Obscure Films: “The Coward” (1915)

“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”

We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.

The Coward screeshot 1

Let’s consider the year 1915. Civil War films had been plentiful and very popular in the 1910s, especially once they coincided with the 50th anniversary of the war (obviously one film was a tad more successful than the rest). Both the Northern and the Southern points of view were represented in various films–The Coward is the tale of a Confederate family.

Honor was important in 19th century America, but apparently, nowhere was it more important than in the South. Handed down from the traditions of Scots-Irish herdsmen and farmers, honor was an unquestioned part of life, whether you were wealthy, poor, or middle class. People expected each other to be sociable, upstanding and hospitable, and men to be willing to defend their honor at a moment’s notice–whether with fists or, at times, even with an honest-to-goodness duel (duels only declined after the Civil War). The old Southern honor culture would’ve been common knowledge to people in the early 20th century–it’s the key to understanding the masterpiece Tol’able David (1921) and spoofs like Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality.

Buster Keaton, Francis X. Bushman Jr., Monte Collins, Joe Roberts, Natalie Talmadge, and Craig Ward in Our Hospitality (1923)

The Coward tells the story of the small, genteel Winslow family, whose distinguished patriarch is a proud retired colonel. When the Civil War is announced he immediately volunteers both himself and his only son Frank for the army. He’s rejected due to his age, but he’s confident that the son will carry on the family’s military tradition.

The Coward screeshot 2

Unbeknownst to him, sensitive Frank is frightened by the idea of going to war; while waiting to enlist at the recruitment station, he loses his nerve and flees. This cowardice comes as a shock to his both parents, but especially to his father. A Winslow couldn’t possibly be a coward–a Winslow would not be allowed to be a coward. Transfixed by shock and anger, the gentle wife unable to soothe him, the colonel finally tells her to go and beckon the son into his study. While alone, his quietly loads a pistol.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, but the scene is one of the film’s standouts. Today it comes as a shock. We assume the father’s merely holding his son to an unrealistic standard, and we can’t help pitying Frank and wondering how a parent could be so cruel. The true undercurrent of the colonel’s motivations, however, is the all-important preservation of the family honor. We might still have a hard time sympathizing with the colonel, but we at least have a glimpse into his point of view.

The Coward screeshot 6

The colonel was played by Frank Keenan, a distinguished Shakespearean actor known for King Lear and The Girl of the Golden West. The Coward was his first appearance in films, and at first glance his acting appears, shall we say, dated. His performance is clearly flavored by his stage work, where it was still common to express emotions with specific poses and flourishes. He expresses the stern colonel’s anger by standing still and rigid, almost catatonic from fury, a posture he repeats several times throughout the film. Yet I found myself getting absorbed in his performance throughout each long take, searching the face for any signs of softening, trying to pick up on clues of what’s running through his mind. Stylized though his acting may be, Keenan delivers some of the most memorable scenes I’ve seen in any 1910s film–and that style, especially when echoed by the other actors, makes for some masterful vignettes.

The Coward screeshot 4

Another standout scene occurs after Frank is forced to enlist. But fear can’t be quelled that quickly–soon he deserts and creeps back home, where his mother and their servants instantly begin dreading what will happen when the colonel finds out. A second confrontation happens, of course. Frank stands dejected, a pathetic figure, and the colonel’s wrath is so intense we can’t decide if he’s going to strangle his own son or even have a heart attack. But instead he breaks down and weeps, as the mother watches with large, frightened eyes.

Gertrude Claire plays the mother, and what an endearing presence she is. A stage actress since her teens, she started working in films in New York City then headed west, acting steadily in Hollywood features until her death in 1928. With her frilled hoop skirts and dainty hairstyle, physically much shorter than her husband and son, Claire’s mother in The Coward is nonetheless the merciful glue doing her best to hold the tense family together. We notice that she tacitly accepts the importance of honor, even as she endures its consequences more keenly than anyone else.

The Coward screeshot 3

The two servants are played by Nick Cogley and Minnie Devereaux, both in blackface–not uncommon in the days when it was assumed actors could of course play any character if they had the right makeup kit. Cogley was the veteran of countless comedy shorts, including numerous Keystones. Devereaux had Cheyenne and Arapahoe heritage and specialized as a character actress–she was sometimes billed as Minnie Ha-Ha or Minnie Provost. The servants are, mercifully, played less to stereotype than some blackface characters, and their parts in the plot are a little reminiscent of Gone With the Wind. 

After Frank deserts, the colonel decides he must take his place–after all, “the name of Private Winslow is on the rolls: someone must answer when that name is called.” While he’s away Union officers enter the Winslow home, demanding hospitality. Frank, his fear rising again, hides in the attic. Overhearing the officers’ battle plans, “the shadowy hands of past generations of fighting men shatter the fetters of cowardice,” and Frank finally decides he will take action.

The Coward screeshot 7

The now-obscure Charles Ray has the title role. In 1915 The Coward was touted as a Frank Keenan vehicle, but it’s telling that we consider it a Charles Ray picture today. Growing up in Indiana and then California, his sister encouraged Ray to study acting, and he eventually started working for Thomas Ince’s studio. The Coward made him a star, and he would grow to specialize in bashful country lads whose mettle is tested–usually by the big city. Appealingly boyish, few other actors could play those types of roles with his style of naturalness. He would famously lose a fortune in 1923 with his self-financed The Courtship of Miles Standish and never regained his stardom, but the youthful actor had an amazing run of success in the 1910s.

