Show Boat and the neglected legacy of James Whale

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From Show Boat
  • From Show Boat
The restored print of Show Boat (1936) playing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center is one of the must-see movies in town. For one thing, it contains some of Paul Robeson’s greatest film work: his performance of “Ol’ Man River” has been justly celebrated, and it’s well worth seeing within the context of the film. But more importantly, the movie showcases some of the most ambitious filmmaking by director James Whale, whose work outside the horror genre remains too little known. Case in point, several of his major features—Show Boat, the melodrama One More River, and the Expressionist-influenced The Kiss Before the Mirror—remain unavailable on DVD. It’s unfortunate that a number of Whale’s movies should be relegated to the archives, as they often feel surprisingly modern.

Consistent across the director’s work is a bemused self-awareness about the storytelling process. His characters always seem to be putting on a show. This is literally the case with the traveling players of Show Boat and the theater companies of The Great Garrick, but it takes subtler forms in the witty introduction to The Bride of Frankenstein (which has Mary Shelley making up the story of the film to amuse her husband and Lord Byron), the knowingly campy performances of The Old Dark House and Remember Last Night?, and, tragically, in the show marriage of One More River.

James Whale, on the set of Bride of Frankenstein
  • James Whale, on the set of Bride of Frankenstein
This sensibility may have something to do with Whale being gay in an era when few people would dare to admit it; though as James Curtis notes in his biography James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, the director never lied about his sexuality, nor did he consider it much of an issue. (He spent many years in a monogamous relationship with the story editor David Lewis.) More likely is that it stems from Whale’s background in theater, where he worked as an actor, director, and set designer for more than a decade before coming to Hollywood. His films delight in performance for its own sake, as an activity that transforms the mundane into something special. In Show Boat, there’s a characteristic sequence where the players put on a corny melodrama for a bunch of rubes, many of whom don’t understand that the play’s villain is simply an actor. An audience member threatens violence, and the play’s director must remake the show on the fly, negotiating between the onstage fiction and the dangerous reality a few feet away. It’s a glorious piece of comedy—and pure Whale.

That the director was able to insert so much of his personality into the film is less impressive than that he got to direct it at all. Given Whale’s early success in horror, the executives at Universal Pictures didn’t want him to direct anything outside the genre. Indeed, the higher-ups originally wanted Show Boat to be directed by Frank Borzage, whom they hired for one-picture contract in 1933. But the studio was in a financial dry spell at the time and couldn’t afford the lavish production they’d envisioned for the project. Borzage ended up directing Little Man, What Now? (which is screening at the Siskel Center tonight, coincidentally) and Show Boat was shelved for another three years.

By 1936, Whale had directed enough hits that he could lobby successfully for the project. He also had a loyal ally in Carl Laemmle, Jr., the son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, and an innovative producer who was responsible for the studio’s wildly successful horror unit, among other triumphs. It was through Junior’s effort that Whale got onto Show Boat, but nearly everyone else involved remained skeptical of his abilities. As Curtis notes in his biography:

“[Whale] called us all in before we started the picture,” [star] Allan Jones remembered, “and said, ‘You all have played this before [on stage], and you will have your ideas of how it should be played. I want you to forget whatever ideas you have, because I will interpret, through you, my conception of each role.’ And, of course, we walked out of there saying, ‘Who does he think he is?’”. . . Irene Dunne was particularly incensed. “James Whale wasn’t the right director,” she said flatly. “He was more interested in atmosphere and lighting and he knew so little about that life."

Yet Universal took a huge gamble on the production anyway, devoting three-fifths of the annual budget to the one film, employing 58 sets and an average of 150 extras per day. Whale went past schedule and over budget, and he called for reshoots just before the movie’s national premiere. Had Show Boat not been a success, it would have meant the end of his career. Unfortunately, Whale only worked in Hollywood for another four years. His two features of 1937, The Great Garrick and The Road Back, were both costly flops; and after Junior Laemmle’s early retirement from movies, he no longer had a powerful patron in the studio system. He worked unhappily on a handful of assignments until his own premature retirement in 1940.

Whale would live another 17 years. Given the extraordinary rate at which he directed in the 1930s, he could have made another 34 films. That’s as much of a loss to film history as the inaccessibility of his extant work.

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