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The Forgotten: James Whale's "Hello Out There" (1949)

James Whale's last film is a haunting one-act play set in an expressionist jail cell.
David Cairns
The last film by James Whale (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House) is a forty-minute short based on a one-act play by William Saroyan. Whale had directed the play in 1942 as part of a show to entertain US troops passing through LA. The opportunity to film it arrived through strange circumstances.
Millionaire Huntington Hartford loved his wife, Marjorie Steele, who was an actress. He decided to bankroll a series of short films showcasing her talents. Somehow Whale, who was thoroughly retired from film direction, was approached, and he welcomed the idea of adapting Saroyan's lonely parable to the screen. Harry Morgan was recruited as male lead.
Like a lot of late works, this one needs approaching with a sympathetic attitude. The play is built around its title, a line shouted like a refrain throughout the piece. For some reason, Harry Morgan shouts every other line too. This was far from Morgan's debut, so it can't be a difficulty making the leap from stage to screen acting. Not since Steve Martin in The Jerk has any actor played a role at such a consistently high level of volume.
Nevertheless, it's rather a lovely, nuanced performance once you get over the surprise at its reverberant fullness. And Steele is good too. Alas, her husband found fault with her performance and buried the film. A shame.
Because what we have here is a beautiful capstone to Whale's directing career. The expressionist set, all slanting bars and chiaroscuro shadowplay, recalls his Universal horror films, as does the bleak view from the door of the single jailhouse set, a no-man's land reminiscent of Journey's End (1930). Whale designed the set himself, making use of his early theatre experience. And the theme of the persecuted outsider is also a familiar one to him, seen most famously in the Frankenstein monster as Christ figure in Bride of Frankenstein (1935, but also strongly expressed in Showboat (1936) and through the imprisoned king in his underrated The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
Eight years later, suffering the effects of a stroke, Whale would address an envelope "To Those Whom I Love," leaving in it a suicide note. He drowned himself in his pool.
"Do not grieve for me [...] I have had a wonderful life but it is over [...] Goodbye all and thank you for all your love."
"Hello out there!"
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 


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