Bright Lights Film Journal

HELLO OUT THERE – The Last Testament of James Whale

Hello Out There (1949), like virtually all of the films James Whale directed after Show Boat, had a troubled production history. It never obtained a commercial release. Yet, unlike any of the other films made by Whale after his brief period of Hollywood supremacy (1930-1936), it shows the director fully in control and at the height of his powers.

This short 41-minute film began life as a one-act play written by William Saroyan and directed on stage by Whale, among others, in the early 1940s. When A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford decided he wanted to enter the movie business and was looking around for a project to show off the acting talents of  his wife, Marjorie Steele, Hello Out There seemed like a property with potential. All the drama takes place on a single set, a smalltown Texas jail, and there are only two principal characters: a gambler-drifter thrown into the jail for a rape he didn’t commit, and the girl who cleans up the jail with whom the drifter establishes a brief but poignant connection.  Harry Morgan (left), who had starred in the stage version, was hired to play the drifter on film; Ms. Steele (below right) was cast as the girl; and Whale was hired to direct. Producer Hartford’s idea was to combine Hello Out There with one or two other short films and release the combined result as a feature. The anthology feature, Face to Face, was released in 1952, consisting of two parts, “The Secret Sharer” starring James Mason based on a novella by Joseph Conrad and directed by John Brahm, and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” starring Robert Preston and Marjorie Steele based on a story by Stephan Crane and directed by Bretaigne Windust. Whale’s segment, however, was not included.

The reasons why Hartford decided not to release Hello Out There remain obscure. Perhaps he thought his wife was shown to better advantage in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” Perhaps he thought the film Whale made was too arty or too grim.

In any event, I was lucky enough to see the film in the late ’60s – Hartford’s personal print – when it was specially screened at New York’s Gallery of Modern Art, an institute briefly owned by Mr. Hartford. For me, the film was not merely good; it was a revelation. It was proof – as convincing as any I’d ever seen – of the validity of the auteur theory, for without changing the setting of the play or barely a word of its dialogue, Whale had transformed this one-act drama into something that was completely and unmistakeably a film by James Whale.

How had Whale pulled off this trick? Through mise-en-scéne (staging, lighting, camera placement) and directorial attitude. Whale was known for designing his own sets, often heavily influenced by German Expressionism. (See especially, the original Frankenstein.) For Hello Out There, he designed a Caligari-esque jail cell whose bars tilt at roughly a 45 degree angle outward from the floor to the ceiling. Not only does this ensure strong diagonals in every shot that includes the bars – either from the girl’s side or the man’s – but it also permits fiercely Expressionistic shadows from the light that shines through the bars.

Thematically, the two most frequently occurring images in Whale’s work are the outsider and the lynch mob. In Frankenstein, for example, the scientist and his monstrous creation are both outsiders, equally alienated from society at large. The torch-bearing mob who pursues the Monster at Frankenstein’s conclusion is the most archetypal example of the lynch mob in Whale’s work. It is not too difficult to connect Whale’s affinity for outsiders with his own status as a gay artist in a predominantly heterosexual world. However, the outsider and the lynch mob are not strictly confined to Whale’s horror films. In the musical Show Boat, both the film’s Black (or partly Black) characters and the actors who perform on the Show Boat are portrayed as outsiders; and at one point, a lynch mob storms the Show Boat ready to hang an actress (Helen Morgan) who is suspected of having Black blood. The nameless drifter in Hello Out There is the last of Whale’s outsiders, and predictably for a Whale film, an angry mob shows up at the film’s conclusion to lynch him.

As for the kernel of the drama, the brief but poignant relationship that forms between the drifter and the girl as they converse through the bars, think only of the brief but poignant relationship that forms between the blind man and the Monster in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, another relationship disrupted by the arrival of an angry mob.

Two in particular of Hello Out There’s visual coups are burned into my memory. The first is a nearly abstract shot of the girl’s hand grasped by the hand of the drifter – everything is dark except the two hands touching each other through the bars, framed within a circle of light. The second is the film’s concluding shot:  it’s a view of the girl and the jail cell surrounded by darkness from which the camera steadily recedes until the edges of the frames are reached, and then – through use of an optical printer – we continue to recede further and further still until the frame itself becomes a tiny square of light surrounded by a black void. It’s an effect that Sidney Lumet used at the end of his Long Day’s Journey Into Night (below) and that Claude Chabrol used at the conclusion of The Champagne Murders. It communicates on a level that made this viewer’s hair stand on end the feeling of being isolated in a vast hostile universe, and can be interpreted as James Whale’s final statement on the human condition.

The preceding was Bright Lights After Dark’s contribution to the The Late Show: The Late Films Blog-a-Thon, December 12th-18th.  Click here for more.