The Raven 1915

Director: Charles Brabin
"...Darkness there, and nothing more..."
Picture the scene... the young poet Edgar Allan Poe joins his friends in a toast to his sweetheart, Virginia Clemm. As they raise their glasses, a dark shape passes across the sun... and Poe shrinks in horror as, for the briefest moment, the shadow of black wings fall upon him... The Raven is a little-known, fanciful re-telling of the life of Poe, from a childhood blighted by the early death of his parents to an adult life measured in equal parts by romance and tragedy...  

We first of all see Edgar Allan Poe's ancestors - John, a settler in the New World, David Sr., a revolutionary patriot - before being introduced to his parents, David Jr. and Mrs Hopkins, who marry in 1805. After his parents' death, the young Edgar and his sister Rosalie are adopted by John Allan and his wife. As a young man, Edgar becomes a heavy drinker and accrues many gambling debts, becoming prone to disturbing drink-induced hallucinations. One night, as "...the insidious wine weaves strange fancies in his brain", he imagines his doppelganger cheating him at cards and later shooting him in a pistol duel.

A romance blossoms between Edgar and Virginia Clemm; he enchants her with the story of a girl and a hunter brought together by a mischievous sprite, later showing a caring side as he buys a negro slave from his cruel owner. This only adds to his debts, exasperating his father: meanwhile Virginia must fight off the advances of Edgar's friend Tony. 

Soon Edgar and Virginia are married, but their happiness is short-lived. His manuscripts fail to sell and their meagre living conditions cause Virginia to fall ill. Eventually she dies, and the stricken Edgar cannot escape the visions of her that constantly haunt him. . .

Essanay's The Raven was the third account of the genesis of Poe's most famous work to make it to the cinema screen. The first was D.W. Griffith's short Edgar Allen Poe (sic) from 1909, a melodramatic sketch in which the poverty-stricken Poe finds a publisher for his poem, just before returning home to find his wife dead from consumption. Griffith of course went on to further explore Poe's literary legacy in 1915's The Avenging Conscience, but this time in an entirely (as opposed to mostly) fictional context.

Next, also titled The Raven, was a two-reeler released by Eclair USA in 1912. This latter film shared a happy disregard for facts with the earlier Griffith short, and shared it's source material with the 1915 Essanay production - namely, 'The Raven: The Love Story of Edgar Allan Poe', a play by George Cochrane Hazleton that was first produced in 1895, and adapted by the author into a novel in 1909. Subtitled "Twixt Fact and Fancy", it interwove a highly romanticised portrayal of Poe's life story with the narrative of the eponymous poem.

Author Hazleton apparently made a speciality of this kind of dramatised biography, and it's this unconventional construction that gives The Raven its appeal. Nowadays, casting the writer as hero of his own fiction is a well-used trick that would perhaps point to some measure of post-modern artiness (see Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), or Dennis Potter's Lewis Carroll fantasy Dreamchild (1985) for example). But there's a lack of self-consciousness here, suggesting that Hazleton was instead tapping into the literary tradition of mythologising real-life figures that goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

"Strange fancies in his brain": Henry Walthall
as Poe
The portrayal of the protagonist is in this case one of the film's strengths. Essanay, a Chicago-based studio best known nowadays for its Chaplin comedies, were lucky enough to have the talented Henry B Walthall under contract, who had left D.W. Griffith's company just a few months earlier. Walthall, at that time very much in the public eye thanks to his starring role as Colonel Cameron in Griffith's Birth of a Nation, was no doubt cast in The Raven with his earlier role in the Poe-themed Avenging Consciencvery much in mind. If anything, his performance in The Raven is the more impressive of the two - but whether this is down to an absence of Griffith's controlling influence is debateable. Regardless, contemporary critics praised him as "the image of Poe", and for a short time he became identified with the writer in the movie-going public's imagination. 

Here, Walthall is called on to play Poe as the tragic hero, presumably one for whom drinking and gambling are the fatal flaws which mar his otherwise noble intentions. As you might expect, the less palatable realities of the author's life are glossed over or ignored; it's an idealised Poe - devoted husband, liberator of slaves - that this scenario, a self-proclaimed romance, offers us. There are comic interludes too, involving the rivalry over Virginia Clemm between Edgar and his portly friend Tony. In the original play, it was Poe's associate Mr Pelham who had designs on the belaboured Virginia, though his character is obscurely sidelined in this film version.

Comic relief aside, the tone of the story is generally downbeat. Walthall is given his best opportunity to make an impression in the film's final third as his character sinks deeper into mania and alcoholic despair. In fact, it's strongly implied throughout that the fantastic elements of The Raven can all be attributed to Poe's alcoholism. Luckily, this rather mundane explanation of the film's hallucinatory horrors doesn't hamper things as much as one might expect. It's easier to imagine that said alcoholism is just director Brabin's olive branch to the audience, a prop that allows him free rein in his later, freely subjective portrayal of Poe's mental breakdown. 

An extra level of psychological ambiguity is added by the contribution of Warda Howard, who had co-starred with Walthall in The Tempter earlier in 1915. Howard plays all the significant women in Poe's life, real and fictional: his wife, Virginia; the Cupid-like sprite in Poe's imagined tale of a love-struck hunter; Poe's later real-life romantic interest Helen Whitman: The Raven's heroine Lenore; and finally the Angel of Death. It's not entirely clear whether this is intended to represent Poe's obsessive love of Virginia Clemm (in reality, his first cousin, whom he married when she was just thirteen) or to illustrate a blurring of fantasy and reality in Poe's delusional mind. It may help to consider that the raven itself is visually linked with Virginia throughout, appearing several times (in Poe's imagination?) at significant points in their relationship.

The ominous bird of yore finally takes center stage during the film's final sequence, which describes the titular poem in an unapologetically straightforward fashion, leaving behind all pretence of reality in the process. And whereas the earlier Avenging Conscience undermines it's own imaginative flights of fancy with a disappointingly contrived ending, Charles Brabin allows The Raven a satisfyingly grim conclusion much more in keeping with present-day tastes. This wouldn't be Brabin's last encounter with the dark side -- he would go on to direct Karloff in MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). In 1921, he married legendary silent femme fatale Theda Bara, at which time she retired from the screen. The couple stayed together until Bara's death from cancer in 1955.

(Information on the George Hazleton play taken from Liz Kingsley's website "And You Call Yourself A Scientist!". Thanks are due.)

End Credits:
Henry B. Walthall (Edgar Allan Poe), Warda Howard (Virginia Clemm / Helen Whitman / Lenore / An Angel),Ernest Maupain (John Allan), Eleanor Thompson (Mrs Allan), Maran Skinner (Mrs Clemm), Harry Dunkinson (Tony), Grant Foreman (George Graham), Hugh Tompson (David Poe, Jr), Peggy Meredith (Mrs Hopkins Poe), Frank Hamilton (David Poe, Sr), Billy Robinson (Joseph Reed), Burt Weston (Negro slave),  Charles K Harris (Mr Pelham)
Writer / Producer: Charles Brabin, based on the novel and play "The Raven: the Love Story of Edgar Allan Poe" by George C. Hazleton.
Essanay Film Co. USA
Running time 58 mins.


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