The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 1)

The Dark Universe

The massive success of Disney’s “Marvel Cinematic Universe” over the last decade has sent at least two other studios scrambling to emulate what seems to be a license to print money. They thought it would be easy. Simply utilize pre-established characters — to which they already owned the rights — in a series of interconnected, crowd-pleasing action movies with A-list stars. Well, Warner Brothers soon discovered it’s a lot trickier than it seems. Warner Brothers owns Marvel’s big comic book rival, DC, but their attempt to spin Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the like into their own cash cow has had its stumbles. Poor scripts, lack of a consistent point-of-view, and just plain clunky filmmaking have kept Warners’ “DCEU” series firmly in the shadow of the MCU. Oh, they make money, but they just don’t delight people the way the Marvel movies do. Determined to keep trying until they get it right, Warners is seven films deep as of this writing, with five more in the pipeline. 

They fared better than Universal.

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Universal logo, 1927-36

It occurred to Universal that they were sitting on a bunch of characters whose fame, or at least recognizability, was equal to the comic book heroes and villains of Marvel and DC: their classic stable of monsters from the 1930s, when Universal invented the American horror movie, and Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster ruled the cinema screens.

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It seemed like a stroke of genius. No one really watches those movies anymore, except pop-culture bloggers and elderly cinephile cranks (the sort of people who complain about modern movies, often with enthusiastic use of the caps lock, in their five-star Amazon review of something like The Invisible Man’s Revenge — “so much better than the DRECK they put out these days!!!!”) But the names and visages of their monster characters are deeply imprinted in the popular consciousness. If you ask someone to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s Monster, they will inevitably render a likeness of the square-headed creature with bolts in its neck, as designed for the 1931 film. Ask that same person if they’ve actually seen the film, and they will likely say no. So with most people remembering the monsters, but few remembering the films themselves, the writers and directors of the potential new movies had a pretty big sandbox to play in, with pre-tested characters to sweeten the deal. 

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The Dark Universe was born.

It would kick off with The Mummy in the summer of 2017, starring Tom Cruise as the Rugged Hero combating a female mummy (Sofia Butella), occasionally aided by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll, portrayed here as a member of the top-secret monster-killing organization “Prodigium,” and only occasionally turning into Mr. Hyde. Following The Mummy would be The Bride of Frankenstein (bypassing the introduction of the Monster — everyone knows his origin story anyway), and after that would be Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. And that was just the beginning. Dr. Jekyll and Prodigium would be the linking device between all the films, a la Marvel’s Nick Fury. 

Then The Mummy came out — and was howlingly bad. The action was incoherent, themummy_ver3 smaller horror elements were laughable, and the characters were cardboard cut-outs existing mostly to spout paragraphs of expository dialogue. It was the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire, and barely broke even at the domestic box office. It skulks around at a 16% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not what franchises are built upon.

Project co-runners Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan dropped everything and backed away, hands up. The Bride of Frankenstein has been placed on indefinite hiatus. The now Depp-less Invisible Man was quickly rewritten to focus on the female victim (Elisabeth Moss) and is on track for a March 2020 release, but has severed all ties to the Dark Universe. (Dark Universe? What Dark Universe?) The office on the Universal lot dedicated to the project was abandoned last year, its potted plants re-distributed, and framed posters of the old films taken off the walls where they had just been placed the year before.

The Dark Universe died.

To be fair, Universal didn’t do it particularly well the first time around, either, but at least they got more than one film into their world-building. Decades before the concept of a “shared cinematic universe” was even in the cultural vocabulary, one 1943 film — Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man — established the two towering icons of horror as existing together, and the first shared universe was born. Two more sequels (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) ran with the concept, but by then Universal was not interested in giving their horror films the time, money, and talent they had lavished on the classier 1930s films. The two Houses were B-grade sausage-factory product.

