By Tony Williams.
Ever since seeing that unforgettable still in Kevin Brownlow’s The War, the West, and the Wilderness (1979), the grim-visage of Hobart Bosworth (1867-1943) in Behind the Door (Irvin V. Willat, 1919), wielding a scalpel with the shadow of his victim in the background, has occupied an ineradicable part of my cinematic memory. Obviously influential to that climactic scene in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), in which Bela Lugosi exercises similar revenge on his horror film competitor Boris Karloff, this until recently difficult to see film has now become available in a beautifully restored version by Flicker Alley. With this new video version released more than coincidentally in the centenary month of America’s involvement in World War I – at a time when violence, warfare, and torture have sadly become all too-common occurrences within our twenty first century (in) humane condition – Behind the Door is less notable for being an accomplished work of American silent cinema (which it has several claims to be) but more a telling commentary on how little humanity has advanced since the time of its original release. Without belonging to the horror genre, its connections are undeniable to an area whose better examples deliver damning indictments on human culture and personality.
The film is based upon a popular short story by Jack London contemporary, and identically named grandson of Founding Father, Gouvernor Morris (1876-1953) that appeared in McClure’s magazine July 1918 some four months before the Armistice. Despite cessation of hostilities, anti-German feeling still remained strong in America a year later and the film version was a box-office success. Behind the Door is a quintessential narrative of xenophobic revenge fantasy linked to that all too American tradition of destructive Regeneration Through Violence, a pathological cultural “structure of meaning” in the Raymond Williams definition still influential today (it’s fully documented by cultural historian Richard Slotkin in his influential trilogy beginning with the first identically named 1974 volume subtitled The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 , continuing with The Fatal Environment: The Myth of Custer in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 , and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth century America ). Both short story and film version are firmly linked to this tradition, the gruesome revenge undertaken by Captain Krug (Hobart Bosworth) having unmistakable parallels to the mutilation of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) on Scar (Henry Brandon) in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) but this time with the victim living through the ordeal for a time.
Although long forgotten today, several of Morris’s works were adapted for the screen such as Goldwyn’s The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney, The Man who Played God (1922/1932) with George Arliss, and The Jungle Princess (1936) starring Dorothy Lamour in her film debut.
Helmed by Irvin Willat (1890-1976), who would direct Bosworth in a more genial role in Below the Surface a year later, this 1919 film features an actor once known as “the Dean of Motion Pictures” already celebrated for his Hollywood screen and stage appearances, associated with pioneering the role of Wolf Larsen in the 1913 film version of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904) that he also directed and later performed on stage. In Door, Bosworth plays German-American Captain Oscar Krug who has already shown his patriotic credentials by participating in previous American colonial adventures in the Philippines before retiring into the profession of taxidermist in a small New England maritime community. The American declaration of war on Germany and the natural-born tendency of xenophobia against “strangers” in the American hearth, coupled with his sweetheart’s banker father’s resentment against his lower middle class foreigner status, leads to Krug’s re-enlistment in the American cause but not before a bloody and violent fight, reminiscent of that 1914 cinematic conflict in the first film version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers (1906), occurs. Expelled from the family hearth after her father learns of her marriage to Krug, Alice Morse (Jane Novak) is briefly reunited with her husband until a submarine attack by “beastly Hun” Lt. Brandt (Wallace Beery) leads to their separation with her becoming alien property and husband left to drown. Two months later Krug captures Brandt, learns of his wife’s “fate worse than death,” and exercises the revenge he has threatened earlier before being left to drown by skinning his victim alive before death claims him. In 1925, the prematurely aged Krug returns to his store as in the prologue and dies spiritually re-united with his wife, who has been captured and violated by those First World War I descendants of savage Indians depicted in Puritan Captivity narratives documented by Slotkin that have always occupied a key role in American national psychopathology and xenophobia.
Despite such cultural origins, this film is saved from becoming just another paranoid version of a tradition seen at its worst – in examples such as Charles Marquis Warren’s Arrowhead (1953) starring Charlton Heston at his most rabid and one-dimensional violent Native American stereotypes until the 1959-61 TV series Riverboat. Krug’s eventual recognition that his gruesome revenge could never bring Alice back, as well as recognizing the rapid emergence of American violent xenophobia caused by war that turns a gentle outsider into a violent monster in the eyes of a community that suddenly becomes a lynch mob once “the war to end all wars” is declared. The latter sequence is a Fox News vindictive wet dream come true. These features may not have been originally intended by a director whom Kevin Brownlow mildly describes as having right wing tendencies. But such elements in a narrative fueled by contemporary xenophobia suggest productive contradictions operating within a film that questions ideological intentions as well as dominant wartime coercion (especially waged by President Woodrow Wilson, who used vicious methods against any expression of dissent or pacifism as seen in the railroading of Eugene Debs to a ten-year prison sentence in 1918, commuted by Warren G. Harding in 1921). As a Southern Illinois citizen in his late 80s once told me during my first few years in the area, harsh and punitive measures were taken against anyone who refused conscription at this time when the country turned overnight from pacifism into militarism.