The Coward screeshot 5

The print of The Coward is gloriously, miraculously crisp. That clarity, combined with the sepia toning, period-accurate costumes, and well-lit sets, give the characters the appearance of daguerreotypes come to life. The battle scenes, while on a smaller scale than something like The Birth of a Nation, also have compelling realism right down to the soldiers’ uniforms becoming dusty and torn. Not only was I completely drawn in by the gripping story, but I found it all a treat for the eyes as well.

Today The Coward is partly remembered for being a possible inspiration for The General, as Kevin Brownlow has pointed out. The Coward was a popular film and could’ve been remembered by Keaton, and there’s certainly similarities in the recruitment scenes and the scenes of overhearing secret battle plans. Both heroes also have to prove their honor, and both disguise themselves in the process. I think there’s also enough differences to make the case that similarities might’ve been unconscious on Keaton’s part–or maybe someone on his crew remembered the film.

The Coward 1915 poster

The Coward is available on the set Civil War Films of the Silent Era and floats around on YouTube, too. I first watched it on a whim, and came away stunned. It’s a marvel, a blend of old-fashioned acting and modern naturalness, illustrating a foreign concept in a way that makes it come alive for us, well over a century later.

14 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “The Coward” (1915)

  1. Nice review. I hadn’t heard the Brownlow quote, but noticed the similarities to The General anyway. Besides the recruiting scene and resulting social rejection, there’s also the way the hero hides under a table in a Union-occupied house, and the great procession of the Confederate army which Buster Keaton parodies at the end of The General when his character is trying to cross the street and keeps getting interrupted by more horses and soldiers. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score on your embedded video comes from the Photoplay Productions release of The Birth of a Nation, on which this version of The Coward is an extra.

    • Thanks for the info–and about where the video came from, too. 🙂 Photoplay Productions did a beautiful job! The film couldn’t possibly have looked much better back in 1915. Watching it makes me feel like I’m going back in time, more so than most period films.

  2. I just finished watching this from the YouTube link—fascinating and very well-made film. You’re right, Keenan’s performance was indeed fascinating, and I thought Charles Ray and Gertrude Claire were quite good, as well. A good movie all around.

    By the way, I had not finished reading the article before I left off to watch the film, and I kept thinking that female servant looked *awfully* familiar. And sure enough—good old Minnie from Mickey! 🙂

    Thanks so much for throwing the spotlight on this gem! And yes, what a pleasure to see such a good sharp print, and with that great Mont Alto score, too! We’re blessed to have this in such fine condition.

    • This is a film I’ll definitely be revisiting in the future–such a well-done period piece, and such a great example of brilliant 1910s filmmaking. I love films from any point in the silent era, but I think my favorite niche of time is the 1910s.

      Yup, that’s Minnie alright! She acted opposite Roscoe Arbuckle too in the Keystone FATTY AND MINNIE HE-HAW (1914)–now that’s a title “of its time.” She was apparently quite a character in real life, always poking fun at people.

      • I can well believe Minnie being a character in real life. 🙂 I’m surprised at her skill as a dramatic actress as shown in this, though. I’m with you on the teens—about 1913-1921 seems to be my sweet spot.

  3. Hey, wow, very intrigued to see this! The screenshots you have selected are all fantastic….one of them looks almost Welles-ian and “deep focus”!

    It’s funny, my favorite period(s) I think are 1917-1920/21 perhaps. And then the last period, with Murnau kicking some serious butterscotch! And the period I like the LEAST is the 1915-1916 period. (even though some of my favorite films are from those very years! It’s not a hard-and-fast rule!). So I’m always looking for nuggets like this one to disavow me from that attitude!

    Lastly: regarding how you grew to appreciate the father’s performance, once you get past the stylized acting. I’m always interested to see some of that, and see how actors “communicated” to audiences. Obviously without closeups you couldn’t be so subtle and use the eyes; I’m kind of interested to see this movie now BECAUSE of the stylized acting of the father! I’m happy we have these recorded documents of this earlier style.

    I remember seeing “The Heiress”, with Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift and Olivia D’Havilland: a Shakespearean actor, a method actor, and a Hollywood movie star. Three completely different styles of acting…all coming together to tell this story. And they all mesh! I know “The Coward” isn’t as radical as that, but I’m definitely interested in seeing the acting in this film, if the stills (and your excellent article!) are anything to go by.

    Thanks, Lea!!!!!!!

    • Oooo, THE HEIRESS, now that’s a classic! I know what you mean by the different acting styles–combined just right makes for a richer experience (kind of like unusual ingredients in a recipe!). THE COWARD will probably strike you the same way, with a bit of old stage traditions thrown in.

      You know, I’m always impressed by silents that have subtle, naturalistic acting styles (people back then were too!), but some of the most interesting acting is definitely the old, stylized, stagey kind of acting. There’s plenty of weak examples of it, obviously, but when it’s done well it can be…transporting, in a way.

      • Another thought—I think the stylized acting is fascinating, and yes, can be quite effective once you’re kind of acclimated to it. (I also find the oratorical style of this era interesting, especially so when you have a chance to hear as well as see it—e.g., Edison Kinetophone introduction, Will Hays Vitaphone talk.) It would be interesting to see an analysis of the elements of this stylized acting if you ever get interested in doing such a thing. 😉

        • Heck yes! There’s plenty of material for that kind of article, too–including those “Actress displays emotions” kind of portraits. I love those.

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  6. I know critics always just highlight Birth of a Nation and how big and controversial it was, but 1915 really was a great year for movies all around. The Coward is very well-acted and paced, a great showcase for how sophisticated filmmaking had become by the high point of the Edwardian era. And then there’s DeMille’s movies and Regeneration and Hypocrites and The Italians, etc. etc.

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