Early & Silent Film

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The House With Closed Shutters, USA 1910.

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2014

The Flag - The Drink.

The Flag – The Drink.

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of the mammoth and decade long retrospective of the films of D. W. Griffith. This is a one-reeler, [998 feet in length] released in August 1910. It was the 244th in the long series of films that Griffith directed for Biograph. And it was a one of a number of films that stood out in that series. It seemed to me to have enjoyed better production values than many of the other films from 1910. This seems likely to be because the film is a Civil War tale – there is a very impressive battle scene. Griffith, son of a one-time Confederate Officer, found one of his most compelling subjects in the Civil War. He had made four earlier films which used this topic. Moreover this was a popular genre in the period – 1910 was just before the fiftieth anniversary period of the conflict. And the war itself is one of the most potent memories in US culture.

The film treats the Civil War as part of a family melodrama – and Griffith’s films repeatedly join these two topics, notably in his infamous masterwork The Birth of a Nation (1915). As you might expect in a one-reel film the plot is relatively simple. Charles Randolph (Henry B. Walthall) joins the Confederate army as the war gets under way. However he has a fatal weakness – drink. Sent on a mission with an important despatch Charles flees to the shelter of the family home. His sister Agnes (Dorothy West) takes his place, delivers the despatch, but then dies in a battle. Her body is mistaken as Charles and he is deemed to have died a hero’s death. To preserve the family honour the mother (Grace Henderson) closes the shutters of the house and imprisons Charles there. Years later, an old man, he finally opens the shutters but succumbs to the light of day.

Griffith and his team imbue the film with great emotion. Dorothy West plays Agnes as young and vital whereas Henry Walthall makes Charles weak and indecisive. The house itself takes on the aura of Southern Gothic – a mansion where lies hidden the family secret. When the news of Agnes’ death and Charles now-heroic status arrives, the mother is implacable in immuring her son. The family interaction is set off against two young recruits to the Confederacy who are also suitors for the hand of Agnes (Charles H. West and Joseph Grayhill). It is they who provide a link between family and war and bring the news to the mother. In a later scene one of the suitor climbs in through an open window and the mother covers Charles with a blanket to hide him. There is also a ‘Negro servant’ played in blackface by William J. Butler.

The exterior scenes have an openness and fluidity that contrasts with the grim stasis of the shuttered mansion. Agnes’ ride with the despatch has an exhilarating rhythm. And when she is caught up in a battle between Union and Confederacy the audience is caught close up in the carnage of the conflict. A reviewer at the time commented “that the feature of the film that impresses most is the remarkable realistic battle scene.”

Griffith uses motifs to focus and intensify the drama. So the film opens with Charles and his sister as she sews the flag of the Confederacy. When later in the film she is caught up in the battle she catches a falling Confederate flag and dies waving it towards the enemy. When the suitors take their leave of Agnes she gives one a lock of hair and the other a flower from her hair. After her death and Charles imprisonment the suitor returns every year to lay flowers on the porch of the house: his and their ageing marking the passage of time.

At the centre of the story is Agnes, a strong and committed young woman. Whilst Griffith films often feature the heroine as innocent victim his films also feature strong, independent minded women. In this case Agnes’ commitment is to the Confederacy – in line with Griffith’s consistent support for the South and its reactionary values.

The film has approximately 60 separate shots and seven title cards. The title cards precede the relevant action, which relies extensively on the visual dramatisation for the story. The opening title sums up the moral line in the film, “The Price of Cowardice’. Most of the film is shot between mid-shots and long shots. The shots in the house are relatively long takes, but the actions sequences use shorter shots and faster editing. There is also parallel editing between the war actions and the family home

We were fortunate that this was one of the Biograph films that survive in a 35mm print [provided by the Museum of Modern Art]. It ran 17 minutes and 16 fps. According to my notes we had an accompaniment by Antonio Coppola, who is excellent with this type of melodrama.

There is a long article on the film by Tom Gunning in The Griffith Project Volume 4., bfi publishing 2000.

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