One of the many joys of attending a classic film festival such as the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, sometimes you get a chance to screen a film for the first time. When seeing a decades old film for the very first time, yet on the big screen, it’s like momentarily slipping back in time. I imagined what it may have been for audiences of the past.
Recently at #TCMFF 2016, I experienced such a unique pleasure in screening William Wyler’s A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). It’s a PreCode with such dark tones, that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller himself introduced this screening with a brief interview of Wyler’s son, David Wyler.
The story takes place in a small fishing town, centered on the main character, Walter Huston as Seth Law. He’s a strong, mean, miserable son of a bitch. As low brow as that sounds, I’m underselling it. Seth’s wife has just died so he takes his son, Douglass Montgomery/Kent Douglass as Matt Law, to the local dive to get drunk. Initially we give him some slack in his aggressive handling of the situation, assuming temporary grief. Soon Seth’s true nature becomes clear as he cruelly berates his son to prove his manhood and by attempting to force him to drink heavily. Matt is uncomfortable and offended by his father’s behavior but not strong enough to stand up to him. In his aggression, the father openly manhandles women as he slings back shots then starts a violent brawl that finishes with Matt out cold.
In striking contrast to his father, Matt is a kind, gentle and handsome blond lad. Back home, Seth announces he will simply replace his wife with a mail-order bride of strong stock. He has plucked her from a simple description in a catalogue (in “Heart and Hand” magazine, selecting a 35-year-old, hard-working good cook named Ada Peterson); not unlike picking out the strongest draft horse for the farm. Calculated enough to know his son would make the more persuasive communicator, Seth tells Matt to write the letter. Matt gingerly approaches his domineering dad with a trade. Now that he’s older and there’s help on the way, he wants to branch out on his own. He’s never liked it there. And who could blame him?
On the day of the new bride’s arrival, Matt is unable to convince his father to ‘clean up’ to greet his betrothed. Instead, he treated it like any other day, went about his fishing business and left it up to Matt to welcome her. A true romantic. When a young, very attractive, slight wisp of a gal shows up at the door, Matt is confused.
This nineteen year old is evidently not the Ada Peterson as advertised. Young Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler) explains that she came in her friend’s place because the original bride-to-be had already married another by his letter’s arrival. There is an instant chemistry between the two. She initially assumes Matt is her groom.
Reality comes crashing in soon enough after he explains the mix-up and Pops walks in. In his socially inept and jarring method, Seth inspects his new livestock with disapproval. Ruth begs for him to reconsider because she has no where else to go. Besides, if his son is so sweet, how bad can dad be, right? Ruth eventually convinces him to change his mind after he realizes his pretty new bride can provide assets that a housekeeper cannot. Now he inspects her with hungry eyes. She’s switched to deep regret. Apprehensive, she ponders her mistake yet reluctantly moves forward with the wedding. It’s clear that without someone to stand up to Seth, she is not strong enough, physically nor rhetorically, to persuade him otherwise.
At the wedding ceremony, a crowd of unruly, drunken locals align with Seth’s behavior yet widen her eyes to the grim future before her. She’s sunk. After the spectacle of ill manners, Seth approaches Ruth back at the house. He’s ready for bed time, looking at her like she’s a gazelle dinner at a lion den. She openly states she’s made a big mistake; she tries to talk him out of it. Her pleas fall flat on his ears. He wants his dinner and he doesn’t care if she doesn’t comply.
Matt finally intervenes and a violent confrontation ensues. The fight ends with Matt assuming he’s accidentally killed his father. No such luck. The town doctor is called and he says Seth will likely never walk again. Ruth and Matt feel doomed and torn, trapped by an obligation to stay. Meanwhile, this tragedy and a bond of fear of Seth has only drawn them closer together.
Seth is determined to grow stronger and defy the doctor’s diagnosis. He is more ruthless than ever before to assert his bullying power over his son and display his machismo to his young bride. It’s nighttime. An intense storm is brewing outside. Matt slips into Ruth’s room. She confides in him that she is too afraid to stay a moment longer. They plan to escape together.
Seth, whose bed has been set up on the main floor downstairs for obvious reasons, picks up that something is going on. With paralyzed legs, he pulls himself off the bed and crawls along the floor towards the staircase. Slowly and surely, he drags his body up each spindle of each step, along the outside of the staircase. His strong and determined arms pull him up as he peers onto the second floor. There light coming from underneath Ruth’s door.
Sitting on her bed, as Ruth and Matt find love and solace in each other’s arms, Matt attempts to convince her to stay until morning, after the storm settles down. Ruth expresses that she is too filled with fear to wait. Just then, Seth bursts in. What follows is a frightening, suspenseful explosion of violence, fear and a chase through a horrific stormy sea.
I’ve never been so freaked out by a paralyzed cinematic figure before. When Walter Huston crawls and drags his way upstairs, you do not think of him as having the disadvantage in power. Not in the slightest. Instead, you are biting your nails and gripped by your own fears that his son Matt will meet his doom.
That’s how intense, strong and cruel he comes across. It also has an eery quality that reminded me heavily of Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) when you see them crawl in the muddy muck under the circus trailer, with knife clinched in teeth, to hunt down their deserving victim.
The violent explosion between Matt and Seth is indeed a nail-biter. Seth pulls his body around the room on the floor, posturing his body to block, shoving chests of drawers and beds around like they were kindling, and one-handedly throwing a chair down the stairs after Matt, knocking him out. Trust me, there is no handicap on Seth’s part.
I won’t give up the exact ending but the climax is palatably intense, with Seth remaining a terrifying threat right up to the end. Walter Huston makes this role. In his PreCode days, he sometimes played a father figure, or a cop, but was a master as the villain. There is something about his presence. When he says something, you believe it. His face scrunches up in an evil snarl. He’s defiant, intimidating, menacing, with a confidence deep in his bones that comes across boldly on the screen. There are many great screen villains, but I guarantee you’ll never forget this one.