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Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Coward (1915)

Director: Reginald Barker & Thomas H Ince
Stars: Frank Keenan and Charles Ray

Charles Ray had a long career for Thomas Ince, but it was this film that made him a star, which he remained for the rest of the teens and into the twenties. It's easy to see why because, even as Frank Winslow, the coward of the title, he still manages to elicit some of our sympathy, ably demonstrating the torment he suddenly finds himself in as the American Civil War begins. He's pressured from many sides to sign up for the Confederacy, not least that he's the son of stern old Col Jefferson Beverly Winslow. Yet, 'Mother, I am afraid... afraid!' he wails, unable to enlist at the recruiting station. He's wracked with emotion, exhibiting an enticing combination of strength and weakness, and there's plenty of opportunity for Ray to demonstrate his dramatic range. He comes over as a strange cross between Henry Fonda and William Haines. In the end he signs up only because his dad is going to shoot him if he doesn't. How's that for incentive?

Such depth of character is only one reason why The Coward proved eye opening to me. I'm used to movies from the teens faring much better visually than with characterisation. They often had grand sets shot with capable camerawork, but rarely much to populate into them beyond simple generic storylines. Thomas Ince, famed for 1916's Civilization, sits high on the rankings of early American directors, behind only D W Griffith and Cecil B De Mille, but this is the first time I've seen one of his pictures and it certainly stands up far better than I expected. The other surprise is that the film's promise to be 'a dramatic episode of the American Civil War' is achieved not only through drama but through a surprisingly sparing use of intertitles. For the longest time, they serve only to introduce characters or to allow us to read a letter that progresses the story. It takes a long while before we read any dialogue and that's kept to a bare minimum throughout.

Charles Ray shares top billing with Frank Keenan, who plays his father. It's hard to say who gets most screen time, but if it's Keenan it's mostly through the inflexibility of his character casting a shadow over the entire film, as if he were a statue or a ghost perpetually in the background. Col Winslow has all the strength that his son doesn't have, so much so that he only has to stand up to easily dominate a scene. His toughest moments are very subtle ones, such as the one where he waits in his study for his son's decision to enlist, his power demonstrated more through a slow movement of his gun than through any choice of words. Even when his son deserts and he takes his place to keep the family honour intact, the character is too inflexible for Keenan to do much more than allow his eyes to shine in the night or to seethe quietly in the emotional scenes. He plays him well but simply has less chances to emote because of how his character is written.

Meanwhile, Frank gets opportunity after opportunity to build a character, though his story arc is more of a simple fall/rise than a more traditional and complex rise/fall/rise. He gets only a brief few moments before he's exposed as a coward, albeit one with some ambiguity, and what little sympathy he wrings out of us is soon lost as he quickly and surely sinks even lower. Yet there wouldn't be much of a plot if he wasn't given a chance for redemption and that comes through the Yankee command arriving in Cotton Creek, VA and taking up residence in Winslow Hall. He hides in the attic, where he fortuitously overhears massively important enemy secrets that he finally discovers the courage to take action over. There's more to the plot than that, but it gives you a good idea of the story arc that Frank Winslow is carried through. Ray impresses here, both as a coward and something of an action hero, albeit a frantic one.

With the success of this film, Charles Ray found fame, after a few years playing innocent country boys for Ince. He stayed with Ince and did well, but rarely strayed outside the same type of role, formula being even more important in the teens than it is today. Once you found a formula, you stayed with it and milked it as long as you could. Whether it was a growing desire on Ray's part to do something different or a growing egotism, he eventually reached the point of founding his own production company and sinking his entire fortune into a version of The Courtship of Myles Standish in 1923. After it flopped badly, his career never recovered and when he died in 1943 at the age of 52, he had deteriorated through smaller roles to bit parts and eventually extra work on Poverty Row. If he had survived to 1950, he could have been a good choice for one of Norma Desmond's silent bridge partners in Sunset Boulevard.

Frank Keenan didn't find the fame that Ray did, even though he was officially this movie's star. If he's remembered today, it's probably for being Keenan Wynn's grandfather, rather than for his long stage career or for a decade and a half of film work. After a few roles in 1909, he became serious about the movies in 1914, meaning that this was still pretty early for him, even though at 57 he was already older than Charles Ray would ever get. He would make many more pictures, though he didn't survive the silent era and it's doubtful any were particularly different from this. The inflexibility of Col Winslow fit him well, given that he was known as a 'furniture actor', one who was usually so drunk that it was only the furniture that kept him upright. With that in mind, his casting here seems even more appropriate, but the few outdoor scenes more surprising, as he gets at least a few dynamic moments. Maybe those were his sober days.

Nobody else gets a remote opportunity to shine, at least through their own merits. The officers on both sides look the part, but credit is more due to the costume and makeup departments than the actors. The negro servants at Winslow Hall are white actors in blackface, albeit done rather better than usual. The chase scene is impressive for 1914, as are the battle scenes which prove that explosions were as big business almost a century ago as they are today. Yet all this is visual as there's little structure given to the grandeur. We see the South rush into battle but we don't know any more than that they're hitting the North's weakest point. It's about explosions, flags and clouds of smoke, not anything logistical. Yet putting all this together helps to highlight to me yet again that there were filmmakers working before 1920 who could make a picture that stands up to viewing today. Each one I see makes me wonder all the more about what has been lost.