The Old Dark House (1932) is locked in a perpetual grudge match with Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for the title of my favorite James Whale picture. When you realize that seven of Whale’s films rank among my favorite movies of all time, that’s even more remarkable. As the title suggests, it’s a movie in the “old dark house” sub-genre, and it’s probably the ultimate such film, but this adaptation of the J.B. Priestley novel about strangers trapped by a storm in a houseful of eccentrics and worse is something else. It’s also Whale’s revenge on Boris Karloff, who Whale resented for getting “too much” attention for Frankenstein (1931). That wasn’t happening this time with an ensemble picture where the obvious star was the filmmaker—not to mention being up against that scene-stealing old flamer Ernest Thesiger (known to his intimates as “the stitchin’ bitch” for his needlepoint). The results are black comedy gold. Thank goodness, this only used to be a “lost film.”
My own history with The Old Dark House predates being able to see the film. As a kid growing up on “monster magazines,” this was merely a tantalizing title. You read about it, but you never saw it. Magazines of that era weren’t all that useful in explaining such things—like the fact that this was considered a lost movie and that no prints were known to exist. And they certainly didn’t explain that no one was much interested in looking for it, because Universal held the rights to the film itself, but had sold the rights to the J.B. Priestley material to Columbia in 1962 for William Castle’s appalling (and almost completely unconnected) remake. Even if they had the film, they couldn’t do anything with it, so they didn’t care. My first real brush was finding a battered copy of the 1932 movie tie-in edition of the book—illustrated with stills—on a trash pile of things being thrown out by our next door neighbors. It was in terrible shape and my mother nixed me bringing it in the house because she expected it was unsanitary and vermin-infested (granted, these neighbors were pretty nasty). I’m still working on forgiving her.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that two prints were found. The better of the two ended up in the hands of Raymond Rohauer—not the most scrupulous of film “preservationists”—and it was this version that made the rounds of rep houses and universities. Unfortunately, this is not the print we have today. The Rohauer estate has proved intractable in terms of money as concerns that print. What we have is a somewhat darker and more battered print that director Curtis Harrington uncovered in the Universal vaults in the late 1960s. (Part of Harrington’s contract to make the 1967 film Games included a clause that he could look for the movie.) It is, however, perfectly watchable—and a damn sight better than having no print at all.
The film is pretty much a straightforward—if simplified—version of the novel. Many of its best lines are either straight from the book, or are adapted from the text. For instance, Melvyn Douglas’ comment that “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that” concerning Karloff’s incoherent mumbling is in the book, but not as dialogue. Some aspects of Priestley’s social commentary—especially as concerns the post-war “lost generation” (think of it as The Sun Also Rises with mayhem)—were pruned, but a lot was left, as was Priestley’s personal tragedy of a wife who had just died from cancer. Whatever was lost, though, pales in comparison to what was gained by the additions to the last section of the book, which were very weak.
As Curtis Harrington told me some years ago, Whale’s film “gave the book a third act.” In the book, though much is made of a character named Saul, who is locked away in a room at the top of the house, but when he finally makes his appearance, he’s not much different from Morgan the mad butler (Karloff). In the film, Saul (Brember Wills) is something else altogether—a seemingly benign little man, who undercuts all the build-up at first. Only as the scene progresses do we understand all the fuss and even Horace Femm’s (Thesiger) offhand instructions, “Wait for him downstairs—and kill him.” It’s a brilliant change—and one that is even more important in understanding the gay subtext inherent in Whale’s work, if you dig into some of the implications inherent in it.
The film itself is richly atmospheric, beautifully crafted, creepy—and most of all subversively funny and full of terrific dialogue. The cast could not be better suited to the material. Even Raymond Massey at his most humorlessly bland is put to good use. It’s perfectly possible to believe he—after doing battle with drunken Morgan—would respond to his wife’s (Gloria Stuart) assertion that “this is an awful place” by saying, “It isn’t very nice, is it?” The gem, though, is superior, condescending Thesiger. “My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,” he sneers early on—and promptly throws them on the fire. It’s all in the delivery. Trust me, after this film, you’ll never feel quite the same about the phrase, “Have a potato.”