Thursday, March 30, 2017

Buried Treasures: Behind the Door (1919)


Last week, I climbed this blog’s highest rooftop to announce that Thrilling Days of Yesteryear had agreed to co-host a giveaway sponsored by Flicker Alley: they are going to hand out a Blu-ray/DVD combo copy of their upcoming April 4th release of Behind the Door (1919), a World War I drama recently restored as a collaborative effort by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.  Memorably described by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow as “the most outspoken of all the vengeance films,” Door stars Hobart Bosworth, Jane Novak, and Wallace Beery in a movie that blends romance, action, and suspense.

Jane Novak, Hobart Bosworth
Flicker Alley’s Sarah Bastin was kind enough to provide me with access to an online screener of Behind the Door as a “thank ye” for helping to spread the word about this release…and I’m going to tell you right now if you haven’t yet signed up for the giveaway you need to get there fastest with the mostest.  The film, though set shortly before America entered World War I, begins in 1925 with the return of veteran seaman Oscar Krug (Bosworth) to his home in a small Maine seaport village.  He then flashes back to 1917, when he operated a prosperous taxidermy business…and was engaged to lovely Alice Morse (Novak).  Alice’s father (J.P. Lockney), the local banker and town bigwig, disapproves highly of Krug as a prospective son-in-law (he’s saving Alice for his associate, played by Otto Hoffman).

James Gordon, Bosworth
When news of the United States’ declaration of war against “the Hun” spreads through the village, Mr. Morse stirs up a little anti-German sentiment towards Oscar; he’s of German heritage, but he’s determined to fight for his country as an American…and he’s ready to lick anyone who says otherwise.  Jim MacTavish (James Gordon) is game, and after receiving a beatdown from Krug he’s man enough to declare Oscar his friend.  The two chums are even stationed on the same naval vessel once they sign up, with Oscar as captain and Jim his first mate.

Before his stint with the Navy, however, Oscar secretly weds Alice…and when her father discovers this, he arranges for her belongings to be stored at curbside.  Alice joins Oscar on the “Perth” (his ship) despite a no-civilians rule on the government ship through a bit o’ chicanery (she poses as a nurse) …yet thanks to an unscrupulous U-boat commander (Wallace Beery), the future of our couple soon heads toward tragedy.

Produced by the legendary Thomas H. Ince, Behind the Door had its origins in a Gouverneur Morris short story, “Behind the Door,” published in McClure’s in July of 1918.  Ince paid $10,000 for the rights to the tale (even though the war ended in November, Tom found the tale most compelling) and assigned his colleague Irvin V. Willat to direct the adaptation (from a script by Luther Reed).  Ince and Willat had known one another since their days at Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), and Irv would later help the producer work out the technical kinks on Ince’s box office hit Civilization (1916)—it would be the film that started Willat’s directorial career.  (Later collaborations between the two men include False Faces [1919—with Lon Chaney] and Below the Surface [1920—another submarine saga starring Hobart Bosworth].  Willat’s The Grim Game [1919], starring Harry Houdini, was showcased on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ last year.)

Bosworth, Novak
Behind the Door was released in 1919 to boffo box office and glowing reviews…though some have speculated that had Door been released while World War I was still in progress, the financial take might have been even greater.  Though Door doesn’t skimp on the melodrama (or propaganda—though you’d be amazed how it echoes a lot of today’s political sentiment), it’s a most entertaining movie that showcases Willat’s stylish direction (friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts notes that Willat “pioneered the creation and use of the ‘art-card’ subtitle [or illustrated subtitle]”), evident in a nicely-executed sequence which finds Oscar and Alice, stranded in a lifeboat, idyllically daydreaming about returning home to their village after escaping their present predicament.  They enter the backyard behind Oscar’s shop, and generously help themselves to water from a well.  There is then a cut to the two of them back in the lifeboat, and Oscar is draining the last of their drinking H2O into a tin cup.

Wallace Beery, Bosworth
His appearance as a vicious villain in 1919’s The Unpardonable Sin (you might remember that he also played a particularly odious individual in Victory [1919], a Flicker Alley MOD release reviewed on the blog) no doubt inspired Wallace Beery’s casting as the schweinhundt Lieutenant Brant in Behind the Door.  The future Academy Award winner is a most unrepentant scoundrel, and he meets a particularly nasty fate (I won’t reveal what happens…but if you’re familiar with director Willat’s other films it wouldn’t be the first time Irv went to that well).  Bosworth is a hero who properly elicits the audience’s sympathy, and Novak (TDOY commenter Agnes notes that she appeared with Harold Lloyd in Just Nuts [1915], but she also graced Wagon Tracks [1919], which I also reviewed on the blog) is an ethereal presence and most effective.

No complete copy of Behind the Door is known to have survived.  This restoration, a partnership between the LOC, Gosfilmofond of Russia, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, was pieced together from an incomplete 35mm print, a separate roll of shots preserved at the LOC’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (from Hobart Bosworth’s estate), and an edited 35mm print from the Gosfilmofond.  There are two noticeable gaps in the film that have been reconstructed with still images, and the completion in continuity comes from the late Bob Birchard, who loaned out director Willat’s original script.  Despite the heavy traces of decomposition, this version of Behind the Door looks positively splendid in many sequences, with first-rate tinting of scenes and an exquisite musical score provided by Stephen Horne.

I have to share this with you with regards to director Irvin Willat, courtesy of an e-mail exchange with Richard M. Roberts: “His sound career petered out by the late 1930's, but he was in a sound financial place partially due to the loss of his once-wife Billie Dove to Howard Hughes, who stole her away, but was nice enough to send a package of cash containing $325,000 to Willat as an apology.  Willat said he first thought he'd go confront Hughes and shove the money down his throat, but after a few drinks decided Dove wasn't worth the fuss nor the cash, so he invested it in real estate.”  Way to go, Irv!  Remember: the deadline on the Beyond the Door giveaway is April 12—so be sure to check out this post for details on how to enter.

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