Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era to watch on TCM. This month I twist that concept a bit by featuring a rarity I was thrilled to discover last week at the TCM Classic Film Fest.
William Wyler’s A House Divided (1931) is a powerful picture about a stern and brutish widowed fisherman, Seth Law (Walter Huston), whose timid new mail-order bride Ruth (Helen Chandler) falls in love with his sensitive son Matt (Kent Douglass, later known as Douglass Montgomery). The already simmering father-son rivalry and resentment explodes into violence as Ruth rejects the fearsome and creepy Seth and grows closer to Matt. Besides attraction, Matt also feels responsible for Ruth’s misery since he agreed to write a pretty letter to the bride service in exchange for his father’s promise to set him free once a woman arrived to keep house and help with fishing.
David Wyler during the intro.
I was already curious about A House Divided but it was the rave by Leonard Maltin, during his intro to Law and Order (1932), that totally sold it as a must see. Besides making a Walter Huston double feature seem irresistible, Maltin also added, in praise of pre-Code brevity, that you could see both Law and Order and A House Divided in the time it took to sit through a Transformers movie. The House Divided intro talk between Eddie Muller and William Wyler’s son David addressed some of this dark film’s fun touches of character and style, including a comical moment where a one-legged man picks up a table leg in the debris of a barroom brawl, or the drunk who’d sleep through WW3 but wakes up at an exclamation about free beer. The men also discussed the numerous takes sought by Wyler, and how brutal the soaking of cast and crew must have been while they shot the movie’s incredibly convincing and technically impressive stormy-sea finale. Wyler’s moving camera and innovative sound effects were unique at that stage of early talkies, and this restored 35mm print was a fine way to enjoy that creativity. The opening scenes, where Seth and Matt carry Mrs. Law’s coffin to her grave, reveal the differences between the emotional, tender, grieving son and hard, distant father, and are punctuated by the sound of dirt being shoveled onto her casket.
Maltin, Muller and Wyler all said we were sure to see Huston’s part as one perfect for Lon Chaney, and might find Huston’s performance just as physically demanding and impressive. The section they meant begins with a fight between Seth and Matt, during which they make their way up the little home’s twisted staircase. Once on the upper landing, a forceful push by Matt sends his father crashing through the railing and snapping his spine over the banister below. Seth is paralyzed from the waist down, but that doesn’t make him any milder or less dangerous. If anything, his rage and bitterness fuels a superhuman strength and he’s able to drag himself across rooms with shocking speed, corner Matt, and even fling furniture at him. It was astonishing to watch Huston pull off these feats and disturbing to see him first reveal those abilities when he pulls himself up the stairs to spy on Ruth and Matt in their bedroom.
In the end, Seth is consumed by the only force angrier and more unforgiving than him, the stormy sea, in a climax which also provides the opportunity for Matt to prove his strength and bravery as he rescues Ruth. The young couple who dreamed of escaping to better lives are free to (literally, in the last scene) look toward a new dawn and calmer waters. TCMFF billed this one as a “discovery” and I’m glad I got a second chance to enjoy it on its Sunday rerun.