If you ever wanted to find out how cruel, lurid, nasty and un-melodramatic Hollywood movies could get in 1919, Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door is a ripe place to start. Some of the film’s plot elements wouldn’t have made it into a pre-Code scandal-maker, much less a Code-era Hollywood film of the ensuing decades, when married couples slept in separate beds and mortal violence was a single bloodless bullet. Movies as the low-down Hollywood entertainment medium was perpetually stuck in a social tug of war, between the church goers who wanted things cleaned up and the rangy pulp lovers who craved the sensational and transgressive. Though the conservatives won the war for most of the century, generally – that is, until Alfred Hitchcock dropped the H-bomb of Psycho in 1960 – the pulp lovers won many a small battle, and the results, like this throbber from the cusp of WWI, can at least shock us with how shocking it must’ve been in the day.
Willat’s film doesn’t set you up to expect very much in this department – you’d be none the wiser unless you’d read the novel by one Gouverneur Morris, great grandson of the same-named Founding Father, and author of The Penalty and The Man Who Played God, among other adapted tales. Certainly, the film appears to play it safe at first, perhaps excessively so, billing itself a “superdrama” on its own title card, and initially following a weathered, broken sailor, Krug (Hobart Bosworth, a ripe ham looking every bit like a 1969 Ray Milland), as he returns to his hometown in Maine after the war, and to his ruined taxidermy shop, where vestiges of his previous happy life and his absent wife linger. From there we launch backward eight years, to 1917, when Krug’s taxidermy business is thriving enough for him to court a wife (Jane Novak); things start going to hell when a shady banker (James Gordon), who also pines for the girl but is rebuffed, takes his revenge by fomenting anti-German prejudice in town against Krug – who’s a native New Englander.
What we’re looking at is an enactment of the public’s transformation, thanks to the raging propaganda disseminated by Woodrow Wilson and his brand-new agitprop office Committee on Public Information, from a disinterested isolationism to a rabid, German-hating, jingoistic populace enthusiastic about fighting in the European war. (“You Hun!” someone hollers on a title card.) Willat, Morris and particularly hands-on producer Thomas H. Ince must’ve seen this deliberate mutation of the American perspective for what it was – a calculated brainwashing – setting the movie up as a tragedy, which all WWI movies were, even in 1919.
So, tempers flare and a bloody brawl ensues, just as war is declared – and things get really pulpy. Krug marries the girl despite her father’s disapproval, and so as he’s shipped off as a Navy captain, she’s kicked out of her ancestral home and stows away on his ship. He discovers her eventually, not long before they are torpedoed by a German submarine, leaving only the couple surviving in a lifeboat. The submarine rises again, and the Germans (led by entirely unsavory captain Wallace Beery, at this age not unlike a burly Seth Rogen) manage to apprehend Krug’s wife and leave him to die on the open sea.
Whew. He doesn’t die, of course – we next see him back at the prow of a ship, time having passed, his wife having vanished, and his bloodlust for Germans kindled at last. When he mercilessly torpedoes a German sub, and it turns out to be Beery’s, we can practically see the blood in the water ourselves. (The ship and sub exteriors are all real, fresh from the war itself.) What happens next – with Beery captured, unaware of Krug’s vendetta, casually revealing the harrowing fate of Krug’s wife – is best left unspoiled, even after a full 100 years have passed. Suffice it to say that the story didn’t begin with Krug being a taxidermist for nothing.
Aptly enough, though Krug becomes a full-on Wilsonite German-hater for good reasons of his own, his vengeance ruins him, just as it should – there’s no flag-waving triumph in the end. Still, every step of Behind the Door is ideologically crude, swinging from one emotional pole to the other, in a way Samuel Fuller might’ve appreciated, with the kind of slow build to Grand Guignol-ness that got parents and politicians all worked up about E.C. Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt 30 years later. The dark flavor of it, if The Penalty is any indication, came from Morris, but Willat and Ince, who between them made 20 other films in 1919, knew their audience, for whom the film was either too shocking or just shocking enough.
by Michael Atkinson