Behind the Door previously existed in two incomplete versions in the Washington Library of Congress and the Russian Gosfilmofond Archive that only recently allowed its 47 minute copy to be used in the restoration, recently seen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Thanks to the late Robert Birchard loaning out his cutting continuity, it proved possible both to restore the original intertitles as well as the initial color tinting with stills to reconstruct missing scenes since no complete version of the film currently exists. The Russian film version was re-titled and re-edited from an American export copy. It operates in a more linear manner than the American version by avoiding the use of flashbacks as well as retitling it to reflect contemporary Soviet proletarian concerns. Instead of the opening scene in the American copy showing the aged Krug returning in 1925 to discover the tombstone of his friend MacTavish, the Russian version shows a fishing fleet filmed in a manner foreshadowing the scene of the Odessa sailing craft visiting the Potemkin with supplies in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). The harsh life of the fishing community receives more emphasis with Alice’s banker father Matthew Morse and her intended husband Mark Arnold, who are depicted as rapacious capitalists exploiting both a recently bereaved widow and the community itself. When a faulty ship owned by the bank, and regarded by Krug as beyond repair, sinks, Morse and Arnold set up Krug for the violent fight in the original version to hint at his responsibility for the loss of lives. Contrary to the American version, MacTavish rushes to Krug’s aid rather than fight him in the changed Soviet version despite the fact that the gentle Krug has repaired his daughter’s doll only moments before. The Russian re-edited version obviously wished to emphasize proletarian solidarity since the two men soon become comrades-in-arms. World War I receives no emphasis so Brandt becomes a submarine participant in an anti-smuggling expedition headed by Krug later in the film! Although Krug returns to his dilapidated business in the final sequence, the Soviet version somewhat uncharacteristically allows Krug and Alice a very non-material spiritual reunion following his death. As in Battleship Potemkin, Soviet authorities realized the necessity for a somewhat “happy ending,” despite its links to a discredited “opium of the people” philosophy.
Both versions benefit from original composed music performed by Stephen Horne while the copious outtakes, some showing Bosworth performing his own stunts and nearly drowning in the effort, are appropriately dedicated to Birchard. Kevin Brownlow delivers a very informative interview in his characteristic modest and audience-friendly manner while the slideshow galley contains original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material. Finally, an illustrated twelve-page booklet accompanies this set with essays by Pordenone Silent Film Festival Director Jay Weissberg, Restorer Robert Byrne, and soundtrack composer Stephen Horne. Weissberg also mentions that the McClure’s issue that contained Morris’s original story also featured an article calling not just for the internment of all German-Americans but their execution as well, a chilling reminder that contemporary Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment has disturbing American historical precedents. This restoration reveals how accomplished Bosworth was as an actor changing from gentle mature lover, to caring husband, vengeful pursuer, savage victimizer, and prematurely aged victim of an appalling crime engineered by the vicious Brandt but also showing that a dark act of psychotic vengeance has taken a huge toll on health and sanity. Brownlow may be correct in mentioning Bosworth’s tendency to indulge in excessive theatrical performances, especially in the 1920s, but this film, along with The Sea Lion (1921), allows us to witness the type of violent expression and physical force that must have characterized his role as Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf (1913) to earn him the acclaim of Jack and Charmian London as the definitive Sea Wolf of his generation – and perhaps beyond? Only the possible discovery of this lost film will settle this question.
However, at present, Flicker Alley deserves the gratitude of all viewers, not just those of silent cinema, for restoring this film in as complete a manner as possible and preserving it on 35mm for future generations. It is not merely a restored museum piece designed to be exhibited for aesthetic reasons alone, but a grim reminder of how war evokes atrocities on the part of everyone trapped within its web.
Tony Williams has written Jack London: The Movies (1992), “Bosworth Revisited: The Sea Lion (1921), Jack London Foundation, Inc. Quarterly Newsletter 26.4 (October 2014): 5-8, and “Bosworth Rides Again or Early Cinema’s Sailor on Horseback,” Jack London Foundation, Inc. Quarterly Newsletter 28.3 (July 2016): 1-4. He has recently achieved his “15 seconds of fame” by appearing for the first time on camera in Jack London: An American Adventure directed by Michel Viotte filmed during April 2016. He has also co-edited, with Rocco Fumento, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf: A Screenplay by Robert Rossen (1998).