Sog.: dal racconto Heart and Hand di Olive Edens. Scen.: John B. Clymer, Dale Van Every. Dial.: John Huston. F.: Charles Stumar. M.: Ted Kent, Maurice Pivar. Scgf.: John J. Hughes. Int.: Walter Huston (Seth Law), Kent Douglass [Douglass Montgomery] (Matt Law), Helen Chandler (Ruth Evans). Prod.: Carl Leammle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 72′. Bn.
This all but forgotten 1931 feature is arguably William Wyler’s first mature film, after an apprenticeship in westerns and action movies, and seen today it bids to rank with Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives as one of Wyler’s most personal, most fully realized works. As in those later films, the central figure is a father figure in crisis – though Walter Huston’s ferocious performance as the redolently named Seth Law, a charismatic strong man who dominates both his ‘sensitive’ son (Kent Douglass, later billed as Douglass Montgomery) and the small community in which he lives, is the polar opposite of his gentle, dreamy businessman in Dodsworth. This may be the one film of Huston’s – though Anthony Mann’s The Furies comes close – in which the legendary actor displays the tragic scale and temperament that he was reputed to possess on stage.
The film’s bleak setting – a tiny island off the coast of American’s Pacific Northwest, home to a ragged colony of salmon fishermen – irresistibly suggests Rossellini’s Stromboli of twenty years later, as does the plotline: having lost his wife (apparently to overwork), Huston answers an ad in a lonely hearts magazine, and young Helen Chandler (the vacant, wide-eyed Mina of Universal’s Dracula) appears on his doorstep, a refugee from the Depression-ravaged Midwest. She dutifully marries her sponsor (in a wild celebration that culminates with Huston’s solo performance of a violent Irish clog dance), but is of course drawn to his cringing son. Wyler’s attention to the detail of performance is remarkable; over the course of the film Huston seems to physically transform himself, from a towering giant to a slithering snake, just as Wyler’s camera placement descends from the heights of Huston’s hilltop home to the level ground upon which he finally crawls.