The film director’s life is about as bizarre as the colorful existence of a rock star. Perhaps even more so during the early years of Hollywood. I have encountered multiple stories about the youthful days of some of the great directors in history. Frankly, their experiences would make one hell of a movie.
I’m not about to write a screenplay on these guy’s (and girl’s) lives – though Clive Barker did that nicely with one of my selections. I will reveal a few obscure great ones, and discuss just why they deserve to have a film made about their life. Let’s begin, shall we?
This brooding, dark, immensely talented man gave us some of the great horror films in history including Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Like the character Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Whale found himself eventually forgotten, living alone in a Hollywood suburb endlessly watching the great Gothic films from his prime. One can practically hear the projector clicking away in his living room, decorated with a comfortable couch, screaming Chihuahuas and a glass of blood red wine. You see, Mr. Whale was homosexual, and he liked to have parties around his California swimming pool. Author Clive Barker wrote a brilliant screenplay on this man’s life titled Gods and Monsters. It’s an unforgettable film about a forgotten man. Would Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein (which I consider to be one of the 15 greatest films ever made) have been as good if not for this talented genius at the helm? A former newspaper cartoonist and a prisoner-of-war in World War I, Whale discovered acting while in the British Army. He arrived in Hollywood in 1930 a veteran actor of the stage, and practically created the Expressionistic themes seen in horror films from this era (though inspired by German horror films a few years before). He retired from film making, rather bored, to pursue painting during the 1940s. This deeply troubled man tried to return as a film director, failing miserably with the never-released 1949 opus Hello Out There, finding himself forgotten before his time. He was a haunted man due to his POW experiences, and thus he was the perfect artist to direct the greatest horror films in history. He drowned mysteriously in a swimming pool, with friends only recently revealing it as a suicide.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, of all damn places, Todd Browning was a contemporary of James Whale. During his prime in the early 1930s, Browning directed Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, The Devil Doll and Freaks. At the young age of 16, he ran away from home to join a traveling carnival where he performed as a clown and contortionist. He eventually migrated to Hollywood during the silent era where he served as an assistant to D.W. Griffith on Intolerance. He became good friends with the great actor Lon Chaney, Sr., directing him in the now-lost classic London After Midnight, one of the first vampire films ever made. Browning actually cast Chaney in the lead role of Dracula, but the actor’s untimely death left him having to work with the infamous Bela Lugosi. Dracula was such a huge success, Browning deciding to make a horror film he had been dreaming about for years. You see, having traveled with the carnival in his youth, he had become friends with quite a few of the handicapped sideshow performers. Thus the idea for a horror film, living amidst this clan of gregarious misfits, was born with Freaks. His considerable power enabled him to recruit and cast actual carnival performers, and the film was so terrifying to 1930’s audiences (the performers’ turn a beautiful women into an armless and legless monstrosity), it was banned for over 30 years in many countries. The film practically ruined his career, and he retired in utter seclusion to the suburbs of Hollywood, dying in 1962, 23 years after his final film.
Born in Vienna, Fritz Lang had aspirations to be an artist at an early age. He ran away from home and traveled across Europe, residing in such places as Germany, Russia, Africa, China and Japan. He would not arrive in Hollywood until 1936, eventually directing such classics as Ministry of Fear and The Big Heat. But he was trapped in Germany amidst the rise of the Nazi regime. During his time there, he created and produced The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the greatest horror films in history, and fell hopelessly in love with Thea Von Harbou. They eventually married, collaborating on multiple German films together as screenplay writer and director. On a trip to New York in 1924, Lang was so awestruck by the skyline, he conceived the idea for his film Metropolis. He returned to Germany, eventually completing the motion picture in 1927. Today, it is considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Before the outbreak of World War II, Lang also produced and directed the first film ever made about a serial killer, M, starring a then unknown Peter Lorre as an obsessed child murderer. Lang was summoned to the office of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, and offered an opportunity to make films for the Nazi regime. A terrified Lang (his mother was Jewish) promptly caught a midnight train to France. He left his life’s savings and his wife Harbou behind. She divorced him within the year, and began writing and directing films for Hitler. Lang arrived sadly in Hollywood in 1936. Ironically, Lang returned to Germany in 1960 to make his final film The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
One of the most amazing women in history, Leni Riefenstahl would live to the age of 101 before finally leaving this world. During her time on this planet, she would work as a ballerina, film director, photographer, artist, revolutionary fighter, scuba diver and protester. She was an attractive actress in German films initially, but after directing her first motion picture The Blue Light in 1932, she so impressed Adolph Hitler that he immediately hired her to direct films for the Nazi regime. Her documentary Triumph of the Will is to this day considered one of the most innovative films in history. Covering the Nuremberg Party Convention of 1934, it’s film making techniques and style were so inventive they have been mimicked as recently as Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 extravaganza Starship Troopers. Triumph of the Will is considered one of the most extraordinary propaganda films ever made. She followed this with the documentary Olympia, covering the 1936 Berlin Olympics. After World War II, she was imprisoned in France for four years. She never successfully worked in films again, serving as a photographer for European magazines the rest of her life.
So there you have it…..the interesting lives and the unforgettable monsters they created. You have the celluloid creator of Frankenstein, Dracula, Hannibal Lecter and Hitler. It’s just money in the bank…..Powered by Sidelines