The Sealed Room (1909)

A jealous king has his wife and her lover walled up in an apartment in his palace.

Eleven-minute short horror from film pioneer, D W Griffith. Although it displays little of the vision that conjured ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), it’s a fascinating snapshot of a director, and industry, in its infancy.

The King (Arthur V Johnson) couldn’t be more contented. Not only is everything right in the kingdom, but he has the love of his beautiful wife, played by Marion Leonard. To demonstrate his regard for her, he has a special dovecot built in the palace where they can enjoy some quiet time. But the old green monster raises its head when he notices her paying a little too much attention to an Italian minstrel (Henry B Walthall).

The suspicious Johnson fakes a reason to leave the two alone, and the faithless Leonard and Walthall fall almost immediately into each other’s arms. The monarch is furious when he finds his fears confirmed, and his first instinct is to have them killed. Instead, he sends for the Royal Stonemason and instructs him to wall them up alive. Enraptured with each other, the young lovers fail to notice.

Viewed today, the film is little more than a scrap of very basic silent cinema. Griffith’s camera never moves, and the set-up is undeniably stilted and theatrical, although sharp cutting does keep the story moving at a brisk pace. The notion that Leonard and Walthall could be so wrapped up in each other as to be unaware of the impromptu home improvements being carried out only a few feet away is, of course, ridiculous and something you could never get away with outside of a silent film. Yes, a heavy curtain over the entrance would muffle some of the noise, but it pushes the suspension of disbelief pretty hard.

Given the subject matter and the fact that Griffith had just directed a short film based around Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1909), it would seem a reasonable assumption that this project had a similar origin. However, it was actually an adaptation of part of Honoré de Balzac’s series of interconnected stories called ‘La Grande Bretêche’, written in 1831. The French author was likely inspired by a gruesome discovery made at the Tower of London in 1674. Workmen unearthed the skeletons of two children, rumoured to be those of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ allegedly murdered by King Richard III.

The studio publicity claimed instead that the film was based on another actual incident. Allegedly, this was the discovery of two entwined skeletons in a walled-up space when a European castle was demolished. Of course, it was pure fabrication, but the conceit was already firmly lodged in the public consciousness anyway. The well-known phrase ‘Skeletons in the closet’ perhaps even being inspired by one of the twists in G W M Reynolds’ fabulously successful Penny Dreadful ‘Wagner the Wehr-Wolf’ (1846-47).

This project was a production of American Mutoscope and Biograph, which was based in New York. Griffith had been working for them since around 1908 and, by 1913, he was one of their top directors. It was then that he decided to strike out on his own, forming his own company and relocating to the orange groves of California. After all, the real estate prices were low, and the coast possessed the most essential ingredient of all for picture-making: lots and lots of sunlight. Others saw the wisdom of his strategy, and soon, the little known municipality of Hollywood became shorthand for the movies.

Griffith took some of his colleagues along on his trip West. Film director Raoul Walsh, then still an actor/cowboy, and stars in waiting Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore. Walthall was another, his performance here just a prelude to a very successful career on the silent screen. But his fame was soon eclipsed by two other refugees from Biograph who appear in minor roles here. Legendary gagman, producer and creator of the Keystone Kops, Mack Sennett plays a soldier, and one of the ladies in waiting should be familiar to all lovers of silent cinema. It’s ‘America’s Sweetheart’ herself, Mary Pickford.

Like many survivors from early silent cinema, this film is primarily of interest as a signpost of things to come; for the medium, the industry and some of its most famous children.

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