Volume XXVIII · Number 2 · Winter 1975
The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (I)
--JAMES SIBLEY WATSON, JR.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Melville Webber and I started to work on our first entertainment film in the Winter of 1926-27. Melville was scenarist, idea man, scene painter, costume designer, make-up man, director, and also played the part of The Visitor. My part was cranking the camera, lighting the sets and the actors, developing, printing, splicing, and projecting the film. Our preliminary experiments left us with many feet of discards. On the other hand, we had managed to assemble a number of "properties" that were to be extremely useful when we finally settled down to retelling Poe's story. The "properties" included a home-made coffin, a cardboard flat painted by Melville to represent the façade of the house of Usher, a short flight of fairly normal steps, and a long flight of steps in miniature. We had also acquired from Scott Sterling, of Bausch & Lomb, prisms and distorting lenses that could be rotated in front of the camera lens.
Rotating the latter device causes the subject to appear successively short and wide and then tall and thin, an "effect" employed to give a sort of rhythm to the scene in which a black-gloved hand smooths Madeline's burial robe as she lies supine in her coffin. In another scene, The Visitor is reading to Roderick. Here certain key words are emphasized by reflecting the letters in the polished surface of a platter turning on a phonograph turntable, making the syllables ripple.
In Lot, distortion is often used to keep reality, or rather its appearance, from disturbing the film's mood. And in the final scene distortion makes Lot's daughter seem not only different but formidable as she grasps the wine cup.
All of the effects in Usher had to be done with, or in, the camera. For Lot, however, we had an optical printer, enabling us to make changes in a scene after it had been shot. Run-ups and pull-backs made with the printer are nearly as good as those made by moving the camera, and if mistakes occur they can be corrected without retaking the scene. Nowadays run-ups and pull-backs can be quickly accomplished with a zoom lens, though the moving camera is still much in evidence, whether mounted on a car, or copter, or on the end of a massive camera crane-on-wheels.
Many of the transitions in Lot -- fades, dissolves, etc. -- were put in with the optical printer; also split-screen effects. True prismatic effects are few, although there is one such, a comically sinister scene in which people dancing in a circle are "truncated" so to speak, to the extent that each one appears as a head-and-shoulders capering on a pair of legs, sans trunk.
Usher was strictly amateur; none of us had had any experience with professional film production, least of all myself. It was only recently that I had become obsessed by the idea of making movies. My first camera was a Sept, a small clockwork affair that ran thirty-six feet of film at a loading. Later I bought a second-hand Bell & Howell "studio" camera and a speed movement for it. The standard B. & H. movement could be adjusted to run two films, and it was in this way that we were able to superimpose a moving horse and rider on a background of moving clouds, the opening scene of our film. Melville, The Visitor, was supposed to be the horseman, but that summer (1928) he was in Paris, and a substitute had to be found for this much-needed outdoor shot. Elizabeth Lasell volunteered to make the ride disguised as The Visitor by a top hat and a cloak improvised from a piece of black cloth. The fact that a woman rider was taking the part of a man was apparently not noticed by anyone who had not been told about it beforehand.
In those days the Paramount Studio in Astoria welcomed or at least tolerated visitors, and I managed to get myself invited. The only other visitor that morning was a Yankee priest just returned from a stint in South America. The first set we came upon was the inside of a circus tent, where the famous director David Wark Griffith was making close-ups of a little girl. During a pause, Griffith turned to greet us, engaging the priest in conversation, while I peered between and around them at the scenery, the lights, and the camera, the things I had come to see. The cameraman, Eddie Kronjager, was standing beside his hand-cranked camera, looking bored. I proceeded to bore him further with questions which, to my delight, he answered in some detail. When we took our leave, I tried to thank the great director for letting us visit his set, but he turned his back on me, evidently offended that I, a nonentity, had neglected him for his cameraman.
Had I been an admirer of Griffith's films, no doubt I'd have behaved differently. But for me, at that time, the only "Emperor" was Murnau, the director of The Last Laugh.
Lot in Sodom
By the time we had given up on a film entitled The Dinner Party as being too difficult and were ready to begin work on Lot, two new members had been added to our group, Remsen Wood and Alec Wilder. Remsen wanted to use our equipment in making a sound film of objects moving in time to the music of Stravinsky's Fire Bird. In return he agreed to help us with Lot, and help us he did. It was through him and his friends at Kodak Park that we obtained a sound on film recorder. He kept our new optical printer working, made valuable suggestions, and, most important of all, he helped Melville with the difficult task of synchronizing our film with its sound track -- the musical score composed and conducted by Louis Siegel and played by students from the Eastman School, among them the oboist Mitchell Miller. Though crudely recorded, this music gives to portions of the film an impact and a meaning that would be badly missed if the projector's sound system were to break down. The same can be said of the Wilder score for Usher.
Alec helped us no end in the recruiting of actors. He knew how to coax exactly the right expression from performers of both sexes. Hence he was in constant demand to direct any of our scenes that depended on facial expression. Not only that: When on the set, he could put the whole crew in a good humor. It was a gift.
Quite early in our work on Lot we engaged a friend of Melville's, Steve Kraskiewicz, to help in setting up the scenery and in making such things as the miniature walled town of Sodom that is approached through mists at the start of the film and is destroyed by fire near the film's end. It was Steve who brought us our leading Sodomites, two uninhibited and extremely handsome young men from the Polish community; also, from the same source, the beautiful girl who appears repeatedly in different guises in the sequence where Lot cajoles the Sodomites with a description of the delights of married life.
The part of Lot was played by Friederick Haak, a follower of the stage who had once acted professionally. He not only did his own elaborate make-up, applying the grease paint and the beard of twisted rope, but he helped Melville costume and paint the faces of the male actors and extras. The ladies of the cast preferred to make up their own faces with final touches by Melville.
In the biblical story, there are two Angels, and Lot has two daughters. In our film, for reasons of economy, there are only one Angel and one daughter, played respectively by Lewis Whitbeck, Jr., and Dorothea Haus. The Angel was in Rochester recently looking much as he used to except for white hair.
The one person who plays in both films is Hildegarde Watson. At the start of Usher, she plays a silent star of the twenties, but at the end, in skull-like make-up, she rushes upon her brother, bearing him to the floor, a corpse. This arduous scene required three takes!
In Lot she plays the part of a human creature among grotesques and monsters. The final sequence in which she looks back at the conflagration and is turned to salt is probably the only part of the story that is familiar to all -- and her acting of it sends them.