The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) is the sort of rousing historical swashbuckler that Hollywood turned out with regularity during its so-called Golden Era.
In this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, Louis Hayward stars as both the foppish, corrupt King of France and as his twin brother, an honest and charming young swordsman. The royal twins were separated at birth (to avoid competing claims for the throne that might destroy the kingdom) and grew up unaware of each other’s existence.
Louis XIV is a very bad ruler who amuses himself by hanging peasants. His brother Philippe is raised in rural Gascony by D’Artagnan (Warren William) and the other swashbucklers introduced in Dumas’ earlier novel The Three Musketeers.
The setup allows Hayward to play two very different characters. The film’s title springs from a late-breaking development: learning of his twin’s existence, the evil Louis has Philippe imprisoned in the Bastille, his head encased in a metal mask that, with time, will choke the prisoner on his own growing beard and hair.
Not to worry. D’Artagnan and the other musketeers will come to his rescue and ensure that Philippe is reunited with his true love, Maria Theresa of Spain (Joan Bennett).
The Man in the Iron Mask is the last great gasp in the career of director James Whale, who rose to prominence with Universal’s horror pictures and then found himself more-or-less blacklisted because he was openly gay.
Whale grew up an artistically inclined youth in a factory town in the English West Midlands. Even before he recognized his own homosexuality, simply by wanting a career in the arts the working-class Whale marked himself as an outsider. In fact outsiders – alcoholics, prostitutes, mad scientists, monsters – were to be the primary subject of his movies.
In 1916 young Whale was sent to the battlefields of World War I, where a wonderful thing happened. He was captured by the Germans. While imprisoned he was tapped to direct a show starring his fellow prisoners, and realized that this is what he was born for.
Returning to England he found work as an actor, set designer and stage manager. In 1928 he was offered the chance to direct a new play called Journey’s End, a naturalistic drama set in the trenches of World War I. It was a hit on both the West End and Broadway, making a star of leading man Colin Clive (playing an alcoholic officer) and putting Whale on the map.
Whale’s arrival United States coincided with Hollywood’s struggle to adapt to that new gimmick, movie sound. Scores of English actors and directors – who were trained to speak properly, after all – found employment in the American movie business.
Whale was hired to direct new dialogue scenes for Howard Hughes’ aviation epic Hell’s Angels, which had begun production as a silent picture. He then directed the film version of Journey’s End, again starring Colin Clive. It was a huge hit and Whale was given a long-term contract by Universal Pictures.
Whale was now Universal’s hottest director. Hoping to avoid being typecast as a maker of war-themed films, he lobbied to be given a crack at directing the studio’s latest scary movie, Frankenstein. Whale cast old friend Clive as the mad doctor and personally chose an unknown contract player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster.
Frankenstein was a huge hit and a cultural landmark, and for several years Whale could do no wrong. He specialized in creepy movies like The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man with Claude Raines. But it wasn’t all spookiness. Whale also did a romantic comedy, By Candlelight, and One More River, a drama about an abusive marriage.
He returned to creepiness in 1935 with what many view as Hollywood’s first camp classic, The Bride of Frankenstein, a brilliant blend of humor and horror.
It was almost as if Whale – perhaps chafing under the nitpicking of the censors (who had all sorts of concerns about taste and violence and freaked out over any suggestion that the monster was looking for sex) – had decided to make the most subversive, contrary film possible. This movie is twisted and surreal and outrageously gay.
Bride of Frankenstein wasn’t the end of James Whale’s movie career, but it was the high point. After that his work saw a fairly rapid decline.
There were a few minor triumphs like the musical Show Boat. As stated earlier, the gay Whale identified with outsiders... and you don’t get much more outsider than a black man in the South.
But in 1937 Whale had a major flop with The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front that described the post-war experiences of German soldiers. Not only were American audiences indifferent, but Universal bowed to pressure from the Germany’s Nazi government and suppressed the movie. Thereafter Whale found himself doing “punishment pictures” in order to fulfill his Universal contract.
The Man in the Iron Mask was his chance to get back into mainstream filmmaking, but despite its success, Whale had lost favor with the men who ran Hollywood. Many claimed it was because he refused to hide the fact that he was gay.
Whale was by no means flamboyant, but he made no secret of his cohabitation with his lover, film producer David Lewis. And that openness seems to have stirred the homophobia in Hollywood’s front offices. Plus, Whale was English, aloof, and remote – certainly not one of the boys.
According to fellow director Robert Aldrich: “James Whale was the first guy who was blackballed because he refused to stay in the closet. All those other guys played it straight and they were on board, but Whale said, ‘Screw it. I’m a great director and I don’t have to put up with this b.s.’ And he was a great director, not just a company director. And he was unemployed after that – never worked again.”
Whale turned to painting and fell back on his old career of designing for the stage. In 1957, at age 78 and in failing health, he committed suicide by drowning in his home swimming pool.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Great Adaptations”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- February 1: The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) Not Rated
- February 8: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) Not Rated
- February 15: Wuthering Heights (1939) Not Rated
- February 22: Gulliver’s Travels (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.