Release Date(s)1933 (October 11, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The name of James Whale will always be indelibly associated with the horror genre—understandably so, given the classic monster movies that he directed for Universal. With films like Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein on his resume, the new worlds of gods and monsters that he created will forever overshadow the rest of his filmography. Yet he was still a versatile director, and worked comfortably in a variety of different genres. He contributed a fine WWI drama with Journey’s End, and his 1936 version of Show Boat remains one of the best cinematic Oscar Hammerstein musicals ever made. One genre that few people would associate him with is the romantic comedy, but he did make at least one noteworthy foray into that world with the effervescent pre-Code bedroom farce By Candlelight.
By Candlelight is an adaptation of the stage play by Siegfried Geyer (misspelled “Seigfried” in the opening credits). Geyer’s Austrian play had already been translated into English by none other than P.G. Wodehouse, but the screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert and Ruth Cummings is listed as being from an adaptation by Hanns Kräly and Karl Farkas, so the Wodehouse version may or may not have been involved in bringing the play to the screen. Josef (Paul Lukas) is the butler for the roguish Prince Alfred von Romer (Nils Asther), and much of his job is spent supporting his employer’s womanizing habits. When the beautiful socialite Marie (Elissa Landi) mistakes him for the Prince, not only does he not even try dispel her misconceptions, but he also applies the lessons that he’s learned from his more experienced master to keep up the charade. Yet Marie may not be quite what she seems either, and neither one of them may be able to keep up their masquerade forever.
Whale wasn’t involved in the development of By Candlelight, and he was brought in relatively late in the game after the original director (Robert Wyler) was removed by producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. While the subject matter may have not been something that Whale would have chosen for himself, he still took over the production decisively, scrapping Wyler’s footage and starting from scratch. The results do bear his distinctive stamp, with some recognizable visual flourishes such as an unusual framing where two lamps directly behind Lukas’ head end up looking like devil’s horns. He also included a memorable moment of grotesquery with sideshow performers wearing masks, to remind viewers that both Josef and Marie aren’t what they’re pretending to be.
Whale loved breaking taboos, so the relaxed pre-Code sexuality of the story may have appealed to him. He had already pushed boundaries with the sacrilegious elements in his horror films for Universal, to say nothing of including openly effeminate performances from great Ernest Thesiger. By today’s standards, the sexuality in By Candlelight is arguably even more uncomfortable than it would have been to audiences in 1933, since so much of it is built on seduction under false pretenses. Yet the fascinating thing is that there’s never any sense of judgment about anything done by the characters in the film, male and female alike. The Production Code was actually in place as of 1930, but it wouldn’t start to be strictly enforced until 1934, at which point the Hays Office would have required the story to punish them for the choices that they make. As a gay man in a Hollywood that still didn’t openly accept his lifestyle at that point in time, Whale was well aware of the punishments that could be meted for violating the norms of the day. In those waning moments of relative artistic freedom in 1933, the ability to allow his characters to be true to their sexual selves must have felt very cathartic. Considered from that perspective, By Candlelight fits perfectly into Whale’s filmography, regardless of its genre.
Cinematographer John J. Mescall shot By Candlelight on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the Academy Aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber describes this version a 4K restoration by Universal “from the original film elements,” though it’s not clear if that means they used the actual camera negative, other preservation elements, or a combination of both. Regardless, it’s an auspicious high-definition debut for the film. The image is generally clean, with only minimal damage visible, and the grain looks natural. Fine detail is excellent, within the limitations of the original cinematography, so it’s certainly possible that the camera negative was indeed involved. The grayscale is flawless, with nicely-resolved contrast, and the black levels are deep without obscuring the detail. It’s a lovely restoration.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The dialogue is clear, even for a relatively early talkie like this one, and there’s not much in the way of noise or distortion, either.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Troy Howarth
- The Sign of the Cross Trailer (SD – 1:35)
- The Ghost Breakers Trailer (SD – 2:15)
- I’m No Angel Trailer (SD – 1:58)
- Four Frightened People Trailer (HD – 2:04)
- Supernatural Trailer (SD – 2:04)
Author and film historian Troy Howarth provides a spirited defense for this oft-overlooked film, uncovering many interesting stories about the production (giving full props to the James Curtis biography James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters as a source). For example, Universal’s original casting choices for the three main characters were Adolph Menjou, Joan Bennett, and Laurence Olivier, which would have made for a very different film. Howarth traces the development process, including the complicated writing credits (he says that there were rumors that Wodehouse did indeed do some uncredited work on the screenplay). He places the film in context with James Whale’s career—Whale may have been brought in to take over for another director, but ironically enough, that was right after he had lost the opportunity to direct the adaptation of Little Man, What Now? to Frank Borzage. Howarth also examines the film from a thematic perspective, focusing more on the class conflicts in the film than he does on the sexual politics. It’s an appropriately affectionate commentary from a clear fan of both By Candlelight and Whale himself.
Considering that By Candlelight has never previously been available on DVD, let alone Blu-ray, this Kino Lorber release is a cause for celebration. The fact that a relatively obscure film like this has received such an impressive restoration from Universal would be laudable enough, but the commentary from Howarth adds good value to a disc that wouldn’t exactly have been on most people’s wish lists. Kino once again deserves praise for putting out releases like this regardless of the size of the potential market for it, and James Whale fans definitely should consider rewarding them for doing so.
- Stephen Bjork