This feature was published in conjunction with the screening of Behind the Door at SFSFF 2016
When I worked for the American Film Institute in the late 1960s, my wife and I, renting an apartment in West Hollywood, discovered that director Irvin Willat lived right behind us. I had only seen a couple of his films but had heard rumors about Behind the Door (1919) that made it sound like a horror film.
I went to see Willat in his ramshackle bungalow and the first thing I noticed was a Confederate flag protruding from the barrel of a gun. He was in his eightieth year; a clipped moustache and forelock suggested that a certain dictator had survived an extra twenty-five years. He gave me a Southern welcome, telling me he was born in Georgia. (Most sources say Stamford, Connecticut.)
The moment I mentioned Behind the Door, his face lit up. He said it was the film that pleased him most. He dug out a painting of Hobart Bosworth, as the sea captain, struggling with Wallace Beery as the U-boat commander, and produced a review that he read aloud with gusto: “Builds to a climax of terrific power which is so horrible that it may sicken. Hold fast to your stomachs, there was never a more dynamic climax. They don’t show you the German’s body, but it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see it there because they’ve certainly built this up in the most expert style.”
“Blimey,” I said. “Did you really do that? Skinning the U-boat captain alive?”
“Yes,” replied Willat. “Would you like to take off your coat?”
I knew the plot—the wife of a sea captain, adrift at sea, is taken aboard a U-boat. The commander hands her to the crew. “And when she died,” he boasts, not realizing he is talking to her husband, “I shoved her out through the torpedo tube.”
Willat, who had intended to become an artist, began his career as an actor and as a darkroom boy for his brother, the legendary Carl Alfred “Doc” Willat. An exhibitor in 1905, “Doc” Willat joined Vitagraph and brought in such names as Maurice Costello and John Bunny. He helped reorganize the New York Motion Picture Co. and, in 1911, became its general manager, overseeing its labs and producing brands that included Broncho and 101 Bison. He built and operated the Willat studio and labs at Fort Lee and, in 1916, became a vital figure at Technicolor as managing producer. George Eastman said that “Doc” Willat did more for the technical advancement of the motion picture than any other man.
Irvin, who had graduated to the Thomas Ince studio as cameraman and editor, helped to rescue Ince’s pacifist epic Civilization (1916) by using optical printing and building it up with another film, The Purple Cross. “After which Mr. Ince gave me charge of something like eight departments: camera, editing, portrait, titles, tinting, lighting, studios, miniatures … and he also gave me, as my big job, the pictures that were put on the shelf. It was my job to shoot extra scenes and titles to make them work. I don’t think I failed, but I had one really tough one. Mr. Ince handed me the remains of The Purple Cross.”
While under contract to Famous Players-Lasky. Willat directed The Grim Game (1919). Again he quoted a contemporary critic: “There is more excitement in one reel of The Grim Game than in any five reels I have ever watched.” He showed me the celebrated aerial accident in a series of frame enlargements in his scrapbook. “See, we were trying to pass this man to this plane and in our efforts to do so, why the two planes fell to earth. I was in the camera plane, and when they pulled away they both were able to reach a place where they could land. When this first one came down, the pilot, Al Wilson, came in slow as he could and he [the stunt man] never did let go, He was dragged all the way on that plowed field. It was fortunate that they picked a plowed field! We had hired a stunt man who was no stunt man. His name was Robert Kennedy, formerly an army pilot. Kennedy’s rope held him dangling there until he could be dropped without serious injury. He didn’t realize that under that speed, swinging back, you’re working against gravity. He couldn’t climb; he was hooked. He stayed there and hung on and I signaled to them to let him down. They did, and the guy landed. He wasn’t hurt, but he wouldn’t come back for his money—he just flew!”
“The picture featured Harry Houdini who told me ‘I thought I was a magician until I met you’ because of all the things we could do in the camera that he would never think of. He was no actor, you know, he was a practical man. But a very personable fellow.”
Willat made another submarine picture, Below the Surface (1920), again with Bosworth; North of 36 (1924) with Jack Holt, a kind of sequel to The Covered Wagon; and he remade Maurice Tourneur’s Isle of Lost Ships (1929). With his brother, he set up a studio in 1920 to make a series of low-budget art films. The studio headquarters in Culver City was so picturesque, designed in Hansel-and-Gretel style by Harry Oliver, that drivers were distracted and cars kept colliding. The police ordered the building moved and it is now a private residence on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills.
I asked Willat if he had kept any films. He handed over The Toss of a Coin, a 1911 IMP one-reeler with Mary Pickford and Irvin Willat as leading man. It had solidly decomposed. Little did I know, while I was talking to him about his Technicolor westerns, such as Heritage of the Desert and Wanderer of the Wasteland (both 1924), that he had those very titles walled up in his bungalow—a fact that only came to light in 1976 after his death when the place was demolished. Alas, these unique Technicolor films had also decomposed.