The House of Darkness (1913)
D: D.W. Griffith / 17m
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Claire McDowell, Charles Hill Mailes, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Robert Harron, William Elmer
In an asylum for people with “disordered minds”, a young nurse (McDowell) is wooed by one of the doctors (Barrymore). Their courtship leads to marriage, and a happy one at that. Meanwhile, one of the inmates, an older man (Mailes) who has clearly seen better times, wanders around quite calmly and with a dazed expression that speaks of his confusion. But when he suddenly turns violent, and for no apparent reason, he has to be physically restrained. As he struggles against the orderlies restraining him, the sound of a piano being played nearby by one of the other nurses (Gish), proves successful in calming down the old man, and returning him to his former docile state.
The hospital staff make a note of this, and the nurse is encouraged to play the piano whenever the man shows signs of aggression. However, it isn’t long before the man has another psychotic episode; in the process he escapes from the grounds of the asylum. He attacks two men in a park, and manages to wrest a gun from one of them. With orderlies and the police in pursuit, he flees the park and eventually finds himself outside the home of the recently married nurse and doctor. He breaks in, and discovers the nurse there by herself…
An interesting, well-made movie that shines an unexpectedly sympathetic spotlight on the mentally ill, Griffith’s even-paced, non-melodramatic portrayal of the “insane” (only once is the old man referred to as a lunatic), The House of Darkness is a perfect metaphor for the mind of a man with mental health problems. Without a strait-jacketed or gibbering madman in sight, this is still a powerful cry for a better understanding of those whose minds have betrayed them, and is remarkably “modern” in the way in which the old man’s mania is dealt with (even if it is based on the idea that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast”).
With Barrymore and McDowell reduced to supporting players once their marriage is established it falls to Mailes to be the focus of the movie, and he gives a poignant, affecting performance that belies his usual role as a patrician elder, and also serves as a reminder that silent movie acting wasn’t always all declamatory hand gestures and facial gurning. Mailes has the viewer’s sympathy from the start, and even when he goes berserk, there’s always the sense that he can’t help what he’s doing and that he still deserves our understanding. Griffith, by now such an assured presence behind the camera that every shot and every camera placement provides information for the viewer to react to, keeps things from being too dramatic, and lets the story unfold with a grim fatalism that is thankfully derailed in the movie’s climax.
With the script having been written by the appropriately named Jere F. Looney (or unfortunately named, depending on your point of view), The House of Darkness is a solid, unspectacular yet moving account of madness and the burden it bestows on those affected by it. And in its own way, it’s as much an affecting drama as it is a gripping thriller.
Rating: 8/10 – a good example of Griffith subverting his audience’s expectations in terms of the movie’s approach to the subject matter, and bolstered by a great performance by Mailes, The House of Darkness is both illuminating and inspiring; a small-scale triumph and as relevant now as it was back then.
The Mothering Heart (1913)
D: D.W. Griffith / 29m
Cast: Walter Miller, Lillian Gish, Kate Bruce, Viola Barry, Charles West
A young woman (Gish), romantically involved with a young man called Joe (Miller), allows herself to be persuaded to marry him. They move into their new home but money is tight, and Joe is weighed down by his lack of success at work. His new bride earns extra money taking in ironing, and she’s pleased to do so, believing that it will only be a matter of time before her husband begins to earn better money. After a period where he returns home each night feeling more melancholy than the last, he finally has some good news: a welcome bonus. Joe wants to celebrate, and he tells his wife to get dressed to go out, but what she has to wear is neither new nor fashionable.
They go to a nightclub where Joe attracts the attention of a woman (Barry) sitting at the next table. His wife becomes aware of this and insists they leave, but a chance encounter with the woman leads to Joe neglecting his wife and spending more and more time with her, and in the same nightclub. When she finds out what he’s doing, she resolves to leave him. When she does, Joe is only momentarily upset, and continues to spend time with his new flame. His wife, meanwhile, goes back to living with her mother (Bruce), and without telling her husband that she’s expecting their child…
By the time of The Mothering Heart, Griffith was looking ahead to making feature length movies, but this didn’t mean that he was restless or putting any less of an effort into his short features. Here he pulls no punches in highlighting the pitiful surroundings of the young married couple, and contrasting them with the gaudy excesses of the nightclub, with its ornate furnishings and impeccably attired clientele. Through this juxtaposition he shows just how easy it is for young men to forget what’s really important in their lives, and how it can just as easily drain the love of a young bride for her husband. It’s a simple tale, and while Griffith’s approach is simple as well, he also makes Joe’s deception and its consequences tremendously emotive.
Of course, he’s aided immeasurably by Gish. It’s a little hard to credit, but at the time the movie was made, Gish was still only twenty, but in the scene where she first suspects her husband is deceiving her, she finds a glove in his coat pocket. At first she’s glad to find it, thinking it’s a present from him, but when she realises there’s only one, her expression begins to change from happiness to disappointment, all there for the audience to see as she stares into the camera. It’s a bravura moment, and beautifully crafted, as her faith in her husband is taken from her in a matter of seconds.
For all its passion and heartfelt melancholy, The Mothering Heart is also quite a restrained movie in terms of its look and the way in which Griffith uses fixed camera set ups throughout. This is a movie that is content to observe its characters and their actions, and its no frills approach adds beautifully to the carefully constructed mise en scene, the simple story allowed to be the focus and with little in the way of any distractions or irrelevancies (except for the nightclub dancers, that is).
Rating: 8/10 – with a tremendous performance by Gish, and assured, impressive direction from Griffith, The Mothering Heart is one of the very best of his American Biograph movies; powerful and moving, and visually striking, it’s a movie that rewards on far more levels than you’d expect, and paints a sobering portrait of young love undone.