Preparing for a Whale of a class | Bleader

Preparing for a Whale of a class


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From Whales racy pre-Code melodrama Waterloo Bridge (1931)
  • From Whale's racy pre-Code melodrama Waterloo Bridge (1931)
Starting October 1, I'll be teaching a six-week class on director James Whale at Facets Multimedia. The class, called Beyond Frankenstein, will explore some of the lesser-known films of Whale's varied and unusual career: his Expressionist psychodrama The Kiss Before the Mirror (photographed by the great Karl Freund, who also shot Metropolis and The Last Laugh); his screwball comedy Remember Last Night?; his period farce The Great Garrick; and his understated tragedy One More River, which I consider his finest achievement. We'll also look at his pre-Code melodrama Waterloo Bridge, his campy horror spoof The Old Dark House, and his megaproduction of Show Boat starring Paul Robeson and Irene Dunne. You can register here.

When Show Boat screened at the Film Center in July, I wrote of Whale, "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 . . . His films delight in performance for its own sake, as an activity that transforms the mundane into something special." At present, I don't have much to say about Whale in addition to what I wrote in that blog post, except that it's remarkable how someone so fixed in his tastes could move so fluidly between radically different genres. I expect to have fun looking at so much of his work in such a concentrated period, something I haven't gotten to do since Doc Films presented an excellent Whale series in 2008.

This class will double as a history of Universal Pictures in the 1930s. Whale made all but a few of his 20 features at Universal, which was known in this era for taking some of the biggest risks of any major movie studio. In the early sound era, Universal vacillated between great financial triumphs and periods of near bankruptcy—often from one year to the next. The studio's unpredictable progress mirrored Whale's, as the director was never satisfied working in the same genre twice. Yet his work displays a consistent worldview, one that's wry, delicate, yet also defiantly independent. Were there only more like him in Hollywood today.

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