The Fall of the House of Usher
James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 13 min., 16mm, 1928
Preserved by the George Eastman Museum
Added to National Film Registry: 2000
Essay by Dwight Swanson
James Sibley Watson, Jr. (1894-1982) and Melville Webber (1871-1947) had begun work on The Fall of the House of Usher in November 1926, filming in a carriage house at Watson’s house at 11 Prince Street in Rochester, New York, midway between the Eastman School of Music and George Eastman’s house. As the local newspaper at the time described at the time, “The players in taking over as a studio the stable in the rear of the home of James S. Watson, Sr., have injected a little bit of Hollywood into this fashionable neighborhood.” The article’s writer concluded by offering some faint hope for the film’s future, saying that “it would be well if this film might be given a public showing in Rochester, for there must be many who would appreciate its artistry.” Indeed, the film was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of amateur filmmaking as well as a landmark in early American avant-garde film.
Watson was an heir to the Western Union telegraph fortune, a medical doctor, and editor of the influential literary magazine “The Dial”. Webber was a medieval art historian at the University of Rochester, who also had interests in archeology and poetry. The Fall of the House of Usher was their first film and reflected their joint interests in fine art and literature as well as European expressionist film, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was a visual touchstone for the look of the film.
It seems unimaginable today that an amateur film could attract interest in the press before it had even been completed, but there were several outlets for news about amateur filmmaking in the late 1920s, including “Photoplay,” the movie fan magazine, which had a monthly column called “Amateur Movies” that covered news from the amateur film world. In May 1928 it reported that “A great deal of amateur interest is centered in the production of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher now being filmed by a Rochester group of nonprofessionals.”
The month before Usher’s public premiere, Dr. Watson published an article entitled “The Amateur Takes Leadership” for “Movie Makers,” the magazine of the Amateur Cinema League, where he made it decisively clear that he considered himself to be a member of the amateur filmmaking community. “The amateur who tries to compete with the professional producer on his own ground,” he wrote, “is licked from the start by lamps, scenery, and other expensive methods of control which will not be available in anything like the necessary profusion. However, by giving up something which you probably cannot have anyway, it is often possible to gain an important advantage in another department.” The article combined general philosophies of amateur filmmaking along with detailed accounts of the making of The Fall of the House of Usher, and the tone throughout is a humble one, recounting how as neophytes trying out new techniques by trial-and-error, he and Webber had to overcome limitations and mistakes during the two years of producing the film.
The film’s first public screening came at the opening of the Film Guild Cinema in New York City on February 1, 1929. The evening was introduced by Theodore Dreiser, who proclaimed that “The future of the motion picture in America, lies in the hands of the well-meaning amateurs.”
Amateur movie clubs under the Amateur Cinema League umbrella were all local organizations, each with their own personalities and emphases. The clubs gave the members opportunities to socialize with like-minded film hobbyists and discuss their filmmaking. Presentations on techniques and equipment were common, as were screenings of films by members, and competitions amongst themselves. Group members also frequently joined together to produce collaborative films. It was common for the club meetings to include screenings of films by outside filmmakers and other clubs.
The ACL had realized very early on that watching other amateur films was very useful for its members, so they organized film exchanges between the clubs. Because it was difficult for the filmmakers to handle the distribution themselves, especially since often there was only a single print of any film, the ACL then created a central library to handle the sharing of films. Club members were encouraged to contribute prints of their more prominent films to the library, and likewise, clubs could borrow films from the catalog to show at their meetings. It was through this system that The Fall of the House of Usher came to be so widely seen among club members. In 1929, “Movie Makers” reported that Usher had been added to the Amateur Cinema League’s 16mm library, making it available for film clubs around the country, who eagerly borrowed it to screen during their meetings. In January 1930, the New York City-based company Home Film Libraries advertised that Usher was also available commercially as a 16mm print for rental or for sale for $25, making the film even more widely available.
The Fall of the House of Usher came about at a unique time in the history of film when both the avant-garde and the amateur film scenes were just beginning to define themselves, and therefore it could exist in both worlds simultaneously. This was not a unique moment since later filmmakers (most notably Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage) could straddle that same divide, but the rhetoric of the early Amateur Cinema League founders was particularly bold, and they were determined to place amateurism in the best, most noble light. The amateurs of 1928 seemed eager for their own masterpiece, and when The Fall of the House of Usher came along, they thoroughly embraced it as one, even as the art film community was seemingly more skeptical of its importance. The Amateur Cinema League membership had been primed for a film like Usher, since many of the organization’s leaders at the time were championing personal and experimental filmmaking within the amateur world. Viewing the film at the time of its release must have felt very new and exciting for the amateur film club members and validating for the leaders of the amateur film movement.
Dwight Swanson is a co-founder of the Center for Home Movies.