We will examine the dwindling quality of the original series in good time. For now, let’s begin at the beginning. It’ll be the usual Holy Bee mash-up of things you know (“Frankenstein” is the name of the doctor, not the monster), things you maybe don’t know (early sound pictures did not have scores because filmmakers feared the audience would be confused about where all the music was coming from if no orchestra was visible on screen.) And parenthetical asides. So many parenthetical asides. 

The Birth of Universal Horror

Carl-Laemmle_mainIn 1905, German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle was a bored clothing store manager in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. On a trip to Chicago, he noticed lines around the block to experience the “nickelodeon” — a primitive movie theater showing a variety of short films, or offering single-viewer Kinetoscope machines. Inspired, Laemmle decided this would be the new direction of his life, and in less than five years he and several partners had founded Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) of New York. In 1912, he moved operations to California, and turned IMP into Universal Pictures.

Setting up shop on 230 acres of former ranch property in the San Fernando Valley he dubbed “Universal City,” Laemmle created the first entirely self-contained film production facility. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had bought out all of his partners and had sole control of the studio. But “Uncle Carl” may have overreached himself. As his nickname indicated, shameless nepotism was rampant at the studio. (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle” ran one bit of Ogden Nash doggerel.) Countless cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws were on the payroll, many doing nothing but occupying studio bungalows. The other issue causing problems for Universal was the fact they did not own their own chain of theaters like most other major studios did. Universal was forced to rely on independent exhibitors, which ate into profits. By the beginning of the Great Depression, the studio was in deep financial trouble. 

Then a few things happened to stave off disaster. Uncle Carl had retired and turned overimage-w240 control of the studio to his son, Carl Jr., in 1928. Junior Laemmle demonstrated more enthusiasm than administration skill, but he had a good instinct for stories that would work well on film. One of the first productions he oversaw was the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which was a huge success both financially and artistically, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was a veteran of post-war German Expressionism and first genius of the field. Junior also had the inkling of an idea that had been rattling around his head for a couple of years — can a film be made that combined a literary pedigree with the ability to sustain a mood of tension and terror all the way through? It wasn’t necessarily an original idea. Universal itself had already (mostly) achieved that alchemy with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

Straitlaced America struggled to get its own take on the horror genre off the ground. Cosmopolitan European filmmakers had been more daring, thrilling audiences with creepy fare such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the vampire tale Nosferatu (1922). It was assumed by conservative American studio heads and theater owners that those sorts of horrific tales would be at the mercy of local film censor boards, be bad for public morals, and cause more controversy than they were worth. But they ignored evidence right before their eyes. A  1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore definitely had some horror elements, and it made truckloads of money. People flocked to see Universal’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) not for the melodramatic Gothic romance that it was, but for the hideously grotesque make-up that actor Lon Chaney devised for his version of the hunchback.

By 1925, American audiences seemed ready for a true horror movie. Universal, at that time still under the guidance of Uncle Carl, gave it to them.

The Phantom and Lon

Uncle Carl bought the rights to the 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux directly from the author on a trip to Paris in 1922, with a plan to turn it into a vehicle for Universal’s favorite specialist in the grotesque, Lon Chaney. Laemmle spared no expense, building a massive recreation of the Paris Opera House interior inside Universal’s Stage 28, along with the Phantom’s lair among the labyrinthine tunnels and sewers underneath. Early Technicolor was used in a few key sequences, such as when the Phantom appears as “Red Death” at the masquerade ball.

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It was a troubled production, with extensive re-shoots and re-edits, but the final product that went into general release in November 1925 left an indelible impression on audiences, almost entirely due to Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance.

Lon Chaney was born in 1883 in Colorado to deaf parents. His communication with them led to an impressive skill in pantomime, and by the age of 19, he was appearing as a clown with touring vaudeville companies. He married a troubled young singer named Cleva Creighton, and in 1906 she gave birth to a son, Creighton Tull Chaney. Cleva’s drinking and extra-marital affairs put enormous strain on the marriage, and Chaney had her fired from her job as a nightclub singer in order to keep her away from her two temptations — alcohol and other men.

