The Forgotten: James Whale’s Zip-up Straitjacket

The Impatient Maiden (1932) is an almost entirely overlooked film, and it’s easy to see why, falling as it does between Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932) in director James Whale’s Universal career. Those two films are important classics of the horror field, whereas Maiden is a modest romantic comedy that probably nobody had any particular hopes for. Still, as some of Whale’s other, lesser-known movies are getting more attention (The Road Back has been restored, and Whale’s own favorite film, By Candlelight, has had recent revivals; I’d like to see more attention paid to The Great Garrick and The Man in the Iron Mask) this one might reward attention—or at least I supposed so.
How it came into the world: Universal had bought the novel The Impatient Virgin as a vehicle for fading star Clara Bow, who promptly rejected it. The censors mandated a change of title, despite the V-word being uttered in churches across the land every Christmas, and they also mandated a change of almost everything in the story. It may be a pre-Code, but it was not quite "anything goes." James Whale, hesitating after his previous monster hit, got reluctantly roped into directing since he didn’t have anything else ready to go. Lew Ayres, still hot after All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), provided the main commercial hopes for the compromised project.
Right off the bat, the movie itself dispels rumors that Whale didn’t care about the project, though star Lew Ayres said he didn’t recall Whale offering him any direction whatsoever. Ayres plays a junior doctor who’s part of an ambulance crew called to attend a suicide attempt by a neighbor of Mae Clarke (star of Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein). Whale’s visual treatment of the neighborhood is striking, from the location shots showcasing the famous Angels Flight, LA’s funicular railway in Bunker Hill, to an elaborate tracking shot that glides through multiple walls like a ghost. The stiffness that marks much of the filmmaking in earlier Whale films is nowhere to be seen, so that even if this work is distinctly minor—which, okay, it is—it was clearly a playground for Whale to experiment and become a better, more fluid filmmaker. The use of sound is also striking, with wireless music and street chatter bleeding through the thin walls to create a constant accompaniment of noise pollution.
The plot gimmick is that Clarke is secretary to a divorce attorney, and at 19 has seen so much heartbreak she has no confidence in marriage as an institution. (The camera warily circles his desk in rehearsal for the magnificent orbit of Paul Robeson it will make in Whale’s Showboat.) And despite immediate romantic sparks flying between her and Ayres, he’s too concerned about not making enough money to support her, and then there’s her boss (John Halliday, still a dirty old man eight years later in The Philadelphia Story), who wants to set her up in a swank penthouse as his (tastefully unstated) mistress.
Broader comedy relief comes from Alabaman BBF Una Merkel and a positively svelte young Andy Devine, as a male nurse who works with Ayres and has invented a zip-up straitjacket which eventually serves as a kind of deus ex machina, along with Clarke’s exploding appendix, to bring the young lovers together in a perfectly conventional happy ending.
Along the way, we do get some of Whale’s trademark black comedy, or at least some very poor taste pre-Code "humor." The straitjacket is for use in an improbable psychiatric unit located right next to the fluroscope where Ayres X-rays Clarke as a bit of loveplay. The ward is occupied by goofy cartoon lunatics including the inevitable Napoleon impersonator. This was Whale’s sole addition to the script, and he found a role for the film’s medical advisor, Dr. Stanley Immerman, a prominent brain surgeon, as a checkers player whose partner is serenely eating the pieces off the board like candies.
Meanwhile the suicidal neighbor is forgotten about, Clarke and Merkel visiting the hospital purely for social reasons, and glimpsing Hattie McDaniel with a bandaged face. "Is I goin’ to have a black eye?" she asks, before learning they had to anesthetize her "beautiful husband" and put several stitches in him. She hopes he never wakes up. Come for the racism, stay for the domestic violence.
This stuff is all pretty tasteless and unfortunate, but it does showcase Whale’s macabre humor, formed in the trenches of WWI. But the ignorance and callousness is regrettable, especially given Whale’s own later depression and suicide.
A milder form of wit is delivered via old dames Cecil Cunningham (The Awful Truth), and Ethel Griffies (The Birds). Mary Gordon, soon to be murdered in The Bride of Frankenstein, plays an "Irish"neighbor with her usual Scots accent, and we also glimpse Elspeth Dudgeon, about to be cast as a 102-year-old man in Whale’s very next film…
Suggestions that the film is of negligible interest as comedy or drama may be somewhat true. But the idea that it’s without cinematic interest should be refuted: unable to make much of the story, Whale entertained himself with elegant camera movements and evoactive sound design which would feed straight into his subsequent masterpieces.
And he managed to smuggle the scandalous V-word in, right at the end of the picture:
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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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