Nevermore! Eclair and Essanay Pursue ‘The Raven’
As recent as 2012, Edgar Allan Poe has been portrayed in a medium which he never lived to see. His works and his life have provided ample material for film. In fact, his work has inspired two notable studios in the early days of film: Eclair and Essanay.
Just after the turn of the century, George Cochrane Hazelton penned the play “The Raven: The Love Story of Edgar Allan Poe.” This renewed interest in Poe and his work pushed the American branch of Eclair to produce their own film adaptation of “The Raven.” Released in May of 1912, it starred Guy Oliver as Poe and Muriel Ostriche as Lenore. During that time, films didn’t go over two reels in length (20-25 minutes depending on projection speed), and “The Raven” used every bit of its two reels to create as complete a story as possible. Shot in and around his homestead, the film consisted mostly of highlights of Poe’s life. The first reel depicts events leading up to the writing of “The Raven.” Poe is shown working as a scrivener, trying to provide for himself and his invalid wife. His love for her and his despair are also emphasized.
The second reel of the film follows the writing of “The Raven,” even depicting Poe’s mental state. This is also where the latest innovations of the day enter into the otherwise straightforward drama. Double exposure is used to depict Poe’s feverish visions of past poems and stories, and flashback-like techniques are used to jump from Poe’s handwritten verses to the raven and Poe.
Eclair’s version was lauded by critics, but in just three short years, the film industry saw many technical advances that, unintentionally, cast previous efforts in a negative light. Essanay was able to use these advancements to remake “The Raven,” with Henry B. Walthall as Poe.
Like Eclair, Essanay sought accuracy. Although they couldn’t use Poe’s homestead as Eclair did, the sets erected were as realistic as possible, including the Poe home and the blacksmith shop. They also used the general acceptance of feature-length films to their advantage, telling as much of the story as they could in six reels, instead of the very limiting two. While the last two reels focused around “The Raven,” the first four were used to take a closer look at Poe’s personal history, including the death of his mother, his adoption, his student life and his expulsion from the Allan home. Director Charles Brabin also used the latest advancements to create convincing dream sequences, much to the critics’ delight. While Warda Howard, Helen Whitmar and Ernest Maupain all gave excellent supporting performances, Walthall’s performance was amazing enough to prompt viewers to call him the reincarnation of Poe.
How do the two compare today? It’s hard to say. While Essanay’s version survives, Eclair’s is believed to have been lost during a fire. The technical advantages the Essanay cast had would have to be taken into consideration, but the beautiful stills that survive from Eclair’s effort certainly show that a great deal of thought and creativity were put into the film, even if it had to work within the confines of just two reels.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub