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.
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