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The Last Screening
Behind the Door was one of the most praised films of the silent era—and the only projectable print was just shown for the final time

By Shawn Stone

The audience at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., had just watched a newsreel, comedy short and cartoon, and were listening attentively to an introduction to the evening’s main event: a 1919 war drama titled Behind the Door. Philip Carli, a well-known composer and musician who has recorded numerous soundtracks for silent-film TV screenings and home-video releases, was likely the only person in attendance to have seen the feature presentation before. He also would be accompanying the film on the Capitol’s 1928 pipe organ, and gave a brief but detailed history of the film, which The New York Times (among other publications) had rated as one of the year’s best—but which had long since been forgotten. 

After explaining the film’s torturous preservation history, he warned the crowd that it was strong stuff: Behind the Door was “grim” and “elegiac,” Carli said. The audience didn’t seem to be buying it.

Consider the evidence. This was a general audience, not a collection of film buffs. When the picture started, there were scattered laughs at some of star Hobart Bosworth’s acting flourishes. Granted, Bosworth displayed some old-school actorly tics, but they don’t get in the way of an otherwise fine performance. Laughing at the edges of his work is a sign that the audience is unwilling to engage the film on its own terms. (“ ‘Grim’ and ‘elegiac’? Yeah right.”) Some scenes suffered from distracting nitrate decomposition: Cellulose nitrate film, used in all commercially released films until 1950, eventually rots. Also, hardly anyone expects to be shocked or awed watching any film made in black & white, and especially not a flick from the teens.

The story is pure war melodrama. A retired sea captain (Bosworth) woos the most beautiful woman (Jane Novak) in a small Maine town. War is declared, and he joins the Navy. Through a series of plot twists, they end up on the same ship, which is torpedoed by a German U-boat (submarine). They survive. The U-boat commander (a dependably evil Wallace Beery) rescues the woman, but leaves the captain to drown. The woman is raped by the entire crew; the captain survives, and swears vengeance. When he gets his opportunity, the captain—who, by the way, is also a taxidermist—skins the U-boat commander alive, and leaves him hanging “behind the door.”

What makes it so effective is not the outlandish plot, but Irvin V. Willat’s atmospheric direction. Everything is presented with utter seriousness. The story is structured as a complicated series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, but is never confusing. The mood is a balance of brutality and romantic doom.

It was enlightening to experience the shift in reaction as the drama lived up to its billing. First, there is a bloody attack on a German-American, when war is declared, for being the only German in a town. This is followed by unmerciful, take-no-prisoners submarine warfare. The laughs ceased, and the audience grew silent—the only sound was Carli’s inspired playing. You could feel the mood change in the theater. The film’s most brutal scenes followed: sexual assault and (offscreen) gang rape. Finally, the sadistic act of revenge that explained the film’s enigmatic title.

There was a rumble of applause, first for the film, and then a second wave for Carli. The unsigned New York Times review of Jan. 5, 1920, was still true 74 years later. Even in its not-quite-complete form, Behind the Door really was “one of the most grim and gruesome, and decidedly one of the best-made, pictures produced since the beginning of the war. . . .”

Unfortunately, the Saturday, May 8, screening at the Capitol of Behind the Door was the last public showing for a long, long time—that is, if it’s ever shown in public again.

The story of how Behind the Door survived at all is not atypical of a silent film; after all, most silent films are lost. Thomas Ince (whose death was wildly fictionalized in the recent Kirsten Dunst picture The Cat’s Meow) produced it for Paramount, who sold it to Columbia Pictures (for issues related to the remake rights) in the 1930s. Columbia, sensibly, had no interest in an unmarketable silent film, and left it to rot—until they donated the surviving material to the Library of Congress.

Film historian Robert S. Birchard explains: “What survived was incomplete, and a hodge-podge, because it was in tinting roll order, not in continuity order.” Tinting? “Silent films were often tinted—blue for night, amber for day, and other colors for other effects—so all the scenes that were intended to be tinted blue for a given reel were together, and the amber scenes were together . . . and so on.”

As if the fact that the scenes were all out of order wasn’t enough of a problem, no cutting continuity—the blueprint for reassembling the scenes—could be found. When Birchard wanted to run the film at Cinecon, an annual classic film festival, he remembers, “James Cozart at the Library of Congress offered to put the film in order, in his free time, and shoot bridging titles for the missing material so that the screening would be more comprehensible.”

Cozart used the magazine story the film was based on for a guide. This was no easy task, because Behind the Door has that elaborate flashback structure. So it was a happy surprise when Birchard found a complete cutting continuity in the estate of actor Hobart Bosworth’s widow, and it turned out that Cozart had reconstructed the film perfectly.

Birchard also found something else that was important: Footage from the “skinning” scene, which he arranged to have sent to the Library of Congress, and was incorporated into its print of the film.

Unfortunately, this print is now damaged. According to Art Pierce, who organizes the classic film series at the Capitol, there were “no problems to speak of” during projection, but “I’m told it got very loud [in the projection booth] toward the end of the movie.” The reason, Pierce explains, is “the clicking of the Mylar sprocket repairs.” The Library of Congress has decided to withdraw it from circulation—and there are no plans to make another.

The LOC, sensibly, would rather do a more complete restoration, from all surviving film materials, than make another incomplete print. The Gosfilmofond archive in Moscow has an incomplete print; as Birchard notes, it contains “six out of the original seven reels.” The hope is, he adds, “that the Russian material would fill in all the gaps.” Unfortunately, no agreement has yet been reached to obtain a copy of the Russian print. Until such an agreement is reached—if ever—Behind the Door will be out of circulation.

It’s a loss to the appreciation of American silent film. As Birchard sums up, “I think everyone who has seen even the incomplete version of Behind the Door that is in the Library of Congress collection agrees that it is indeed a remarkable film, and one that deserves to be better known than it is.”

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