Boris Karloff - Morgan
Melvyn Douglas - Roger Penderel
Charles Laughton - Sir William Porterhouse
Ernest Thesiger - Horace Femm
Raymond Massey - Philip Waverton
Gloria Stuart - Margaret Waverton
James Whale - Director
Carl Laemmle - Producer
Benn W. Levy - Screenwriter
Arthur Edeson - Cinematographer
David Broekman - Film Score
J.B. Priestley - Original Novel
The Old Dark House has always stood apart from the other "horror" films made under the aegis of Carl Laemmle between the years 1931 and 1936. Ostensibly a vehicle for Boris Karloff, it is actually a fascinating ensemble piece for ten actors, brilliantly orchestrated by the legendary James Whale. Appropriately separated from the other films of its genre, it stands today as an abwsolutely unique piece of work--eerie and surreal, yet frequently hilarious.
Of the twenty feature films directed by James Whale, The Old Dark House is arguably the most theatrical. The set of the main hall was designed as if for a proscenium stage, with a staircase at one side, a balustrade running along the top and doors and hallways for entrances and exits. The script was by one of England's top playwrights, Benn W. Levy. And of the ten actors cast in the film, eight had impeccable West End credentials. Three, in fact, would go on to win Academy Awards. Whale went about the business of making the film quietly. It appeared on the Universal schedule in February of 1932, the script was ready for submission to the Hays Office in March, and it was completed by the end of May. The genius of its casting, which included Charles Laughton and Raymond Massey in their American film debuts, came from Whale having worked with most of its actors during his years on the British stage.
Exactly how The Old Dark House came about is a mystery, but a clue may lie in Benn Levy's arrival in New York on October 25, 1931. He told a reporter he was on his way to Universal City where he would write the screenplay for H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. This sent personnel on the West Coast scurrying, as Levy's arrival had been expected by no one. Apparently he had been invited to the studio by Carl Laemmle, Sr., who had met the playwright in England and expressed admiration for his work on Waterloo Bridge, which James Whale had also directed. The Wells story had been purchased as a possible follow-up to Whale's as yet unreleased version of Frankenstein.
Universal solved the dilema of Levy's arrival by loaning him to Paramount, where he was put to work on the screenplay for a brooding submarine drama called The Devil and the Deep. It was Levy's idea to cast his friend Charles Laughton as the corpulent heavy, and Paramoun't London office formally tendered an offer. When Levy had finished at Paramount, he returned to Universal with time left on his contract. Boris Karloff had been signed to a term contract as a result of Frankenstein, but there were few suitable properties in which to put him. It is likely that Levy--and not James Whale--knew of J.B. Priestly's popular novel and suggested it for Karloff.
Originally published under the title Benighted, The Old Dark House is a madly comic tale of travelers stuck in a Welsh house full of lunatics, an attempt, in the author's words, to "transmute the thriller into symbolical fiction with some psychological depth." Karloff drew one of the lesser roles as Morgan, the mute butler of the household, described in the book as "a huge troll who's got all rusty inside." It took a protracted illness on the part of actress Tallulah Bankhead, the star of The Devil and the Deep, to free Charles Laughton to join Karloff in the cast. Lillian Bond, a British actress who had appeared in Vitaphone shorts and features for MGM and First National, was cast as Laughton's boisterous girlfriend Gladys DuCane. Gloria Stuart, a Universal contract player who trained at the Pasadena Playhouse, was given the central role of Mrs. Philip Waverton. London stage legend Eva Moore was recruited for the role of the fanatical Rebecca Femm.
Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey had been assigned to a film called Adventure Lady--Douglas as its lead actor and Massey as its dialogue director. When that film got delayed, they were reassigned to The Old Dark House. Douglas was given the romatic lead as Roger Penderel, while Massey was cast as Philip Waverton, a part he later described, with some accuracy, as "long and colorless." From London, Whale imported Brember Wills, who had appeared in two productions designed by Whale in 1929. Elspeth Dudgeon was part of the Liverpool Repertory Company with Whale in 1921. And Ernest Thesiger, who had come to New York to appear in Levy's play The Devil Passes, had known Whale since 1919. Brought to Los Angeles to fill a role described by Priestley as a "thin elderly man in black" who spoke with "a curious and disconcerting precision," he could not have been more aptly cast.
The film posed a special challenge to cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who had to capture a world lit mostly by flame while keeping his images from degenerating into a parade of pin spots and harsh shadows. Whale moved the camera less than he had on his previous films, preferring to concentrate on the positioning and movements of his actors and covering his scenes elaborately. In the end, The Old Dark House contains some of his most cinematic moments, including one dazzling sequence in which Gloria Stuart is flamboyantly intercut with the remembered madness of Eva Moore--distorted and cackling in the shards of a broken mirror.
When The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932, the Hollywood Filmograph published a blisteringly negative review, perhaps a lingering aftershock to the widespread outrage accorded the release of Tod Browning's Freaks a few months earlier. Variety followed the lead of the Filmograph in shaming the film, calling it "a somewhat inane picture." In spite of its unfavorable trade reception, all nine of New York's dailies liked the picture. Business began well, but was clearly influenced by negative word-of-mouth prompted no doubt by Karloff's relatively small part and the quirky humor in the film's dialogue and staging. Booked for three weeks into the Rialto Theater, admissions dropped by more than half in its second week and the film was summarily pulled after ten days. It did far better in England, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.
The Old Dark House was reissued in 1939, but Universal's rights to the story lapsed in 1957. By the time of the William Castle remake in 1963, Whale's marvelous original was considered lost. It was not until 1968, nine years after Whale's death, that a print of The Old Dark House was discovered by Curtis Harrington in the vaults at Universal. Shrunken but printable, it was placed on archival deposit at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. This collector's edition marks the definitive edition of a true motion picture classic.
--JAMES CURTIS, from the Kino International
DVD edition of The Old Dark House, 2003.
A selection of Old Dark House related films.
Find Old Dark House on eBay.com
A selection of Old Dark House in books.
A History of Horror
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