Although it’s been more than one hundred years since World War I began, the sacrifice, sorrow, fear, and divisions of that great period of unrest are still evident today. When America finally entered the conflict in 1917, three years after it had begun in Europe, the whole nation rallied behind the war effort. McClure’s magazine did its part by publishing patriotic fiction and nonfiction. On the cover of the July 1918 issue was a teaser for one story, inviting the reader to “find out what is ‘Behind the Door’ by Gouverneur Morris.” Barely two pages long, it still packed a literary punch suitable to the cause.
The magazine story begins with the musings of two ship officers, speculating about the patriotism of their German-American captain and his motive for saving a German U-boat commander from drowning after a submarine is sunk by the ship’s gunfire. When the war ended in November, the story was still compelling enough for film producer Thomas H. Ince to pay a generous price of $10,000 for the rights and put it into production. Ince hired a trusted colleague, Irvin V. Willat, to direct.
Willat and Ince had known each other since 1910, when Willat was working in the film lab at the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) and Ince was hired to act and later direct. Willat recalled in an interview in 1971 with film historian Robert S. Birchard, “Tom Ince used to come in and play bits. First time I saw him he was playing a sailor, and they were carrying him out in a stretcher.” Ince was made a director for Mary Pickford’s IMP films, and in 1911 he became a producer for the New York Motion Picture Company, moving from New York to Santa Monica to set up production facilities at what became known as Inceville. Willat soon followed to organize the new studio’s lab then went back to the New York office to supervise the final editing, titling, and release of Ince’s films.
After the outbreak of war in Europe, the debate over America’s entry into the conflict began, and Ince produced Civilization (1916), a pacifist call for peace. The production, filmed in 1915, was in trouble (as many as seven men on the Ince lot, including Ince, had directed parts of it), and Willat was summoned from New York to fix technical problems. Willat thought the movie was “lousy” and serendipity intervened when the editor accidentally destroyed the flammable nitrate work print with a careless cigarette and all the footage had to be reprinted. Willat now had complete control over the film and added submarine sequences from another current Ince production, The Purple Cross, as well as filmed a prologue and epilogue, changed all the intertitles, and re-edited the film. It became Ince’s biggest moneymaker and launched Willat’s directing career, although he received no screen credit for the film.
Willat went on to fix The Purple Cross, replacing the submarine scenes with a zeppelin and renaming it The Zeppelin’s Last Raid (1917), another pacifist film. Willat’s recognition as a director came with False Faces (1919), starring Henry B. Walthall as the Lone Wolf, a thief working for the Allies during the war. One of the film’s major set pieces is the sinking of a passenger ship by a German submarine that happens to rescue the Lone Wolf. For his next film, Willat directed The Grim Game (1919), starring Harry Houdini and featuring an unplanned plane crash that ended up in the film.
The same month that principal photography ended for The Grim Game, Willat began shooting Behind the Door, starring Hobart Bosworth as the seafarer of German extraction who enlists to do his patriotic duty. A pioneering actor, director, and producer, Bosworth began as an eighteen-year-old stage actor in 1885 in San Francisco. For twenty years he toured with many of the great names in the business, until tuberculosis stopped him from performing. He later went to Los Angeles, still struggling with his health, and started an acting school. When a director with the Selig Polyscope Film Company opened a temporary studio in downtown Los Angeles in 1909, he offered Bosworth a job. By then Bosworth’s school was foundering, but his health was better, so he accepted. His first film, in a career that spanned thirty-three years, was In the Sultan’s Power (1909). Bosworth acted in dozens of one-reel films, the staple product of the day, and was soon writing and directing at Selig. He left the company in 1913 to start his own feature film company, producing The Sea Wolf (1913) with its opening scenes shot in San Francisco. By 1915, he was pushed out of the company he had founded in a studio takeover, and he began working freelance for Cecil B. DeMille and other notable directors. He returned to the stage briefly to revive Wolf Larson in a tabloid version of The Sea Wolf and had just returned to films when he was cast in Behind the Door. Wallace Beery was cast opposite him as the story’s ruthless German submarine commander.
Beery really was the boy who left home to join the circus. He became an assistant elephant handler but longed to be an actor. His break came on Broadway in 1907 as an understudy in the musical comedy The Yankee Tourist when the star failed to show up. Beery later proved adept at both comedy and drama when he entered films in 1913 at the Chicago Essanay studio. In 1914, he starred in his own popular series, playing a Swedish maid named Sweedie. After the director left for another studio, Beery began directing. About that time he also began a romance with a young dress-extra at the studio, fifteen-year-old Gloria Swanson. When scandal over the relationship threatened to derail his career, Beery quickly moved to the Niles Essanay studio in northern California, where he directed Ben Turpin comedies. The Niles studio closed in February 1916 and Beery moved to Los Angeles, where he reunited with Swanson and took on comic villain roles at the Keystone Film Company. As the war progressed, Beery frequently portrayed German villains in movie melodramas. It may have been his role as the vicious Colonel Klemm in The Unpardonable Sin (1919) that led to his casting as the evil Lieutenant Brandt in Behind the Door.
Most of the filming was done at Ince’s new facility in Culver City. The film’s fishing village was constructed at the old Inceville lot in Santa Monica along the Pacific Coast. Submarine scenes were done at San Pedro in August 1919. At one point during the submarine shoot, the submarine dived and the suction drew Bosworth down with it. According to a September Motion Picture News item, “only [Bosworth’s] remarkable physical condition saved him” from drowning.
Behind the Door was released on December 14, 1919, to sold-out shows and excellent reviews. Exhibitors Herald proclaimed, “One Paramount special that is a special. Too bad they’re not all in this class.” Another critic felt it equaled the artistry of two other recent releases, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and The Miracle Man, featuring Lon Chaney. The studio knew they had a winner and immediately started production on Below the Surface, another submarine film starring Bosworth and directed by Willat. Box office returns of $289,039 confirmed Behind the Door as an Ince success, but if the film had been released while the war was still on, its gruesome take on revenge may well have made it a must-see propaganda piece for the war effort, and even more profitable.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Stephen Horne