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Who knocks?

Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
23 March 2003

W.W. Jacobs was an extremely prolific author, whose works have occasionally been filmed. Surprisingly, his story 'The Money Box' was the inspiration for a Laurel and Hardy movie! Most of Jacobs's short stories were moody pieces with nautical settings, but his most famous story takes place firmly on land: 'The Monkey's Paw', a spooky tale which may well be the most widely-anthologised story of all time. It's certainly a very well-known ghost story ... made all the more effective because the 'supernatural' events in this tale remain firmly ambiguous.

The 1923 silent version of 'The Monkey's Paw' adheres very closely to the plot of the famous story. The most surprising thing here is the casting of Moore Marriott as the old man who buys the monkey's paw in order to gain its three magical wishes, and who receives only grief for his efforts. Somewhat like Walter Brennan and Jack Duffy in America, character actor Moore Marriott spent most of his long career playing elderly men. He was not yet 40 when he made this film, but his old-age makeup and his physical performance are very convincing.

More to the point, though, Marriott spent most of his career playing old men in COMEDY films. When I saw him in this grimly serious movie, I was reminded straight away of Marriott's portrayal of Harbottle in all those hilarious Will Hay films, and I halfway expected Hay and Graham Moffat to show up. Marriott gives a skilful performance here, but in hindsight (due to his later typecasting in comedy roles) he's an unfortunate choice for the macabre subject matter of this film.

This silent version of 'The Monkey's Paw' reveals one of the shortcomings of silent-film grammar. In an incautious moment, the old man has wished for his dead son Herbert to return from the grave ... then he realises the horrible consequences if this wish is granted literally. Suddenly there's a knock at the door. With a desperate lunge, the old man seizes the monkey's paw and uses his last wish to send his son back to the grave. The brilliantly ambiguous plot of 'The Monkey's Paw' never discloses whether any of these wishes were actually granted: we never learn if the knock at the door was really a message from a homesick corpse or merely a visit from a commercial traveller.

Here's where the silent-film problem figures into it. Normally in a silent film, a knock at the door is conveyed by an insert close-up of a hand rapping at a door, followed by a return to the previous camera set-up as the characters react to the sound of the knock. In this film 'The Monkey's Paw', no such set-up is viable: if we see the hand of the person knocking, we will know once for all if the visitor is a corpse (the dead son, supernaturally returning) or a more mundane caller. So, in order to preserve that ambiguity in this silent film, we never see the knock at the door: we merely see Marriott and actress Marie Ault doing a sudden 'What was that?' reaction and glancing fearfully towards the door.

Overall, the film is excellent, with a moody atmosphere marred only by a sarcastic performance by Charles Ashton as the doomed son. John Butt is excellent as the visitor (a soldier, in this version) who sells the monkey's paw. But this plotline really requires a soundtrack. I'll rate this silent version of 'The Monkey's Paw' 6 points out of 10.

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