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Lon Chaney

In a dramatic move right out of an old romance novel (or early silent movie), Cleva stalked on stage one night when Chaney was performing and swallowed a bottle of mercuric chloride. She survived, but her vocal cords did not. Her singing career was over, as was scandal-tainted Chaney’s stage career, as was the marriage. Little Creighton was told his mother had died, and was sent off to boarding school while his father began building a new career in the burgeoning world of silent films. 

By 1917, Chaney had built a reputation as a uniquely gifted character actor with the ability to play literally any part. His secret weapons were his self-designed makeup kit and a willingness to twist and contort his body to an inhuman degree. Using these, he could transform himself into almost anything, specializing in the macabre or deformed. By the turn of the 1920s, he was being hailed as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” (Chaney took pains to point out that a large portion of his acting roles were with his own face, but those were not what built his reputation.)

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The face he created for Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, was certainly memorable. Using the brief description of Erik’s deformity in the novel (a “death’s head” look, holes for eyes and nose, wisps of black hair over parchment-like skin), Chaney began by darkening his eye sockets and nostrils with black greasepaint, building up cheekbones and a high forehead out of cotton and collodion (more on this combination in the next entry), gluing his ears back, and adding hideous, twisted teeth and a rubber skull cap topped with a few strands of stringy black hair. The finishing touch was tiny wires, invisible to the camera, that hooked into his nostrils and attached under his wig, pulling his nose up and creating a more skull-like appearance. (Yes, they made his nose bleed.)

The moment in the final third of the film where the Phantom is unmasked still has the capacity to startle.

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The film was a success, but its production was such a headache that Uncle Carl washed his hands of the genre (he never liked horror much, anyway). Lon Chaney decamped for MGM soon after.

Five years down the road, Junior couldn’t get the notion of doing a horror film out of his mind. The fact that sound films had been firmly established by 1928 would make it even easier. He had his staff begin searching for likely properties. One came up almost immediately.

Dracula

bram-stoker-9495731-1-402The literary works of Abraham “Bram” Stoker (1847-1912) were a sideline for him. During his lifetime he earned his living as the manager of the prosperous Lyceum Theater for over 25 years. The thirteen novels and many short stories he wrote during his off hours were duly published, but received scant attention and even less income. Dracula (1897) was in the middle of the pack, sandwiched between Stoker’s other romances, mysteries, and adventure tales. It did sell a little better than his previous books, and earned some good notices, but it was hardly a sensation.

Dracula is an “epistolary” novel, meaning it is made up of entirely fictional but realistic-51B77DBzAHLsounding diary entries, letters, and news clippings from multiple narrators, telling the tale of the vampiric count’s journey from the Carpathian Mountains to London in search of fresh victims. He is described in the novel as a thin, white-haired man with a long moustache, hairy palms, pointed ears, and noticeably sharp teeth. 

There has been much speculation on the connection between the Transylvanian count and the historical figure who once ruled the same area and shared a name — Vlad III Dracula (c.1430-77), ruler of Wallachia (like neighboring Transylvania, a little principality long since absorbed by modern Romania). His father, Vlad II, was known as “Dracul” (“Dragon”), so naturally Vlad III was referred to as “Dracula” (“son of the Dragon”), when he wasn’t being referred to as “The Impaler” for what he did to enemies on the battlefield. Many modern retellings make the historical prince and the fictional count one and the same, but literary scholars contend that Stoker knew little to nothing about Vlad III. He had ran across the name in an old Romanian history book while prepping the novel, and just liked the sound of it as a moniker for his vampire.

Twelve years after Stoker went to his grave, Dracula rose from its own thanks to Stoker’s old friend from the theatrical world, actor-producer Hamilton Deane. Deane thought the story would make an excellent stage play, and after clearing the rights with the widow Stoker, turned the horrific tale into a drawing-room mystery. Critically panned but loved by audiences, after a lengthy British run, the play went to Broadway in 1927 with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role. Lugosi also joined the play’s touring company as it criss-crossed the U.S. in 1928.

