Of all the restorations spearheaded by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is any more shocking than 1919’s Behind the Door, which screened in 2016? The taxidermist turned World War I Navy captain (Hobart Bosworth) wreaks his vengeance on the German U‑boat captain (Wallace Beery) who has led the gang rape and murder of the U.S. captain’s wife, ejecting her body out a torpedo tube. “I told him, if I ever caught him, I’d skin him alive – -,” says our hero over coffee, his taxidermy knives already put away; “But he died before I finished – – Damn him.”
Producer Thomas H. Ince wrote an open letter to exhibitors about his planned follow-up: “In every way Below the Surface is superior to Behind the Door. The story is strong and not gruesome.” As that defensive last word hints, “female audiences” had been warned away by at least one reviewer of Behind the Door and Ince was walking a tricky line with this new film, another death-haunted sea adventure set again on coastal Maine, from the same scenarist (Luther Reed), cinematographer (J.O. Taylor), star (Hobart Bosworth), and director (Irvin V. Willat). Both films were promoted as Hobart Bosworth pictures, his name above the titles. “Few motion picture actors are as much at home in stories of the sea than Mr. Bosworth,” observed Motion Picture News in 1920; “Something of the tang and power of the salt waves seems to have been transmitted to his staunch frame.” Below the Surface is a fine illustration of how fully Bosworth could invigorate an otherwise standard story, here playing a sea-hardened diver whose apprentice son is duped by a couple of slick schemers.
If Bosworth’s centrality to the first years of feature-length (and Bay Area) moviemaking is forgotten, that’s because his most remarkable series of films is almost entirely lost. In 1913, he signed an exclusive contract with Jack London, then America’s highest paid and most celebrated writer, to adapt his works to the screen and, by the end of that year, had begun producing them at his new Bosworth, Inc. studio (which still stands—on Occidental Boulevard in Hollywood—and is the country’s oldest continually operating movie studio). Of his seven Jack London features, only half of Martin Eden (1914) survives, and that was the adaptation the author liked least. Most to be regretted may be the loss of the first, The Sea Wolf (1913), at seven reels the longest American film to date, with Bosworth producing, writing the script, directing, and starring as “Wolf” Larsen. London had come down from his Glen Ellen home to Sausalito to watch the staging of the fog-shrouded ferryboat crash that opens the story: “It was the beginning of the picturing of my stuff, and the first time I’ve ever seen moving pictures made, and I had one of the best times of my life.” Also sad is the loss of two 1914 six-reelers, both shot partly in San Francisco: London’s autobiographical John Barleycorn (“We can almost smell the salt air and hear the murmurs of the waves,” reported Moving Picture World) and The Valley of the Moon, with its San Francisco teamsters strike, Carmel artist colonies, and Sonoma farmlands.
In Below the Surface “Hobart Bosworth, the inimitable”—to adopt Motion Picture News’ characterization—is at his height as an actor and at age fifty-two still performing his own underwater stunts. At the turn of the century he’d abandoned a stage career to come west as treatment for the tuberculosis that he never fully shook, not that you’d guess it from the physicality of his film performances. He held records for underwater endurance—put to use for the free-dive rescue sequence near the end of this film—having adopted the theory of a Santa Rosa physician that “underwater tests are beneficial to lung sufferers.” Bosworth had run away from his naval officer father to go to sea at age twelve. He’d been integral to California’s first movie studio when he joined Selig Polyscope in 1909 and, as he put it about the stunt work in his 150-some Selig shorts, “I feel a particular personal interest in California because I have fallen down most of it, either from the top of a cliff or from a horse.”
Bosworth has been accused of overacting, but that is to confuse the wild storylines of so many of his films with his performance style, which is surprisingly restrained, as exemplified in Below the Surface. Deep-sea diver “Martin Flint” can, his surname notwithstanding, be teasingly warm with his wife and son, but when Bosworth’s shock of gray hair falls over his piercing eagle eyes, the mustachioed schemer had best watch out! This is an old, blue-eyed salt you don’t want to cross! Proto-Clint Eastwood, Bosworth understood that he needn’t do too much, letting his expressive hands, steady gaze, and the postures of his six-foot-two frame do the work. Adding to the otherworldly threat in Bosworth’s glare is the way his light blue eyes registered as almost white on the orthochromatic film stock then in use in Hollywood. By the time of Captain January (1924), his eyes appear more natural, thanks to panchromatic stock, just in time for his series of wealthy father roles, notably in The Big Parade (1925), My Best Girl (1927), and A Woman of Affairs (1928).
Anxious to get this follow-up into theaters, Ince began production on Below the Surface the same month—November 1919—that Behind the Door wrapped. But by mid‑winter, even Southern California proved far from ideal for shooting a sea adventure. Bad weather and churning oceans on location off Catalina Island made most of the first three weeks of footage unusable, and in January 1920 Bosworth had to reshoot his dives in a tank on Ince’s new Culver City lot. The Maine fishing island was erected in a Japanese American fishing village just north of Santa Monica, near the old Inceville studio.
“The picture starts with a punch, loses its vitality in the middle, but finishes with a powerful climax,” Motion Picture News reported, accurately enough. Underwater action bookends a family melodrama centered on the son, played by Lloyd Hughes, who carries his country bumpkin character to annoying extremes. Ince would tirelessly promote Hughes, who is best remembered as the Bolshevik dupe in Dangerous Hours (1919) and for work alongside Colleen Moore in Ella Cinders (1926) and alongside dinosaurs in The Lost World (1925). Here his character conveniently forgets his pie‑baking, Pickford-esque girlfriend (Gladys George) and proposes marriage to the vamp (Grace Darmond) less than an hour after meeting her. Skirting new Prohibition laws, she cast her siren spell by demonstrating the correct use of cocktail shakers. It’s surely for the best that he takes to bed with “brain fever” for most of the film’s final half hour.
Clearly Ince was more promoter than critic in pitching Below the Surface as “in every way … superior to Behind the Door.” Reviews were mixed. Photoplay found too much of the film “morbid … Bosworth is fine, but Ince seems to have erred in judgment in selecting Lloyd Hughes for prospective stardom.” The New York Times recommended it as “worth seeing, despite the melodramatic meaninglessness of much of its story … There is a villain in the story, who is too obviously a villain, and a villainess, who is too overtly villainous. Also the hero suffers, as most heroes do, from a lack of common sense … But there is something telling about Bosworth. He rings true. He is an actor, but never seems to be acting. He has great force, but also restraint, and a personality that is quietly dominant.”
Fortunately, the story’s conclusion is not entirely predictable. “The father discovers the woman’s duplicity and reveals it to the son in a startlingly Bosworthian way,” as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch hinted about the resolution. Film Daily threw Ince’s word back at him and found this ending again “gruesome.” Behind the Door had been a box-office hit and Below the Surface was even more profitable, costing $132,000 and grossing $354,000. Ince knew his audience better than did critics.
Below the Surface now surpasses Behind the Door in one other way: the quality of its new SFSFF restoration, which draws almost entirely from the original camera negative. (Among American silent features, little more than one percent survive via negatives, and many of those are incomplete.) This impeccable restoration—with evocative art titles and accurate color tinting—returns the film’s crisp visuals to the screen after more than a century and reminds us of all the spectacular original nitrate films still out there waiting ….
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Philip Carli