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The Forgotten: James Whale's "By Candlelight" (1933) and "The Road Back" (1937)

Two rediscovered classics from James Whale: the sparking "By Candlelight" and the epic "The Road Back".
One of the quirks of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna's annual jamboree celebrating restored or rediscovered movies, is that expensive products of the Hollywood studio system can be just as obscure and hard-to-see as low-budget oddities, foreign arthouse affairs and forgotten silents from a hundred years ago. Dave Kehr's retrospective of neglected items from Universal's vaults demonstrates this clearly.
James Whale always liked to say By Candlelight was his favorite of his own films, bypassing the more celebrated Frankenstein films. It's a romantic comedy of confused identities and it's no surprise that P.G. Wodehouse had a hand in the stage source.
But in this movie, when a butler impersonates his master in order to seduce a wealthy lady who turns out to be a maid impersonating her mistress, all the irony of Wodehouse's inversion of traditional ideas about class has gone. All right, so George Orwell argued persuasively that Wodehouse was in no sense subversive: the central joke about Jeeves & Wooster, that the manservant is the intellectual superior of the man, depends on us recognizing this situation as absurd. But in Whale's film, while the servants are able to fool one another simply by putting on different clothes, the superior class instantly see through these impostures. Blood will tell.
(Similarly, Whale's Remember Last Night?, screened as part of last year's Universal sampling, features some cruel lampooning of Arthur Treacher's butler by the spoiled upper-class heroes. We have to accept this as a built-in part of the Whale persona: of comparatively humble origins himself, he's compelled to side with the aristocrats to shore up his hidden insecurity about his own social status and, ugh, "breeding.")
This is definitely not Whale's best film. Paul Lukas, a fine actor, is somehow too heavy and ponderous for light comedy (the more practice he got with English, the lighter he became), though the sultry Nils Asther fares better as his princely employer and Elissa Landi is very lovely and it's nice to see her get to be funny for once. She's furiously telegraphing her inferior status from the off, eager to scoop up all the possible laughs, oblivious to any narrative advantages in holding the information back as a surprise for later. And we salute this triumph of enthusiasm over plotting.
The music is a fascinating mess: in this year of King Kong, when the film score finally came into its own, W. Franke Harling has been allowed to widdle all over the soundtrack, mickeymousing every movement and responding in over-literal, hamfisted ways to every dialogue cue: if someone mentions the opera, we get an instrumental version of a well-known aria. It's a striking example of a movie that doesn't know what music is for yet, but has realized you can have a fucking lot of it. Soon, Franz Waxman's majestic Bride of Frankenstein score would show the way.
The film is very elegant and sumptuous, photographed by John J. Mescall who also lit Bride. Masked partygoers at a village fair bring in the sole touch of the macabre: on the whole, it gives us an insight into Whale's sense of humor with the grotesque elements left out.
The Road Back weaves comedy deftly into a far more serious subject. A quasi-sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, it shows a group of soldiers returning from the war and finding disillusionment and betrayal in the town they left behind. Slim Summerville repeats his role from Lewis Milestone's earlier classic, and R.C. Sheriff & Charles Kenyon adapt Erich Maria Remarque's source book. Sherrif is a crucial figure: he wrote Journey's End, the play which made Whale's name and became his first film and he had worked on all Whale's post-Franenstein horrors.
The script is deft and clever, seamlessly interweaving mordant wit and stark tragedy. In the handling of the actors, Whale, surprisingly, proves less skilled, hampered by John 'Dusty' King as a handsome but stilted lead. Generally, he encourages everyone to be as on-the-nose as possible, which works fine for funny characters like Summerville and Andy Devine and Spring Byington, but eradicates nuance in the dramatic scenes. And when you have a nasty prosecutor played by Lionel Atwill... you really don't need to give him a monocle, James.
But on the visual side, the film is remarkable: Charles D. Hall's set design creates an almost entirely interior world, its no-man's-land resembling the blasted studio hillsides of Frankenstein. Whale cranes over his German village as riots erupt, creating the most sweeping and epic scenes of his career.
This new restoration returns the film to the form of its original release: in 1939, a bowdlerized cut, caricaturing German militarism and excising the film's overt pacifist message, was released, and became the only version that could be seen (and even it was pretty hard to find).
A missed chance: as a mortally wounded comrade watches his buddies troop off homewards, the film fades to black on a wide shot, instead of on his POV, which would have been devastating. A seized chance: all these WWI movies feature spectral superimposed images of fallen warriors, a motif popular even before All Quiet's marching soldiers in the sky. Here, the effect is far more powerful: as the little group of conquered heroes stands isolated in an empty parade ground, Whale dissolves in the figures of those who will not be returning, filling the entire frame with spectres at attention. Sublime.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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