Boo! and the UCLA Film and Television Archive holds Vitaphone sound discs for four of the film’s seven or eight reels), and Whale decided to follow up Frankenstein with an old-dark-house thriller of his own that, like The Bride of Frankenstein three years later, would at once exploit the genre and spoof it. 

He also recruited a stunning all-star cast: Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart as Phillip and Margaret Waverton, a young married couple who are traveling through the Welsh back country when they get caught up in the storm; Melvyn Douglas as their ne’er-do-well friend Penderel, who’s riding with them in their back seat; Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse, who responded to his late wife being snubbed at a high-class social function (and dying of heartbreak shortly afterwards, at least the way he tells the story) by determining to become rich himself; and Lillian Bond as former chorus girl Gladys Duquesne, nèe Perkins, who’s become Porterhouse’s mistress but doesn’t seem to mind because he’s never wanted her “that way.” (Even in the so-called “pre-Code” era of loose Production Code enforcement, this had to be obliquely hinted at by Whale’s screenwriter, Benn W. Levy.) Of course, given the real-life sexual orientation of both Charles Laughton and James Whale, an informed modern viewer will immediately think of some other reason why Porterhouse would keep his relationship with his mistress strictly platonic! These oddly assorted travelers — the Wavertons and Penderel in one car, Porterhouse and Gladys in another — get stuck and have to seek shelter at the ancestral home of the Femms, a family Priestley and Levy pretty clearly patterned on Edgar Allan Poe’s Ushers, down to having the centenarian paterfamilias (played by an actor credited as “John Dudgeon” who was really veteran British character actress Elspeth Dudgeon, though Whale listed her as “John” in the credits to preserve her male incognito) being named Roderick. Roderick Femm had five children, two of whom died young: the others include Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), who basically runs the house and is able to say innocuous things like “Have a potato” as if he were saying “I’m about to kill you”; his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), a religious fanatic who stops the dinner the Femms are about to offer their guests by insisting that they say grace first (“My sister believes the roast beef will be more tender if she invokes the blessing of her god upon it,” Horace comments dryly in one of those odd swipes at organized religion Whale loved to insert in his films); and their brother Saul (Brember Wells), who’s kept in a locked room in the home’s attic much like the mad Mrs. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Boris Karloff plays Morgan, the Femms’ brutish butler, and despite a credit on the original release assuring potentially skeptical viewers that he was indeed the same actor as the one who’d played the Monster in Whale’s Frankenstein (“We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility” — a credit that has, alas, been deleted from the currently available version of the film from something called the Cohen Media Group) the fact is that the role is written very much like the Monster. Karloff is non-verbal, though he can emit a few groans and grunts (Margaret Waverton, hearing Morgan do so when he answers the door, wonders what language he’s speaking, and her husband says, “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that”); there’s a scene in which he breaks into the bedroom of the heroine and menaces her the way he did in Frankenstein; and in one sequence Whale even does the same three quick cuts to ever-closer views of Karloff’s face he used to introduce the living Monster. Penderel and Gladys end up stuck inside one of the cars and spend the night together something like Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet did in the 1997 James Cameron Titanic (and the presence of Massey and Stuart in this film puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from both James Dean and di Caprio!), and she transfers her affections from Porterhouse to him (well, why not? At least he’s straight!). Penderel lets Saul Femm out of his prison in the attic, and he turns out (surprise!) to be a seemingly harmless old eccentric who (double surprise!) is really a pyromaniac determined to burn down the Femm home. He gets as far as setting a few of the heavy wall-hanging curtains afire (oddly, though the Femm home is still standing in the morning there’s no indication of how the fire was put out) before being killed in a struggle with Penderel in which they both come plunging down when a railing breaks and they fall from the top floor to the bottom. There’s a quite touching scene in which Morgan, previously depicted only as a brute the Femms kept around just to control Saul, embraces Saul’s body — one of the depictions of intimate friendship between men the late film critic William K. Everson suggested were reflections of Whale’s homosexuality. In the end the five (relatively) normal people leave in the morning, not much the worse for wear, and the surviving Femms bid them adieu (there’s been a hint that Roderick Femm died peacefully in his/her sleep) and life goes on. 

Though The Bride of Frankenstein is Whale’s greatest horror film, The Old Dark House is one of his most uniquely personal works, neither a serious horror film nor a horror-comedy but a weird blend of the two, superbly executed; cinematographer Arthur Edeson keeps his camera in almost constant motion around the Femm home and shoots in the high-contrast style that would later become associated with film noir. Wisely, Whale totally eschews background music; instead of an elaborate score telling us moment by moment what we’re supposed to be feeling, he “scores” the film with just sound effects: wind machines and storm noises. I first saw The Old Dark House at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival, when it had just been rediscovered — after being shown regularly in British cinemas as a Sunday night special by Universal’s British distributor, General Film, until 1945, it disappeared when J. B. Priestley, who’d just leased instead of selling the rights to his story to Universal (a practice far more common after World War II than it was in 1932), reclaimed them when the lease expired in 1957 and so the film disappeared from circulation and wasn’t included in the Shock Theatre and Son of Shock packages by which most of the classic Universal horror films made their TV debuts in the late 1950’s. It was accompanied by another long-thought-lost early-1930’s horror, the 1933 Warner Bros. production Mystery of the Wax Museum, and they showed it at midnight (and the overall spookiness was just enhanced by my uncertainty as to how I was going to get home from the screening!), and it’s been one of my all-time favorite films ever since. — 11/1/17

[1] — It wasn’t; Laughton’s feature-film debut had occurred in England three years earlier in German expat director E. A. Dupont’s Piccadilly.