Whispering Shadows and The Devil’s Assistant

Studio: Undercrank Productions

Apr 13, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Hugh Brook (Robert Barrat) is a successful young businessman at Richard Bransby’s (Charles A. Stevenson) company, and is readying for a resumed career in the military in tandem with his betrothal to Bransby’s daughter Helen (Lucy Cotton). While attending a séance of a friend, Helen is warned that someone is trying to harm her future fiance, though the couple initially brush it off as spiritualist nonsense. Stephen Pryde (Philip Merivale), Richard’s shifty nephew, then accuses Hugh of embezzling thousands of dollars from the company. While Helen and Hugh are steadfast in Hugh’s innocence, Richard suddenly dies from a heart attack, and the couple try to clear his name while attempting to uncover who is truly behind this conspiracy. As time oozes along, Helen becomes more convinced that the spirit of her dead father is providing clues to the evidence that will exonerate her love, but is this actually so?

Adapted from the successful stage play The Invisible Foe by Walter C. Hackett by Emile Chautard, Whispering Shadows was reportedly produced by the Peerless Feature Producing Company in Fort Lee, NJ; evolving from the Société Francaise des Films et Cinematographs Éclair (a French film manufacturer and producer) after its massive 1914 laboratory fire. At least, we think so. Through surviving interviews and accounts, the actual production of this film is a headache shrouded in mystery and contradiction, and it seems that few indisputable truths can be ascertained.

Chautard was a fiercely independent theater and film writer and director, who cut his teeth as a lauded mainstay for Pathé and Éclair in Paris from 1907-1915, after which he traveled to America. Assembling his production assistance and funding from wherever he could, he initially directed for Paramount, Paragon, Select, and Thanhouser. In 1920, Chautard became director for the Mayflower Photoplay Corporation, and would mentor future director Josef von Sternberg (Der blaue Engel, 1930), while concurrently producing for the World Film Corporation.

Whispering Shadows was neither outwardly successful, nor a monetary flop when originally released by World Films, coming and going without much buzz from audiences and critics alike. It is competent enough to ward off the most venomous rebuke, but even considering the year (and climate) of release, its chamber drama aesthetic and basic-as-it-comes plot severely lacks the necessary suspense and emotional stakes. This is a theme that is still being played to death even today, though (personally) the most notable still is Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).

Visually, the stiff melodrama and stilted posturing doesn’t warrant much exploratory imagery. It relies heavily on sizable intertitles to tell its story, with most scenes only involving conversations through exhaustingly (and somewhat inappropriately) passive performances. Ironically, this would be right at home in the early B-Movie talkies of 1930s Hollywood, where long stretches of dialogue were often employed to cover the gaping holes in the budget and plot.

However, as aforementioned, this isn’t to say that Whispering Shadows is completely without merit or experimentation, because it has both in short bursts (such as its impressively sly fourth wall breaks, which were uncommon for the time). However, this experimentation is so scatterbrained with Shyamalan-esque plot twists that the end result feels as if several completely different movies from opposing genres were hastily stitched together without much thought as to how it should all jive. Ultimately, it’s a lukewarm experience that doesn’t offer much to be considered all that memorable.

It shares the disk with another silent film, the 1917 short The Devil’s Assistant. In this film, Dr. Lorenz (Monroe Salisbury) takes revenge on Marta (Margarita Fischer) for spurning him, treating her exhaustion with psychotropic drugs. The remainder of the film metaphorically represents her increasing insanity from this chemical cocktail as being dragged through hell itself, blending several afterlife mythoses together (like the Christian Devil and Charon, the Greek ferryman of the dead).

This short is directed by the unflatteringly provocative Harry A. Pollard, who would inherit significant career infamy through controversial films like The Cohens and Kellys (1926), Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), and The Prodigal (1931). It stars silent screen icons Fischer (who was Pollard’s wife), Salisbury, and Jack Mower quite early in their careers. Ironically enough, though The Devil’s Assistant is roughly half the length, it manages to say more (and more concisely), and engage the audience far better than Whispering Shadows. The the eerie red-tinted hellscapes of Marta’s mind, the twisted superimpositions representing addiction and overdose, and stellar (albeit hokey) performances from the leads make the experience far more rewarding than the disc’s main feature.

Undercrank Productions has released these movies on a one-disc DVD, with no supplemental features. Regardless of the quality of one over the other, the films act well as a double feature, due in part to the original scores by Andrew E. Simpson, the originator of this project’s Kickstarter campaign. Though many moments the music should have toned down a bit (instead of banging even harder on the organ) and allow what’s on screen to play out, it keeps this combined 90-minute runtime of these two works fun. Though the DVD is not an essential part of most cinephile’s collection, it is worth a gander just for the sake of revisiting such a removed snapshot of history and seeing where it would lead.



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