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Bela Lugosi

It was just the sort of thing Junior Laemmle envisioned as being a major smash for Universal. They began negotiating for the rights as soon as they could. Word circulated that the creation of the first sound horror film was underway at Universal City.

Bela Lugosi, who had been very effective as the lead on stage, lobbied hard for the part, but he was an unknown in Hollywood. Junior had hoped to lure back Lon Chaney to play the vampire, but by the time he was offered the part, he was already quite ill. He had been suffering from pneumonia and bronchial issues for some time (some sources say it was due to inhaling fake snow on a film set). Lung cancer had set in. In his weakened state, a throat hemorrhage after a tonsillectomy killed him on August 26, 1930 at the age of 47, just a few days after the studio officially cleared the rights to the Dracula story. After considering a few other actors, Universal went ahead and hired Lugosi. The deciding factor was that he was willing to work cheap, setting a dangerous precedent for his future relations with the studio.

Director Tod Browning’s cameras rolled from September 29 to November 15, 1930 on the Universal lot. Joining Lugosi from the Broadway cast was snowy-haired, bespectacled Edward Van Sloan as the academian vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing.

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Edward Van Sloan

In fact, the entire cast were Broadway veterans. At this early stage of sound films, the studios’ casting departments were desperate for actors who could handle dialogue, and raided the stages of Broadway and London’s West End, waving their checkbooks. Dwight Frye, an intense, brilliantly versatile jack-of-all-trades was brought in to play the mad, cackling, insect-eating Renfield, one of early horror’s most memorable characters. Helen Chandler played Mina Seward, one of Dracula’s London victims (or near-victims, she survives the ordeal). Chandler should have been a major star. She combined glamorous ice-cream blonde looks with serious, stage-honed acting chops. (The Holy Bee admits he’s always been somewhat smitten with her feline eyes, snub nose, tiny, dimpled mouth, jutting chin…I’m sorry, where was I?)

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Helen Chandler

A veteran of both Shakespeare and modern-day drama, Chandler was difficult and high-strung, but her ultimate downfall was the disease that will stalk these essays like one of the monsters they feature — alcoholism. Her reliance on the bottle forced her retirement before the decade was out. The rather thankless role of Mina’s stalwart fiancee, Johnathan Harker, went to David Manners. 

Tod Browning was hired on the basis of being Lon Chaney’s favorite director when it was hoped Chaney would star. Browning was considered an A-list director at the time, but the few examples of his pre-Dracula films that have survived to be scrutinized reveal his style to be stodgy and slow. A silent-film director to his bones, he seemed to lose interest in filmmaking when sound came into the picture.

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Tod Browning

The hard-partying era of his youth was ended by a boozy car crash with Browning behind the wheel. His passenger was killed and Browning was two years in recuperation. Sworn off alcohol and depressed over other personal losses, by 1930 Browning was reticent to the point of muteness. (David Manners described him as a burn-out.) Usually clad in a checked sport coat and beret, and sporting a fussy little moustache, he was almost a non-entity on set. Before a scene, he would light yet another cigarette, mumble some instructions to the camera crew, call “action,” then let the actors do whatever they wanted. Some of the cast recall him literally wandering off in the middle of a take. Any visual flair Dracula has is usually credited to cinematographer Karl Freund. 

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And visual flair it does have, at least in the opening sequences in Transylvania. The Castle Dracula set, with its shadows, immense cobwebs, and sweeping staircase is a triumph of design. Lugosi cements himself in the public consciousness as the definitive Count Dracula — suave, clad in a collared cape and evening clothes, with a purring Eastern European accent and an air of equal parts seductiveness and menace. When he swoops down the looming stairs (and through the cobwebs seemingly without breaking them) to greet Renfield, the British solicitor he will soon drive insane and make his slave, it seems that all that Junior Laemmle had envisioned would be fulfilled.

