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  • At the time this film was made insanity was widely regarded as something shameful. Some people believed it was a form of divine punishment for sinfulness, and virtually everyone agreed that people afflicted with mental illness must be removed from society, locked away in some safe place and shunned. Considering the attitudes of the day, D. W. Griffith's short drama The House of Darkness is surprisingly enlightened in depicting the mentally ill as unfortunate victims of their conditions who, in some instances, may respond to therapy and even make full recoveries. The fictional case history presented here may look simplistic to latter-day viewers, especially in its resolution, but taken in context the movie marks an impressive step forward in treating this topic in a sensitive and humane fashion.

    The story set at an asylum for persons with "disordered minds." The opening scenes briefly depict two of the inmates of the home in earlier days when they were functioning in the world outside the grounds, thus demonstrating that average folks, i.e. perhaps even folks like you the viewer, or someone you know, might some day end up like this. But then on a lighter note a title card reminds us that "Even Here Love Cannot Be Shut Out," and we observe a romantic interlude between one of the nurses (Claire McDowell) and a doctor (35 year-old Lionel Barrymore), who become engaged and marry. For those of us familiar with Barrymore's later character roles as a crusty old man it's strange and poignant to see him here, so young and dapper, playing a newlywed. Our focus switches to a particular inmate on the grounds of the asylum, a disheveled older man played by actor Charles Hill Mailes, perhaps best remembered by Biograph buffs as Mary Pickford's mean-spirited father in The New York Hat. Here Mailes plays a pathetic man who initially seems dazed and quiet, but who turns violent and must be restrained by orderlies. Coincidentally, a nearby nurse (Lillian Gish) happens to be playing piano, and the music has an immediate soothing effect on the patient. Soon after, however, back on the grounds after the music has stopped, the patient goes berserk and escapes. He attacks two men in a nearby park, and manages to take a pistol from one of them. Pursued by a number of orderlies, guards, and lawmen, the man (now called a "lunatic" in a title card for the first time) breaks into the home of the recently married nurse, who, terrified, manages to subdue him by playing a tune at the piano.

    In the climactic scenes which follow it's suggested that steady sessions of "musical therapy" ultimately bring this patient back to full mental health. We may scoff at the naivete of this conclusion, since it's implied that music -- and music alone -- brings about the man's recovery, but the story is presented with disarming earnestness, and again, considering the general attitudes of the era it's striking that the very possibility of curative therapy is suggested at all, however simplistically. The House of Darkness stands as an interesting early milestone in the cinema's depiction of mental illness and its potential methods of treatment.
  • This short drama is quite melodramatic, but interesting. It is basically an illustration of the needs of the mentally ill, and in its time was probably quite close to the truth in its depictions. Most of the acting is pretty good, and you can also see the touches Griffith used to make it more effective. While he was still working within the limitations of a fixed camera field for each scene, there are a couple closer-in shots in this one at carefully chosen times. He also expertly uses things like a cat and a piano to create the impressions that he wants the viewer to have. While the material may not be as topical now as it was a long time ago, it's still of interest to see these cinematic techniques.
  • At a time when Griffith's films were becoming increasingly gloomy and pessimistic (See The Painted Lady, Death's Marathon etc) The House of Darkness, in spite of the title and its theme of madness, is a little ray of hope. Griffith uses all his skill and technique to produce a work of humanity and poignancy.

    The opening shot is one of the most beautiful and considered of Griffith's Biograph career, using contrasts in depth that are reminiscent of his earliest shorts, albeit far more carefully composed. Although it is a crowd shot, he has clearly given thought to every individual in it, giving each personal direction and allowing them to stand out. Griffith also contrasts the natural beauty of the setting with the plight of the asylum inmates, establishing a bittersweet tone right from the start.

    Griffith repeats his famous "approaching" close-up from Musketeers of Pig Alley, having Charles Hill Mailes gradually creep up on the camera until his face is almost filling the screen. It's not as effective as it was with Elmer Booth in Pig Alley, although there is some early use of foreground framing with the dangling branch. Two other close-ups have even greater impact. First, there is the use of the ticking clock as a tension building device. Then there is that amazing close-up of Claire McDowell's hands striking the piano key, which has a really great impact, releasing the tension which has just been built up and grabbing the audience's attention simultaneously.

