Sunday, June 26, 2016

A House Divided

Walter Huston in A House Divided

La sposa della tempesta.
    US 1931. Based on: dal racconto Heart and Hand di Olive Edens. D: William Wyler. SC: John B. Clymer, Dale Van Every. Dial.: John Huston. Cinematography: Charles Stumar. ED: Ted Kent, Maurice Pivar. AD: John J. Hughes.
    C: Walter Huston (Seth Law), Kent Douglass [Douglass Montgomery] (Matt Law), Helen Chandler (Ruth Evans).
    P: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. [Not released in Finland.] 35 mm. 72′. B&w.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato (Bologna)
    Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years
    Print from Universal Pictures
    E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra
    Cinema Jolly, 26 June 2016

Dave Kehr (Bologna catalog): "This all but forgotten 1931 feature is arguably William Wyler’s first mature film, after an apprenticeship in westerns and action movies, and seen today it bids to rank with Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives as one of Wyler’s most personal, most fully realized works. As in those later films, the central figure is a father figure in crisis – though Walter Huston’s ferocious performance as the redolently named Seth Law, a charismatic strong man who dominates both his ‘sensitive’ son (Kent Douglass, later billed as Douglass Montgomery) and the small community in which he lives, is the polar opposite of his gentle, dreamy businessman in Dodsworth. This may be the one film of Huston’s – though Anthony Mann’s The Furies comes close – in which the legendary actor displays the tragic scale and temperament that he was reputed to possess on stage."

"The film’s bleak setting – a tiny island off the coast of American’s Pacific Northwest, home to a ragged colony of salmon fishermen – irresistibly suggests Rossellini’s Stromboli of twenty years later, as does the plotline: having lost his wife (apparently to overwork), Huston answers an ad in a lonely hearts magazine, and young Helen Chandler (the vacant, wide-eyed Mina of Universal’s Dracula) appears on his doorstep, a refugee from the Depression-ravaged Midwest. She dutifully marries her sponsor (in a wild celebration that culminates with Huston’s solo performance of a violent Irish clog dance), but is of course drawn to his cringing son. Wyler’s attention to the detail of performance is remarkable; over the course of the film Huston seems to physically transform himself, from a towering giant to a slithering snake, just as Wyler’s camera placement descends from the heights of Huston’s hilltop home to the level ground upon which he finally crawls."
– Dave Kehr

AA: "A house divided against itself cannot stand", stated Abraham Lincoln, but this film is a family tragedy, not a Civil War drama.

There is a mythical, atavistic force in the story. Watching the movie I was thinking about Sigmund Freud's Totem und Tabu and Der Mann Moses. Walter Huston's powerhouse performance as Seth Law has a quality of der Urvater, the tyrannical, bestial father in whose shadow the younger generation must struggle to survive. If the story is not literally about Vatermord, it is certainly deep in that territory: it is about the son about to kill his father twice: first accidentally, crippling him, and another time finally killing him in self-defense. I was also thinking about Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: Walter Huston's performance would be perfect for Fyodor Karamazov, the monstrous father of the four sons, all with good reasons to murder him.

William Wyler had directed dozens of films for Universal, and his last silent movies such as Shakedown (a first rate boxing drama) and Hell's Heroes (his adaptation of the story best known as John Ford's Three Godfathers) already had an assured and personal approach. Of his early sound films, Counsellor at Law and The Good Fairy, both adaptations of stage plays, I find distinguished but not irresistible. I had tended to think that after his early display of genius in Shakedown and Hell's Heroes Wyler languished at Universal and first blossomed again with Samuel Goldwyn (starting with These Three, Dodsworth, etc.).

But A House Divided is on an entirely different level of intensity than Counsellor at Law and The Good Fairy. It makes me look forward to seeing The Storm, Wyler's first sound film.

Let's first observe that A House Divided has none of the "filmed stage play" quality of many early sound films. It is starkly visual and easy to imagine as a silent film. It has some affinity with the German Kammerspiel school of cinema. Yet it is not a chamber play but a seaside drama, and as such can be compared with contemporary masterpieces such as Jean Grémillon's Gardiens de phare.

The grim, elementary power is there from the start, in the long sequence of the mother's funeral and the wild, offensive commemoration at the saloon. Wyler and his cinematographer Charles Stumar create a powerful mise-en-scène. The camera is mobile, fluid, dynamic and alive, the angles are expressive. There are both long takes and instances of efficient rapid cutting. There are ominous panning shots.

Universal Studios had become "a house of horror" in the 1920s, grooming Lon Chaney into superstardom in the direction of Tod Browning, among others, and with Irving Thalberg as studio manager. When Universal lost all three talents to MGM it also lost its former standing as a film studio, but it reinvented cinematic horror under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr. in an unsurpassed fashion, creating definitive, unforgettable incarnations of mythic monsters for the screen.

William Wyler never directed a horror film but in A House Divided there is a strong touch of "Universal horror" with an unmistakably authentic mythical sense (comparable to Dracula et al.), and with Walter Huston in monster mode. The character he plays is so overbearing that his wife has prematurely died, apparently of overwork, his housemaids flee, and his son asks him to let him go.

Immediately after the wife's funeral Seth asks his son to help to answer to an ad in Heart + Hand, a matrimonial magazine, to acquire a mail order bride. When the original bride, Ada, is not able to come, Ruth Evans comes instead. The actress is Helen Chandler who played Mina Seward, the female protagonist in Universal's Dracula. "I'm afraid of him", Ruth confesses to Matt, the son. "I'll kill myself if you don't let me go", she says to Seth.

"You'll be sorry you didn't finish the job" says Seth to Matt after their first confrontation in which Seth is paralyzed. There is a Lon Chaney intensity in Walter Huston's performance as the crippled Seth, confined to a wheelchair, yet able to threaten both Ruth and Matt even when they are upstairs and Seth is downstairs. Walter Huston's presence here also brings to mind Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The finale takes place in a thunderstorm at the Pacific Ocean. Ruth who cannot sail is trying to escape from the horror island, and both Matt and Seth go after her on separate boats.

Walter Huston is excellent in his many modes - the funeral mourner, the saloon brawler, the fearless fisherman, the central figure of the little island's community, the master of ceremonies at his own wedding, the ferocious dancer in his wild solo dance, the victim of paralysis who is no less monstrous as an invalid. Perhaps the only point of criticism in this movie might be that Walter Huston does such a thorough job in stealing the show that he throws the entire film off balance, and other characters remain forgettable besides him. That happens to be a central issue in the genre of the horror film. We remember the monsters and forget about the rest.

The print is good, with good black levels, seemingly at some remove from the original negative.

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