TCM Classic Film Festival was the pre-Code A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931).
A HOUSE DIVIDED was shown on Saturday, introduced by Eddie Muller and David Wyler, son of the film's director, William Wyler. (They're seen below right.) David had just recently seen the film for the first time himself.
I chose the film on the strength of the Wyler name, given his amazing track record, and I was not disappointed. It was a gripping and powerful 70 minutes.
Muller and David Wyler pointed out some of the film's strengths, including impressive sound design and special effects for the year the movie was made.
The accuracy of their comments was apparent from the very first scene, in which Seth Law (Walter Huston) and his son Matt (Douglass Montgomery, billed as Kent Douglass) bury their wife and mother in a small fishing village. As they walk away, Matt pauses as he hears the first clods of dirt being shoveled into the grave, out of the picture. It's a profound moment.
Seth is a loud bully who clashes with his sensitive son. Seth decides they need another hand to handle the housework and cooking and sends away for a mail order bride, promising Matt he'll be free to leave their fishing business when the woman arrives.
Seth expects a hardy woman he saw pictured in a magazine, but instead a wisp of a young girl named Ruth (Helen Chandler) arrives. She's immediately taken with Matt and disappointed when she realizes her would-be husband is Seth. She nonetheless goes through the ceremony, but finds him increasingly terrifying and wants to call the whole thing off and seek an annulment.
Seth intends consummating the marriage and brawls with Matt when Matt protects Ruth. A fall during the fight leaves Seth paralyzed from the waist down, but no less fearsome as he continues to torment the young couple. Everything comes to a head when Matt and Ruth attempt to escape one stormy night...
My friend Kellee describes Huston's Seth as a "pre-Code paralyzed piranha," which is both funny and accurate. Muller and Wyler mentioned that Lon Chaney would also have been good in the part, Seth is that monstrous. It's a credit to the power of Huston's performance that his physical feats as he battles Matt and Ruth's attempt to escape are completely believable. Huston's Seth is sort of like the "undead," just when you think he can't do anything else, there he is again!
Montgomery, who would most notably play Laurie in LITTLE WOMEN (1933), provides a strong contrast to the fearsome Seth. Matt, who must have taken after his mother (!), is sensitive -- yet brave enough to stand up to his father when he absolutely must, and he is willing to face possible death at sea in order to rescue Ruth.
The special effects for the storm sequence were indeed quite impressive, making the climax of this film a real nail-biter.
This is for the most part a three-person melodrama, but Charles Middleton is noteworthy as the minister at Seth and Ruth's nightmare of a wedding. The cast also includes Mary Foy, Lloyd Ingraham, and, in a small role, Walter Brennan.
The screenplay of A HOUSE DIVIDED was by John B. Clymer and Dale Van Every, with additional dialogue by John Huston.
I missed another pre-code from the Hustons during the festival, the Western LAW AND ORDER (1932). Walter Huston again starred, with the screen adaptation written by his son John. I now have a copy of the film, thanks to the kindness of a friend, and hope to review it in the fairly near future.