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The Coward (1915), a six-reel Civil War drama, launched actor Charles Ray to brief but major stardom. Producer Thomas Ince had been carefully grooming Ray for years and finally deemed him ready to take on the lead role here as Frank Winslow, the son of a proud southern colonel (Frank Keenan), who experiences fear and guilt as he faces enlistment.
Ray made such a strong and sensitive impression here that Ince put him under a multiyear contract. Ray's persona of a wholesome, small-town country boy proved especially lovable and charming to female moviegoers for about six years, when Ray's star power waned and he was relegated to small roles and eventually uncredited bits. He worked right up to his early death, in 1943, of an infected, impacted wisdom tooth.
Better known to audiences when this film opened was actor Frank Keenan. He was a famous theater star whom Ince had brought to his Triangle Motion Picture Company along with several other stage actors; Keenan was also one of the few to successfully master screen acting techniques, and he went on to make a series of money-making features for Ince. Seen today in The Coward, Keenan seems overly stage-bound and melodramatic, and he was accused of mugging for the cameras even by critics in 1915. (Apparently he toned things down in future films.) Variety called The Coward "wonderful" and "a step forward in the motion picture art," but also suggested "eliminating some of the numerous Keenan close-ups. He is a bit too 'theatrical,' and while his name undoubtedly makes for a 'draw,' the actual star, in point of artistic performance, is Charles Ray as the boy. He expressed so much without contorting his features. Ray's performance is really a revelation in picture acting."
The Coward is also important for the involvement of Thomas Ince. While he is best remembered today for his mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924 -- one of the most notorious unsolved cases in Hollywood history -- it is also imperative to recall that his Triangle Motion Picture Company was one of the most significant of the silent era. Ince had as much a knack for self-promotion as he did for making movies. He tended to obscure the identities of the true artists working for him, grabbing credits and putting forth the impression that he himself was the sole auteur. The Coward's screenplay, for instance, is credited to Ince, but film historian Anthony Slide has written that it was really the work of C. Gardner Sullivan. Sullivan also wrote most of the William S. Hart westerns that Ince produced, and according to Slide, Gardner "may well have been crucial in the development" of both Ray's and Hart's screen personas. Slide reports that Gardner "adopted an unusual method of scriptwriting, in that he put all his subtitles down on paper first and then filled in the action linking them."
Actress Margaret Gibson (later known as Patricia Palmer) has a small role here as Ray's fiance Amy. As she was dying in 1964, Gibson told neighbors that she had shot and killed director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 -- another of Hollywood's infamous murder scandals. She was far from the only actress to make such a deathbed confession, however, and Taylor's murder, like Ince's, remains officially unsolved.
Director Reginald Barker was a Scotsman who honed his craft with Ince -- indeed, he was possibly Ince's best director -- and continued working into the 1930s, when he turned out some nifty Monogram programmers.
An earlier one-reel film by D.W. Griffith, entitled The Battle (1911), told a similar story as The Coward, but there is no official connection between the two.
Producer: Thomas H. Ince
Directors: Reginald Barker, Thomas H. Ince
Screenplay: Thomas H. Ince
Cinematography: Joseph H. August, Robert S. Newhard
Cast: Frank Keenan (Col. Jefferson Beverly Winslow), Charles Ray (Frank Winslow), Gertrude Claire (Mrs. Winslow), Margaret Gibson (Amy), Nick Cogley (A Negro Servant), Charles K. French (A Confederate Commander), John Gilbert (Minor Role), Bob Kortman (Union Officer).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars
Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema
Kalton C. Lahue, Dreams For Sale: The Rise and Fall of the Triangle Film Corporation