Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Raven (1915)

This was one of the 1915 movies I wanted to make sure and see before finalizing decisions on the Century Awards for 1915. I would have preferred to watch it closer to Halloween and my history of horror, but it took this long for me to procure a copy and find time to watch it.

Once upon a midnight dreary/while I pondered weak and weary/over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

Once upon a midnight dreary/while I pondered weak and weary/over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

Henry B. Walthall (who played the lead in “The Avenging Conscience,” another Poe adaptation) plays Edgar Allan Poe in a combination bio-pic and illustration of his most famous poem. It begins by showing his ancestors arriving in America, fighting in the Revolution, and performing on stage. Poe the boy is orphaned at an early age and sent to live with John and Francis Allan in the South. He grows into a young man with a taste for wine and many debts, and is sent home in shame from college. After one bout of drinking, we see Poe dreaming of killing a man in a duel with pistols. Poe meets Virginia Clemm (played by Warda Howard, who was 35 at the time, rather than the 13 or younger Clemm was when Poe met her), and the two spend a romantic day riding together in the woods and sitting beneath a tree. Poe spins a story about the two of them as Robin Hood and Maid Marion, with fairies dancing around them, and a raven sits momentarily on his shoulder. On the way home, they encounter a man beating a slave (Bert Weston in blackface), and Poe writes him an IOU to buy the slave and save him from cruelty. Allan is furious at Poe for taking on further debt and shames him in front of Virginia. There is then a brief rivalry between Poe and his friend Tony over Virginia, but she clearly prefers Poe and he “wins” her hand at a fixed game of chance. Poe, Virginia, and the slave leave the Allans’ home at John’s request.

...Suddenly there came a tapping/As of someone gently rapping/Rapping at my chamber door.

…Suddenly there came a tapping/As of someone gently rapping/Rapping at my chamber door.

The movie now shifts to Poe, alone in his quarters, drunk on wine and the recreation of “The Raven” begins. Intertitles recite most (though not all) of the stanzas, and Walthall acts the situation out with a large bird. Other fantasy sequences are added as well. At one point, he sees himself progressing up a mountain, stumbling when he reaches a large rock labeled “wine.” The image of Virginia appears and beckons him, and he climbs over the rock. Later, trying to drink from his wineglass, it turns into a human skull in his hand. The raven, of course, spreads its message of doom in oversized letters on the Intertitles. The final section of the film shows the death of Virginia and Poe’s descent into despair. Warda Howard appears again in the role of Sarah Helen Whitman, tending to an old couple, but the scene in which Poe dies while on his way to see her is missing from this print, or perhaps it was never shot, leaving a somewhat confusing resolution.

...Open here I flung the shutter/ when with many  flirt and flutter/In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore

…Open here I flung the shutter/ when with many flirt and flutter/In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore

This movie, made late in 1915, includes many of the technical advances that became common in that year. We’ve got tracking shots, and other camera movements (even re-framing when new actors enter a shot was radical the year before!), a good number of close-ups, and cutting within scenes to punch up dramatic moments. Walthall makes a good Poe, as many critics commented at the time, and he handles the tragic moments well, showing agony without overdoing it in close-up. Unfortunately, the surviving print is very washed out, making faces frequently hard to discern, and background details almost completely obscured. I was warned about this, by The Silent Era among others, so I have no one but myself to blame, but it’s too bad this movie hasn’t been considered important enough to get a good remastering and re-touching. The big problem for me in the end was the story. There’s basically two acts of Poe’s life, told fairly accurately but without any clear resolution, with a filmed version of “The Raven” sandwiched in between for no reason. As I so often do with this era, I found myself wondering whether the filmmakers wanted to make a horror movie or not. The raven sequence has horror elements, but it also has no clear connection to the plot, unless the whole thing is an alcohol-induced hallucination. Poe hasn’t even lost Clemm at this point, so there’s no reason for all his lamenting about Lenore already. In the end this was interesting, but not what I’d hoped for.

raven-scene-newspaper1916Director: Charles Brabin

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Warda Howard, Bert Weston, Harry Dunkinson

Run Time: 46 Min

I have not been able to find this for free on the internet, if you do, please let us know in the comments.

A Christmas Past (1901-1925, 2001)

Christmas PastWorldcat link for Inter-Library Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/48798726

This DVD release from Kino has been the source of all of the “seasonal” movies I’ve reviewed in the past month, and now I want to take a moment to review the DVD itself. It is a surprisingly good quality disc, although with few features or bonuses. It includes the eight movies I reviewed, and also the 1925 two-reeler “Santa Claus,” which was shot in Alaska and is also well worth seeing. The chapter menu includes thumbnail video to show you what you’ll see, and each one includes music by Al Kryszak that seems well chosen for the mood, if somewhat simplistic and at times redundant.

Night_Before_Christmas_1905What I found especially interesting about the collection is what it says about the relationship between the media and Christmas. When I recently heard Lou Lumenick speak at a screening of “Miracle on 34th Street,” he said that it was the first instance of a “secular Christmas” movie being made, but this disc proves that thesis wrong. None of these movies has an overtly religious theme, and the closest we come to actual moralizing or overt spirituality is the adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 19th Century “A Christmas Carol.” In general, it seems to me that filmmakers, including such luminaries as D.W. Griffith and Edwin S. Porter, realized from an early time that Christmas movies needed to appeal to a broad audience and to emphasize childhood innocence and family rather than divisive religious questions. Santa Claus is a common theme in these movies, and whether he is portrayed as “real” or not, he represents an inclusive concept of love and generosity, not a specifically Christian Saint Nicholas, much as seen in “Miracle” thirty years later.

Trap_for_Santa_ClausAlthough the movies themselves varied for me in terms of enjoyment and interest, the whole package is a good historical examination of a theme that often goes overlooked in standard film histories. I suspect that this disc will remain a holiday tradition at my house for some time to come.