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However, once the film leaves the world of shadowy Transylvania and enters London, the spell is broken. The film’s origins as a stage play, and Browning’s origins as a silent film director (and lack of interest), become all too obvious. Browning simply points the camera at the actors in medium and wide shots and films long, unimaginative takes. The acting is mercilessly hammy (“theatrical” is the polite way to put it.) The pace plods. Long chunks of expository dialogue are matched with equally long chunks of total silence. Anything of interest happens offscreen, and is merely described by the characters afterwards. 

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Dwight Frye as Renfield

A Spanish-language version, shot at night on the same sets using different actors, is considered so superior in every way (performances, camera work, etc.) it is often included on Dracula DVDs and Blu-Rays as a bonus feature.

Lugosi did his own minimalist Dracula make-up — powder-white face, red lips (pointless in a black & white film, but a holdover from the stage) and a slick, jet-black hairpiece. At nearly 48, his natural hairline was only just beginning to recede, but better safe than sorry. Although the script indicated the occasional flashing of fangs, these never appeared.

Since it’s Renfield that initially travels to Castle Dracula and tangles dramatically with the dangerous count, and not Jonathan Harker (as in the novel and most other adaptations), the film’s Harker is given very little to do. As played by Manners, he mostly stands around being handsome in a vaguely Ben Affleck-y way while waiting for the rest of the supporting cast to gang up with him for the climactic let’s-go-kill-Drac scene at the very end.

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David Manners

(Allow the Holy Bee to toot his own horn here — I won my high school drama department’s Best Actor award with my portrayal of Jonathan Harker in our stage version of Dracula. I played him as a very tortured soul with a white-knuckle case of PTSD, until regaining his nerve and staking the vampire in a dramatic center-stage execution. The stake was a collapsible special effect, but my co-star showed me his bruised sternum at the end of our run. I obviously chewed the scenery shamelessly, but I guarantee I was more interesting than David Manners, and certainly had a better British accent than Keanu Reeves. So, toot-toot.)

Of course, these are criticisms of a creaky old film that’s nearing 90 years old. And occasionally, the film’s complete outdatedness works in its favor — creating a mood of eerie otherworldliness. 

It’s the first horror film to offer a truly supernatural monster, with no cop-outs. Dracula wasn’t just a human deformity, wasn’t someone pretending to be a monster, and it wasn’t all just a dream in the end — the safety nets that defused almost all previous American “horror” efforts. In the world of the film, there was a real vampire killing off real victims.

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The cast study their source material

When Dracula opened on Valentine’s Day, 1931, movie theaters were packed. If any of the film’s flaws were apparent at the time, audiences didn’t care. Universal hyped the film’s sex appeal up to very limits of 1930s propriety. The film was a roaring success, and plans for a follow-up were immediately made. If Junior Laemmle could make cash registers ring with another horror film, he just might save his studio.

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How’s about one more picture of Helen Chandler, here with ol’ whats-her-name on the right, who played Lucy

Bela

Bela Lugosi had a two-picture contract with Universal, and it was naturally expected that he would star in whatever horror film they picked to followed Dracula. Bela himself wasn’t so sure, and his hesitation may have cost him in the long run. 

CHBB7XhW0AALggFBorn in Lugos, Hungary in 1882 as Bela Blasko, Lugosi dropped out of school and entered the theatrical world in his late teens. He appeared in numerous plays for small touring companies (including lots of Hungarian translations of Shakespeare, and classics like Faust and Cyrano de Bergerac) before finally establishing himself in 1913 at the National Theatre in Budapest. His acting career was interrupted by World War I. Serving in the Austo-Hungarian army, Lugosi fought on the snowy Russian front for almost two years. Returning to the National Theatre, Lugosi graduated to leading roles (including Jesus Christ in 1916’s The Passion, pictured above). He also made several silent films in 1917 under the name Arizsted Olt. Other stage names came and went, but he finally settled on “Lugosi,” after his hometown.

