The House of Darkness (1913)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Claire McDowell, Charles Hill Mailes
Synopsis: A potentially violent patient in an insane asylum is calmed when he hears a nurse playing the piano. But shortly afterwards he breaks free, eludes his pursuers, and acquires a gun.
Director D. W. Griffith tackles the thorny topic of insanity in The House of Darkness, a short movie made in 1913. It’s a simple plot, typical in structure for its time, but filled out with a considerable amount of padding that slows down the action considerably. It’s storyline, while not untypical of its era, is fairly laughable by today’s standards, with murderous insanity calmed by a brief tinkling of the ivories.
A young Lionel Barrymore plays the doctor at an insane asylum who marries one of the nurses (Claire MacDowell). The inmates at the asylum are treated with respect and kindness, but unfortunately one of them has the tendency to go a bit bonkers every now and then. On one of his escapes, the lunatic (aka the ‘unfortunate’ patient, played by Charles Hill Mailes) attacks an armed man and makes off with his gun. He finds his way to the doctor’s house where he finds the doctor’s wife playing with a kitten. With murderous intent, the lunatic climbs into the parlour of the house, but his murderous urge is soothed when the doctor’s wife plays the piano.
Griffith was pretty much at the top of his game when he made this short. His – and cinema’s – primary techniques wouldn’t be perfected until 1915, the year of The Birth of a Nation, but his work was still superior to that of most of his contemporaries. The House of Darkness is a fairly unremarkable example of Griffith’s output. His frequent leading lady Lillian Gish has a small role as a piano-playing nurse.
(Reviewed 9th July 2012)