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Edward G. Robinson,
'A House Divided' is an excellent film from early in the career of underrated director William Wyler. It features a first-rate performance by Walter Huston. (His son John Huston gets a dialogue credit.)
In 1926, Walter Huston starred on Broadway in 'Konga', a melodrama that became Lon Chaney's silent film 'West of Zanzibar', which in turn was remade as a talkie under its original title, with Huston playing Chaney's role. Walter Huston and Lon Chaney were very similar actors: they both started in vaudeville as song-and-dance men but achieved success in dramatic roles. They were similar types and often played similar roles. Coincidentally, both had sons who achieved success as character actors. Although Chaney is best-known for playing deformed or crippled men, he more typically played a coarse villain who sacrificed himself for a younger woman who spurns him in favour of a younger and more callow man.
'A House Divided' stars Walter Huston in a role that seems tailor-made for Lon Chaney. Huston plays Seth Law, a widower in a Pacific fishing village. Law's son Matt (played by Kent Douglass, who later became better known as Douglass Montgomery) is a sensitive type who longs to give up the hard life of a fisherman in favour of an easy job as a farmer(!). Seth despises his son, whom he considers a weakling. Seth sends away for a mail-order bride, intentionally choosing a plain-looking woman who's built for hard work. What he gets instead is the delicate and pretty Ruth Evans (played by Helen Chandler, in a much better performance than she gave in 'Dracula'). Seth gallantly offers to pay Ruth's way back to where she came from, but Ruth is determined to make a life for herself here. To give Ruth his protection, Seth marries her ... but it's clearly a marriage in name only. Charles Middleton plays the minister who presides at the marriage, but Middleton's fans will be disappointed at how little he gets to do here.
Inevitably, Seth gradually becomes attracted to pretty Ruth and decides to consummate the marriage ... but just as inevitably, a romance evolves between Ruth and sensitive young Matt. I was watching this movie with no idea of where its plot would go, and I found myself thinking this was really a Lon Chaney vehicle ... and then suddenly the movie leaps directly into the heart of Lon Chaney territory. One dark night, Seth and Matt have a fight in Seth's house. Matt knocks Seth through the upstairs railing, and the fall breaks Seth's spine. (Just as Chaney's character was crippled in 'West of Zanzibar'.) Seth is now a paraplegic. From this point to the end of the film, Walter Huston literally drags himself across the scenery, as Chaney did in 'West of Zanzibar'.
I shan't tell you the ending, but it's a two-fisted climax with lots of melodrama, very much in the Chaney tradition. The art direction for this movie is excellent: it was filmed in a real fishing village, and the set dressing reeks of authenticity. There's one very good line when a boat returns to harbour, and a fisherman onshore can tell from a distance that the boat hasn't caught any fish because it isn't shipping water: this is exactly the sort of thing that a real fisherman would notice.
Gibson Gowland (a major actor in silent films) gives a good performance as the bartender, and there's one very funny gag involving a (genuine) one-legged man in a barroom brawl. In the early scenes of this film (before he gets crippled), Seth sings and dances. Walter Huston was an expert singer and dancer, but here he wisely (and bravely) restrains his own abilities, so that Seth Law sings and dances in the clumsy and untrained manner which is exactly appropriate for a coarse fisherman. I'm always annoyed by scenes in non-musical dramas in which an actor or actress playing a 'normal' person suddenly bursts into song or dance and uses the opportunity to show off a trained singing voice and years of dance lessons. Walter Huston was too good an actor to indulge in such ego trips.
I'll rate 'A House Divided' 8 points out of 10. Huston is excellent, but I wish I could have seen (and heard!) Lon Chaney playing this role.
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