An avant-garde take on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale of terror, this short has long been praised as an icon of independent American filmmaking and for its aggressive special effects and cinematography.
Plots? Plots? We don’t need no stinkin’ plots!
In the waning days of the silent era, independent filmmaker James Sibley Watson collaborated with Melville Webber and poet e e cummings to bring a new vision of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Fall of the House of Usher to the screen. The idea was that none of the men involved in the project had re-read the story in years and so their perception would be that of a half-remembered dream and not tied to any particular narrative.
Now, anyone who has read Poe knows that this approach has merit. Poe’s stories are less about plot and more about striking imagery and dark emotions that tend to linger and haunt long after the tale is finished. In fact, I dare say that the biggest mistake filmmakers make when adapting Poe to the screen is attempting to make the plot longer, which invariably ruins the dramatic impact of the original material.
The Fall of the House of Usher, very briefly, is about the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher, who live together in the decaying family mansion. The narrator is their guest and, apparently, Roderick’s last friend in the world. When Madeline suddenly passes away, she is interred in a tomb and her coffin sealed but during a dark and stormy night some days later, Roderick confesses that she is alive and he has heard her struggles to free herself. The door bursts open, a bloody Madeline throws herself on her brother and he dies from the shock. As the narrator flees, the house is rent asunder.
This is basically the tale presented by Watson and Webber with the latter taking on the role of the narrator and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, playing Madeline. Roderick is played by Herbert Stern. And, as promised, the narrative is fractured and confused. In fact, I am not entirely certain that someone who has not read the original story could follow it without considerable effort. But then again, since that was the expressed goal of the filmmakers, it seems a bit impolite to complain about it.
The entire picture lasts just thirteen minutes from start to finish and is something of a whirlwind tour of the 1920s European art films. Even casual viewers will likely recognize a hat tip to German Expressionism (the filmmakers were fans of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) but there is also a dab of Jean Epstein, a pinch of F.W. Murnau, a few grains of L’Herbier , a dollop of Eisenstein… And that’s where we run into trouble.
(By the way, Epstein released his own version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928 but it was released late in the year and I think it highly unlikely that Watson and Webber would have had a chance to view it before making this picture.)
The most difficult reviews to write are the ones where you don’t love the movie, you don’t hate the movie, there’s nothing particularly egregious and yet you’re not a fan. And that’s where we are today. I first saw The Fall of the House of Usher almost twenty years ago. Wasn’t moved at all. Rewatched it a few times over the years. Felt nothing. Watched it for this review. Zilch. (Okay, one thing: Madeline rushing the camera at the finale is funny. People lurching toward a camera will always be funny. I cannot take the ending of The Women seriously for this very reason.)
So, this puts me in a bit of a pickle because I can’t very well type “meh” a few hundred times and then call it a day so I suppose we need to dig a little deeper into the hows and whys of meh. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as much fun as discussing a film I enjoyed (or one that I hated) and I apologize for that. So, adjust your expectations accordingly and let’s dive into the “meh.”
Independent silent era filmmaking can be such a rewarding topic to pursue and I have experienced much pleasure from the study of these motion pictures. I love the spunky Yiddish cinema of Sidney Goldin, the bold attempt to carve out a Chinese-American film industry by Marion Wong, the bootstrapping audacity of Oscar Micheaux, the never-give-up industriousness of José María Velasco Maidana, the gentle imagination of Madeline Brandeis…
I think Watson and Webber were fascinating people. Watson was the heir to the Western Union telegraph fortune and used his money and influence for good, later experimenting with x-ray color films. Webber worked with the brilliant animator Mary Ellen Bute. Both men collaborated again for the famous Lot on Sodom (1933). There’s literally every reason for me to like The Fall of the House of Usher.
Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-garde, 1919-1945 makes the argument that The Fall of the House of Usher is relatively under-discussed because Watson and Webber moved in literary circles and so coverage of the film was confined to literary rather than motion picture press. While that might be the case, I think a certain amount of its obscurity can be linked to the fact that everyone and their mother-in-law had seen a knock-off Caligari. (If Chadwick Pictures was doing it, as it did in The Bells, you know it had to be commonplace.)
American cinema had utterly embraced the German aesthetic, down to hiring away some of their brightest luminaries. The combination of American charisma and German technical prowess resulted in some masterpieces and the most famous of these, Sunrise, won the first and only Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture.
Now, before I get flayed alive by the avant-garde fans (who, presumably, will symbolically flog me with live lobsters or something) I should mention that Watson and Webber clearly had other influences and there are no scenes directly lifted from Caligari (except maybe a few top hat sequences) but that’s how the film would have been perceived in the late 1920s, I’ll wager.
And I think we’re coming ‘round to the root of my “meh” mood: while The Fall of the House of Usher is made well, especially considering its status as an indie, it doesn’t really have much to set it apart. Brazilian filmmaker Mario Peixoto came from a similarly privileged background and was similarly enamored of European art cinema but his Limite (1931) is a burst of cinematic brilliance that is both technically impressive and artistically rewarding.
So, while I think The Fall of the House of Usher deserves praise as an adept pastiche of 1920s art cinema, it doesn’t really have a personality of its own. There we have it. It was like giving birth but we finally arrived at the root of the matter. I have seen arguments put forth that Watson and Webber were inspired by other artistic movements but, again, it feels like a patchwork and lacks that magical spark of individuality, at least in my opinion.
This is by no means a bad picture and it’s entirely possible that you will like it a lot more than I did. It’s short enough and easy enough to see that I think you should give it a shot and judge for yourself.
Where can I see it?
Released as part of the now out-of-print Treasures from American Film Archives box set but it has been made available from free and legal streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website.
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