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AN UNSEEN ENEMY, 1912
Starring: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Elmer Booth, Grace Henderson, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, Walter Miller, Adolph Lestina, Antonio Moreno
The physician's death orphans his two adolescent daughters. Their older brother is able to convert some of the doctor's small estate to cash. But it is late in the day, and with the banks closed he stores the money in his father's household safe. The slatternly housekeeper, aware of the money, enlists a criminal acquaintance to crack the safe. She attempts to get into the adjacent room where the sisters tremble in fear, but finds that the door is locked. The drunken housekeeper menaces them by brandishing a gun through a hole in the wall. But the resourceful girls use the telephone to call their brother who has returned to town. He gets the message and organizes a rescue party.
Griffith was a movie-making powerhouse during the years 1907-1913, churning out a phenomenal amount of pictures to satisfy the eager eyes of film hungry audiences. Many were quite beneath his considerable talents as a technically sophisticated director who truly understood the language and artistic potential of this new medium and An Unseen Enemy is one of those.
This is a hurriedly, roughly made effort virtually indistinguishable from most of the other melodramatic products that fell off his cinematic conveyor belt (and given the shaky camerawork, this looks like it was quite literally made on a production line).
There are bizarre plotting and continuity bloopers that almost beggar belief and leave the critic scratching his head in bewilderment – the random hole in the wall that the two girls are menaced through (why don’t the girls take the gun as the maid cannot see them clearly?), the girls could easily open the window to escape the robbers but choose to stay cowering in the corner, why doesn't the maid and her vile accomplice kick the door in and finish the girls off, or at least take the phone from them?
It all inevitably leads to a suitably happy ending after one of Griffith’s famous, climatic chase finales.
The film is chiefly (in fact, only) memorable for introducing audiences to two actresses who would become firm movie favourites over the next 16 years – Lillian and Dorothy Gish are seen here in their joint film debut.
And it’s an assured start, for their performances in limited and poorly developed roles are lively, ‘modern’ (for the time) and delicately affecting. Both actresses (who often worked together) recognised the importance of restraining the theatrical over-playing necessary on the stage and developing more subtle gestures and expressions for the silent screen.
It is also clearly evident how their two very different screen personas were already emerging – Dorothy takes the front seat as the more plucky, fun and action-minded of the two, Lillian is the more thoughtful and psychologically mature performer. It led to her having one of the longest careers on the silver screen, 75 years until her final film in 1987, The Whales of August.
AN UNSEEN ENEMY