In 1919, Lugosi was forced to leave right-wing, Horthy-era Hungary after attempting to 8d6ae8ed0214fd70f795725181fe0783form an actors’ union. He made a few films in Germany, then emigrated to the United States in December of 1920. Before long, he had formed a stock company of fellow Hungarian actors who toured the immigrant communities of major East Coast cities. In 1922, he was cast as a Spanish pirate in his first English-language play on Broadway, The Red Poppy. Several more plays followed, alongside silent film roles (including Tod Browning’s The Thirteenth Chair), with Lugosi usually playing an exotic or aristocratic villain of some kind. His Broadway tenure was capped with the starring role in Dracula (1927-28).

There’s some disagreement as to how comfortable Lugosi was with the English language at the time of Dracula. Some co-stars remember him having to learn his lines phonetically, and when offstage, speaking haltingly and infrequently. Others insist he was perfectly fluent, but wasn’t the type to chit-chat outside his limited social circle.

Lugosi’s son (born in 1938) remembers his father as a true European sophisticate and lover of all things refined — expensive wine, tailored suits, fine art, and rich tobacco (he had an impressive pipe collection and was rarely seen off-camera without a Cuban cigar). He was a voracious reader, and preferred the company of dancers, painters, and musicians to other actors, often hosting dinner parties for Hollywood’s small Hungarian artists’ colony. 

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When it came time to do a follow-up to Dracula, Lugosi was initially resistant. He wanted to play leading men, and not just in horror films. Frankenstein was quickly decided upon as the next Universal chiller, and according to Hollywood lore, Lugosi haughtily turned it down. He originally thought he would be cast in what was correctly the “title” role — the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein. But when it became clear Universal wanted their new boogeyman to be the Monster, he balked. The part of the Monster had no dialogue and heavy make-up would obscure his aquiline, classically handsome features. There was no sex appeal. An actor’s ego cost him the part of a lifetime.

Or so it’s been told.

But truth is rarely as simple as lore. Lugosi may have been forced off the production. Junior Laemmle’s golden-boy director, James Whale, had arrived on the scene.

“Jimmy”

There was a major new presence on the Universal lot in early ‘31. Just as stage actors with dialogue experience were at a premium in the early days of sound films, so too were stage directors. James Whale had caused a sensation with his searing war drama Journey’s End in London and on Broadway, and after a brief Hollywood apprenticeship, directed the 1930 film version as well. Widely acclaimed — lead actor Colin Clive’s anguished performance drew particular praise — and a box office success, Universal snapped him up with a very generous contract. He was wrapping production on what looked to be another WWI-era winner, Waterloo Bridge, when Junior Laemmle offered him any project the studio had in development to direct next.

Whale, looking for something “different” and to avoid becoming known only as a “war drama” director, chose Frankenstein. 

James-Whale

James Whale

Known as “Jimmy” to his friends, James Whale carried a very erudite and classy air, but was born into a working-class family in Dudley, England in 1889. He had a knack for visual design, and made some money as a cartoonist and commercial artist. After serving as a second lieutenant in World War I (the last year of which he spent in a POW camp), Whale became a journeyman actor, designer, and director in the British theater. Journey’s End was his big breakthrough.

All who worked with Whale testified to his skill at drawing nuanced performances out of actors, his flair for interesting visuals, and his quirky sense of humor. He could also be a daunting taskmaster, egotistical, petty and cold. Whale did not bother to hide his homosexuality, living openly with his partner, producer David Lewis, for many decades. Some say this led to a premature end to his directing career, but for the most part the Hollywood community turned a blind eye. Modern film scholars have picked up an notable amount of gay subtext in Whale’s work that was missed by audiences (and censors) at the time.

Junior Laemmle wanted to keep Jimmy happy, so if it was Frankenstein he wanted, Frankenstein he would get. The only problem was it was already well into pre-production with another director…

Up next…Frankenstein…the Mummy…and the Invisible Man.

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