Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Runner-Ups: James Whale in "The Invisible Man" (1933)

Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every other Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: James Whale
Film: The Invisible Man (1933)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Director category (1933):
-Frank Capra (It Happened One Night) *WINNER
-Victor Schertzinger (One Night of Love)
-W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man)

With the launch of the new Universal Horror franchise, better known as The Dark Universe, it is difficult to not get nostalgic about the films of yesteryear. I for one have been excited to revisit such classics as Frankenstein (which I wrote about for Theory Thursday). In a quest to not just dump deserved praise onto that film, I have tried to think of what to dedicate this week's column for The Runner-Ups to. Boris Karloff more than deserves a few Oscar nominations from over his career. However, it would be too obvious. It is why I went with the next best film from that era: The Invisible Man, which is such a technical feat that I wanted to do Charles D. Hall as this week's pick. However, he would later receive Oscar nominations. The same could be said for the screenwriters, and even lead actor Claude Rains in one of his early hits. 

This brought me to one reality: James Whale deserves more credit for helping to invent classic horror. True, you can add the names Tod Browning and Karl Freund to that list. However, Whale was on another level, and even got due treatment with an Oscar-nominated portrayal in a biopic called Gods and Monsters. However, the man himself seemed to have one issue. He was never recognized for his work. Frankenstein was a highly successful film, but the taboo around horror likely kept him from getting much traction. The same could be said for The Invisible Man - which in the modern age would've gotten at least a few technical nominations for its incredible production design and direction. In fact, it's baffling why it's not more revered as a work of innovative, timeless art.

It helps that H.G. Wells' book is an incredible work of fiction. The world of The Invisible Man is one full of great visual beauty. To discover that the protagonist is invisible is itself perfectly directed. Add in the technique that shows that, in 1933, that he is invisible is astounding camera technique. What Whale had to do was depict the struggles of an invisible character through physical action. While Rains at times ends up sounding like voice over, it is put over scenes in which local townspeople are running in panic as the world around them is tossed into disarray. It mixes the campiness that Whale would get more credit for in The Bride of Frankenstein with a deeper and emotional drama about the struggles of not being seen and, in the process, being seen as an outcast. 

Whale's background in theater more than shows in his ability to turn a monster story into a great psychological exam. He makes the audience reconsider their preconceived notions, choosing to find sympathy for a monster. Why is this poor man invisible? How will he solve his problem? This is information that has to be expressed implicitly for a character who already has no face to emote from. The way that Whale manages to do show everything is a feat unto itself. Of course, Rains' performance is impressive in his ability to say so much with just an inflection. It's a perfect balance of character and story that you sometimes forget how insane and brilliant the technical effects for the film actually are. It may not quite be as iconic as Frankenstein, but the direction is arguably more impressive because of the limitations that surround the production.

Universal Horror didn't acquire a lot when it came to Oscars. That is a reality that still impacts horror movies in the modern era. While it's become less of an issue thanks to technical fields, the idea of rewarding scary monsters is still a taboo that has kept many performers from standing any chance at ever being Oscar-nominated. I think that Whale deserves a lot more credit for creating the tone of what monster movies would be while also taking them to a dramatic level that few were able to imitate. The fact of the matter is that in lesser hands, The Invisible Man would be hokey and disposable. To some extent, that's what the franchise became with The Invisible Man Returns. Even then, Whale legitimized the genre and raised the question as to why an invisible man can't be as compelling a character as anyone that can be seen. He was a genius that changed cinema, and it's a shame that The Oscars never recognized his work.

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