Sunday, November 28, 2010
A Trap for Santa (1909, Biograph)
“A Trap for Santa” (1909) is a holiday film that was directed by D.W. Griffith at Biograph. Sixteen minutes in duration, this heartwarming melodrama was produced as a cinematic Christmas card to moviegoers of the era. The story begins with an unemployed man, played by Henry B. Walthall, with a wife, played by Marion Leonard, and two children, played by Gladys Egan and John Tansey. He turns to alcohol and eventually leaves his family when he feels he has let them down. Time passes and the mother inherits a fortune from her deceased aunt. On Christmas Eve, the children set a trap for Santa Claus to come through the window because their house has no chimney. The father, unaware that the house belongs to his family breaks into the house and falls into the trap.
Filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, “A Trap for Santa” (1909) is a relatively well-made film considering it was made over 100 years ago. Griffith had personally directed for two years from the summer of 1908 all Biograph films. Thereafter as general director he superintended all Biograph productions and directed the more important features until October 1, 1913. Even though from a technical aspect there are a couple of weaknesses, it’s quite an interesting film. The acting style is a bit old-fashioned, but Henry B. Walthall turns in a good performance as the father. Fans of early silent films should recognize an uncredited Mack Sennett in a few scenes. Despite its shortcomings, “A Trap for Santa” is an interesting curiosity piece of the early years of cinema.
Like his mentor D.W. Griffith, Henry Brazeale Walthall was a Southerner, with perhaps a little more affluent family background than the director. He was born, one of eleven sons, on a farm near Columbiana, Shelby County, Alabama, on March 16, 1878. He studied law, but quit to fight in the Spanish-American War, and then took up acting, making his New York debut in 1901. In 1909, a chance encounter with a friend and fellow actor, James Kirkwood, resulted in a meeting with D.W. Griffith at the American Biograph Company. Griffith was already familiar with Walthall’s stage work, and immediately cast him in “A Convict’s Sacrifice”(1909). Walthall appeared in more than 100 Biograph shorts from 1909 through 1913, and, with a short break at Pathe, was to remain with Griffith until 1915. Walthall played Holofernes in Griffith’s first and Biograph’s only feature-length production, “Judith of Bethulia” (1914). Walthall had played many Southerners in many Biograph shorts, and he was the obvious choice for Ben Cameron, the “little colonel” in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Walthall left Griffith and first joined the Balboa Amusement Company in Long Beach, California, and then the declining Chicago-based Essanay Company in late spring of 1915. Both Walthall and his actress wife, Mary Charleson, remained with Essanay through May 1917. Walthall formed his own independent production company, releasing through Paralta, the first two films which were directed by Rex Ingram. In 1918, Walthall returned to Griffith’s direction. He was cast in Griffith’s minor and “lost” production of “The Great Love.” By the late teens, Walthall’s career was in rapid decline. He made many films, but only a handful in the late 1920’s are famous titles: “Three Faces East” (1926), “The Scarlet Letter” (1926) and “London After Midnight” (1927). With the coming of sound, the situation improved. Walthall had a solid stage background, and his voice was quiet yet authoritative. Some of the sound films he made were “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), “Chandu the Magician” (1932), “Judge Priest” (1932), “Dante’s Inferno” (1935), and “The Devil-Doll” (1936). Walthall was to have played the High Lama in Frank Capra’s production of “Lost Horizon” (1936), but died on June 17, 1936, before shooting commenced. Walthall was 58 years old.