The Little Colonel Meets Poe: Henry B. Walthall at Essanay
Henry B. Walthall is widely remembered today for his performance as The Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation,” and for his work under Griffith at the Biograph company. What often gets overlooked and forgotten, however, is that the southern gentleman spent a great deal of time in the midwest, making films for the Chicago branch of Essanay.
When Walthall joined Essanay in 1915, it was hot on the heels of the release of “The Birth of a Nation.” Although the Essanay productions were neither as lavish nor as large a scale as Griffith’s, they still gave Walthall the opportunity to do great character work and showcase his talents. One film in particular that received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, was Essanay’s film adaptation of “The Raven.”
Based on the play by George C. Hazelton and directed by Charles Brabin, “The Raven” traced Edgar Allan Poe’s life, from his family history, to his struggle with his addictions, to his death. “The Raven” had been brought to the screen before. A short version was released in 1912 by the Eclair Studios, but this previous version was largely forgotten when Essanay’s version debuted. Walthall starred as Poe, with Essanay favorite Warda Howard taking on four roles in the film, including that of Poe’s beloved wife. The cast as a whole received praise for their performances, especially Howard, but the greatest praise was given to Walthall. He was hailed as the living image of Poe, credited for interpreting him as no other living being could, and lauded for his tragically appealing and heartbreakingly pathetic performance. Walthall himself considered it one of the best things he had done, though he admitted that it wasn’t easy. “There is art, a great deal of art, in pictures. You have noticed it. So an actor has no call to worry about his medium. I have just finished Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ and I greatly enjoyed the work, although this part was a terrible strain.”
Walthhall and Howard as the delightfully morbid couple
By the time he died in 1936, Walthall had over 300 films to his name and a career that lasted 30 years. Although Walthall spent a year with Essanay, and had a number of notable performances to his name, most of these performances have been lost to time. One, though, that hasn’t is his performance in “The Raven.” The film is available on DVD
and via classic film streaming sites like Fandor. Take the time to celebrate one of Walthall’s lesser known performances and check out “The Raven” for yourself.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
Here’s a link to the DVD available on amazon: The Raven / Ghosts (Double Feature)
Thank you to Janelle for this wonderful Silent Film Series. You can read more of Janelle’s articles about Silent Film and Chicago history-related topics at Chicago Nitrate or Curtains, or you can follow Janelle on Twitter at @SpookyJanelle .