    As with many of Griffith's films of this era, it is the acting which holds things together even more than the technical direction. Griffith knew that the performances had to be convincing for a film like this to work. Charles Hill Mailes was not often a lead player at Biograph (he can mostly be seen playing stern fathers), but he is very good here in a role which could easily have been all mugging and arm-waving. Interestingly Claire McDowell whom he menaces here was in reality his wife. They actually played side by side as an elderly couple in a number of pictures in the 30's.

    This is a strong film with few flaws, and is among the four or five best Biograph shorts. Although Griffith had been wanting to make feature films for some years now, at this point he really looks ready to.
  • Or: "How the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music." The unfortunates subtitled are the mentally ill, who are taken care of in a nice-looking insane asylum. Claire McDowell (a Nurse) and Lionel Barrymore (a Doctor) work at the asylum; they fall in love, and get married. Later, inmate Charles Hill Mailes (a Lunatic) loses it, cops a gun from Alfred Paget (a Guard) , and escapes. Mr. Hill Mailes is not without a redeeming quality, however; he enjoys music, played on piano by nurses McDowell and Lillian Gish (another Nurse). Director D.W. Griffith's storytelling strengths make "The House of Darkness" quite an enjoyable early film.

    ****** The House of Darkness (5/10/13) D.W. Griffith ~ Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore
  • The "house" referred to in the title is lunacy which metaphorically is considered as a dwelling. There is some story, but it is slight and, as for ourselves, it left us absolutely cold. Because from the arrangements, stage setting, and the action that went before, it was too plainly shown, at the climax, what the outcome was going to be. There is but little suspense. The photography is without much quality. The players had no real chance, but furnish the offering's sole interest. - The Moving Picture World, May 24, 1913
  • Like many of Griffith's Biograph shorts, this one-reel drama addresses a social problem: mental illness. In an asylum, one patient is prone to fits of violence, and the tension heightens when he gets his hands on a pistol. However, he is soothed by piano music and indeed the music is so wonderfully effective that before long he is entirely cured of his madness. The notion was probably less simplistic in 1913 than it is today; Griffith's moral (all of the Biograph shorts seem to have a moral) is simply that mental illness should be treated, like any disease, with observation, testing, and compassionate treatment.
  • Hitchcoc26 February 2017
    We are introduced to some mentally ill people who are acting out. One is a depressed woman. The other is a man who exhibits violent behavior when he is bothered. Of course, there's only one response: lock them up. The man gets away and enters the house of a nurse. She has a piano that she plays. It seems that whenever the piano plays, he changes his violent behavior. Meanwhile the police are running in all directions to try to capture him. They look ridiculous. Apparently, Griffith just liked to get little slices of life on film. Not much here but an experiment. Although two big name stars were in evidence: Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish.
  • House of Darkness, The (1913)

    *** (out of 4)

    Interesting D.W. Griffith short about the mentally ill and how music "helps them". The film is very well made with Lionel Barrymore giving a very good performance but Griffith goes way too over the top in the melodrama to make this a total victory. Lillian Gish has a small role.

    You can find this short on Image's Griffith disc but sadly a lot of the director's films still aren't on DVD. It's too bad a studio doesn't start releasing yearly sets. Griffith is the most important name in film history and all of his films need to be out there.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is a silent film by director D. W. Griffith and stars Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. It is a very sincere but silly movie about the effects of music on psychotic patients in a hospital. The film begins at the friendly neighborhood insane asylum. A savage patient in brought in who attacks several of the staff and escapes with a loaded gun! Well, instead of quickly catching them, he wanders into the home of the hospital director. But, instead of killing his wife, the patient sees reason--thanks to the healing power of music! Tha lady begins to play and the man becomes rational and gives himself up to the authorities.

    The movie is actually an interesting time capsule into the history of the treatment of the mentally ill. Instead of the chambers of horror some early hospitals had been (especially before the Civil War), this one is very modern in its thinking and institutes a program of music therapy. While such progressive ideas did start to catch on at this time, it's really ashamed the movie isn't correct about the curative powers of music--if only it worked THAT well. An interesting if somewhat bizarre time capsule.