This is the sort of thing, one suspects, James Whale thought he ought to want to make more than the horror classics he’s remembered for – an adaptation of a John Galsworthy novel, scripted by RC Sherriff and William Hurlbut, with a prestige cast (hell, it includes Mrs Patrick Campbell!), high production values (like The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House and Waterloo Road it convincingly recreates England in California), and a sort of middlebrow seriousness that dates badly, occasionally seems comical in its brittle reticence, and has to bow to censors when dealing with rape, adultery, sadism and divorce. Waterloo Road holds up better, thanks mostly to Mae Clarke – but Diana Wynyard (later of the British Gaslight) is pretty good if insufferably posh as Lady Claire Corven, who flees her beastly husband Gerald (Colin Clive) because he’s taken a riding crop to her. We’re supposed to infer that this is due to him liking that sort of thing – he has a Jekyll and Hyde speech that hints at it – but the film delicately leaves those who don’t want to ponder such perversities to assume he just got a bit annoyed during a row over how the crusts should be cut off the sandwiches and lashed out.
On the ship over, she begins a chaste romance with Tony Croom (Frank Lawton) – where did Galsworthy get these names? – that they’re too duty-ridden and well-bred to consummate, though they do hold hands at the pictures and slightly snuggle when they have to overnight in a car in the woods because the battery for the headlamps dies down (I presume this used to be a thing that happened). Claire has a handy family support system including devoted sister Dinny Cherrell (bright spark Jane Wyatt), tough old auntie Lady Mont (Mrs Pat), a dad who’s a general (C. Aubrey Smith) and an uncle who’s another establishment moustache (Henry Stephenson) – Dinny gets her a job as secretary to ‘National Party’ MP David Dornford (Reginald Denny, still posh but less of an ass than usual), whose election to parliament (and the formation of what sounds creepily like a fascist government) is a subplot that doesn’t go anywhere (the book is a pendant to The Forsyte Saga, part of a trilogy about blessed Dinny).
Gerald comes to England – he’s introduced in one of Whale’s favourite devices, the series of advancing close-ups – and acts like a seething rotter, raping her offscreen (he describes this in court as ‘resuming marital relations’) and hiring a comical eccentric disguise-happy private detective (E.E. Clive) to tail the young couple to get evidence for a divorce suit in which he can claim damages from co-respondant Tony (Galsworthy wanted to write about the archaic British divorce laws).
The climax is a court case, which is less deadly than it might be thanks to a great set, quality performances and smart dialogue – we get Gilbert Emery as the Judge and Lionel Atwill and Alan Mowbray in wigs (guess which one’s snidely bastarding for the odious plaintiff?) and one of those verdicts that goes with the villain but without costs to the goodies. The ending is a fudge – it was supposed to have a shocker finish whereby Claire offers to have sex with Tony on the grounds that he’s been convicted of adultery and she always pays her debts and he flees in disgust because he sees Gerald has warped her … the film gets halfway through this downbeat finish then turns away as David runs off but comes back to forgive her and win a happy ending. Actually, the problem from a contemporary POV is that Galsworthy and Whale and Sheriff seem to skip over what the audience wants to see – the rotten husband getting his comeuppance. Whale is remembered for four great horror/fantasy films – and, maybe, Show Boat … but all his other movies are worth investigating, though he’s a real test case for the way fantastical films even their creators felt slightly superior to hold up better in the long run than supposedly more high-flown work.