Do You Really Want to Know What's 'Behind the Door'?

by Michael Barrett

10 April 2017

The tales behind the camera are as sensational as those in front of it in this potent mix of beauty, propaganda and the macabre.
Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak  
cover art

Behind the Door

Director: Irvin Willat
Cast: Hobart Bosworth, Jane Novak

US DVD: 4 Apr 2017

Behind the Door is one of the silent era’s most notorious films, its plot and punchline once recalled in amazed tones similar to the ways a later generation discussed ‘50s-era horror comics. As historian Kevin Brownlow states in an excellent interview on this new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the film belongs to a trend in brutality of the late teens and early ‘20s that could reasonably be showcased as part of the development of the horror film.

Yet the film itself isn’t “graphic” in that sense. It’s visual approach is graceful and often aesthetically beautiful on this restoration, and this is one reason its power of suggestion has great impact. Even the title cards are elegant works of graphic art that, along with the original tints and tones, showcase the era’s advanced visual and narrative sophistication.

The two-part plot begins as a social problem film and ends up channeling the “hate the Hun” sentiments of WWI projects like The Heart of Humanity (1918), where a German officer played by Erich von Stroheim famously throws a baby out the window. Brownlow discusses how American pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, of the American Revolutionary family of that name, contributed to the era’s taste for brutality and the macabre with tales like this one and The Penalty, filmed the next year with Lon Chaney as a legless man.

As adapted by Luther Reed from Morris’ story, Behind the Door opens on a gorgeous tableu set in the near future of 1925. A wreck of a man shambles to a friend’s grave above his Maine fishing village with a cove and distant flashing lighthouse as the sun sets behind a hill. This Ancient Mariner is Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth, excellent), whose little taxidermy shop is now an abandoned wreck where boys throw stones at the windows still left unbroken for this very occasion. Amid picturesque gestures and effects supervised by photographer J.O. Taylor, including moments of superimposition and arty lighting, he crumples head in hands to recall the story in flashback.

The first half of the tale involves an unscrupulous banker, played by J.P. Lockney as a squinting little fatcat in a manner almost as stereotypical as would be seen in the films of Sergei Eisenstein. He wants his pretty daughter (Jane Novak) to marry his equally dishonest and ratlike partner (Otto Hoffman) but she loves Krug, and this provides the personal motivation that always drives larger issues in Hollywood films. In this case, it’s the hidden motive to exploit local anti-German sentiment on the day the US enters the Great War.

The cards are stacked, as the film’s pleas for reason and sanity are based on the fact that Krug may sound like a German name and his mother may have been from Germany, but he’s a “true American” whose last three paternal generations fought for the US, and he can prove it with his fists in a big fight because might, naturally, makes right—which is also the larger theme behind wars. As the informative liner notes make clear, this anti-hysteria angle was very much part of Morris’ agenda.

After this part of the film is forgotten, for it only served as a kind of bait and switch to get us to the anti-German plot, we witness melodrama of sobering proportions that won’t be discussed here as the film builds to a revenge plot as ghastly as anything this side of Titus Andronicus, and which finally explains the seemingly bland title. It involves a villainous leering U-boat captain played excellently by Wallace Beery. Did we mention Krug was a taxidermist?

A great hit for Paramount, this Thomas Ince production was much discussed for the gruesome details implied in its final reel, and Columbia bought the picture in order to shelve it when they released a similar melodrama called The Blood Ship in 1927. Their incomplete print survived at the Library of Congress, and another export print was held in a Moscow archive. The Russian version rewrites and re-edits the story, dropping the war entirely in favor of something about smugglers and leaning more heavy-handedly on capitalist exploitation and manipulation of the mob in the early chapter.

Even with a few early examples of nitrate deterioration in the middle of the image, this restoration is a glittering achievement. As explained in an extra about this project, the restorers were immeasurably aided by the discovery of the continuity script in reconstructing the titles and the proper shot order. Another stroke of luck was the discovery of ten minutes of outtakes on the submarine segment (included as a bonus) that happened to include missing footage. The final touch is provided by a vivid new score by Stephen Horne, who plays and mixes all the instruments to extraordinary effect that feels modern but not intrusively so.

Brownlow’s elegant and genial interview discusses his acquaintance with forgotten director Irvin Willat, a pioneer whose successful career went into decline seemingly for personal reaons involving his own personality (“his politics were a little to the right of Attila the Hun”) and the rumor that he’d “sold” his wife Billie Dove to Howard Hughes, meaning he accepted a cash pay-off after she dumped him. So in this case, the tales behind the camera are as sensational as those in front.

Behind the Door

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