Volume XXVIII · Number 2 · Winter 1975
The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (II)
Every time I see the Watson-Webber version of The Fall of the House of Usher I am struck anew with wonder and awe. How was Dr. Watson, almost fifty years ago, able to produce a film that is, technically, avant-garde today? I had a part in the film, but all of the trick photography was done behind my back, as it were, and I had no idea that I was taking part in an epoch-making film. Perhaps there were props, but I can't seem to remember them. Nor do I recall how often the screenings took place, nor how long they lasted. I do know that they covered a space of two years, at the end of which time I broke the news to Sibley that I was planning to spend the summer abroad.
"You can't," he said, "the picture isn't finished." He looked very unhappy for some minutes and then a bright idea struck him and he said, "Will you leave us your dressing gown?" I did and I know it was used with another body for stuffing, but the resultant shots must all have landed on the cutting room floor, as I remain the one and only Roderick Usher as the picture is shown today.
I have often wondered why I was chosen for the part. Could it be that Sibley thought of Roderick as a robot and sensed that I might fulfill that role? I took directions from Melville Webber and they were mystifying in the extreme: "Look weary and at the same time jubilant." "Look perplexed and at the same time relaxed." It was easy to appear weary and perplexed but never for a moment relaxed and jubilant.
In addition to issuing paradoxical directions, Melville was makeup man and my make-up took well over an hour -- I'm not sure that it wasn't two hours -- and because of such an ordeal I remember begging him to find some short cut to produce the desired effect.
I think it was not long after the completion of the film that Sibley and Hildegarde went to California to some kind of convention of movie technicians, where his film was shown and won tremendous acclaim. As a souvenir of my giving up two years of my life to them, they brought me back a real Hollywood make-up kit which I have to this day. But I have never had occasion to use it. Except for a short short -- also a Watson-Webber production -- the subject of which completely eluded me, my services were never again in demand. I remember that Alec Wilder had a part in this short short and I've an idea he wrote it as we went along. Wouldn't the unearthing of this, as well as other shorts if they exist, be an exciting project for some Watson-Webber-Wilder fan?
But to get back to The Fall of the House of Usher, despite the beauty and sensitivity of Hildegarde Watson as Roderick's sister, the real star -- and a shiny one -- was, of course, Dr. Watson.